Fleeing Paris with Vladimir Lossky

Times of relative peace and prosperity are far more rare than we realize. Our present difficulties reflect stresses and strains that have been common in many parts of the world and through time. I have found some comfort in reading lives and stories from those times and places, particularly those accounts that point towards a reminder that God is always and everywhere at work for our good.

Recently, I returned to a small book that is a treasure. Written by the Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, it is an account of his flight from the invasion of the Nazis into France in 1940. The speed of the German Blitzkrieg caught France unaware. Twenty-five years earlier, the First World War had been a quagmire of trenches and static positions. In 1940, France fell in six weeks, together with Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Things moved so quickly that refugees were unable to stay ahead of the invading army.

Lossky’s Seven Days on the Roads of France is remarkable both in its detailed descriptions of that journey as well as his own reflections. It was not his first flight from trouble. Together with his father, the philosopher, Nicholas Lossky, he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1922, living first in Prague before eventually migrating to Paris.

I was struck by his love for France and his ability as an Orthodox thinker to find deep affinities with its history and the Christianity that had once flourished there. A poignant scene is described as Lossky visited the Cathedral in Orleans. Looking for the relics of St. Aignan whose prayers had once turned back invading Huns, he instead encountered an elderly gentleman who was scolding the statues of various saints. “Alors, quoi? Damn it all, then! Don’t you want to help us? Cant you help us?”

He himself offered a rumination about the state of the world. Driven from Russia through the work of the extreme Left, he was now fleeing the work of the extreme Right. He wrote:

Revolutionaries are always in the wrong, since, in their juvenile fervor for everything new, in their hopes for a better future, and a way of life built on justice, they always base themselves on theories that are abstract and artificial, making a clean sweep of living tradition which is, after all, founded on the experience of centuries.

Conservatives are always wrong, too, despite being rich in life experience, despite being shrewd and prudent, intelligent and skeptical. For, in their desire to preserve ancient institutions that have withstood the test of time, they decry the necessity of renewal, and man’s yearning for a better way of life.

Both attitudes carry within themselves the seeds of death. Is there, then, a third way? Another destiny for society than of always being subject to the threat of revolutions which destroy life, or reactionary attitudes which mummify it? Or is this the inevitable fate of all terrestrial cities, the natural law of their existence?

In fact, only in the Church can we find both a Tradition that knows no revolution and at the same time the impetus towards a new life that has no end. Her theory (understood in the true sense of the word, namely “vision”) is based on a constant experience of Truth. Which is why she is in possession of those infinite resources upon which may draw all who are called to govern the perishable cities of this world.

Those are profound thoughts during a time of chaos – a remembrance of what alone is true and just.

Plagues and politics, like wars and famines, do not generally make for cogent ruminations. Many days, I find it difficult to get beyond the slough of my own lethargy and the world’s noisy slouching towards some yet darker moment. We have lost nothing that is eternal. The reduced attendance at the Church and the sacramental discomfort we have endured will pass. The Archbishop of my diocese just relaxed some of our restrictions and we are allowed to kiss the icons again. The epitaphion of the Virgin was in the center of the Church, resting there in the afterfeast of the Dormition. My kiss was less perfunctory today, and filled with deeper gratitude. Kisses seem sweeter now.

Lossky survived the War, along with his family, and returned to teach in Paris. He lived until 1958, when he passed suddenly from a heart attack. He was but 55 years old. His book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, written during the war, was translated and published in English the year before his death. It was the first work of a modern Orthodox writer that I ever read. The journey that began for me with that book lasted far more than seven days.

Now that I think about it, his great classic work makes no mention of the times or the stresses within his life. It is timeless. Indeed, something that struck me most about the book was that I often was unable to tell when he was quoting from the Fathers and when he was himself was speaking. As such, it was the food of eternity. A man could walk very far, indeed, on such fare.

28 comments:

  1. St. Andrew of Crete urges us to “flee to Zoar.” He is referring to one of the five cities of the plain to which Lot fled when he left Sodom. For St. Andrew, it is a “mystical” city – a place of refuge. The meaning of the word is “small.” Thus, I take it that our place of refuge is to be found in humility. The Mother of God occupied such a place and was exalted.

  2. Lossky’s observation on political ideology is a marvel of succinct truth. As blessed Father Seraphim Rose pointed out frequently tye modern mind is revolutionary in nature. Its myth of progress a demonic eschatology. Its mirror image of heroic and idealized past really the same thing in different garb.
    My wife and I are unable to physically flee any more. I am finding more recourse to my small inner temple with Mary.
    My first time in an Orthodox Liturgy, I waled in the back of the into the Temple and was greeted by this huge icon of Mary and Jesus that spread across the whole eastern wall. Her arms open in welcome and in direction to her son. She was also a bit intimidating.
    It seems she has gotten smaller over the years as she has gradually entered my prideful heart with her son. Making my heart larger.

    I am slowly dipping into Timothy Patitsas massive work “The Ethics of Beauty”. It seems to explain and describe the process I have experienced over the years.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your patient explication of the Truth over the years that we do not need to change or make things “better” out of our own will but be still and small and humble so that may enter quietly into the eternal work of God and into His Kingdom that is at hand.

  3. Michael,
    The reality is that we all live in the “small” spaces of our world – in our homes, our jobs, our shopping, etc. The “larger picture” is usually just a picture. If we learn how to live where we actually live, life becomes far more abundant and good. There’s much less room for the shananigans of the evil one (does that seem to assume that demons are Irish?).

  4. As I approach retirement (I am but 57), I find myself torn on fleeing and staying in this country. I tend to get over-saturated with the noise and it is easy to think there’s something better “on the other side of the fence”. So much of life itself is just in the living and I tend to spend too much time planning. I seem to have the heart of a prepper, although I lack the self-sufficiency. It’s an odd place in which to be.

  5. Part of the work I do involves my husbands business, which involves the use of the mail. I’ve been told that many (not counted) mailboxes have been taken and destroyed. Not warehoused but destroyed. Perhaps this will impact mail-in voting as it appears the administration hopes for.

    As always, I have found the shenanigans of the political/financial elite to be self-serving. I have been deliberating whether or not to vote on this round. I agree with Fr Stephen’s previous rationalization, that voting between evils is not a vote I want to cast.

    Similar to Byron I too have entertained the thought of fleeing this country. But where in this world is there such a place that the long tentacles of these ‘elites’ cannot reach?

    That small place we might go to in our hearts, is indeed our refuge. And yet like Byron, I too have conditioned myself to plan for contingencies on various ‘fronts’. “If this happens, then I’ll do such and such.” Then I re-read the scripture that admonishes me to leave all to God. He is in control. I too, see myself, my thinking and my heart as flickering flames in these winds. God helps us to stoke the fires of love for God and neighbor.

    And as far our Church is concerned, let us remember that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the incoming Kingdom of God. The Lord Christ is among us, glory to God for all things.

    I pray for us all.

  6. “In fact, only in the Church can we find both a Tradition that knows no revolution and at the same time the impetus towards a new life that has no end. Her theory (understood in the true sense of the word, namely “vision”) is based on a constant experience of Truth. Which is why she is in possession of those infinite resources upon which may draw all who are called to govern the perishable cities of this world.”

    THIS.

    I have come to the conclusion that it is only the web of delusion in which we swim combined with our lack of sincere contrition that keeps us from experiencing God “on the regular” as the kids say. For it is fundamentally the experience of God – in His unexpectedly lavish mercy – which enlarges our hearts and cleanses our minds.

  7. Lossky: “Conservatives are always wrong, too, despite being rich in life experience, despite being shrewd and prudent, intelligent and skeptical. For, in their desire to preserve ancient institutions that have withstood the test of time, they decry the necessity of renewal, and man’s yearning for a better way of life.”

    How does one unlink that “necessity of renewal, and man’s yearning for a better way of life” from the notion of “progress”?

  8. Father,
    I want to thank you for introducing me via this blog to Lossky a few years back. It was integral to my journey towards Orthodoxy from Catholicism. Lossky is rarely an easy read. What struck me however is the ‘what’ of his belief that made him write as he did. For me his faith was clearer than his writing. I read and I am changed and I am not quite sure how. But I keep returning and slowly and gently more and more is revealed that can hardly be called knoweldge.

  9. I, too, stumbled over the “conservatives are also wrong…” (Hey! I’m a conservative. “) Until I recalled the joke, “How many Orthodox does it take to change a lightbulb?” The punchline “Change!?!?!! ” points, I think, to the reactionary ‘conservatism’ that Lossky identifies as “wrong.” Considering the word “renewal” to mean the contemporary articulation of the Truth that is eternal, separates it from the revolutionary “progressive” urge to uproot us from tradition.

  10. Peter,
    When I became Orthodox, and left the Episcopal Church, I commented that it was a relief to no longer have to be a conservative. I meant by that, that I only needed to be Orthodox. In becoming Orthodox it was a place where I no longer felt as if I had to save the Church – but that the Church was saving me. I’ve seen over time, that political thinking has a deep place in the souls of many, including the Orthodox. Thus, some souls bring their drive for constant “progress” into Orthodoxy and feel the need to “fix” it. Others bring their fears of constant endangerment and become reactionary, moving towards an Orthodoxy that is graceless and lacking generosity. Both are deep errors of the soul. But, the temptation of democracy to the human soul is the felt need to manage. It’s making people crazy. As much as possible, it’s better to live in obedience and patience. In my retired status, obeying my bishop, my priest, my wife, pretty much takes care of everything. 🙂

  11. Father,
    It is interesting that you say “When I became Orthodox, and left the Episcopal Church, I commented that it was a relief to no longer have to be a conservative…” It is a familiar experience to me too in that so much of the political world feels increasingly distant and alien – fighting for power under razor-thin veneers of ideologies on both sides, which dehumanize the “other” to make people more susceptible to flee into the tent which they think will protect them from that “other” ravening outside. It is a short step from this sort of factionalism to things far worse, and people are caught in a trap of deciding not whether political statements are actually true or wise, much less whether they are Christian in any remote sense, but whether they have been mouthed by the “right” people. It is a relief indeed to find in The Church a way out of that trap.

    I have yet to delve into Lossky, my nightstand reading backlog being rather unwieldy at the moment, but I think I should make sure he’s somewhere in there.

  12. Skip,
    People, for too long, I think, have been deluded regarding political solutions. There are definitely social problems that have Christian moral answers (for example, abortion is definitely wrong). But the promise that this wrong (and others) will find a political champion who will set things right is, I think, mistaken. As a matter of principle, I have refused to vote for candidates who support abortion, but have not always voted for the opposition (for a variety of reasons). If Roe v Wade were overturned tomorrow, there would be a change of venue for the struggle, but it would continue. The Left, for example, have come to think of abortion as virtually a sacrament – as owning a gun is for some on the Right (I also don’t own a gun).

    Laws, good laws, can restrain evil but not prevent it. They cannot change the heart, though they, sometimes, can have a role to play in persuasion. But the situation we have a present is that on moral issues that many hold as paramount (and I suspect I would be among them) we have those who oppose those position for what they perceive (wrongly) to be moral reasons. There are, at least, 2 moralities in play. And, frankly, the Left is actually more convinced of its own morality than those on the Right. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox, for example, are just as likely to get an abortion as non-believers. Nothing is more persuaded of its own moral righteousness than the American Left – that is its heritage, going all the way back to its roots in late American Puritanism.

    That’s to say, from a conservative perspective, there is no election that will turn back the clock on what has taken place in our culture. While the Right was concentrating on elections and laws, and preaching, the Left was concentrating on Hollywood, the academic world, and the media. They are now pretty firmly in charge of the HR departments across the country.

    I am not a political strategist – indeed, I don’t really believe in it. The Church did not convert the Roman Empire through politics. The Soviet Union did not collapse through politics (and so on). It is for the Church to be the Church. That seems to have always been God’s plan – and pretty much nothing more. If the Church is not truly being the Church, then there are no true Christians, and thus there is no salt and no light. What we lack right now is salt and light – not people who vote like salt and light – but people who live it so profoundly that others come to that Light.

    I have consistently told my parish through the years that the single most important thing for us to do as a parish is to actually be an Orthodox Church, fully alive and functioning, so that, when someone comes looking for the Orthodox Church, they’ll be able to find one.

    That – I think – is the true “Benedict Option.” I know that if that single thing is not there, all other actions would be in vain.

    While we are busy (rightly busy) being the Church, we should be patient, trusting God, being quick to pray, always giving thanks, and living and giving in true sacrifice as though we had given our lives totally to the Kingdom of God. If this culture ever turns a corner – it will be because that long-range approach has borne fruit. If that long-range approach does not bear fruit, then there will have been no corner and we’ll likely be at the end of days. Even that works out well.

  13. Dear Fr. Stephen, please forgive this question as it may be of no use, but in your comment posted at 9:01 you say that “The Church did not convert the Roman Empire through politics. The Soviet Union did not collapse through politics (and so on). It is for the Church to be the Church. ”
    Do you mean that the Church of Russia was not overcome by politics? I agree with what you are saying but I do not see the flow of the comment about Soviet Union between the Roman Empire and “the Church to be the Church” — perhaps I am not reading it correctly. God bless you for posting these comments, they are a blessing to my heart — I also appreciate your recent podcast interview (August 11th) with Cynthia Damascus on Holistic Christian very very much.

  14. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for writing and commenting your blog. Rereading your first book is next on my reading list, and I pray that God will continue to encourage you in writing your next book.

    I don’t understand part of the abortion debate – isn’t abstinence outside of marriage necessary anyway for many reasons? It’s hard to prevent abortion if casual sex is common.

    If people perceive moral reasons for opposing your positions, are their moral compasses flawed? I am majoring in history and would like to teach it, so I will have to encounter my future students’ worldviews.

    As I let go of righteousness and stopped participating in politics aside from voting and listening, I felt more interest in the Jesus Prayer, spiritual reading, and asceticism. Theosis makes me much happier than politics did, and serves God. However, it’s hard to vote when I see how the candidates are cruel to those they deem enemies. I want peace and the struggle to love and pray for those I seek to forgive is a great way to make peace.

    I think the Left does work it enjoys, but maybe the influence their positions give them is part of why they like that work. Are they so responsible for our culture changing, if, as you say, Christians get abortions too? And I am unsure if the Right really resists these changes – they seem to have steadily given up on Christian morality in recent decades, focusing more on the economy and nationalism.

    Your description of how the Church responded to different empires is reassuring. The call to be “salt and light” is delightful. I feel it is realized well in our monasteries, which give me great hope for America’s future. Particular monastics have helped me repent and learn how to be a Christian.

  15. Margaret,
    I’ll try to clarify this. I used the two examples of Rome and the Soviet Union in that both were empires that were persecuting Christians. Rome converted to Christianity (officially) in the 4th century. The Soviet Union fell in 1989-90 and broke up into a number of pieces. But, in its collapse, the Church began to recover and is becoming stronger by the day.

    These are examples of the Church in a seemingly hostile culture – and thus serve as examples to those in our own culture who are worried that things are becoming more and more anti-Christian and hostile to the gospel. That worried daily feeds a kind of frenzy of political activity – which imagines that the culture can be changed and saved through political action.

    Essentially, I’m suggesting that the culture is already too far gone to save through political action. You cannot convert people through politics. I use the example that practicing Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic Christians avail themselves of abortions at about the same rate as non-believers to demonstrate that the non-Christian darkness has a very strong place even within the lives of many members of the Church. We have a very long way to go – and many are (I think) wasting their time and energy in the political world when their own Church cultures are rotting from within.

    “The Church needs to be the Church.” I mean by that – we must return to living as fully and completely the life given to us in Christ and discover the full reality of it. It is only in truly being what He has given us to be that the Church can be fully the salt and light in the world through which God saves.

    Beyond that – we should take care to guard our hearts and abide in the peace of Christ. Politics is full of anxiety and anger, revealing its spiritual bankruptcy. We may abide in the peace of Christ knowing that He is working in all things, always, everywhere, for our good and our salvation. When we forget that, we become fodder for the demons.

  16. Thank you, Fr. Stephen! I needed this guidance today.

    I have friend who is traumatized by those whom she sees destroying America. She sends me disturbing videos and quotes that alarm her. So far, I have said nothing, mainly because she does not ask questions to me about God. I pray for her salvation.

    Your words are a model of how to present an Orthodox Christian’s perspective in the chaos of our times.
    All Glory to our Lord!

  17. I’m returning to the orientation I have regarding the current of politics in this culture. Almost every neighbor where I live has a political sign on their property near the road, advertising the person they want to attain a political seat. These are not small signs, but something along the size of 5ft by 6ft. I avert my eyes and grumble to myself. It doesn’t matter who they want but that my neighbors want to put before my eyes their politics, as obtrusively as they can. I can’t stroll or drive past their homes and view the beauty of their gardens without such juxtaposition.

    Unfortunately, that grumbling and averting my eyes continues in my heart, even when the moment of seeing their signs has past. I want to blame them and have angst against them for their political engagement.

    I don’t think it would be appropriate to call myself a-political, just because I have no interest in the promises or perspectives of either party. However, my behavior and thoughts suggest that whatever my political orientation is, it is outside the parameters of the usual political commentary. Nevertheless, I see that the emotional angst that I feel, this logismoi, when it rises in my heart, is no different than the openly public shrill voices, grand-standing, moralizing, jingoistic, bumptious rhetoric.

    Father’s words above in the article and in his comments have been greatly helpful. And today I’ve read more helpful words from Psalms that I hope might help others. I share them here because they seem to fit with Father’s theme:

    (Psalm 30:20-25 Orthodox Study Bible; Psalm 31 in other bibles) (20)How great, O Lord, is the abundance of Your goodness You hide for those who fear You, which You will work for those who hope in You in the sight of the sons of men. (21) Your shall hide them in the secret of Your presence from the disturbance of men; You will shelter them in Your tabernacle from the contradiction of tongues. (22) Blessed is the Lord, for He magnified His mercy in a fortified city. (23) But I said my my ecstasy, “Indeed, I am cast away from the countenance of your eyes,” Therefore You heard the voice of my supplication when I cried to You. (24) Love the Lord, all you His saints, for the Lord seeks out truth, and He repays those who act with great arrogance. (25) Be courageous, and let your heart be strengthened, all who hope in the Lord.

    We should not be asking for God’s work on our neighbors (IMO) we have enough on our plates comprised of our own ‘stuff’. Dear Lord, have mercy on this pitiful heart and it’s angst.

  18. I think it would be appropriate to include the adjective, ‘shaming’, in my list of adjectives for the current political rhetoric.

    I believe it might be the shame factor that really hooks people into the political current and rhetoric.

  19. Dee,
    I thinking “shaming” is one of the primary polical modes in our culture. It is an interesting dynamic. Shame not only makes the “shamed” person feel bad (generally provoking anger or sadness), but, oddly, also makes the person doing the shaming feel bad. I have labeled shame a “sticky” emotion. When we see it or hear it, even if we are not involved, it provokes a “sympathetic” shame response.

    There has always been a bit of shame used in political campaigns, but, it has been pushed to new levels over the past few cycles. That, of course, is then magnified in the arena of the various media.

    When people describe the nation as “angry” it’s true – and, I think this is largely because of the shame-filled atmosphere in which we now live.

    Of course, because shame is terribly uncomfortable (called the “unbearable emotion” by some psychologists), it provokes an immediate response – and that is desirable from those who drive political messages. It “motivates” to action.

    Of course, it also makes us sick. The fact that people are currently unable to engage in the full range of public encounter – some stuck at home more than ever – we are on social media much more and for longer. We are exposed to the shame much more – and we get still sicker as a result.

    I wonder to myself what the long-term effect will be on children and teens.

  20. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your steadfast focus upon what really matters in our daily living. The distractions abound like fireworks that we can hardly avoid hearing or resist seeing. The resolution of salt and light really will change us and, thus, encourage our neighbors.

  21. Father, the shame is there whether we see it 9n social media or not. Shame and the many attempts to induce it are literally part of the air we breathe. My wife and I were talking about the role shame plays in every social dysfunction (personal and corporate) that we experience and are part of. It is primordial. Adam and Eve hid from God because they were ashamed. We’ve been doing that ever since.
    As you point out the cure for shame is actual repentance. As parents and grandparents uncles and aunts we need to deepen our own repentance and help our children to that as well. Not guilt tripping or public acts of ritual self-flagelation but simple direct repentance. The practice of the Jesus Prayer works. It helps to face and overcome the shame and leads to joy.
    Eventually as needed the underlying cause of our shame will be revealed and healed. Guilt-real and imagined freezes us and locks us into shame. Repentance leads naturally to forgiveness.
    “Fear not for I am with you even unto the end of the world”
    Shoot, I have found the Jesus Prayer said with love, longing and focus even helps relieve the arthritic pain I suffer from. My wife tells me it also calms the unruly squirrels that run around in her head.
    Rejoice in the Lord always!

  22. Father Stephen,
    I have been reading with great appreciation the Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann. It has struck me several times in reading how similar your tone is to his. Also how his words from the 70s in regards to politics could easily apply to today. So grateful for the sanity of the Church. If only we could stop seeing everything as problems to be solved and the false importance that goes with it: instead receive and live the Life of Christ that is always characterized by true joy.

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