Spiritual Direction in the Shadow of Jean Vanier

Posted on March 12th, 2020 in News

Spiritual Direction in the Shadow of Jean Vanier

I came to this country in 1983 to live in L’Arche London. Like so many others, I had been inspired by Jean Vanier. My years there formed the bedrock of my spirituality and continue to inform my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Since then, the L’Arche community has remained an important part of my local life and an enormous gift to my church community. In those same years, I was introduced to spiritual direction and given wonderful accompaniment along the way. This combination of a radical lifestyle, theological reflection and the experience of spiritual direction was profoundly life-changing.

Fast forward 37 years; that same man who inspired me all those years ago is found to have abused his power, in the context of that same gracious space of spiritual listening, in the most shocking way. This revelation has left countless people around the world reeling with anger and grief. More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, it has caused some people to question the safety of spiritual direction. Some of us were dismayed to read an article published two weeks ago in the Church Times suggesting that spiritual direction needed rethinking and was seriously “in need of reform and competent moderation.” It was in my opinion a poorly argued article, misrepresenting spiritual direction in several ways. I want now to address some of the general concerns this story raises.

I’ve been involved in the formation of spiritual directors for many years and can attest that the need for psychological awareness has long been understood. There is, indeed, an overlap between sexuality and spirituality; and there are many aspects of ‘darkness’ which might present themselves in the spiritual- direction relationship, including complex dynamics of an unconscious nature. We must be alert to these, but we also must be clear that ongoing issues of this nature, arising in either the spiritual director or the person being accompanied, are best addressed in psychotherapy.

For this and many other reasons, there is now a growing expectation that those in this ministry adhere to a code of practice which includes safeguarding training, ongoing supervision and being in spiritual direction oneself. It is vital that we go on ensuring good practice, as best we can. Relevant to this is a new and important initiative, which I am a part of, to create a National Forum for Spiritual Directors. It will be a place to discuss all aspects of spiritual direction; including the need to be both appropriately professional while staying true to its essential charism as a ministry within the church. You’ll hear more of this in the coming months.

I believe that spiritual direction is very far from being outdated or out of touch. Instead, it emerges increasingly as a unique and crucial ministry within a church urgently in need of honest, humble and searching spiritual conversation and prayer. The tragic irony is that if Jean Vanier’s own spiritual accompaniment had come from someone other than that fatal mentor who both practiced and encouraged the abuse, spiritual direction might have been the very place for him to name his own dangerously destructive impulses. Likewise, had he put himself under the now-standard practice of supervision, he might well have been forced to confront his own ‘mystical’ delusion.

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been privileged to take part in some of the very painful conversations within L’Arche London, as they process the news with integrity, courage and care. I’m happy to say that despite the serious betrayal of its founder, L’Arche continues to be a place where Christ is recognised in the brokenness - blessed and shared. Likewise, spiritual direction will go on being a place where we recognise our encounter with Christ, on the road and at the table; in stories told from the heart and bread broken in faith.

Julie Leger Dunstan

Director for Formation and
Professional Development

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