We are accused of going against the times. We are doing that deliberately and with all our strength.
—Lanza del Vasto
The machine enslaves, the hand sets free.
—Lanza del Vasto
Tucked away in the windswept mountains of Languedoc in southern France is a small island of peace known as the Community of the Ark. Founded and formed by Lanza del Vasto—often called Mahatma Gandhi’s “first disciple in the West”—the Ark is a model of a nonviolent social order, an alternative to the overt and hidden violence of our times.
Joseph Jean Lanza del Vasto (1901-1981) was an Italian aristocrat deeply concerned about this violence. In 1936, Lanza traveled to India to meet Gandhi, the one person he thought might know how violence could be uprooted. Gandhi gave Lanza a new name: Shantidas, “Servant of Peace.” And Lanza returned to Europe with hopes of starting a “Gandhian Order in the West.”
In 1948 came the news of Gandhi’s assassination. Lanza felt the right time had come, and he founded the first Community of the Ark on a small rented farm in southwest France. This first community, though, was a fiasco. Many who came to live weren’t suited to community life or were not in accord with the community’s principles.
The community dissolved, but was soon reestablished on an estate in the Rhone Valley. This time, anyone wanting to become a full member—a “Companion”—had to go through a three-year apprenticeship and then be approved unanimously by the other Companions.
Even so, the community grew. In 1963, the community bought 1200 acres of farmland and forest in the mountains of southern France. Included on the land were several villages deserted since World War I, their half-ruined buildings made of stone, in the traditional architecture of the region. The Companions rebuilt and expanded one of these villages, La Borie Noble, to serve as their new home.
When I visited the community in 1979, the Companions had spread to three other “villages” on the land. Altogether, the community now held over 100 residents, including Companions, applicants, long-term visitors, and children. The residents came from almost every country of western Europe, and even farther. Though the Ark in its early days had drawn mostly intellectuals and aristocrats, residents now came from a wide range of backgrounds.
Besides this “mother community,” the Ark had smaller branch communities in other parts of France, several other European countries, and Quebec. In all the communities combined, there were about 140 Companions.
What stood out most about the Ark was that it was a community of workers. The Companions believed strongly in the principle of “bread labor,” expounded by Gandhi and Tolstoy. This principle held that everyone who is able should share the physical work required to produce life’s basic needs, such as food and clothing.
According to the Companions, the practice of bread labor avoided the kind of oppression that develops when some people try to avoid their fair share of this necessary labor. The practice also avoided division into classes of workers and non-workers. And it helped restrain material desires, which often grow unreasonable when someone else works to satisfy them.
For these reasons, the Companions saw bread labor as the key to a “nonviolent economy”—an economy that abuses neither people nor nature.
While practicing bread labor, the Companions also aimed at producing everything they used—though they were still far from that goal. In this way, they were trying to break their links with the modern economy, which they saw as built on injustices toward the poor, the Third World, and the earth.
Also, the Companions prefered to use simple tools, powered by hand or animal, believing that complicated machinery is a product of human greed. Simple tools, they said, benefit the worker, building physical, mental, and spiritual health.
The Companions grew all their vegetables and much of their grain using horses and hand methods in organic agriculture. A dairy at La Borie Noble provided milk and cheese. (No animals were raised for meat, because the Companions rejected killing animals for food.)
The Companions placed high importance on crafts. The women handspun wool and wove it into cloth for garments, providing some of the community’s clothing, plus some garments for sale outside. Other crafts practiced at the Ark included carpentry, fine woodworking, stonecutting, blacksmithy, pottery, and printing. In all these crafts, only hand tools were used.
The spirit of the Ark was embodied in its crafts. Objects were made with an eye to beauty and elegance, never only to function. Each was carefully and lovingly decorated. Still, it was not the object that was most important. The main purpose of any work, they said, was to enrich the worker.
The Companions were trying to be self-sufficient in energy as in other ways. Firewood cut from the community’s forests was used for indoor heating, water heating, and some cooking.
The Companions used almost no electricity. Candles were used for indoor lighting, and vegetables were stored in cellars without refrigeration.
Still, the Companions had brought in line current to run a flour mill in their bakery; and they used batteries for flashlights and for small record-players. Also, the Companions had restored a water-powered sawmill to generate electricity for producing lumber from the community’s forests.
Each person at the Ark worked according to ability and received according to need. No money was used within the community, and no Companion individually owned money—though money was available for such needs as medical treatment and transportation. The Companions also did not own individual property, except for personal items such as clothes and books. There was no economic privilege at the Ark to place one person above another.
Second in importance only to work was the spiritual life of the community. The Companions believed that peace among people can only be achieved when individuals gain inner peace. So each person was encouraged in the practice of his or her own religion, and there was a community spiritual discipline as well.
Most of the Companions were strong Catholics, but the Ark and its spiritual discipline had no ties to any single religion. Instead, the adherents of any religion were welcome in the community. The Companions saw this as an important part of their nonviolent example, since religious intolerance so often creates conflict in the larger society.
Work, worship, and other aspects of community life were woven together in a daily routine that balanced these activities and provided a sense of rhythm—and so helped the Companions find the inner peace they sought. At La Borie Noble, an old church bell sounded to mark off each portion of the day.
It was still dark when the bell first rang to announce the day’s beginning. At 6:00 a.m., many gathered for yoga exercises and meditation in the community’s Common Room—a long, low room of white-washed plaster walls and a varnished pine floor.
An hour later, most of the community gathered for morning prayers held in the Common Room, or outside if the harsh weather of those mountains permitted. The Companions recited prayers that came from the Christian tradition but that would be acceptable to adherents of any faith. At the end, each person greeted each other with the “kiss of peace.”
A simple breakfast followed, with families eating separately in their apartments and single people together in the kitchen. Work began at 8:00 and continued until noon. Each hour, the tolling of the bell interrupted all work, calling the community to worship—either to a few minutes of prayer in small groups, or to a moment of silent inward reflection.
At 12:30, the community gathered for lunch in the Common Room (or outside, when it was warm). People sat on wide reed mats laid around the edge of the room, and the food was placed on a table in the center. One of the women led the singing of the Ark’s grace.
Lord, bless this meal
From which we draw the strength to serve you.
Give bread to those who haven’t any,
And hunger and thirst for righteousness to those who have more than enough.
People got up to fill their bowls at the center table. The food was cooked simply, without spices, but had a rich flavor of its own. Lunch was the main social event of the day, so there was much talk and laughter.
Work started again at 2:00 and lasted until 6:00, with hourly pauses for worship as in the morning. For dinner, again, families ate apart and single people together, though the food had been prepared communally. Supper was also the time for special dinner gatherings in private apartments.
At 8:00, the Companions gathered in the chapel to recite the vows of their Order—Bread Labor, Self-Purification, Nonviolence, and so on. Then the Companions joined the rest of the community for prayers, in the Common Room or around a bonfire in the courtyard of the main building. The day ended as it began, with the kiss of peace.
The rhythm of the days continued through the seasons in the celebration of festivals. These were the chances for the community to celebrate its unity and, by celebrating it, to strengthen it.
Festivals were held about once a month—whenever the Companions could find a reasonable excuse for one—so the Companions were usually preparing for one festival or another. On festival days, the Companions dressed in white woollen garments made at the Ark. Each festival was different, but there was always feasting, dancing, and singing.
The singing of the Ark ran through all the days and seasons like a golden thread. Nearly every gathering of the community was an occasion for song.
This unaccompanied singing had reached a state of fine art under Lanza del Vasto’s late wife Chanterelle. Most of the songs were by Lanza and Chanterelle, usually on religious themes. The music had the feeling of church music during the Middle Ages, but was modern at the same time. The Companions’ recordings had twice won international awards.
Just as the Ark had tried to build a nonviolent economy, it had tried to build a nonviolent government as well—a government free of compulsion. To this end, the Companions conducted all their business by consensus. Coordinators were chosen for each area of work and for each “village” to help manage day-to-day affairs.
Lanza himself occupied the highest office in the Order of the Ark, the office of “Patriarch.” Though the power of this office had always been circumscribed, he had wielded that power a great deal in the stormy early years of the Ark. Then, as the community became more stable and united, the Patriarch’s authority had shifted to the Companions as a whole.
Today the office is mostly honorary and advisory, and the title “Patriarch” has been set aside. Pierre Parodi, Shantidas’s successor from 1981 to 1989, was instead called “the Pilgrim.”
To maintain discipline in the community without coercion, the Companions used the system of “responsibility and coresponsibility.” “Responsibility” meant that each person should take on a suitable penance for a wrong he or she had committed, whether or not it was known to others.
If the offender failed this duty, “coresponsibility” came into play. Another person, seeing the wrong, had to approach the offender in private and point out the fault. But if the offender refused to acknowledge it and the accuser remained convinced, the accuser had to take on the penance. The accuser might fast, or take on work the other failed to do, or anything else suitable. Generally, this led the offender to recognize the fault and assume the penance.
The Companions had placed themselves well off the beaten path, but they kept close contact with the outside world in order to spread their message. A thousand or more visitors came each year and stayed for varying lengths of time. During the summer, the Ark could seem more like a training center than a community. Also, Lanza del Vasto, Parodi, and other Companions had traveled extensively to spread the message of the Ark.
The Companions had also reached out into the larger society with a series of nonviolent action campaigns, models of strict Gandhian nonviolence. These included the first-ever occupation of a nuclear power facility, in 1958! The Companions had also aided farmers on the nearby Larzac plateau in a successful campaign to block expansion of an army base. This campaign had helped provide a model for later European mass actions that in turn inspired the launching of the American anti-nuclear movement at Seabrook, New Hampshire.
Though the people of the Ark were trying to affect the larger society, they did not expect to bring about widespread change. They saw Western civilization racing to its self-destruction, propelled by greed, ignorance, violence, and a technology that magnified all of these. They doubted the momentum could be checked.
But they hoped they could at least serve as a model to those who rebuilt from the ashes—and perhaps themselves survive as seeds of a new society.
More on Lanza del Vasto and the Ark
Make Straight the Way of the Lord: An Anthology of the Philosophical Writings of Lanza del Vasto, Knopf, New York, 1974.
Warriors of Peace: Writings on the Technique of Nonviolence, by Lanza del Vasto, Knopf, New York, 1974.
Return to the Source, by Lanza del Vasto, Schocken, New York, 1972. Includes an account of Shantidas’s stay with Gandhi.
The Community of the Ark: A Visit with Lanza del Vasto, His Fellow Disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, and Their Utopian Community in France (20th Anniversary Edition), by Mark Shepard, Simple Productions, Friday Harbor, Washington, 2011. A personal, detailed account of my visit.
La Communauté de l’Arche
La Borie Noble
046 744 0989 (within France)
+33 46 744 0989 (international)