Fire that warms and burns...
I’m not sure when we first saw Jean Vanier on television –alone on a stage, captivating an enormous stadium crowd as he talked in a low, husky voice with a strong French accent about finding God in the littlest, the least and the lost. We searched out his books and read about his work. The L’Arche communities he had founded in 1964 were built on sharing life and learning about trust in God. They welcomed people both with and without intellectual and physical disabilities. The egalitarian ideals on which they were built inspired us and so many others – not least that other great Christian writer, Henri Nouwen. Jean Vanier, who died last year, was described as ‘a man of luminous goodness’. We agreed.
Then last week, it was revealed that Vanier was the latest in a long line of fallen religious leaders. Evidence emerged of sexual abuse over 35 years of women who were in his spiritual care.
Jean Vanier clearly did huge amounts of good. The 154 communities he founded around the world continue to bear witness to many of the gospel values that he understood and taught so powerfully. So when the dramatic news came out I asked myself again – how is it that relationships between spiritual women and aspiring men who genuinely want to make a difference in the world seem to go astray?
Without doubt, vagueness and unwillingness to acknowledge the ill-effects of unequal power relationships is at the heart of the matter. But there is more than that – some of it is about a failure to be aware of the close entwinement between sexuality and spirituality. Both of them can and should involve the whole of us – both of them are concerned with needs and gifts. We don’t always know or want to know the difference – and it’s all so complex.
I remember many years ago a prominent bishop saying that the reason he opposed the ordination of women was that, if he saw a woman at the altar, his immediate response would be to go forward and ‘take her in his arms’. Such amazing lack of self-awareness and confusion about the difference between sexual and spiritual power is not confined to men! If you have grown up, as I did, in a pastoral family with a good-looking father, you become aware that many women see in ministers and priests the fathers or husbands they wish they had had or could have.
Living my adult life, as I have, among mostly male would-be Christian leaders, I have also become aware of the need of many of them to believe in themselves not only as godly men but as cool and attractive too. And they’re often not sure how to put the two desires together. To prove themselves, they need and feed on female admiration whether they get it at home or in the pulpit. And women who need good husbands and fathers – or sons - are only too willing to offer the required affirmation. Some of these relationships can be healthy. Some of them become toxic.
What is difficult for all of us is cultivating honesty about who we really are - and about when we are giving and when we are taking. While we won’t always be able to separate them – or to separate spirituality and sexuality, failure to be honest about which is which can have dire consequences.
The fire warms but it also burns.