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Jean Vanier and the Way of Blessing

Jean Vanier was the storied founder of L’Arche, a global movement of communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities. Vanier won The Templeton Prize. He authored dozens of beautiful books about the intrinsic value of all of us in our beloved humanity, starting with those who might be seen as the least and the lowest, people with intellectual disabilities. Over 100 communities around the globe now exist as a result of Vanier’s visionary work.

I remember exactly where I was in 2020 when I learned that L’Arche was investigating credible allegations that Vanier had consistently sexually abused women over the course of many decades. I believed the women. But I didn’t know what to do with my thoughts and feelings around Vanier himself. 

He had been my teacher when it came to learning and living the intrinsic worth of every human life. He endorsed A Good and Perfect Gift. I quoted him in Small Talk. I had allowed his words of wisdom and grace to sink deep into my consciousness. 

Recently, L’Arche has published a 900-page report detailing not only the allegations against Vanier but also the news that L’Arche itself, at its very core, was built upon a lie. Vanier’s origin story for the organization rested on an altruistic notion that he wanted to live with two friends with intellectual disabilities. And from those lowly and beautiful beginnings, a movement was born. 

The truth is that Vanier wanted a way to continue a banned sect of Catholicism that included mystical abusive sexual predation upon women. L’Arche provided the cover he needed. So even as this movement was spreading across the globe, even as countless individuals were living according to a different way, a way of blessing, a way of grace, a way of love—Vanier himself was manipulating and abusing women. Again, and again, and again.

For years, the abuse continued. So did the grace. I don’t mean Vanier received grace. I mean that there are indeed treasures that can emerge out of darkness. That joy can come from ashes. That the most distorted, ugly, manipulative, behavior cannot halt the beauty that can also grow from a seed of truth. Vanier planted distortions and lies. He also planted the truth about vulnerable humanity. 

Now that his own corrupted practices have been brought to light, L’Arche is doing the work to make sure they did not extend beyond him. And they are continuing the work of belovedness and belonging. 

Vanier’s life and legacy show us the distortion and evil that can lie hidden within the human soul. But it also shows us that truth and beauty, love and hope, joy and peace, cannot be suppressed. 

I hope and pray that the work L’Arche is doing now to acknowledge the harm of Vanier’s actions will ultimately lead to healing for his victims. And I hope and pray this work will allow the legacy of Jean Vanier to die with him. 

I also hope and pray that the legacy of L’Arche will live on through the faithful work of humble women and men who love one another with grace and truth. 

I’ve packed away Vanier’s books. I may throw them away altogether. But I do remember how he once wrote that even if the world never learned anything from L’Arche, even if nothing changed, he saw this work as a sign that pointed toward the truth of the kingdom of heaven. The life of giving and receiving in mutual care and support was the work of love, whether or not it transformed the world. And, we might add, whether or not it transformed the founder and leader. Whether or not it eradicated abuse.

The work of L’Arche is still a sign that points to the beauty and grace and truth of Jesus’ way of blessing. 

Lead Us Not is the Sojourner’s podcast talking through the details of these revelations. This article from The Associated Press also gives a helpful (terrible, devastating) summary of what we have learned. 

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