A Poem – My Response to the News of the Sexual and Relationship Abuse of Women by the Once-Celebrated Canadian Jean Vanier

Instead of a picture of Jean Vanier whom I feature below I want to recognize the unknown women abused by him in a  betrayal of his spiritual leadership position.

This Impossible Math – The Grace and Rightness
You Were Minus the Wrong You Were, Equals, What?

I grieve to speak of love and yet not love as I should.
I ask forgiveness of the many I have wounded
And of the many I have passed without seeing their wounds.
Pray for me, my brother

   — Jean Vanier from Tears of Silence, 1971

so who’s the laugh on, you or us:
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,

pray for us, our wounds, my brother, my sister,

not love as I should… the many I have wounded
and Christ, to think this could have been about you,

your body, not the body of a saint, on their bodies,
some twisted sacrament made to look holy,

pray with us, our wounds, my sisters, my brothers,

so who’s kiddin’ who when holy, holy, holy
turns into, good god, is this some sick joke, sick,

sick, because god knows we know what they did,
Weinstein, Cosby, Ghomeshi, was wrong

awfully, awfully wrong, but did anyone ever compare
them to a saint as we did you, or stronger still, to Jesus,

because of all the light you shone on dark places,
your outstretched loving arms to the dispossessed,

the rejected, the over-looked and lonely? But now what
to do with the news of the overshadow your long body

cast on women in thrall to the light in you and talk about
not loving as you should, talk about when a crowbar hits glass,

trust shattered like that, and all along how you lied
about it, crowbar, crowbar, crowbar and now,

as if in a mirror, that crowbar hits you
and something in me shatters, too,

pray for us, my brothers, my sisters.

Richard Osler, unpublished

For me and many others, what a shock! The shadow side of a previously revered human being – Jean Vanier. Celebrated founder of the L’Arche healing communities all around the world. If ever we need yet another reminder that even the seemingly great and wonderful among us, especially men, carry a shadow (especially a sexual one) and need to do lots of work on it to keep it from making a mess of their lives and the lives of others, this is it!

But even sadder for me, is that if you read the thirty or so books of Jean Vanier, he got so clearly that brokenness in each of us. He got the shadow and the way it lives in the world. But somehow he missed dealing with his own. It is so sad he was unable to bring it out into the open and begin healing it for himself. And of course, it is not just the great and celebrated who deal with their shadow. All of us do.

But as  American Robert Bly, one of my favorite poets, says, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. And in a poem that is part of the following excerpt from A Little Book on the Human Shadow, he refers to a Babylonian version of the Noah story to illustrate what he means:

We notice that when sunlight hits the body, the body turns bright, but it throws a shadow, which is dark. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Each of us has some part of our personality that is hidden from us. Parent, and teachers in general, urge us t develop the light side of the personality –  move into well-lit subjects such as mathematics and geometry – and to become successful. The dark part then becomes starved. What do we do then. We send out a crow.

The dove returns: it found no resting place;
It was in flight all night above the shaken seas;
Beneath dark eaves
The dove shall magnify the tiger’s bed;
Give the dove peace.
The split-tailed swallow leaves the sill at dawn;
At dusk, blue swallows shall return.
the crow, the crow, the spider-colored crow,
The crow shall find new mud to walk upon.

Robert Bly from The Little Book on the Human Shadow, HarperCollins Publishers, 1988

For me here’s where the math doesn’t add up. Jean Vanier does immeasurable good in the world and immeasurable bad he did in the lives of the women he mistreated,  And yet the very good he did, his understanding of how we are broken and can mistreat each other, how much we need to reach out in love, seemed to fail him when reaching out to his shadow.  His sexual wound.

Bly says a person who has eaten their shadow (a healing response) spreads calmness and shows more grief than anger. That seemed so true for Vanier.  But somehow, to use Bly’s metaphor, Vanier must have left out a big part out of that eating! Look at his poem/ prayer which is the epigraph to this post:

I grieve to speak of love and yet not love as I should.
I ask forgiveness of the many I have wounded…

But, but, he was unable to do this, it appears, with the woman he harmed. In fact, in some cases he seems to have showed indifference to their complaints, their anguish.

Another huge but. Not to do with Jean Vanier. But to do with me. And what others might do, especially in the L’Arche communities devastated by this news, Instead of a blind acting out against Vanier because of my disappointment what can I do to not activate my own shadow in this? What can others do? For me it is to keep seeing the unhealed resentments, the holier than thous, and other shadow bits in me so to limit what I act out in the world. How do I learn not to send out my crow instead of being with it in my own mud, now. Deal with my brokenness and have that become healing nourishment.

Now the news flash: a week or so ago, L’Arche International, announced that after an extensive investigation, Jean Vanier (1929 – 2019), considered by some, including me, a modern day saint and celebrated with highest honours, had inappropriate (some coercive) sexual relations with at least six women over a period of many years and hidden his involvement in disturbing sexual practices for more than sixty years.

As someone who had met Jean in a transformative moment in my late teens the news of his wrong doings was a remarkable “oh no” moment for me. As it has been for others like Krista Tippett of the On Being Project on the US NPR and for Ian Brown, celebrated journalist with the Canadian Globe and Mail. I urge you to read these thoughtful pieces. Especially Ian Brown’s. His story of visiting L’Arche/Daybreak  in the Toronto area last Friday. To sit in the goodness there Jean helped create. But also to share in the upset and confusion created by the news. Bless you Krista and Ian. Links to these pieces below.

For my previous blog post three years ago on Jean all about his impact on my life and the then clear math of all the good he had done in his life please click here. For Krista’s searching look at her reaction to the Vanier news click here. And for Ian’s reflection on his long-term relationship with Vanier and what these revelations stir up in him please click here.

How at odds this shocking revelation about Jean was with the public image of a man who was celebrated as a theologian, inspirational author and Roman Catholic social innovator who in 1964 founded the L’Arche federation which now consists of about 140  home communities in 38 countries, providing safe and loving homes for people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them. And now I and many others try to figure out how to reconcile the great good he did with this shocking abuse of his spiritual power. And, as in his prayer above, how to forgive him. And to keep asking forgiveness for myself especially when I act out of the uneaten parts of my shadow. And to ask for healing for the women hurt so badly by Jean’s unresolved, unhealed shadow.

Jean Vanier. Photo Credit: The Templeton Prize


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