An Ideal survives an Idol’s fall

(Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

So, what shall we give up for Lent 2020? Many have given up on faith.

Rather, they’ve abandoned it to the darkness cast by the shadows of scandals that keep rocking our church. The latest one is particularly painful for me. Many who read or listen to this blog know that we’ve honored the memory of Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian layman who founded L’Arche, an international federation of people dedicated to helping the disabled protect and project the sacred dignity of their personhood.  As someone with deep connections in the disabled community—and as the head of a family who found sanctuary in the Faith and Light community made possible by Vanier—I must now ponder the fate of many relationships with fellow members of an organization whose founder succumbed to the same temptations that ruined the reputations of so many other clergy and laypeople.

L’Arche just announced with a heavy heart that Vanier took sexual liberties with at least six women over the course of his 50-year ministry. These women—all of whom sought spiritual guidance from Vanier—reported that he gave “spiritual and mystical justifications” for the carnal advantage he took of them.

He did the most evil thing I can think of: he attacked their innocence. Some Church critics might say these women are now wiser for this experience.

Getting wise is a painful process, and it has its costs, as this Sunday’s readings connecting the first and second Adams indicate. Both Adam and Jesus were innocent, but Adam lacked the wisdom Jesus inherited from his Heavenly and earthly Fathers. Christ’s wisdom was also the source of great suffering for Jesus, because the more of it he shared with humanity, the more persecution that followed—up to his crucifixion and death.

The first Adam’s innocence was wisdom-free and laced with ignorance and desire. Yet, ignorance for Adam and Eve was bliss, depicted as The Garden of Eden we’ve all come to connect with the tree of knowledge whose fruit was untouchable. The moral of their story is, by giving in to their lust for something they couldn’t have, they inherited the fruit of that deadly sin and six others—and bequeathed those sins, along with their newfound mortality, to future generations. 

As we can see in Jean Vanier’s modern-day example of our costly inheritance, we children of Eve must now ask for God’s help in becoming beneficiaries of it.

Why would an all-knowing God let his innocent creatures be so vulnerable to evil? Perhaps those seven deadly sins were God’s way of inspiring us to conquer evil by painfully earning the wisdom we craved. Maybe the evil creature portrayed as a serpent in Genesis stupidly played into God’s plan by plotting to use Adam’s original gift of innocence against him. Sunday’s first reading (GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7) takes it from there:

The serpent asked the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The woman answered the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.”

With the shame of their introduction to evil, the pain of sin set in and life for humanity changed from a graceful eternal continuum of ignorance to a brutal cycle of gaining the gift of wisdom through trial and error, from birth to death. But in His mercy, God made available to us the bonus gifts of strength and courage to help us withstand the pain of our guilt so that prophets among us could pass all three gifts on to future generations—making both creation and evolution equal parts of God’s plan. Maybe we’ve always been meant to be works in progress.

That’s a belief that all of us betrayed by Jean Vanier’s fall from faith’s progress must latch onto. We must believe that what doesn’t kill our faith and light will make them stronger. This is an evolutionary process.

That vicious cycle of evolutionary creation that started with Adam’s fall culminated with God’s greatest gift to us—when he combined all three gifts of wisdom, strength and courage into one ideal we know to this day as Jesus the Christ–the new Adam. He became the gift that keeps on giving, and started doing so by modeling for future generations of Adams how to deal with the stupidity of evil, as Sunday’s gospel reading (MT 4:1-11) about his encounter with the evil one shows:

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  …  At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

This story proves the ultimate stupidity of evil. It also proves that, in his infinite wisdom, Jesus knew the infinite ways God’s love manifests itself—as illustrated by the aid of the very angels Satan tried hijacking so he could snatch that freedom from Adam II.

In our second reading (ROM 5:12-19), Paul gives us the moral to this story:

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.

After Jean Vanier died last year at the age of 90, the community of believers he left behind carried on living the ideals of the organization he founded. Although he fell from the grace of those ideals, that doesn’t make them any less worthy of reaching for. After all, our church has faced scandal many times over the centuries, so this latest one is just another footnote. Now let’s grow in wisdom from it and carry forth the grace of the only Idol who was able to rise from our fall.

–Tom Andel

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