Contemplative Life, Spiritual Direction

SOUNDINGS: “On Jean Vanier (and Other Disillusionments)”

It’s been almost two weeks since the news broke about the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, and it hit many of us very hard, myself very much included.  Sadly It’s become a bit ordinary for revelations to come out about the deep misdoings of Christian leaders, but Vanier was not ordinary.  I was not alone in my sentiment when Mother Teresa died of “Well, at least Jean Vanier is still on the planet.”  There are many things that could be said about why Vanier was legitimately on a very high pedestal for millions of people.

His was no ordinary life or ministry, and his was no ordinary sin.  His patterned and conscientious predatory behavior was perpetrated over decades and was in direct opposition to his powerful teachings on community and love that have been inspirational and even formational for so many.  This is not a case of “Nobody is perfect.”  Further, he had developed some sort of self-justification–using spirituality–to warrant his behaviors in his own mind.  Further yet, his abuse happened under the guise of spiritual direction, a specific form of ministry that has blessed me, that I love, that I have offered for years, and that Coracle as a ministry offers to many.

With this news, Vanier joined a very long list of Christian leaders, institutions, and movements whose actions are in direct contrast to their message.  And I would also put in this category Christian leaders who have lost their jobs because of their abusive leadership style, several recent stories of which I’ve also had occasion to think about these past few weeks.

For years I’ve wrestled with disillusionment as it relates to the church and certain Christian leaders present and past, and put a lot of thought into it and have come to several conclusions that can bring some solace which I can employ when the scandals come to light.  None of them feel airtight or entirely satisfactory, and I’ve not entirely found my peace here.  I’ll keep working on it, and Vanier’s story over the past two weeks has certainly brought required this full arsenal of my responses to ‘how to respond to disappointment with the church.’  I’m not done thinking about the implications of Vanier’s story in several directions, and honestly, I’m not done being deeply disturbed by it.

One silver lining is the exemplary way that the current leadership of L’Arche quickly and transparently handled the allegations, investigations, and then fully reported the findings.  It is truly refreshing to see a Christian institution value truth and individuals over institutional preservation.

This news came out on a Saturday, and I was leading a retreat the following Monday where some of Vanier’s quotes featured prominently in my talks.  On Sunday I (uncharacteristically) posted on my Facebook page “So what am I supposed to do with all my very underlined Vanier books? And all the documents where I quote him? That’s an honest question.”

My question garnered a lot of very thoughtful, and varied, responses, including broadening my specific question about Vanier to others with glaring inconsistencies in either word or action, including King David.  There’s a lot of food for thought in those replies, with some links to some very helpful articles.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

  • It is amazing to me how much good God can do and does through deeply broken people.  The ministry of L’Arche was and is amazing and has made a huge difference in the lives of so many and especially the mentally and physically handicapped adults that have been served.  I’m so very grateful that the efficacy of our ministry is not utterly reliant on the perfection of our sanctity.  This is a testimony to God’s power and grace.  The Fall persists, and God’s Spirit still moves.
  • I am not perfect, and I am much more aware of my faults than my virtues.  As opposed to ruminating too much on the sins of Jean Vanier (or others), it’s more beneficial for me to identify and reflect on my owns sins, to confess them, and to continue to work to overcome them.  Similarly, to let this and these sorts of things compel me towards greater sanctity in all areas of my life and greater consistency between my own words and actions.
  • I must continue to focus on Jesus in all of his aspects and not allow my disappointments with his body on earth (fraught as it is with limitations) cloud my vision of him.
  • One of my persistent questions for God remains:  “Lord, if this ‘body-of-Christ-to-bear-witness-to-you’ thing is as central to your plan as it seems to be, well, wasn’t there a more effective way to get that done between 33AD and whenever Jesus comes back?  Oh, and by the way, could that be soon?”
  • I will endeavor to not let the failures of fellow Christians (individually and institutionally) rattle my own faith in Christ and the reality of the Kingdom of God.  It’s not about them, it’s about him.  And I will also endeavor to remember all the good things that fellow Christians (individually and institutionally) have done and be grateful for them.
  • At our next large gathering, the Coracle community of spiritual directors will use this story as a good reason to revisit and discuss the topic of ethics and boundaries with spiritual directees, both in how we engage with them and how much influence they might be giving to us.  Vanier has provided a sad case-study on what not to do.
  • I’ve asked Coracle’s staff to be sure to bring to my attention anything they see in my leadership that does not comport with how a Christ-like leader would lead.
  • To answer my own question posed on Facebook, I will not soon quote Jean Vanier, if ever, and if ever again then it would need to be so heavy with caveats that it would distract from whatever the quote was and so probably not make it worth it.  That said, I’ll keep his books for reference and allow his valuable insights on important things (community, love, the vulnerable) to spur my own thinking and then put those thoughts into my own words.

As I said, there are many good comments on my Facebook page.

One of them is this, “Heavy heavy sigh and no easy answers.”

And another one is this… “I think the lesson is to stay humble ourselves by daily confessing our own sin and clinging ever deeper to the cross, respond to His grace by serving others in His name, praying for discernment to see when God is working His will through other people but always reserving our worship and devotion for our Savior, not to any human in His service. Jesus is the only one who met God’s standard and suffered and died a torturous death to not only spare us the punishment we deserve but to grant us His righteousness and eternal life with Him, the amazing grace.”


On the Journey,



“SOUNDINGS” posts are aimed at considering together topics that are important for our society, for the Church, and for our own spiritual journeys. To ‘take a sounding’ is a nautical term about using depth to determine where you are and where you’re going.  These writings are designed to do just that. Please share this post with friends you think might appreciate it. If you would like to get SOUNDINGS posts from me sent directly to your inbox, click here.

Share this post

Keep Growing

Do you want robust Spiritual Formation resources delivered straight to your inbox each week?

Explore Coracle's 2024 Vision, "The Light Shines in the Darkness"