Chair's May Blog: Power and Tenderness - A Starting Point for Wisdom

What the Truly Wise Teach Us About Wisdom

I am fascinated by the idea of Wisdom; drawn to it; seeking it; always just out of reach. Wisdom is something we hear in the words of others or see in the actions of the inspired. I wish I’d said ‘this’, or thought of doing ‘that’ but instead I have to admit to being a beginner still.

Some people make it look so effortless, a second nature, but I’m not fooled. I know this takes hard work and practice. One encouragement I have is that I am not alone, there are plenty of us out there listening to and observing the Truly Wise. We are drawn to them and also in awe of them. They are giants in our moral and spiritual landscape. Like the Saints, one imagines that the Truly Wise may not always be the easiest people to be around. Or is that simply because they can see through us to the truth in our own hearts?

Jean Vanier at L’arche 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Paray-le-Monial, France © Kayte Brimacombe

Jean Vanier at L’arche 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Paray-le-Monial, France © Kayte Brimacombe

Jean Vanier, Marc Faivre D’Arcier © DR L’Arch International

Jean Vanier, Marc Faivre D’Arcier © DR L’Arch International

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, who died earlier this month, was one of these giants.

In Krista Tippett’s 2016 book, Becoming Wise, Tippett references conversations with Jean Vanier and other members of L’Arche Chicago and records the impression he left with her:

“People ask me about the common denominators of the wisest people I’ve encountered. Alongside all the virtues that that accompany and anchor wisdom, there is a characteristic physical presence that Jean Vanier epitomises.… Here’s what it feels like, what I can report: an embodied capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising, creative interplay. This way of being is palpable, and refreshing, and in its way jarring, hard to figure out…This is the closest I can come to describing the sense I have…of wisdom incarnate…”

I love the idea of the creative interplay of power and tenderness but also appreciate her honesty in admitting some discomfort, as in ‘jarring’ and ‘hard to figure out’. I never met Jean Vanier, but I did hear him speak once at St Martin in the Fields and I remember both the Power and the Tenderness.

Someone I have met though, many times, is Richard Keagan-Bull, a core member of L’Arche London and the author of one of the tributes to Jean Vanier printed in the Tablet on 11th May. These extracts from his tribute demonstrate the effect Jean’s presence had upon him:

“What I found was a tall man who was very easy to be with - very loving and very caring. He was gentle. He made me feel at ease…What I’ll remember is a tall man in a blue coat who aways had time for me, and made me feel loved”

Richard is a prominent figure at L’Arche social events and a valued voice at their community meetings. I trust his judgement and the simplicity of his tribute to Jean says almost as much about Richard as does about Jean.

Is it mischievous to suggest that the same observation might be made of the remarks attributed to the latest critics of Papal pronouncements? Do their remarks reveal more about them than they do about Pope Francis? Could this be another example of those experiencing the disturbing effect of someone who holds the creative interplay of power and tenderness?

I recently read Tim Marshall’s Worth Dying for: The Power and Politics of Flags, which surprised me, not only because I enjoyed it, but because I learnt a little more about the diversity of things people care about and the depth of feeling embedded in these squares, rectangles and triangles of cloth. Wisdom is essential for the those who invoke these symbols. The exercise of power without the tempering effect of tenderness can have catastrophic results - the book’s title is not a joke.

As I write this, in the UK we are seeing the mis-use of power all around us, especially in the self-preservational and self-promotional activities of some of our politicians, public figures and pundits. The transformational effect of wise judgement is made possible by the presence of compassion and vulnerability: tenderness to ourselves and others. The role models are out there if we choose to seek them.

Let us pray for the gift of wisdom for our leaders in Church and State, may they find inspired and inspiring role models in people of courage and imagination who can hold the creative interplay demonstrated by the Truly Wise.

Anne Dixon, CPW Chair

Anne Dixon