Today’s gospel is about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. She was a marginalised person both with regard to him as a Jew and to her own village because of her marital history. She didn’t put him or anyone else on a pedestal. Maybe this is why they became so intimate in telling the truth about themselves to each other.
The first time I heard Jean Vanier teach, when he gave us a memorable John Main Seminar in 1990, it was about this story. I was moved and enlightened by how deeply he identified with it and spoke from a place of humble, spiritually intelligent wisdom. It was a difficult time in my own life and in a couple of personal meetings he gave me insightful and healing advice that helped me continue on my path.
Over the years Jean’s friendship with the meditation community continued and just a few years ago he gave his second seminar from Trosly. I cannot deny or rewrite the history of the grace of this connection or the good he did. He had a profound sense that religion was not about control but healing and leading people to fullness of life; and that each person, however marginal, was wholly worthwhile. His theme was human woundedness; and, as the more he expounded it, more people called him a saint. I don’t think he wanted to be put on a pedestal; but, although people might have wondered what his own handicaps and wounds were, he was widely regarded as better than most people. This made his posthumous fall from grace all the more an awful surprise.
When I heard the truth, about the pattern of his sexual relations with a number of women whom he was guiding, I disbelieved it. But the evidence and the conclusions drawn from it are now hard and clear. L’Arche must be commended for the independent enquiry that it conducted into these cases where lasting harm was done to vulnerable women. He was, it seems, not just a wounded but a wounding healer. The way l’Arche leaders have handled this revelation about their founder reflects the best aspects of his own teaching though not of his personal behaviour. In time I feel l’Arche will be stronger and wiser.
I asked a Buddhist friend recently for his perspective on this breaking of an icon. He mentioned the number of teachers in his own tradition who had also been exposed in similar ways. On one of them the Dalai Lama spoke out because of a personal connection. He said how easily the power and influence given to gurus in their tradition could go corrupt, as power of any kind risks doing. But, he added, how disappointing and how inexcusable is the failure, when this power gives the one who holds it a sense of exceptional privileges and entitlements and exempts them from the normal standards of decency and probity.
Before tomorrow, when I conclude this sad reflection, I would ask you to reflect on the issue in itself. And also on the language we use to think and talk about it. How can we respond to the revelation of sinfulness in those brothers and sisters in whom we once naively saw only grace?