Fleeing Paris with Vladimir Lossky – and Some Afterthoughts

I posted this article a year ago, thus the reference to events in August of 2020.

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.

Afterthoughts, August 2021

I would not have thought a year ago, that this August would bring a new wave of Covid. Like everyone, I’m tired. Nonetheless, it is an improvement over the previous August. Re-reading this article today brought a poignancy to me as I saw news of the fall of Kabul and the blitzkrieg of the Taliban across Afganistan. Refugees fleeing armies and politics, scenes repeated so often in our centuries. It reminds me that we are all acting out events that have precedents – whether of pandemics or war. The Church’s liturgy carries the sense of repetition to it. We come to the same feasts, year after year. We do not see, I suspect, that they measure our lives. 

The Mother of God, herself a refugee at one point, comes to the place of her final rest: the arms of Jesus and the heavenly paradise. May she who found refuge with Joseph and the Holy Child in the hospitality of Egypt, remember and pray for all refugees, and those of us who have not yet learned to take refuge in her.

Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Theotokos:
Despise not our prayers, in our necessity
but deliver us from harm,
only pure, only blessed one.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

29 comments:

  1. Hello Fr Freeman. I have a bit of confusion related to Vladimar Lossky’s perception of far left vs far right rulership. I’ve been taught that neither is good of course. History lessons demonstrate that far left is total control over a country, and far right is total anarchy without any rule of law. My mother grew up in Nazi Germany as a Catholic, lost her father who was sent to Dachau (for his resistance to Hitler) and was consequently murdered. She endured many losses, had to flee her home, and lost all possessions, eventually immigrating to the US. Hitler was a student and admirer of Marxism. Nazi stands for National Socialism, and the German Nazi regime had a far left agenda and strategy, very similar to Russian Communism. I am confused as to why many think Nazis were far right. As I mentioned earlier, far right suggests the opposite of total control: total anarchy, which is the complete absence of the rule of law. A little like the old West mining towns. Or am I missing something here? Thank you for your commentary on Vladimar Lossky. I appreciate the suffering he endured under the extreme regimes of totalitarianism, and his lasting faith in Christ nonetheless. This is exactly what got my mother through her suffering as well.

  2. Bernadette,
    In popular political speech, Facism would be on the Right, and Communism on the Left – but, you note accurately that both are quite similar. Lossky’s description follows that popular notion, I think. In defense of the common description, it would be possible to describe Conservatism (on the right) as becoming so conservative that it is deeply controlling, and the Left (socialism) as deeply controlling in the name of change (the opposite of conserving). Anarchy just sort of falls off the scale altogether.

    Originally, the Left and Right described two sides of the French parliament: those on the King’s right, were his supporters, while those on his left, were the revolutionaries.

    I hope that is of use. It has now been over 200 years since the French Revolution, which means that it’s too late to re-define the popular meaning of the terms. Over the years I’ve met Right-wing anarchists, and Left-wing anarchists. They’re both out there.

  3. As I read history or listen to the stories of elders I begin to wonder if part of the tragedy is that I try too hard to preserve something of only transient value at best.
    As I pray receive the prayers of others, I begin to catch an inkling of the eternal, the enduring mercy of our Lord that is a deep river and a quiet well that I may rest in.
    In this time of virus, I also reflect often on the work of Fr. Nicola Yanney during the Spanish Flu of 1918.
    He was the first priest to Baptize in my home parish or what was to become my parish.
    http://ww1.antiochian.org/node/25571
    Even though he lost a daughter and he, himself repsosed due to that horrible illness (young, strong people would begin to feel ill in the morning and be dead before nightfall) his memory is indeed eternal in the continuing life of my parish and all of the people nourished there.
    God is with us despite the the chaos of this world.
    Indeed, because I have read a bit of the history of “The Spanish Flu”, I have never been greatly troubled by COVID itself even before I begin to contemplate the enduring river of mercy that Our Lord calls us to.
    At least on good days.

  4. In becoming Orthodox, which I am still in the process, I noticed that the truth cannot remain static. If it did it could not maintain it’s relevancy. As a Protestant I was taught that the truth was static. But as I read through the New Testament one summer I began to notice that the truth was always changing. It was a curtain that was slowly being pulled back revealing the truth to those living in the Middle East. It was never a complete revelation. When I was a young Orthodox Christian I use to think the Church Councils where responsible for giving us a complete revelation, but since we still have them, I have come to realize that the truth is still being revealed.

  5. Cliff,

    Truth is indeed static, in the sense that it is God, Incarnate in Christ, Who never changes. However, His revealing of Himself is indeed dynamic and throughout His creation we may see and know Him in a multitude of ways, all rooted in His unchanging Being.

    Revelation is a deep, rich subject in Orthodoxy but it’s presence in our lives is always rooted in the unchanging Truth of Christ.

  6. Static implies no movement. It is possible to have dynamism and movement in Truth. Indeed, The Truth is a person, God Incarnate with Whom it is quite possible to have an inter-relationship that moves adapts and changes but remains fully truthful. The essence of truth does not change however. That does not mean it is static.

  7. Cliff,
    We do not have Councils in order to get more revelation. There’s nothing new in any Council, only a statement of what is true. “Perceiving” the truth is an inherent part of being in union with God in Christ (Who is the Truth). I’m not sure that I would describe God (the Truth) as static or dynamic. They’re just not words that are useful, I think.

  8. Father,
    Thank you for this repost and additional reflections. It is a great comfort and consolation.

    I am from Sydney, Australia and we are currently going through our strictest – and soon to be longest – lockdown since the beginning of the pandemic (we’ve actually avoided much so far). Of course this means no church attendance, no communion – again soon to be the longest we’ve endured this here in this city.

    It is good to be reminded that “we have lost nothing eternal”.

    Your reflection that our liturgical life is “the measure of our lives”, brings to mind that between the Nativity and Dormition of the Mother of our Lord is contained the whole economy and life of the Christ. He was the measure of her life, and we’re invited to do the same.

    This is only maybe my third comment on this blog, however I am a long time reader – for the better part of the last 10 years. This blog is a haven of sanity and a crucible of right formation. I am grateful to you and everybody who shares here from the depths of their heart.

    May our Lord continue to bless your work Father; He is saving and preserving many people through it.

  9. I echo your comment Stamatis. Thank you for your words. I agree whole-heartedly.

    I’m in a place where the pandemic transmission is currently high in the US. Mask mandates are going into effect at the university level of academia. Regarding my participation in our Orthodox Church services, all that I will say at this point, is that I’m grateful for the window of time to participate in person. I’m not sure what to anticipate in the future. But having been kept apart (watching streaming services) in the past year, has made me appreciate participating in the services, and receiving communion, all the more–the sweetest and rich presence of our Lord amongst other parishioners in the services. I keep in mind St Herman (and St Mary of Egypt), whom I believe spent some time in their lives without an Orthodox priest available for the Divine Liturgy and Eucharist. Christ, the comforter–the Holy Spirit, and the heavenly Church were with them and they endured. And so shall we!

    This community in this blog has been so helpful to me, and I’m so grateful as well.

  10. And indeed, Father, may we take refuge in the embrace of the Most Holy Theotokos!

  11. Stamatis,
    Thank you for your encouragement. “Haven of sanity and a crucible of right formation” – those are sweet words that echo the daily intentions of my thoughts and efforts. Thank you for your prayers!

  12. Dee, and all,
    I am traveling this week (flying) to Austin, TX to keynote a conference for young professionals. I’m vaccinated, and there will be masking precautions, but it’s still a much trickier time for travel than it seemed a month ago. I would appreciate prayers for all involved.

    I am taking an icon of St. Paul that I acquired in Thessaloniki a few years back, and adopting St. Paul as my patron for this trip. He was “in dangers often” and endured much, but went forward, nothing daunting. He will also serve as a reminder to me not to complain too much for any inconvenience – particularly in airports and such (I’ve been hearing travel tales that are less than sanguine).

    A priest friend suggested that the present Covid delta crest will like burn out quickly and collapse. He had some science that he noted. I have no knowledge of that, but pray that he is right. We could all use the relief.

    Take care, be patient.

  13. Dee, indeed St. Mary spent her entire time in the desert without partaking of the Euchrist. That is a good example. Repentance, fasting, prayer and the giving of slms for our Lord’s sake are the essence. Here in Kansas it has we were away from the Liturgy but a few months. The other thing I am finding I must do is work harder on my relationships with my fellow parishoners. God has blessed me abundantly recently there.

    At Catechumen Class last week we had the largest attendance in years BTW.

  14. Michael,
    This is purely anecdotal, but, my conversations with priests over the past year consistently reported increased numbers of catechumens, and an unusual surplus in giving. It says much about an underlying grace and health that repudiate the very darkened imaginings of our hearts. We have been suffering and enduring various privations (that vary widely across the world and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) but there is an unseen and under-reported health and commitment. May God preserve us.

  15. Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for your timely article; coincided with my taking up Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, again. This time I’m taking notes.
    I hope your journey and conference goes well.

    Here in Jos (Nigeria), a curfew has been imposed. I don’t know the full details. But what my wife has told me, over a hundred Christians have been murdered, their homes looted and burnt down and crops destroyed.

    No action was taken by the state authorities. This has led to retaliation. Then the authorities decided to impose a curfew.

    Christians are being killed with impunity.

  16. Andrew,
    My mind is tempted to think of certain places across the world as the “edges of empire.” If the “West” (a very broad term for Europe/America) is rightly described as an empire, at least as an analogy, then there are plenty of places that can be described as the “edges” of that empire. They are dangerous, no doubt. My bedtime reading has lately been a detailed trip through “Roman Britain,” a period known mostly through archaeology and the few descriptions in Roman writers. The picture has a strange likeness to our own “edges.”

    I will keep you and your family in my prayers (and all of you there in Nigeria). May God protect you.

  17. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    your prayers are greatly appreciated. Your analogy of the edges of empire is spot on the money, so to speak.

    Where I come from, Wrexham in North Wales is only ten miles away from Chester in England. The Romans were in Chester. There are still parts of what was originally a Roman wall in the city centre. Also the remains of an amphitheater. There is a small museum there that has Roman artefacts.

    My daughter, husband and granddaughter, went on holiday to the Lake District recently and took a drive up to Hadrian’s Wall (well what remains of it), which was a clear demarcation of where the edge of that particular area of the Roman Empire was.

  18. Andrew, may our Holy Mother and the angels protect you and your family. Fr
    may the angels guide and protect you on your trip. Unfortunately, the “science” is all over the ball park on COVID. As Hamlet said: “The readiness is all.”

    As I reflect on our journey through COVID and the deep, seemingly demonic violence of the world surrounding us, it can be destructive to us but it need not be.

  19. Michael,
    The science, pretty much by definition, is not “all over the ball park on COVID.” Instead, what we have is an erosion of our institutions, such that science information cannot be distinguished from sophisticated rumor and hearsay.

    I would point to a similar situation within the life of the Church. Reliable information on the Orthodox faith is daily competing with lots of very polished nonsense. When I first started blogging, my sense of things was that the better the web site looked, the less likely it was to be accurate. There was lots of “quoting” and “citing of authorities” and such, but the judgment and phronema behind the quotations and the citations was the real problem.

    Same with science. It’s not a science problem – it’s a human problem. And, much of the time, we are among the human problems. As such, it is not science that is our downfall, but our sins. Institutions traditionally have a God-appointed role of restraining evil. When those God-appointed roles begin to fray at the edges, then sin begins to increase. It is the “increase of lawlessness” warned of in Scripture.

    My own approach in this, as the edges fray, is to be careful not to “pull the strings” too quickly (which is a favorite past-time in our culture). Thus, I’m doing my best to respect the institutions as much as possible – the alternative is lawlessness – and that is the greater danger. (Respect is not the same thing as trust – but it goes a long way during chaotic times).

  20. Father , safe travels!

    Dee, indeed during the last year, I too have come to appreciate and savour liturgy more than ever.


  21. As such, it is not science that is our downfall, but our sins.

    Very true. It is popular to blame science, or law, or technology for various ills. But the proposed “solutions”, whether they be conspicuously extreme (eg, revolution) or more cleverly disguised (eg, organic movement), are all just different forms of smashing. We’ve been going at each other with sticks and stones while eating greens far longer than we’ve done so with contemporary technology. No anti-Incarnational appeal to nature will save us from what is first and foremost a problem of sin and death.


    It is the “increase of lawlessness” warned of in Scripture.

    This forces us to think about what lawlessness actually is. I hear people talk of “law and order” as if it were some political or religious strongman, at the top of a pyramid of power, making decrees against the “bad people” and “getting things done”. Yet according to Tradition, this is not law but rather the very form of lawlessness! Rule by human fiat—especially when the abuse/exception is cryptically “for our own good” and “because you must submit”—stands opposed to millennia of canon law, synodality, and the highest law of love. Talk about “those bad people over there” is schismatic externalization at best and, more usually, just projection. And the pyramid itself is the concept and “icon” of pagan Egypt, the great enslaver and enemy of Israel.

    In contrast, Christ teaches in Mark 10.42–45 that true law comes through service, not mere decree. Repentance starts in one’s own heart. And authentic hierarchy is *not* a pyramid but a cross. It is when those that are in power act in a godly manner—in the form of the cross—that law is restored and lawlessness is restrained. Institutionalism for its own sake—whether political or religious—does not restrain evil: it is often just one more vehicle for it. So while I can understand that idea that lawlessness is the “greatest danger”, I think lawlessness is a very different thing than we suppose—and our attempts to “preserve ancient institutions” can, in some circumstances, not just get in the way of Lossky’s “renewal” but be as much a lawlessness as revolution.

  22. JBT,

    “I think lawlessness is a very different thing than we suppose—and our attempts to “preserve ancient institutions” can, in some circumstances, not just get in the way of Lossky’s “renewal” but be as much a lawlessness as revolution.”

    There can be an internalization of “lawlessness,” for example, when a society has internalized false information, or hatred, or whatever. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the “natural law” found in most societies in their institutions. Laws against violence, laws of fairness, laws of equity, laws regarding property, etc. These are laws the restrain us and are fairly common throughout history and cultures. When there is rapid change in a culture, such laws can be overthrown, usually with disastrous results.

    Human beings prefer order and predictability. A farmer would like to know, reasonably, what price his produce will bring, and that he can safely take it to market, and return without being robbed. When such expectations begin to erode, then daily life becomes too dangerous and people start looking for other ways to stay safe – and a kind of false culture begins to arise that is being driven by lawlessness.

    I think of “nomos” (the law), as an example of the “garments of skin” given to humanity after the Fall (this is a common patristic understanding). It is not the “law” of the Kingdom, or even “God’s best” or “the most excellent way.” It’s just a protective measure for our relative well-being. It is the breakdown of this “law” that the Scriptures are describing when they speak of “lawlessness” (anomia). I think we should not overthink it.

  23. I was talking with my parish priest today and mentioned to him the number of Catechumen that we had. He, too, like you, Father said it was happening in many parishes in our Diocese. The increase in lawlessness is leading people to seek true order?
    In fact, on a micro basis, I am finding strong people coming into my life in a good way. Unexpected but quite welcome.

  24. JBT, I appreciate your subtle comment. Unfortunately much of the power in the world is with those with the least love hence the direction of our world leading to the last days and the second coming of our Saviour.

    Michael Bauman,
    The light shines brighter in the darkness. Our parish has also had an uptake of newcomers in this time. Lets pray we can obey Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

  25. Anonymo, it is also important that I remember that I have nothing to do with the increase. God brings people and, often, I learn from them about God’s mercy and Light. God, it seems brings people in spite of me.

  26. Too true Michael. We should strive to crucify our self so Christ can reign in us. God does most of the work, and most of the aid we offer is probably our prayers which also clearly depend upon God. Another thought is that in witnessing or apologetics, trying to attract is better than trying to convince. I would guess this beauty first approach is discussed in the Ethics of Beauty which I am yet to read.

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