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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Downward Mobility: Jean Vanier and the Humility of the L'Arche Community Movement

Robert C. Roberts

The word humble comes from the Latin humus, for earth, the ground. So what’s humble is down here on the ground, the opposite of exalted or raised up.

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
November 1, 2016

Note: The quotations from Jean Vanier are from an exchange of letters between him and Julia Kristeva dated between June 2009 and August 2010. The letters are published as Leur Regard Perce nos Ombres (Mayenne: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2011). I’m grateful to Michael Spezio for advice in writing this article.

Up is Down and Down is Up

Which way is up?—Well, that depends on which way is down. When I was a kid, it seemed odd to me that the Chinese could stick to the earth as well as we do, since they were upside down. It was of course gravity—the stickiness of a big mass—but still, weren’t they hanging from the earth by their feet? What an odd experience that must be! What a strange way to live, with your feet higher than your head all the time!

Chinese children must sometimes have the same wonderment about us, and don’t consider their own orientation to the earth anything out of the ordinary. They stand up, after all. The key, of course, is that up and down are relative terms. If one thing is up in some direction, then anything that’s in the opposite direction from it is down, and vice-versa.


The word humble comes from the Latin humus, for earth, the ground. So what’s humble is down here on the ground, the opposite of exalted or raised up. Perhaps gravity makes it natural for people to think of what’s on the earth as down, and what’s some distance from the earth as above, lifted up. Humble and exalted are therefore relative terms, like small and large, short and long. Terms like these are always applied with respect to some dimension. Short and long can be attributes of space (a long or short road) or time (a long or short wait), small and large can be attributes of incomes or waistlines. In the moral or spiritual sense of humble and exalted, what is the relevant dimension?

“All one’s relationships are mediated by, or at least under the shadow of, the concern to be important in the ways that that is defined by the Normal: achievement, influence, competitive superiority, attractiveness to others, popularity, being admired, having privileges, and the like.”

I’ve suggested that both in the New Testament and in colloquial thought, the relevant dimension is personal importance, along with its marks, respect and honor. A small, dumpy house is a “humble abode,” and a low-paying, low status job is a humble occupation. Such houses and occupations are thought to confer on their occupants a humble social status; they are thought to be the province of the “lower” classes. People who believe in democracy and the equal rights and dignity of all human beings may not like to admit it, but the “normal” way of thinking about such people is that they’re less important than powerful people with high-paying jobs who live in large, well-kept houses. The normal way of thinking is that the boss or master is a more important person than his employee or servant.

The New Testament, and especially the teaching of Jesus, is peppered with what we might call the paradox of up and down, great and small, first and last: up is down, great is small, and first is last. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). After telling how Christ lowered himself for our sakes, Paul comments, “…therefore God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….” (Philippians 2:9, italics added). “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12).

These paradoxes trade on the relativity of these categories to a dimension. If humility and pride, humbling and exaltation, have to do with the dimension of personal importance, and it’s true that the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled, then there must be more than one kind of personal importance. By Paul’s lights, Christ showed how exceedingly important he is by turning a blind eye to the kind of importance that derives from being the Head of the universe.

Downward Mobility

Downward mobility, notes Kevin Reimer in his book Living L’Arche: Stories of Compassion, Love, and Disability, is “a quintessential L’Arche hallmark.” L’Arche (French for ‘ark,’ as in Noah’s ark) is a network of small Christian communities, co-founded by French Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964, of which the core members are people with severe disabilities. The disabilities are mostly of the cognitive kind. Other people who live with the core members and serve them are called “assistants.” Assistants receive very little pay, come from all kinds of educational, social, and religious backgrounds, and live in L’Arche communities for anywhere between a few weeks or months and several decades. According to the pervasive, implicit philosophy of life that Vanier calls “the Normal” (la normalité), people with mental disabilities are less important as people than those with high IQ, talents, accomplishments, and important social positions. In fact, to say that they are unimportant people is something of an understatement: they are not just less important, but downright annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome. They are not just unimportant; they have negative importance. Indeed, they are so unwanted that people whose minds and hearts are governed by the Normal, if they find out that they are pregnant with a disabled person, often decide that it will be better for everybody if that person doesn’t live. So if you’re a corporate accountant with General Electric, and you leave that position to become a L’Arche assistant, possibly for the rest of your life, then by the reckoning of the Normal your move is decidedly downward. If you stay with it for a really long time, you have thrown your life away.

“…[E]ven those who have experienced the joy of living in a L’Arche community and serving the disabled find it hard to believe that their pleasure is real.”

But Vanier thinks that the Normal is a very bad philosophy of life—obviously bad for disabled people, who often get shunted away from society and stuck in institutions where they see only people who are also disabled plus a few “normal” institutional staff with whom they have no really personal interactions. But the Normal is also bad for the “normal” people who have no objection to it, and just think it’s normal. With its emphasis on competitive excellence, status, power, achievement, and constant, implicit, anxious comparing oneself with others as to one’s excellence, status, recognition, power, and achievements, it is almost impossible for people in the grip of the Normal to have real person-to-person, face-to-face, soul-to-soul personal communion with others. All one’s relationships are mediated by, or at least under the shadow of, the concern to be important in the ways that that is defined by the Normal: achievement, influence, competitive superiority, attractiveness to others, popularity, being admired, having privileges, and the like. And this concern, this way of thinking about the meaning of one’s life and relationships, spoils one’s life, bereaving it of what could really make it significant and good: love.


But the Normal has some cracks in it. There are ways in which, even in this world that’s driven by Normal values, there are reminders, hints, that all is not well with the Normal. One of these hints is in the vocabulary of unhumility. In English, we have a fairly long list of words that describe aspects of unhumility, and the terms are pretty consistently terms of abuse. People whose actions, desires, and emotions are most characteristically formed by Normal values are described as haughty, arrogant, envious, vain, pretentious, self-righteous, grandiose, conceited, snobbish, domineering, and the like; and the vast majority of us don’t want to think of ourselves in these terms. So even if we do look down on people in the slums, even if we feel twinges of envy toward peers who are more “successful” than we, even if we subtly boast about our accomplishments and hunger to be admired and to have the limelight, we rationalize our unhumility: slum dwellers are lazy, we don’t really resent those more successful peers, and putting ourselves in the limelight is really necessary for the successful prosecution of the good work we do for humanity. The abusiveness of unhumility’s vocabulary and our discomfort with owning our unhumility suggest that we glimpse a better world than that of the Normal. It’s the world of fundamental human equality and the kingdom of universal love and respect.

In a letter to Julia Kristeva, Vanier raises a question that signals another crack in the Normal: Why have L’Arche communities existed for more than 50 years, now numbering 150 or so? And what motivates some people to remain members of a L’Arche community for decades, serving human beings who may hardly be able to talk, who can’t follow complex thoughts, who can’t carry on an “interesting” conversation, and who may make terrible messes? It might seem that a normally intelligent person could manage to stick it out in such an environment only if he or she had an extraordinarily strong sense of duty and an iron will to do good deeds. But are there really enough such people to populate all those communities? Vanier’s answer to his own question is surprising:

It’s true that each community is as vulnerable as the persons we welcome. So what is the secret that allows L’Arche to remain in existence? I’m going to tell you: it’s pleasure.…If people come to live at L’Arche and stay a month, a year, or forty years, it’s because they’re happy and experience pleasure. No assistant stays here from duty, because he ‘ought to.’ None stays for the purpose of doing a ‘good deed.’

But this pleasure is countercultural—so powerful is the grip of “the tyranny of the Normal” that even those who have experienced the joy of living in a L’Arche community and serving the disabled find it hard to believe that their pleasure is real:

People think that, to stay at L’Arche, one has to be a sort of hero, a saint. But that’s not true: one stays at L’Arche because it pleases to do so. Many assistants depart despite the pleasure they’ve known because they’ve been formed…by a society governed by the desire for achievement, competition, and consumption that today carries away the planet and that moderns are crazy about. This ‘tyranny of the Normal’ is taught in the family (though not to the newborn), then at school, and finally everywhere in the world of work and the media. This desire ravages the lives of the disabled, the aged, and many poor people. The ‘tyranny of the Normal’ [in their own hearts?] weakens them further. The assistants who leave cannot believe that the pleasure they’ve known has any weight against this tyranny. Their pleasure seems unreal, received from another, too fragile, world; it tastes of heaven, a beatitude, a utopia.

In other words, Jean Vanier thinks that what, according to the philosophy of the Normal, is high and first class is actually low and third class; and he insists that what the philosophy of the Normal takes to be the highest and first class of things human—achievements, knowledge, cleverness, money, power, being admired by the smartest and most important people—is actually second class at best.

Learning What Is Important

Repeatedly, Vanier and people who know the inner dynamics of the L’Arche communities refer to the core—mentally disabled—members as the “teachers.” What do they teach, and how do they teach it? The answer seems to be that they teach priorities. They help the assistants to learn what’s up, and it’s not achievement, success, strength, skill, cleverness, and beating your rivals. What’s up is openness, tenderness, communion, grace, and freedom. The rest is down, and the core members show the way out from under its tyranny.

“What is the meaning of life, if it isn’t being on top of one’s game? L’Arche’s answer is that it’s grace.”

The L’Arche experience, where “normal” assistants are brought into sustained intimate human contact with people who are “different” (and by the reckoning of the Normal, of very little human importance), opens up a human world that many assistants have hardly glimpsed before. It is as though the tyranny of the Normal has imprisoned them within the high walls of its police state of mind, preventing them from seeing out into a wide and beautiful world of the diversity of the human family. The beauty is in all those precious souls who were hidden from view by the invidious walls. The pleasure we mentioned earlier is a pleasure, not just of noticing the existence of these lovely persons, but of meeting them face-to-face, person-to-person, soul-to-soul, enjoying their company and rejoicing in their enjoyment of being loved, rejoicing in the humanity blooming in them.

Vanier likens what happens to the mentally disabled when they meet someone who reliably cares about them, and to the assistants when they see the response to their tenderness, to the mutual responsiveness of an infant and his mother:

Young children are perhaps the only people who are loved for their weakness and vulnerability. Because the baby is loved, he isn’t afraid; he doesn’t need to hide himself, but is exposed, completely naked in all his vulnerability, and is happy. The mother’s love, her tenderness, her sweet words, show the baby who he is: he’s precious, he has value, he is somebody. At the same time, his trust touches the mother’s heart, and she learns from him who she is.

The mentally disabled “make us discover, little by little, that disabled people have the gift of helping us to enter into a relational world, constituted of communion, that leads us to a transformation of our hearts.” The result of the ongoing encounter is that the hearts of both assistants and core members are revealed: assistants find that their validity doesn’t depend on winning in the competitions of life, and the core members discover that they exist as full members of the human community.

“The L’Arche communities beautifully illustrate the paradox of up and down that peppers the New Testament.”

The core members are the most important teachers of the L’Arche communities. They teach the assistants who the assistants really are, both that they are made for love and that they are not yet very good at it. Vanier tells about his own learning from core members:

L’Arche has been for me a school for learning to love, to regard those who are different with respect, listening to them carefully, all the while seeking to disencumber myself of my prejudices and my desire for power. I know that progress in this attitude begins with becoming aware of my hang-ups, the knots in myself, and with the conviction that I need help in pursuing this path.…L’Arche has been for me the discovery of having breathed into me energies of wisdom and love, awakened by the weakest people. My tendencies to violence have also been revealed to me there.

Vanier recounts the story of taking Lucien, a severely autistic man who was subject to bouts of intolerable screaming, into L’Arche and caring for him. Vanier tells of discovering his own tendencies to violence and hatred, and his learning both to accept them and to control them. He tells of giving a lecture to some future officers of the French army and showing them a video of L’Arche that illustrated how at L’Arche members learn to “welcome their weaknesses.” Afterwards, he had misgivings about having shown such a video to people who are all supposed to be trained in courage, and apologized to the general in charge of the school. The general responded that at the school they had been discussing what happened with the American soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, and he said they were convinced that the Americans resorted to torture because they hadn’t learned to acknowledge their own weaknesses.

What is the meaning of life, if it isn’t being on top of one’s game? L’Arche’s answer is that it’s grace. And what is grace? The center of grace is the idea of a gift. And what is a gift? A gift is a good thing that you receive from another who, moved by love, offers it voluntarily and without strings attached. (Strings pollute it with the spirit of justice and reciprocity.) Gift giving contrasts with selling or trading. It contrasts with merit and deserving; it contrasts with justice as tit for tat. Unlike justice and commerce, the proper response to grace is gratitude, and gratitude, unlike the satisfactions of commerce and justice, binds you in friendship and love with the giver. Gratitude’s impulse is to give back, to give thanks, to give affection and glad acknowledgment, not in the mode of payment, but in the spirit of mutual generosity. The central virtues of grace are generosity and gratitude; other virtues that belong in the grace family are hospitality and forgiveness.

I know young couples who, tired of life and of the stress experienced in business, join L’Arche. They seek communities like ours where they can live a more humane life, with an approach to liberation from the tyranny of the Normal. They find there a life shared with disabled persons. They learn from them what is essential to life: receiving and giving, and this implies disciplining themselves to welcome the other who is at the same time so different and so near to themselves.

Humility in L’Arche Communities

The L’Arche communities beautifully illustrate the paradox of up and down that peppers the New Testament. They turn upside down and downside up the Normal order of rank. Those who turn their backs on life in the spirit of envy and rivalry, of arrogance and self-importance, of snobbery and competition, of superiority and superciliousness, of pretentiousness and domination and self-righteousness, of vanity and grandiosity and power, and learn to love humbly and give themselves for “the least of these,” do often find that their lives are higher, better, more exalted, more human, richer, and happier than all the former striving after elevation could achieve. They find their lives fulfilled, raised up, in formerly unimaginable ways.