France's Community of the Ark

By Mark Shepard | 1990-06-01 12:00:00

The windswept mountains of Languedoc in Southern France lies the Community of the Ark. Founded by Lanza del Vasto-often called Mahatma Gandhi's "first disciple in the West"-it is a model of a nonviolent social order.

Joseph Jean Lanza del Vasto (1901-1981) was an Italian aristocrat who traveled to India in 1936 to meet Gandhi. lanza, whom Gandhi named as Shantidas ("Servant of Peace,") returned to Europe to start a "Gandhian order in the West."

In 1948, after Gandhi's assassination, Lanza founded the first Community of the Ark on a small rented farm in France. It was a fiasco. Many members were not in accord with the community's principles. The conununity dissolved, but was soon re-established 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. This entrance procedure is still in effect.

In 1963 the community bought 1200 acres of land in southern France, including several deserted villages with buildings made of stone in the traditional architecture of the region. The Companions rebuilt one of these villages, La Bone Noble, for their new home. Altogether, the community now holds over ibo residents, including Companions, applicants, long-term visitors, and children, who come from almost every country of Western Europe. Though in its early days the Ark drew mostly intellectuals and aristocrats, residents now come from a wide range of backgrounds.

The Ark now has smaller branch communities in other parts of France, several other European countries, and Quebec. In all the communities combined, there are about 140 Companions.

They believe in the principle of "bread labor," expounded by Gandhi and Tolstoy. This principle holds that everyone who is able should share the physical work required to produce life's basic needs. This prevents the oppression that develops when some people try to avoid their fair share of this necessary labor. The practice avoids division into classes of workers and nonworkers. It also restrains material desires, which often grow unreasonable when someone else works to satisfy them.

For these reasons, the Companions see bread labor as the key to a "nonviolent economy"-an economy that abuses neither people nor nature. They aim at producing everything they use -though they are still far from this goal. In this way, they are trying to break their links with the modern economy, which they see as built on injustices toward the poor, the Third World, and the earth. They prefer to use simple tools, powered by hand or animals. Such tools, they say, benefit the worker, building physical, mental, and spiritual health. Thus they grow all their vegetables, using horses and hand methods inorganic agriculture. A dairy provides milk and cheese. (No animals are raised for meat, because the Companions reject killing animals for food.)

The women handspin wool and weave it, providing some of the community's clothing, plus some garments for sale outside. Other crafts include carpentry, fine woodworking, stonecutting, blacksmithy, pottery, and printing. Objects are made with an eye to beauty and elegance, never only to function. Each is carefully and lovingly decorated. Still, it is not the object that is most important. The main purpose of any work is to enrich the worker.

The Companions try to be self-sufficient in energy. Firewood from their forests is used for indoor heating, water heating, and some cooking. Almost no electricity is used. Candles provide indoor lighting, and vegetables are stored in cellars without refrigeration.

Still, the Companions brought in current to run a flour mill and they use batteries for flashlights and record players. Their water-powered sawmill generates electricity for producing lumber from their forests.

Each person at the Ark works according to ability and receives according to need. No money is used within the community, and no Companion individually owns money-though money is available for such needs as medical treatment and transportation. The only individual property consists of personal items, such as clothes and books. There is no economic privilege at the Ark.

The Companions believe that peace among people can only be achieved when individuals gain inner peace through practicing their own religion. Most are Catholics, but adherents of any religion are welcome in the community. The Companions see this inclusiveness as an important part of their nonviolent example.

Work, worship, and other aspects of community life are balanced in a daily rhythmic routine. At La Bone Noble an old church bell marks off each portion of the day. It is still dark when the bell first rings. At 6:00 a,m., many gather 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, the community gathers for morning prayers that are followed by greetings with the "kiss of peace." At breakfast, families eat separately in their apartments and single people together in the kitchen. Work begins at 8:00 and continues until noon. Each hour, the tolling of the bell interrupts all work, calling the community to worship-a few minutes of prayer in small groups, or a

moment of silent inward reflection.

At 12:30, the community gathers for lunch, sitting on reed mats laid around the Common Room. The unspiced food is placed on a table in the center. A woman leads the singing of the grace.

During lunch there is talk and laughter. Work resumes between 2:00 and 6:00, again with hourly pauses for worship. Mter dinner, the Companions recite the vows of their Order-Bread Labor, Self-Purification, Nonviolence, and soon. Then they join the others for prayers. The day ends as it began, with the "kiss of peace."

Festivals are held about once a month-whenever the Companions can find an excuse for one. They dress in white woollen garments made at the Ark. At each festival there is feasting, dancing and singing. Nearly every gathering is an occasion for song. This unaccompanied singing reached a state of fine art, usually on religious themes. The music has the feeling of Medieval church music, but modern at the same time. The Companions' recordings have twice won international awards.

The Ark has tried to build a nonviolent government-one free of compulsion. To this end, the Companions conduct their business by consensus. Coordinators are chosen to help manage day-to-day affairs.

Lanza occupied the highest office in the Order of the Ark: "Patriarch." Though the power of this office was always circumscribed, he wielded it often in the stormy early years of the Ark. Then, as the community became more stable and united, his authority 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' successor from 1981 to 1989, was instead called "the Pilgrim."

To maintain discipline without coercion, the Companions use the system of "responsibility and coresponsibility." "Responsibility" means that each person should take ona suitable penance for a wrong he or she has committed, whether or not it is known to others.

If the offender fails in this duty, "coresponsibility" comes into play.

Another person, seeing the wrong, must approach the offender in private and point out the fault. If the offender refuses to acknowledge it and the accuser remains convinced, the accuser must take on the penance. The accuser may fast, or take on work the other failed to do, or anything else suitable. Generally, this leads the offender to recognize the fault and assume the penance.

Though the community is off the beaten path, a thousand or more visitors come each year. The Companions reach into the larger society with action campaigns, models of strict Gandhian nonviolence. These include the first-ever occupation of a nuclear power plant, in 1958. The Companions also aided farmers on the nearby Larzac plateau in a successful campaign to block expansion of an army base. This campaign was a model for later European mass actions.

The people of the Ark see Western civilization racing to its self-destruction. While they doubt the momentum can be checked, they hope to serve as a model to those who rebuild from the ashes.

This article is adapted from Mark Shepard's book, The Community of the Ark, available for $8 U.S. postpaid from Simple Productions, 12 East 15th Street, #3 Arcata CA. 95521. Books by Lanza del Vasto are available from Greenleaf Books, Canton, Maine.

The Ark welcomes visitors, but you must first write and wait for a reply. Letters can be in English. A special camp for English-speaking visitors is held each August. Write to Jane Prentiss, La Communaute de l'Arche, 34.260 le Bousquet d'Orb, France.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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