Exemplars, If Not Saints

one way of finding relief from the attention given to the high and mighty this turn around the sun

By Martin E. Marty|May 13, 2019

A focus on Saint Phocas may be one way of finding relief from the attention given to the high and mighty this turn around the sun, be they benign (Archie Harrison in the royal family) or malign (many celebrities in the entertainment world, dictators, and too many who misuse politics). Phocas? Never heard of him? I hadn’t since he had not found his way into the two giant-volume dictionaries of saints on my bookshelves, both of which were published before Phocas began to come back into his own. He reached me this season, however, thanks to Norman Wirzba’s recent article, “The Ground of Hospitality,” in the Plough Quarterly (Spring, 2019). Wirzba directs our attention downward, to the ground in fact, specifically the soil, for a saint whose “patronage” is against insect bites, poisoning, and snake bites, and for field hands, gardeners, and the like. Wirzba, to make his point, even urges his readers to take up gardening.
This columnist is not poised to do so in the literal sense, though I have had rich experiences of gardening in the past when our family “lived off the land”—the square-block garden that surrounded our house. That was in drought-and-depression-afflicted Nebraska in the 1930s and 40s. Now I live above Chicago, in a high-rise from which I can look down on the beautiful plantings in the middle of Michigan Avenue. That is about as close as I ever come to a garden these days. Wirzba makes his point to us urbanites, though, as he quotes Wendell Berry, whose call to “return to the land” means not “relocation, but the development of the sympathies and skills that make for an enduring, responsible, and beautiful livelihood.” More Wirzba: “From an agrarian point of view, one of humanity’s most important postures is looking down. Though plenty of spiritualities encourage people to look up and away to a better world beyond the blue; looking away causes us to forget that in fact the ground beneath our feet nurtures us.” And Wirzba quotes generous texts from the Bible, beginning with Genesis, to make this point.
As I read Wirzba on “looking down,” I let his posture-metaphor lead me back to a favorite way I read texts and write my monthly “sightings.” This metaphor (and my method) draws on an observation by Paul Ricoeur about reading the Bible and other significant texts: note how often they urge us to turn things upside down, as in Jesus’s parables where “the last shall be first and the first last.” We have a case study of this in one of the lives recalled in last week’s obituaries, that of Jean Vanier, one of the truly great exemplars in our years. Tired, bored, and repelled as we are by much of the media we consume—dominated as it is by angry, fear-inducing reports on people and policies in the U.S. and around the globe, and rich in materialist expressions—we can gain perspective from reading about people like Vanier, who looked down rather than up to find the people worthy of his attention, and in doing so taught us to do the same. 
A Canadian who sometimes lived in France, Vanier left behind a comfortable life with a rich family heritage when he took his turn to serve in the military during World War II. The more life experience he gained within the “worlds of power,” the more he became dismayed with how he was taught to not spend too much time “looking down” on the worlds of people suffering disability, illness, poverty, neglect, and more, or else risk his own advancement upwards. This dismay eventually led him to a new calling: to serve God’s most marginalized children. He served them by reorienting not only his vision but also his posture “downward” so that his “looking down” turned into a dwelling and identifying with them. Following them down meant sharing life with them, welcoming others to a similar calling, and writing about it. His legacy includes 154 L’Arche communities on five continents, where 20,000 members help represent the needs, interests, and hopes of the cognitively and developmentally disabled and witness to the values of faith and community underneath the worlds of the proud and powerful. He was, by the standards of the worlds of power, a “loser.” But in another way, he “won,” and he called people from around the world to do the same. Vanier teaches all of us—however "abled" or "disabled" we believe ourselves to be—that we have much to discover about the richness and beauty of life by "looking down." 

Image: Jean Vanier died last week at the age of 90. (Photo courtesy of R2W Films)

Author, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. 

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email.