Saturday 22 February 2020

The tragedy of Jean Vanier: Saint or Sinner? - A personal reflection

I like many in the Catholic world, am still reeling with shock over the news that broke this morning of allegations against Jean Vanier for sexually abusing six women between 1970 and 2005. According to the internal report initiated by L’Arche International, “sexual relations were instigated by Vanier, usually in the context of giving spiritual guidance.” Although “None of the woman he abused were themselves disabled…these actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold that Jean Vanier had on these women”

What are we to make of all this? In the eyes of many Vanier was a living saint. He founded the L’Arche community in 1964 to provide care and dignity for the mentally and physically disabled. Vanier has been an inspiration to many. His homes for the disabled are well respected as places where those with disabilities live and work as equals alongside those with none. His philosophical and spiritual writings display a deep and profound vision of the human person made in the image and likeness of God.  The great and the good have recognised the unique contribution that this disciple of Christ has made to the lives of the weak and the vulnerable. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded both the Companion of the Order of Canada and the Templeton Prize, which he received in 2015 from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I myself heard him speak and met him briefly several years ago and was deeply moved by his words and his manner. And yet today, we have the shocking news that Jean Vanier had another side to him, and it is alleged, he abused the trust of women who came to him for spiritual guidance.

I must confess, I felt absolutely gutted when the news broke this morning. After a few moments of disbelief and then another twenty minutes or so of scouring the internet for different versions of the story, I did, what I should have done straight away, and went to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in my house.

I sat with the Lord for a while and allowed the anger, frustration and disbelief to settle and then sat with simple question: Why? Why him? Why did he do it? Why now after he is dead? Why? And I seemed to get by way of an answer back: Why not him? I was stunned at this answer and sat with this for a moment longer….why not him? Well, I responded to the Lord,  because he is has done X Y and Z for the sake of the Gospel, because he was inspiration, because I liked him… because he is a good man….I waited in prayer but heard  nothing.  Them in the silence, I seemed to hear the words from scripture: ‘Only God is good’.

Only God is good.

It seems to me that Jean Vanier is in a sense both an icon of the Church and of every Christian. Now, before you stone me, hear me out. No one is good, not completely. All of us are sinners in need of the mercy of God, all of us - without exception. It’s no good saying I’m not like that, I haven’t done that….all of us, if we are honest with ourselves, harbour thought of greed, gluttony, anger, lust, pride, deceit, envy, sloth (to name a few!) and, what is more, all of us have acted on these in various ways and to various degrees throughout our lives. If you think you haven’t you are deluded or you are a liar. People are very quick to judge, and social media is full of comments like “He was a vile man” – but this simply is not true. Or at least if it is true, it is true of everyone. Jean Vanier wasn’t a good man, but nor was he a bad man – he was sinner in need of the mercy of God. A sinner who God used for his glory, a sinner who did incredible things for the kingdom and at the same time a sinner who did awful things, and allegedly, terrible things. This is not a defence of his alleged behaviour, rather it is a call to remember to love the sinner and hate the sin. Christ taught us not to judge and not to condemn people – we condemn the behaviour but never the person.  For those of us who are quick to condemn we, all too often, miss the plank in our own eyes whilst pointing out the splinter in our neighbour.

So how is Jean Vanier an icon of the Church and or every Christian?  Well, because the Church, made up of individual Christians, is a body of sinners in need of the mercy of God. There is extraordinary goodness, sublime truth and beauty in the Church and in the lives of individual believers, just as there was in the life of Jean Vanier. Equally, however, this beauty, truth and goodness co-exists alongside evil, filth and corruption in the Church, in our lives and clearly in the life of Jean Vanier.

The mystery of God is that he entrusts his greatness and beauty to us broken and fragile human beings. As St Paul writes, we are simply the ‘clay jars that hold this treasure’ (2.Cor 4:7) It is the treasure we worship, it the treasure that transforms us not the clay jar!

When we are tempted to worship the Church, or we worship ourselves or when we worship and individual (Jean Vanier was a hero to many of us) we will always be left wanting and we will always be disappointed. When, however, we worship God, we remember that he is the one that brings forth beauty truth and goodness. When we remember that only God is good then we will not be so shaken when the human condition reveals its fallen nature – even in the most tragic of ways.

The allegations made against Jean Vanier are indeed tragic, awful and deeply disturbing. Abusive behaviour of any kind must be dealt with and institutions must always find the most appropriate ways to safeguard members. We must pray, we pray particularly for the victims who were courageous enough to come forward and of course we must pray for the L’Arche communities across the world that must be devastated by this news, and of course we pray for Jean Vanier's soul.

I think it’s important to remember, however, that this news, as devastating as it is, does not undo the enormous good that Jean Vanier did. He was a sinner in need of the mercy of God, he did bad things and he did good things. We rightly condemn the bad things and work to repair the damage, we rightly  praise the good things, but we must leave the  judgement of a person to God and to God alone - for only God see’s the full picture, only God can read the human heart.

As Christians and as a Church we are, perhaps, too quick to make heroes and villains out of people. An event like this is perhaps a reminder to us to fix our eyes on Christ - for only he is good. Fixing our eyes on him, let us put everything we have into the hands of the Divine Mercy of God.

As I end, I am reminded of a quote from BBC’s Dr who;

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

The 12th Doctor

Thursday 13 February 2020

Learning to shut-up in the presence of God! Some thoughts on silence, or the lack of it in our lives and in our churches

We live in an ever-increasing noisy world. With social media, Netflix, emails and people we are surrounded by sound all the time. On those rare occasions when we might get the opportunity for silence many instinctively fill the void by watching YouTube, putting the car radio on or calling someone up on the phone. Noise it would seem is not just everywhere, there is also a sense in which we want it - it’s as if we are afraid of what we might face in the silence. What is more, noise is not always audible. This might seem like a bit of contradiction, after all, is noise not sound by definition? Well perhaps on one level it is, but on another level, a spiritual level, noise also refers to the busy-ness that we fill our lives with. The books and articles we read, even spiritual ones – the work that we do, the things that we have. In short, our thoughts can simply become noise and can block out a certain degree of reality by filling our mind with noise. This is problem, not least, because the ultimate  reality that is shut out is God. Noise destroys silence and silence is the language of God.

It is in the silence of our hearts, the silence of our souls, that we encounter most fully and intimately the divine presence. Silence connects us to the still, small, silent voice of God who resides in the depths of our hearts.

I firmly believe that as Christians we need to learn to be people who shut-up in the presence of God. When we love someone or are best friends with someone it is not always necessary to speak – we can see this in couples who have been together for a long time – often it is enough simply to sit and be in each other’s presence,  simply being with the other, that is enough.

I think that we lose something profound and important when we lose the ability to simply sit and be.  Furthermore, one of the big problems that relates to the loss of silence in our world is the confusion that has arisen between function and being. Put simply, our world, our society and even our Church at times seems obsessed with what we do, how successful we are and how productive we are. Ask people how they are, and you invariably get the response ‘busy’ – I’m guilty of it myself. Busy-ness has been turned into a virtue – we feel like we should busy doing stuff all the time. Yet, being busy, filling our time with stuff – even stuff “for the gospel” is not a virtue. In fact, that latter, can be detrimental because the whole gospel endeavour can quickly become about us, about our initiative, and how much we are doing – whilst all the time ignoring that God is the one who is in charge, God is the source, God is the reason – not us.

I am utterly convinced that serious spiritual development cannot take place without silence. One of the things that I try to instil into my own parish community is the need for silence in and around Church and Mass. Silence and reverence are in inextricably related. It is hard to pray in a Church if the people around you are talking incessantly or worse, they try and talk to you whilst you are trying to talk to God!

We have lost, it seems, the instinctive silence and indeed reverence that is required for prayer and worship. It is wonderful that we have vibrant and joyful communities that are happy to see each other and share the weeks news, but this should never happen at the expense of being quiet, still and silent in the presence of God. The fact that our churches contain the greatest of all treasures – Jesus Himself, truly and sacramentally present should invoke real silence and reverence. Sadly, it seems so often that presence of Christ in his Church is obscured by the din of a social gathering rather than revered by prayerful and reverential silence.

In short, we live in a world of noise, but the God of silence calls us out of this noise into a place of rest and peace. If we as individuals and as a Church are to be everything that we are created to be, perhaps we all need to learn and re-learn to shut-up in the presence of God!