Last week, many Christians (myself included) were thoroughly saddened to learn the news that Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities and a man revered by many as next thing to a saint, was found to have been a serial sexual predator. It’s a sad statement on the state of our institutions that, while people were genuinely saddened by this revelation, few seemed shocked.
The news about Jean Vanier happened to come out while I was reflecting on the life and teaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is another man whose legacy is a combination of beautiful and ugly things. He was instrumental in renewing monastic life in Western Europe and had deep insights into the workings of God and the human soul. But at the same time, he was the principal force in drumming up support for the Second Crusade, which was disastrous on human, political, and religious levels, and led the attack (eventually withdrawn) against the teaching of Peter Abelard — no small thing considering the accusation leveled against Abelard came with a death sentence.
What do we do when our saints and heroes act, well, less than saintly?
First, such revelations are potent reminders to, in the words of the Psalms, “Put not your trust in princes, in the sons of men in whom there is no salvation.” Or, to cite a Buddhist proverb that circulated widely in the midst of a sex scandal involving a beloved teacher a couple of years ago, “The best teacher lives two valleys away,” that is, situate yourself close enough to learn from masters but far enough away that you don’t get sucked in by their charisma. Both proverbs remind us to keep our expectations of others in check. Hero-worship gets us nowhere. Ultimately our faith, hope, and trust belong in God alone. We can learn from teachers and be grateful for them, but it’s always best to keep a safe distance — two psychological valleys away.
Second, these disappointing examples are helpful in prompting us to reframe our understanding of what ‘saintliness’ is. The saints, whether ancient or contemporary, are not spotless lambs or perfect pillars of truth, but real — and therefore complicated — men and women who struggled to be faithful with what they’d been given, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. In other words, they’re a lot like us. The whole language about standing on the shoulders of giants is ultimately unhelpful. We do certainly build on the legacy of those before us, but that legacy is often a mixed bag. And that’s okay. We can recognize the positive contributions of the past while recognizing the ways we can do better. Having an unrealistically high view those who’ve gone before us can actually be demotivating, since it can allow us to shirk our responsibility to act in our own world since we’re not ‘holy’ like ‘them’. The fact is they were messy people in a messy world, and that means they’re just like us. And that means we have no excuse.
But beyond these ideas of managing our expectations, I think there’s something more here for us to ponder, something that touches on the core of the idea of holiness itself. After all, if knowing God is supposed to transform our lives, doesn’t the phenomenon of godly people doing ungodly things suggest that this, well, doesn’t work? This is an important challenge and I don’t want to try to explain it away. I want us to feel uncomfortable with this possibility. I for one take the claims our faith seriously. And if the Gospel doesn’t transform lives, then we need a new Gospel. But, that said, I do think there are some ways we can approach the phenomenon of saints behaving badly that, without justifying bad behaviour or explaining away the discomfort, can help us understand why this happens and hopefully help us to avoid the pitfalls.
First of all, God meets us where we are at, without prejudice or favoritism. An uneducated medieval peasant girl was no more or less likely to meet God than a monk trained in the best academies of Europe; and a fundamentalist today is no more or less likely to have a direct encounter with God than a postmodern progressive. But as much as experiences of God can shake up our ways of thinking, we are still basically going to interpret them within our existing worldview and prior expectations. Even if their experience of God is essentially the same, the words and images an uneducated woman, educated monk, fundamentalist or progressive Christian will use to describe it and the lens they use to interpret and act upon it, can be profoundly different. Indeed, we should be less surprised when people sound just like men and women of their time or worldview than we should be when they don’t. It’s those places where they stand apart from the crowd with a voice that feels out of sync with their time and place that is remarkable and where we are most likely to find the voice of God.
Secondly, our techniques and tools matter. This may be a bit controversial to say in a Christian context, since we believe mystical experiences are gifts from God and not the result of mastery of certain spiritual technologies. But we have to acknowledge that the means through which we approach God are going to impact how we experience God. And if we aren’t careful — if we are too reliant on one way of doing our business with God at the expense of others — we can become lopsided in our spiritual development. The image that comes to mind is of someone who goes to the gym every day, but only ever exercises his arms. After a few months, his arms will be huge but they won’t ‘fit’ with the rest of his body and his gains will be so localized as to have made little contribution to his overall fitness.
A classic literary example of this phenomenon is the Elder Ferapont in The Brothers Karamazov. He was famed for his asceticism and there are indications in the text that he legitimately met God on this spiritual battlefield of his fasts. But he was so hyper-focused on his ascetic life that he was blinded to the goodness and holiness of the world-affirming Elder Zosima, and saw darkness, danger, and demons lurking in every corner. In a similar way, if we are too reliant on meeting God in visions and dreams, we may become unmoored or ungrounded. If we are too reliant on meditation, we may become disconnected from those around us and see community as a distraction from our goal rather than the place where our goal becomes realized. If we meet God exclusively in the liturgical life of the Church, we can forget that faith is to be lived in the world. And so on.
It’s not that these tools are bad, but that they aren’t ends in themselves. To cite another Buddhist parable, they are like a boat you use to get from one shore to another. Once you reach the second shore, you need to leave the boat behind. The goal isn’t to become an expert rower, but to get to the other side. As St. Bernard would no doubt have approved, the true goal to which all of our spiritual disciplines and sacred practices direct us is love. This isn’t a new-fangled idea, but comes directly from the Apostle Paul, who both encouraged the charismatic gifts within the Church, but understood that they are not the point:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13.1-3)
This is why so many mystics throughout history have questioned the value of the phenomena we most associate with mysticism: visions, dreams, trances, and so on. Not because they are false or bad, but because they can so easily become ends in themselves and distract the faithful — especially the inexperienced seekers of God for whom their manuals were written — from their real goal.
Finally, the last idea I want to bring up in this discussion is the Jungian concept of the Shadow. This is the idea that we are prone to push away aspects of our personalities that we don’t like or we see as not fitting in with how we see ourselves. Those of us who are an intentionally spiritual path are especially susceptible to pushing a lot into our Shadow because have high ideals and expectations for ourselves. While ideally our spiritual experiences open our eyes to allow us to see what we’ve pushed away, the human capacity of self-deception really knows no bounds. And if we aren’t careful about actively seeking out and working with the parts of ourselves we don’t like, our experiences of God can serve to reinforce this inauthenticity, leading to rank hypocrisy. And so repentance, the process through which we examine our actions and hearts and bring everything out into the light of the Gospel, must always be part and parcel with the quest for the knowledge of God.
These are just a few ideas that can provide some context to understanding why even holy people and heroes of faith can do very unholy things. If there’s one thing the mystics of the Church’s history agree on, it’s that the full union with God to which this life aims is not something we can expect in this lifetime. Everything we might experience here is preparatory and a foretaste of what is to come. This means that everyone, from the beginner taking his first steps in the journey of faith to the most highly esteemed living saint is still very much a work in progress and will make mistakes.
This isn’t in any way to explain away failures or minimize the damage people can and do inflict. Sin must be called out. Crimes must be dealt with appropriately. No one is above the law or free from consequence.
What this is, though, is a call to have open eyes as we engage in the life of faith. To learn with gratitude from those who are further along the path than we are, but not to put our faith in them. To remember that God meets us — all of us — where we are at. To engage with God in as many ways as possible to ensure our development is as even as it can be. To remember that our tools and methods are only means to an end and not ends in themselves. And to have the eyes of our hearts opened as much as possible in repentance, not pushing aside our weaknesses and temptations, but bringing them out into the open where we can see them.
We will never be perfect, and that’s okay. That’s where grace comes in. Learning from the past is just as much about learning from its mistakes as its successes.