Winter 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 337-348.

Michael Downey:
      Jean Vanier: Recovering the Heart

By first recovering the biblical and medieval spirituality of the heart, Jean Vanier laid the foundation for his revolutionary contributions in the care and treatment of the mentally retarded.

Assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Dr. Downey teaches systematic, sacramental, and liturgical theology as well as Christian spirituality. Author of A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l'Arche (Harper and Row, 1986), he holds a masters degree in education and a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America.

THERE has been a glut of literature of late on the subject of Christian spirituality. Likewise, there has been ample discussion about the heart and its role in the Christian life. What useful purpose is to be served by yet another article on the spirituality of the heart? Perhaps one of clarification. My aim here is to spell out briefly what the term "spirituality" means, and to present a more thorough explanation of what is meant by the term "heart." The exposť of both the nature of spirituality and the significance of heart is based upon an interpretation of the writings and life of Jean Vanier and the communities of l'Arche. Prior to moving on, it may be useful to introduce Jean Vanier and l'Arche.(1)


Canadian, born in Geneva, Switzerland on 10 September 1928, Jean Vanier is one of five children of the late nineteenth Governor-General of Canada, George Philias Vanier and his wife, Pauline Archer Vanier. Many things could be said about Jean Vanier, even in a very brief biographical sketch such as this. Let it suffice to nod in the direction of several areas.

At the age of thirteen, Vanier applied and was admitted to the Royal Naval College in England. After serving as an officer in the Royal Navy, as well as serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, Vanier resigned his commission in 1950.

Sometime after his resignation from the military, Vanier joined a small community, l'Eau Vive, directed by the French Dominican Thomas Philippe. L'Eau Vive was a community of students, predominantly lay, situated in a poor area near Paris, close to the Dominican community of Le Saulchoir. The aim of L'Eau Vive was to offer opportunity for prayer and the study of metaphysics which would strengthen and support a deeper commitment to Christian faith. Shortly after his arrival at l'Eau Vive, Vanier was asked to direct the community when ill health forced the resignation of Thomas Philippe. Vanier directed the community under adverse circumstances for approximately six years, at which point he himself resigned from the directorship.

In 1962, Vanier successfully completed his doctoral dissertation in philosophy at l'Institut Catholique de Paris entitled, Le Bonheur: Principe et fin de la morale aristotélicienne.(2) It is important to note at this point that in his doctoral dissertation, Vanier gives singular attention to the importance of contemplation, friendship and justice in Aristotle's thought. Upon completion of his dissertation, Vanier began teaching philosophy at Saint Michael's College in Toronto.

Shortly after beginning his career as a professor of moral philosophy, Vanier visited his friend and former teacher, Thomas Philippe, who had recently begun a chaplaincy for mentally handicapped men living at Le Val Fleuri, a large institution-like home in Trosly-Breuil, about an hour by train from Paris. Encouraged by his friend and former teacher, Vanier moved to Trosly-Breuil where he bought a small, dilapidated house which he called l'Arche, the Ark -- Noah's Ark -- a symbol of refuge, diversity and hope. After visiting a number of institutions, asylums and psychiatric hospitals, as well as Le Val Fleuri, Vanier welcomed two mentally handicapped men, Raphael and Philippe, into his home on 4 August 1964. Thus was the Ark set to sail.


From the seed sown in Trosly-Breuil in August 1964, l'Arche has grown to include over seventy communities world-wide, representing over two hundred family-like homes. Small in number, loose in structure (yet high on organization), the communities of l'Arche are founded upon the belief in the uniqueness and sacredness of each person, whether handicapped or not. Motivated by the affirmation of the priority of the beatitudes in Christian and human living, the gifts of each person are to be nurtured and called forth with predilection for the poorest, weakest, and most wounded in community and society. This way of life is in itself a spirituality of the heart. Recognizing the need for precision regarding the terms spirituality and heart, attention to each may be useful.


When discussions of spirituality focus exclusively upon methods of prayer, forms of asceticism or religious discipline, the whole story is hardly told. Likewise, when attention is given to the rather extraordinary experiences of the ascetical and/or mystical current within the Christian tradition, some of the more important lines of the story of Christian spirituality go unheard. To gain fresh insight regarding the nature of spirituality it is necessary to shift perspective in order to see that spirituality has to do, in the first place, with the Spirit at work in persons. Whatever is said of religious exercises and experiences needs to be said in this light.

In speaking of the Spirit at work in persons, attention must be drawn to several matrices wherein the Spirit may be seen to be at work. By looking to these it is possible to envision the broader context of a foundational Christian spirituality within which the various questions and concerns of "spiritual theology," "ascetical-mystical theology," or "studies in spirituality" find their proper place.

Briefly, then, with an eye to a fuller treatment in the future,(3) the term spirituality refers to the Spirit at work in persons 1) within a culture, 2) in relation to a tradition, 3) in memory of Jesus Christ, 4) in light of contemporary events, hopes, sufferings and promises, 5) in efforts to combine elements of action and contemplation, 6) with respect to charism and community, 7) as expressed and authenticated in praxis.

Those whose way of living is authenticated by praxis stemming from commitment to Jesus Christ and critical remembrance of his word and work bear testimony to the presence of the Spirit in their struggle to balance the elements of action and contemplation. Persons and communities who live by the force of faith in the God of Jesus Christ and in memory of his liberating words and his promise of future to bring about God's reign of truth, freedom and love, become the clearest signs of the Spirit at work.


At the core of the life and work of l'Arche communities is a belief in the uniqueness and sacredness of each person, regardless of handicap. Such a belief is related to Vanier's own understanding of the person as a being constituted at a fundamental level by what he calls heart. For Vanier, the person is the heart.

I was once told that the founder of the Unification Church, (or the "Moonies'), has also claimed that the person is the heart. The Hallmark people make similar claims, albeit implicitly, on Mother's Day and Father's Day, Valentines Day, Thanksgiving and, now, Secretary's Day. Whatever advantages one may care to argue in favor of a Hallmarkian or Moonie notion of heart, Vanier's understanding of heart is substantially different. It is an understanding which is deeply rooted in the tradition of Roman Catholic theology and spirituality.

To understand what Vanier means by heart, it is necessary to attend to three factors which have shaped his understanding and, consequently, the spirituality of l'Arche. The first is the role which the understanding of the heart has played in Christian spirituality. The second is the scholastic notion of voluntas ut natura. Third is the role of the gifts of the Spirit, according to Thomas Aquinas, and the relationship of the gifts to the beatitudes.

As the first two of these influences upon Vanier and l'Arche have been treated more fully elsewhere,(4) a brief survey must suffice.


In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the term heart is used to describe the root of all personal life. The term serves a unitive function, insofar as it does not describe emotion or affection as separated from intellect or reason. It describes the whole, total person.

Prominent figures in the medieval period tended to distinguish between intellect and will, but they did not separate the two. Though terms such as cor, cordis and affectus bear a largely affective connotation, and the heart at this time did become associated with the will, the person was not viewed as being constituted by separate faculties. Heart, as understood by Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, Aelred of Rievaulx and Bonaventure, is the locus for personal life and union with God through love. However, this is not separated from reason or intellectus. Only in the seventeenth century French school of spirituality, notably represented by Berulle, de Colombiere, Eudes, and the school of devotion to the Sacred Heart, do we find a separation between intellect and will, and an alignment of the heart and affectivity with the will. Further, in this seventeenth century school, the heart was viewed as superior to the intellect. By reason of its own inclinations and proper end (union with God through love) the heart was understood to be able to attain what the intellect on its own can not.

Here let it be noted that Vanier recovers an earlier understanding of heart wherein it describes the deepest and most fundamental root of all personal, moral, and religious life antecedent to any distinction between intellect and will as faculties, or distinctive operations of thinking and willing by choice. Voluntas ut Natura IN SCHOLASTICISM (5) Though Thomas Aquinas does not much use the term, voluntas ut natura is used in scholasticism to describe the original, primitive, radical impulse toward the good within the human being. Prior to the deliberative operations of intellect and will is the impulse within human being toward the good. That in human being which is described by voluntas ut natura is an affective tension, as distinct from the pursuit of the good which follows deliberation and choice. Voluntas ut natura specifies the radical impulse toward the good and the true at the root of being. It is a synthetic concept because it designates a unity prior to specific operations of intellect or will.

Both the image of the heart in Christian spirituality and the scholastic notion of voluntas ut natura are operative, even if only implicitly, in Vanier's understanding of the person as heart. Both notions convey insight into the understanding of the human person as constituted at a deep and fundamental level, and in a mysterious way, by an intuition, instinct, or impulse of love, which, at root, is affective.

In speaking of the heart, Vanier himself does not refer to voluntas ut natura, nor to the various understandings of the heart in Christian spirituality. Rather he spells out an understanding of heart by analyzing human needs of an affective sort. These affective needs for light, life and love (or knowledge, freedom and love) are met precisely through the activities which Aristotle exalts: contemplation, justice and friendship. That is to say, there is a type of correlation between the deep affective needs of the human being and the activities by which they may be met. The need for knowledge is met through contemplation, life through the pursuit of justice and love through friendship. These take on a particular nuance in light of the priority of love and the gifts of the Spirit, but they nonetheless constitute the Aristotelian triad which Vanier treated at length in his doctoral dissertation.


A more complete understanding of what is meant by heart requires attention to Thomas understanding of the gifts of the Spirit as well as the beatitudes. The significance of the gifts of the Spirit can only be seen in view of the larger Thomistic schema which will here be recalled briefly.

For Aquinas, God is present in the soul by means of creation. Beyond this, there is through the bestowal of the Spirit, a presence which is supernatural, and which brings with it the infusion of sanctifying grace. Through the theological virtues, one pursues the supernatural end as an agent specifically endowed with capacities to perceive and to pursue the divine good as personally and experientially revealed. Through the moral virtues, one includes in this order the human enterprise which is elevated by grace. Though they are supernatural, the theological and moral virtues have their principle within the human subject and, originating as they do from within, their activities are human activities.

The gifts of the Spirit are permanent dispositions within the human being allowing the person to be moved by God from the outside, as it were. The gifts are needed to complement both the theological and moral virtues. In the supernatural organism, the theological virtues have first place, because they unite the person to the end pursued. The end of the supernatural life, God, is sought through the theological virtues, the greatest of which is charity. But because the hold on the supernatural life is insecure, the person must receive the promptings of the Spirit to move toward the end, and this movement also serves to regulate the exercise of the moral virtues. The moral virtues are those which allow a person to act in the supernatural life according to the human mode.

Treating the gifts of the Spirit in the Sentences, Aquinas emphasizes the diversity in the mode of operation under God's influence vis-a-vis other modes of operation. The concern of Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (Ia-IIae), however, is with their principle of movement.(6) My concern here is to understand the proper relationship between the virtues and gifts, which Aquinas also treats in the Summa. Aquinas sees the virtues and gifts from the perspective of complementarity. The gifts complete both theological and moral virtues, subjecting the agent to the divine promptings needed to complement the imperfection of the human mode.(7) Aquinas writes:

Now it is evident that the human virtues perfect man in so far as it is his nature to be moved by reason in the things he does, both interiorly and exteriorly. There must, therefore, be still higher perfections in man to dispose him to be moved by God. These perfections are called Gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because they dispose man to become readily mobile to divine inspiration as is said in Isaiah, 'The Lord opened my ear; I did not contradict him, I did not pull back.' Likewise, Aristotle says that it is not good for those who are moved by a divine prompting to take counsel according to human reason; but that they should follow their interior prompting, because they are moved by a better principle than human reason. This is why some say that the Gifts perfect man for acts higher than the acts of virtue.(8)
Such interior prompting is of quintessential import regarding the attainment of the supernatural end. Aquinas writes of the supernatural end, and the role of the gifts in relation to it:
Towards it man is moved by reason in so far as reason is formed by the theological virtues, which form it only after a fashion and imperfectly. And so the moving of reason is not sufficient to direct man to his ultimate and supernatural end without the prompting and moving of the Holy Spirit from above. Thus it is written, 'They that are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God and heirs;' and, 'Your good Spirit will lead me into a right land.' For no one can attain the inheritance of that land of the blessed unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. Hence, to attain that end, it is necessary for a man to have the Gift of the Holy Spirit.(9)

In comparison with the theological virtues the gifts are subordinate. This is so because the theological virtues unite the human subject to the Spirit who moves and prompts through the gifts. That is to say that the theological virtues make possible the unity between the human subject and God, while the gifts provide the possibility of receiving the impulse that comes from God. Since the Spirit acting through the gifts does not incline the agent to do what reason alone would require, but rather is a rule of action transcending reason, the gifts are regulated not only by the Spirit, but by the virtues through which they come in contact with the Spirit.

Though the gifts are subordinate to the theological virtues, in relationship to the other virtues, both intellectual and moral, the gifts are higher. For, as Aquinas writes,

. . . the Gifts perfect the power of the soul in regard to the Holy Spirit as moving principle, whereas the virtues perfect either reason itself, or the other faculties as subordinate to reason. But obviously a greater perfection is required to dispose a mobile for a higher mover. Therefore the Gifts are more perfect than the virtues. (10)
In sum, the theological virtues have the first place in the supernatural organism, because they unite the person to the supernatural end, God. The gifts complete both the theological and moral virtues by subjecting the agent to the divine impulse or prompting needed to complement the imperfection of the human mode. This divine impulse or prompting occurs within the locus of the human being antecedent to understanding and choice -- the heart.


The beatitudes are activities of the moral virtues wherein one is prepared by the gifts of the Spirit to be moved by God actively to seek the end of the gospel. Though the beatitudes hold a position of preeminence in Vanier's thought, he does not underestimate the importance of reason in human life. The virtuous life governed by reason is of vital significance for Vanier. Through his analysis of human needs in light of the activities of the Aristotelian triad of contemplation, justice and friendship by which these needs are met, he is able, not to negate the importance of reason, but to highlight the affective dimension of the human subject which is at the core of all human and moral life.

The moral virtues still retain an important place insofar as the beatitudes are characterized by something of both virtue and gifts, though more of the latter. In the activity called the beatitudes, the notions of contemplation, justice, and friendship are redefined because the gifts of the Spirit allow the soul to be moved by God.

The triad of contemplation, friendship and justice exalted by Aristotle figures as a major factor in Vanier's thought. Contemplation, friendship, and justice are subsumed under the beatitudes, and so are acts performed under the movement of God's grace, and instincts donated by grace which are linked to the mystery of weakness, vulnerability, and poverty.

This does not negate the need for deliberation and prudence. The conscience rationelle is still necessary to society. Vanier does not overlook this point. Though Vanier exalts the Aristotelian triad, his understanding of contemplation, justice, and friendship is considerably nuanced by his insight into the notion of heart and the gifts of the Spirit. For Vanier, contemplation is of the mystery of God revealed in the weak, and in the weakness of Jesus in his infancy, hidden life, agony, and passion.

Friendship comes about by response to the connaissance d'amour as one is prompted by the attractions of grace and of the heart in another, making it possible for friendship to exist between any two persons, even those who in terms of human capacity are vastly unequal. Such a view cf friendship, between two persons vastly unequal, would have been inconceivable to Aristotle.

Justice is the pursuit of the good of the many in obedience to the dictates of the heart transformed by grace, and so of an order in which la connaissance du coeur has an important place, and the weak, wounded and vulnerable have a certain priority. Alongside these, there remains the need for rational deliberation and prudence, and for the exercise of the moral virtues as it is prompted by a deliberation that has the goals of a Christianly conceived order in view.


It is the work of the Spirit dwelling within the secret recesses of the heart which moves one to participation in Christ's mysteries and to the activities of the beatitudes. The understanding of heart in Christian spirituality, the scholastic notion of voluntas ut natura and a Thomistic understanding of gifts, grace, and beatitudes have all gone to heart. Vanier's examination of affective needs and the means by which they are met is based upon experience, wherein woundedness and vulnerability are strong, as is the affective dimension. Through the language of heart, Vanier describes affective needs and highlights the notions of vulnerability and attraction to communion in love. When- he refers to the instincts or promptings of the heart, he is probably influenced by Aquinas' understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. To this he adds his own nuance, namely, that God's grace and attraction touch the human person at the most fragile point of existence. It is response to this movement that propels one to the activities of the beatitudes. Such activities Vanier envisions in terms of compassion, joy, celebration, and forgiveness.

The spirituality of the heart which is given concrete expression in the lives of those in l'Arche is fashioned by this understanding of person as heart; as a being constituted at a deep and fundamental level, and in a mysterious way, by an intuition, instinct, or impulse of love, which is at root, affective. This is the region of need, and of the Spirit's working through the gifts. Needs for light, life and love (knowledge, freedom and love) are met through the activities of contemplation, justice and friendship, now understood from a Thomistic perspective as the activities of the beatitudes. The beatitudes thus provide the higher synthesis wherein all other elements converge.


In response to the Spirit's work in persons, individuals and groups will select, oftentimes quite unconsciously, gospel themes which are found to be attractive and nourishing. These themes then become formative of the lived spirituality of person or group. The spirituality of the heart, influenced by experience wherein vulnerability and weakness are strong, and by an understanding of person as constituted by heart, find ready resonance in three gospel themes: 1) the hidden life of Jesus and his family at Nazareth, 2)he mystery of the agony and passion of Jesus, 3) the Sermon on the Mount. These cannot be taken up here. Suffice it to say that these Christian themes express something of what Vanier and l'Arche have learned about the truth of God and humanity, based upon their experience of love with the wounded and the vulnerable, motivated by the conviction that each human being is unique and indeed sacred because constituted at the most fundamental level by the heart -- the region of the Spirit's work in persons.

  1. For a more thorough biography of jean Vanier and the spirituality of l'Arche see Michael Downey, A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l'Arche (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986).
  2. Jean Vanier, Le Bonheur: Principe et fin de la morale aristotélicienne (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1965).
  3. A more detailed analysis of the nature of spirituality will be taken up in a forthcoming article.
  4. Michael Downey, "A Costly Loss of Heart: The Scholastic Notion of Voluntas ut Natura," Philosophy and Theology, Vol. 1, no. 3 (Spring, 1987).
  5. Insights on this notion derive from a brief article by Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., "Les Catégories Affectives dans la Langue de école," in Le Coeur, Vol. 29 of études Carmélitaines (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer and Cie, 1950), pp. 123-128.
  6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, trans. and intro., Edward D. O'Connor, under the title The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Vol. 24 (qq. 68-70) of the Blackfriar edition of the Summa Theologiae (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). See O'Connor treatment of this issue in Appendix 4, p. 119.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 9.
  9. Ibid., p. 15.
  10. Ibid., p. 39.