Stephan Posner, standing up when the ground slips from under you

Stephan Posner, standing up when the ground slips from under you

Stephan Posner, leader of L’Arche International, reflects on the response to the inquiry findings and L’Arche’s resilience.

Translation French to English “Stephan Posner, tenir debout quand le sol se dérobe” – Article from the newspaper La Croix (France) – 08/03/2020 - Interview by Céline Hoyeau

In February, the international leader of L'Arche had to deal with the findings of an inquiry into Jean Vanier, considered one of the great men in the world of Catholicism. Today, Stephan Posner remains convinced the inquiry was “the best thing to do” for the organization.

The piece of pottery was like a statue of Jean Vanier, shattering before their very eyes.  We are at a meeting of the seven leaders responsible for the worldwide L’Arche community, taking place in January, a month before the public announcement of the results of the investigation into the founder of L'Arche. That was the day Stephan Posner, their international leader, invited them to perform an unusual symbolic act, inspired by the Jewish tradition. 

They were to smash an object, to mark the start of the painful process of mourning L’Arche’s much-admired founder, who had died a few months earlier, and whose darker side – his abusive relationships with women he spiritually accompanied – they were discovering for the first time.

Painful revelations about Jean Vanier

"It was something visual and loud, a way of physically acknowledging that something is broken, and won’t be repaired,” says Posner, himself deeply moved by this ritual. “The ritual is also helpful in that it means we don’t get stuck in the rut of what cannot be fixed.  It deflects those elements of violent grief that can be vengeful or self-destructive.” 

After the findings were released to the general public on February 22nd, Posner encouraged all the L’Arche Communities around the world to perform the same symbolic act, as part of a larger process of mourning their founder. "Because it is not only the figure of Jean that is affected, but our own self-image – of ourselves, as individuals, and of the organization we’ve committed to.  We have been deeply and painfully shaken," he says.

This is particularly true in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, where such matters are still taboo and where Jean Vanier is held up as an icon. "One Egyptian leader was telling me how it is much more difficult in his country to separate the man from his ideas …”

Feeling disorientated

Posner feels disoriented when he compares the mission of an organization he has been committed to for more than twenty-five years, with what he discovered from the victim statements and L'Arche’s archives.  Now 57 years old, he is well aware of the inner workings and limitations of the organization in which he has worked his way to the top.  And yet, the "design fault" which is becoming apparent in L’Arche’s founding story, as a result of the investigation into Jean Vanier and his spiritual father Thomas Philippe, hit him like a "thermal shockwave".

He emphasizes that the findings have not fundamentally affected his commitment to L'Arche. 
Although the founding myth is collapsing, Posner says he is also finding that “there's ground beneath the ground", quoting the writer Christian Bobin.  "There's a moment of imbalance, like a rug has been pulled from under my feet, but then I realize I'm standing on something deeper.”

That is because his commitment was really inspired, not so much by the person of Jean Vanier, but by the experience he had when he was 21 years old.  As a self-taught young man, returning from his time in Nepal marked by the figure of Gandhi, he decided to become a conscientious objector.  L'Arche was one of the places approved to welcome him.  Of Polish Jewish roots on both sides of his family, Posner admits that he had "no appetite" for the world of disability, let alone Christian community.

And yet, "the quality of the conversation, the searching and the shared desire for authenticity,” which he discovered in the Paris community, where he spent two years of his life alongside people with disabilities and other L’Arche assistants, echoed his own quest for meaning and left a lasting impression.  So much so that he maintained his ties with L'Arche, even when he took over the family business in 1990.  He ended up returning to L’Arche full time as regional, national and then international leader.

"The human heart is a very dark place"

Posner, who begins each day reading the Hebrew Bible, says that what has been most shaken in him is his fundamental understanding of what it means to be human.  Behind his natural reserve, he is a man in a perpetual search for meaning, and this blow has been harder than he would care to reveal. Vanier was in many ways a role model for him.  And yet, he did not live up in an authentic way to the work he inaugurated.  

This is how Posner recalls their encounter during his first retreat at L'Arche: Jean Vanier had asked him if there was a particular word that was important to him. “Truth," replied Posner. "Try ‘trust’ instead," came the reply.  That was the last time he saw Vanier, before taking on a leadership position in L'Arche, but he treasured this piece of advice, with its "thought-provoking emphasis on trust".

When L'Arche started to receive the first victim statements, endless questions kept him awake at night: "How did he maintain this double life so long?  What is this link between good and evil in human nature?  It challenges our most personal sense of who each one of us is. I have thought several times about the words of Hannah Arendt: ‘The human heart is a very dark place’.”

"It also raises questions about our gullibility," he continues.  Posner admits that, only a few years ago, he would never have believed this possible in L'Arche.  But that has had to change, in particular after meeting with the victims, who “took him down a notch".  "I have still some way to go as well.  But I feel neither resentment nor bitterness, on the contrary.  What we are going to lose in the way of certainty, I hope we will gain in clarity and in maturity.  And surely in humility," he thinks, quoting René Char: "Clarity is the wound closest to the sun."

"Do we want to be ruled by fear?”

Posner admits to being plagued by "the idea that it would hurt so many people for whom Jean was a role model".   So, would it have been better to stay silent?  "Of course, one could be tempted to back down in the face of the wave that would inevitably come, but there was a kind of obviousness,” he says emphatically.  “In the name of the very values that brought us to L'Arche and kept us here, we could not have remained silent.” He says he remains convinced that this was “the best thing to do for L’Arche”. 
Faced with scandals like this, he believes the Church may have "lacked faith in the ability of its members to hear the truth".  "People are mature, they have faith. They are not children.  They are capable of hearing it," he says. “The Church may understandably have been afraid to tell them things, but do we want to be guided by fear? If we are convinced that there is value to what we experience in L'Arche, then that value will survive.”

He is confident in L’Arche’s resilience, because "it was founded in what is wounded and beyond repair. We are discovering our story is broken but we shall be able to come to terms with it".  "There will be some isolated voices raised in denial, while others say: 'It’s just not possible’. But there is no point in trying to fight them.  Denial is just one part of our coping mechanism for coming to terms with this," he adds.

Remarkable maturity

Although the first wave of reactions to the Vanier inquiry was very quickly "drowned out" by the wave of the Covid-19 pandemic which broke shortly afterwards, L'Arche nonetheless created opportunities for everyone everywhere to express their reactions and ask questions. "We have had a very deep encounter with the truth, experiencing what happens when the truth is heartbreaking, when it hits us in our very depths..."

The international leader said he has been touched by the "remarkable maturity" of most people’s responses, as they asked themselves why they wanted to stick with L'Arche; by the countless offers of support received externally and internally; and by the common sense and empathy of people with disabilities, such as a woman in Trosly (Oise) who suggested writing a collective letter to the victims of Jean Vanier.

What should now be done with Vanier’s books and photos of him?  How should L'Arche’s story be told? "Some communities would like to have clear instructions, but what we are faced with today is a work of discernment that will involve us all collectively," Posner acknowledges.  From September, a two-year, interdisciplinary study commission will be launched to shed light on Vanier’s life and career and on the systemic aspect of the abuse.  In the meantime, Posner thinks it wiser not to be overhasty and to live with "the discomfort" of these questions for a while.