In search of French past (7): The hermit, the poet and the clown


In In search of French past (6): To a monastery you will go,” I described my stay at several monasteries in France. The last one was the Abbey of Lérins on the island of St Honorat off the coast of Cannes.

I don’t remember when we went to Lourdes, but this is as good a place as any to say something about it. This market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains is famous for the apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. These apparitions were reported to have been seen by Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Lourdes is the most famous of all Marian shrines. It has the second most hotels per square kilometre after Paris. Mass pilgrimages, many for physical healing, take place from March to September. The water in the grotto is said to have healing properties. Whether it is the clear water that heals or the faith poured into it, is not clear. With regard to miraculous cures, the big difference between the Roman Catholic Church and many of the modern “Charismatic” churches, for example, the “Word of Faith” prosperity movement (Benny Hinn, TBN, God TV) is that whereas the Roman Catholic Church is very cautious about miraculous cures – only about 70 have been declared authentic since 1858 – the Word of Faith “miracles,” in contrast, are legion, and some of their names may be legion too (Mark 5:9). Here is a picture of Lourdes with the Rosary Basilica towering over the landscape.


When I was at Lourdes in 1962, the sides of the walkway down to the basilica (in the picture) were festooned with booths marketing their wares: statues of Mary and rosaries of all shapes, colours and sizes, and other objects of veneration. During the pilgrimage months, you couldn’t see the lawn for the market. Several decades later, when I had left the Roman Catholic Church for Protestantism and, consequently, read my Bible, I found a striking comparison between a passage in the book of Acts and the booths at Lourdes.

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

If you want to search for other photos of Lourdes on the internet, you’ll need to search for more than Lourdes, otherwise you’ll end up with photos of Madonna – the other Madonna, and her daughter, Lourdes, in the mix.

After France, we visited a few monasteries in Italy and then on to Rome. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) had begun the previous month. One of the monasteries was a hermitage whose name I was only able to recall with recent help. I sent two photos, one of Louis-Albert and I standing on a hill to Frère Laurent Béthoux at the Dominican priory (couvent) in Nice, France. Louis-Albert had been moved from Bordeaux to the Dominican priory in Nice, where he lived for many years until his death in 1992. I asked Frère Laurent whether he recognised the background in the photos. As there were many details lost in the fog of time past, I also asked him whether there was any record of Louis-Albert’s peregrinations for the years that I had travelled with him.

Louis-Albert and Raphael. I m wearing L-A's cape.

Louis-Albert and Raphael. I’m wearing L-A’s cape.



Louis-Albert Lassus

Louis-Albert Lassus

Frère Laurent said he thought the background in the photos was the hermitage of San Girolamo in Italy. He sent me an aerial view of the hermitage.


Here is the translation of his email to me followed by the French original in brackets:

Hello! Nothing, alas, in the papers of Father Lassus about his peregrinations. Thank you very much for these beautiful photos of the young Father Lassus. It seems to me that they were taken near the hermitage of San Girolamo in Italy. I am sending you these aerial pictures of the hermitage. Best wishes. Fr. Laurent Béthoux).

(Bonjour!  rien, hélas, dans les papiers laissés par le Père Lassus concernant ses pérégrinations. Grand merci pour ces belles photos du jeune P. Lassus : ont été prises me semble-t-il, près de l’ermitage de San Girolamo en Italie dont je vous envoie ces vues aériennes. Avec mes sentiments les meilleurs. fr. Laurent Béthoux).

Louis-Albert wrote about a dozen books, most of them on hermits; for example, Romuald of Ravenna, the hermits of Camaldoli (Les Camaldules) , Denys of Chartreux, Séraphim of Sarov, and Nazarena.

Louis-Albert never created the impression that he wanted to become a hermit. He seemed content with his life in community, not only in the Priory but also socializing with other people. On several occasions we visited his friends, sometimes spending a few days. There was an artist whose house was his studio, which he shared with his wife and several children. Finished and half-finished paintings covered the walls. Easels, brushes and twisted tubes of paint were scattered everywhere. A scruffy sofa and other soft furnishings hinted that the room was once a lounge. The artist had a son called Jean-Baptiste. He was about 14 years old. Jean-Baptiste and I went to visit the Rodin Museum. When we came upon Le Penseur “The Thinker,” Jean-Baptiste stood very still in front of the marvelous sculpture. I asked him what he was thinking. What else would you ask somebody gazing in rapture at “The Thinker”? Jean-Baptiste replied in a quivering voice: Ça me donne le cafard “It gives me the blues.” I was surprised that such a young person could be so affected by this kind of art. But I was forgetting that Jean-Baptiste was from an artist family. We walked around the museum and looked at other Rodin sculptures.  Jean-Baptiste limbered along. I tried to cheer him up, but it was no use.  He had, it seemed, lost all hope, all belief; in retrospect, he had – already at 14 years of age -lost the desire to live. I was also quite down in the dumps. Years later, I heard that he had killed himself. He was in his early twenties. I thought back to the cluttered “salon” that was his home. Did it mirror Jean-Baptiste’s turbulent soul? I often think of him. Why are you so downcast, o my John the Baptist? (See THE PASTOR, THE PENSEUR AND THE INFIDEL).

Le Penseur (The thinker) -Auguste Rodin

Le Penseur (The thinker) -Auguste Rodin

On our travels through Southern France, Louis-Albert and I stayed the night with his friends in several towns such as Narbonne and Arles, who regaled us with gourmet dinners, the finest vintage. Conviviality good food and wine and being together was good.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is

    when brothers dwell in unity!

 It is like the precious oil upon the head,

    running down upon the beard,

upon the beard of Aaron,

    running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

    which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,

    life for evermore (Psalm 133).

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

there’s dancing, laughter & good red wine;

at least I have always found it so,

Benedicamus Domino!

(Hilaire Belloc)

Here is a description of the hermitage of San Girolamo and the daily life of the hermits, which shows not only the stark contrast between the “world” and the monastic life, but also a radical difference between the monastic life and the communal life of the Dominican Order to which Louis-Albert belonged. This is a general description of all hermitages in the West.


The phenomenon of hermitic life was prevalent in the years between 900-1000 AD and 1100. At that time, there were many men who sought to flee the world, dedicating themselves to voluntary solitude, silence and converse with God. These were the solitary Christians, anchorites and hermits typical of the time, for whom, in accordance with the teaching of St Girolamo: “The city is a prison; solitude is paradise”. This was a particular phenomenon within the Church, which began after the fall of the Roman Empire and flourished conspicuously in around 1000 AD. The mountains of Italy were widely inhabited by these solitary hermits. They lived in wild, inaccessible places, either in caves, or in huts made of stones and wood.

A collection of these cells together formed the Hermitage. Some individuals, however, felt the need to have a common base, and so the Monastery came into existence: a place where they could live together, with adjacent cells, an oratory, a church and sometimes a cloister, a refectory, a chapter-house, a library and a scriptorium.


They always lived a solitary life within the hermitage, even though they shared the roof over their heads. They could never enter each others’ cells: at most they could walk to the confines of the cells. They could talk to each other twice a week, when they went outside the cloister, but within the restricted area they could only converse in whispers. They had an inviolable rule of silence, which always had to be obeyed. On days of abstinence, they took their meals sitting on the floor, with bare feet. Meat was never eaten in the Hermitage, and during Lent the monks abstained from dairy produce (eggs, milk, cheese etc.). The consumption of meat was only permitted when someone was ill, or going on a journey. The monks always slept in their habits, either on wooden palettes or on hard straw mattresses. They dedicated themselves to manual labour, according to their individual capacities: they dug the ground, hoed, pruned, built walls, carried stones and dressed them, made bread, cooked, made clothes, did repairs, wrote and composed. They were very charitable towards guests and to the poor. When they fell ill, they were taken to the infirmary. The dead were interred in the church, in the cemetery next to the Hermitage, or in the graveyard at Paracelsus.

I continue:

In 2002, the year of his death, Louis-Albert’s ELoge de l”enfouissement (“In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli”) was published. It was on the spirituality of the Camaldoli hermits of Monte Corona in Italy. The English term “reclusion” does not capture the connotations of total abandonment contained in the French “enfouissement.” Fouiller means to dig deep into something. Here are some examples of how fouiller is used:

  1. Archaeological dig – fouille archéologique.

  2. To search a place thoroughly, say, for something lost. “They (fouillé) searched (fouillé) the whole house but couldn’t find him.

  3. To meditate deeply on a problem before coming to a conclusion.

The prefix en (in) added to fouiller means to dig deep into hole and bury something in it – (enfouiller). Enfouissement in the hermitic life embraces all the meanings listed above, which is to bury oneself deep below the surface of the world into the mystical sedimentations of the soul, in search of the priceless treasure.


Here is my abridgement in English of the French review of the Eloge de l’enfouissement d’un Ermite Calmaldule(“In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli”).


The  front cover of “In praise of reclusion.

Mount Corona has a Dominican friend, Fr. Louis-Louis-Albert Lassus. He published these notes for the benefit of others. The author focuses on the key values of the hermitic life, which, above all, is his cell, the “parlour of the Holy Spirit” (“parlour” derives from French parler “to speak”). With astonishing acuity he reminds us of some of the indispensable requirements of the ordinary Christian life, namely, to accept failure and not idolise success, self-effacement, unceasing prayer, mourn our sins, not to be idle, search for God and his truth by abandoning our spiritual selfishness, serve one’s brothers with alacrity, etc. Much advice on how these will also help us to remain in the love of God. The author leaves no ambiguity about the true nature of the reclusion (“burial” enfouissement) he extols: it is a burial in God alone. Heed his call.”

(Monte Corona à un ami dominicain, le Fr. Louis-Louis-Albert Lassus. Le Fr. Lassus eut le projet de publier ces notes pour que d’autres âmes en profitent. L’auteur veut souligner les valeurs fondamentales de la vie d’ermite. Avant tout la garde de la cellule, « parloir du Saint-Esprit ». Avec une acuité qui nous étonnera, il nous rappelle par la même occasion certaines exigences incontournables de toute vie chrétienne ordinaire : savoir accepter l’échec et ne pas idolâtrer le succès, veiller au recueillement, à la prière continuelle, pleurer ses péchés, ne pas rester dans l’oisiveté, chercher Dieu en vérité en abandonnant son égoïsme spirituel, servir ses frères avec disponibilité, etc. Autant de conseils qui nous aideront à demeurer aussi dans l’amour de Dieu. L’auteur ne laisse pas d’ambiguïté sur la véritable nature de l’enfouissement dont il fait l’éloge : c’est un enfouissement en Dieu seul. Un appel à suivre).

Being a devout and freshly baptised Roman Catholic, I was in awe of mystics, hermits and the like. Many decades later, I have changed my view. “Hermitic” for me now evokes “hermetic.” “Hermetic” means literally, completely sealed, especially against the escape or entry of air, and figuratively, impervious to outside interference or influence. We speak of the hermetic confines of an isolated life.

Historical linguistics teaches us that meanings of words often change over time. One must, therefore, take care not to ascribe past meanings of words to their contemporary meanings. For example, “hermetic” originates from Hermes Trismegistus (thrice great), a name attributed to an Egyptian priest or to the Egyptian god Thoth, who in some attributes is identified with the Greek god Hermes. Various alchemical, mystical, astrological, and writings were ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus . Although, we should take care not to conflate past meanings with modern meanings – I’m sure that no one in the packing business is thinking of Hermes or alchemy when they hermetically seal an item, there are occasions when such conflation may provide new insights into the modern meaning of a word. The literary technique of “deconstruction” (fathered by Jacques Derrida) digs, playfully and seriously, into the hidden sedimentations (etymologies) of language, which reminds me of the extreme hermitic forms of purifying oneself of the dross of the world and of self, striving like the alchemist, to transmute base metals into gold. The alchemist in the material realm – divination, the hermit in the spiritual domain – divinisation.

Although Louis-Albert was passionate about the hermitic way of life, this passion didn’t express itself in the desire to abandon his Dominican life for a hermitage. A reader of his books might be forgiven for inferring that his passion about the hermitic life was a yearning for reclusion. “Nomad,” not “hermit” sums him up best. He writes in his Les nomades de Dieu (1974, “The nomades of God”:

“I have been and am nothing more than a nomad, the man with a suitcase. I have run all over the world, never ceasing to encourage those of my kind, monks and nuns, and sometimes tramps and the unstable of every kind. I told them never to stop because it is they who yank the church out of its sluggish complacency.”

(Je n’ai été et ne suis qu’un nomade, l’homme à la valise. J’ai couru le monde, ne cessant d’encourager ceux et celles de ma race, moines et moniales, et parfois clochards et instables de toute sorte. Je leur ai dit de ne jamais s’arrêter car ils arrachent l’Église et le monde à l’installation et à la torpeur).

If you can’t imagine tramps (les clochards) and the unstable rattling the Church’s complacency, if you think tramps are not famous for getting off their bums, and would, therefore, not be in a position to inspire the Roman Curia to pull their fingers out of their own bums, then you can’t be French or a Francophile. Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) the tramp, the clown (pronounced “cloon” in French) means much more to French than to English speakers. Louis-Albert often talked about the sadness of clowns. In his room, Rouault’s clown hung on his wall.

George Rouault; The clown.

George Rouault; The clown.


 And then there’s the vagabond, Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet, another nomad. Rimbaud’s biography, in brief, can be found hereHere is one of Rimbaud’s poems, Ma Bohème (Fantaisie) “My Bohemian life (A fantasy).” The original French follows the English translation:

I went off with my hands in my torn coat pockets;

My overcoat too was becoming ideal;

I travelled beneath the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;

Oh dear me! what marvelous loves I dreamed of!

My only pair of breeches had a big hole in them.

Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way.

My tavern was at the Sign of the Great Bear.

My stars in the sky rustled softly.

And I listened to them, sitting on the road-sides

On those pleasant September evenings while I felt drops

Of dew on my forehead like vigorous wine;

And while, rhyming among the fantastical shadows,

I plucked like the strings of a lyre the elastics

Of my tattered boots, one foot close to my heart!

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;

Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal;

J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;

Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.

– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course

Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.

– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,

Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes

De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,

Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques

De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

We saw earlier that Louis-Albert extols the hermit’s cell le parloir de Dieu, the parlour of God, where God speaks (French parler) in the silence; the only sound the flicker of the candle flame. Yet, the tramp, the vagabond, the nomad – if only in their mind or their poetry – rebels against incarceration; of both body and mind. They must always be on the move. Space offers vistas of opportunity. Rimbaud’s nature speaking to him alone: sky, stars, the Great Bear, the open road. Always departing, never arriving, yet wanting to possess – oneself most of all. “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?” (André Gide). Rimbaud’s “nature,” as with most poets, is his spiritual milk, his substitute mother. Louis-Albert’s mother, in contrast, is not nature, fallen nature (corrupted by sin) but the sinless “Mother of God.”’

Jesus said “Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Louis-Albert said “Unless you become as an owl….” Si tu ne deviens comme un hibou (the title of chapter 1 of Louis-Albert’s La prière est une fête “Prayer is a celebration,” 1978). He writes (I translate):

I’ve always loved owls and I can’t understand why they are regarded as birds of ill omen…you have to become an owl yourself to cease to be afraid of themselves… I love their eyes, those enormous eyes, those eyes like icons. They fascinated the Byzantines long before me. For them, owls became the eyes of Christ Pantocrator (Greek pan “all”; cratos power), of the All Pure, of the angels and the saints. Is this blasphemy, a sacrilege? Come on now! Can’t you see, you who are wise, don’t you see, you with your rational rheumy (chassieux) eyes, you, men and women, with small half-closed eyes that God made the owls eyes so enormous to see in the night, when things are what they are and nothing else? To plumb (fouiller) the darkness…Then the darkness becomes light.” (Fouiller – ferret, pry, frisk, scan, examine, dig into, investigate, explore, plumb).

Earlier in the discussion of Louis-Albert’s “In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli” Eloge de l’enfouissement d’un Ermite Calmaldule, I said more about fouiller).





I am reminded of an incident at boarding school in my final school year. One evening we went to a hall in town to see a Billy Graham film. I was overcome. I “made a decision” for Christ. A few weeks later, I was preaching to the boys at the Homestead. We used one of the dormitories. No standing room. They were standing in rows on the beds, supporting themselves against the dormitory walls. They were sitting on the floor between the beds. On one occasion, Jan Malan, lumbered into the hushed dorm with his owl in a cage, tight shorts hugging his  khaki crack.  This photo captures the feathery camouflage, eyes lost in shadow of Jan’s owl.

The grey  of the owl’s feathers  matched the dim-wit glaze in Jan eyes.  The focus shifted from spiritual things to the owl, from one spiritual thing to another spiritual thing, from the revealed Word of God to omens. It’s very important, for what is to follow – to know whether the omen was Greek or Roman. For the Greek, the owl augurs good fortune – the “wise old owl”, the messenger of Athene, the goddess of wisdom. If an owl flew over the Greek army before a battle, it foretold victory. The Romans borrowed the owl –as they did most things – from the Greeks. The Romans were not sure whether the owl was Arthur or Martha. On the one hand, they made the owl the companion of their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva. On the other hand, the hoot of an owl meant imminent disaster. The hoot of an owl predicted the murder of Julius Caesar. The only way to thwart the owl was to kill  it.

I told everyone to close their eyes – “not one eye open” was one of the phrases I picked up somewhere in my very short exposure to preaching. If I had known the whole altar call speech it would have gone like this:

At this time, I’m going to ask those of you who have a need in your life for God’s touch to slip up your hand, with every head bowed and every eye closed. No one will see you. We’re not here to embarrass you in any way. If you’d like us to pray withyou, I’d like you to slip out of your seats while every head is bowed and come to the front, where our team of counsellors will meet with you. This is YOUR special time, it’s just between you and God. No one is peeking. As the choir very softly sings “Just As I AM”, I’d like you to search your heart. If you feel God calling you, get up out of your seats right now and come to this altar, and our specially trained counsellors will be happy to pray with you and give you some helpful literature to guide you in your new Christian walk.”

I couldn’t see the owl, because of the press. Had he one eye closed? I was too ignorant to understand that this type of altar call – perhaps any kind of altar call – is not the way to evangelise. Many evangelists and preachers use this instant coffee approach.

In the dormitory, there was no standing room. Everyone was standing, including on the beds. You could have heard a feather drop. How was anyone to know that it was not only one of the owl’s feathers that would drop? It happened so suddenly . Where a moment before, everything was rapturous attentive, suddenly a flurry of feathers and a wild surge of screaming and shouting boys jumping over one another making for the dormitory door. Jan’s owl had fled the cage.   The terrified bird was trying to find its way between the forest of stampeding legs. It got swallowed up in the crush of the fleeing  mob. The dorm was now empty; except for Jan, the feathers and me; and the poor owl dead on the floor.

At the time I never asked God why this strange thing happened. I can’t understand to this day, what I was doing preaching to crowds so soon after “giving my heart” to Jesus. Many decades later I learnt that you can’t give your heart to Jesus; he takes it, your heart of stone, and gives you a new heart, a heart of soft warm flesh. (See THE RABBI, THE EVANGELIST AND COMING “HOME.”).



What I am going to say now about the monastic, contemplative and hermitic life, and Roman Catholicism in general would probably have hurt my dear friend Louis-Albert with whom I had shared so much.

For about two decades, Catholicism was not only intellectually impressive to me, it also appealed to the “deeper” spiritual side. Not only could you theologise and philosophise about God, you could also become one with Him. I read the mystics. The two outstanding ones are St John of Cross (I wrote about his “Dark night of the senses” whom I wrote about here) and Teresa of Avila.

The mystical kind of spirituality is very popular today among all kinds of religions and non-religions. Those who get tired of the world yearn for an experiential connection to God. But, this yearning downplays the place of faith and Scripture. It exalts “transcendental” experiences that propel the person out of the mundane into a higher “spiritual” plane. But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer. If any practice – be it prayer, or some other contemplative practice – does not square with the Bible, it is not of God. For this reason, mystical meditation and “centering” (Richard Foster, Abbot Thomas Keating) is more a flight of fancy than Biblical Christianity. Biblical spirituality involves the study and meditation upon the literal truth of the Scripture; mystical spirituality, in contrast, looks for a “deeper meaning”, where scripture is regarded as allegorical rather than literal (the normal meaning of grammar, meaning and context, where history does not become allegory).

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Jesus, the Son God, writes Andrew Murray, is our High Priest. Our boldness of access is not a state we produce in ourselves by meditation or effort. No, the living, loving High Priest, who is able to sympathise and gives grace for timely help, He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him. Jesus, found and felt within our heart by faith, is our boldness. As the Son, whose house we are, He will dwell within us, and by His Spirit’s working, Himself be our boldness and our entrance to the Father. Let us, therefore, draw near with boldness!” (Andrew Murray, “The Holiest of All,” Oliphants, 1960, p. 174).

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we read:

No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The Church invites us to invoke the Holy Spirit as the interior Teacher of Christian prayer” (CCC 2681).

It is not the (Catholic) Church who invites us (Christians), but Christ. He invites us (who is His body, the “church”)  through his Word (the scriptures) to invoke the Holy Spirit to dwell in us in a deeper way.  “He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him” (Murray above).

Here is a response I received from a Catholic with regard to my argument that if prayer (for example, what I described as “transcendental” prayer) does not  square with the biblical kind of prayer, then this non-biblical kind of prayer is not talking to God, the God of the Bible.

My respondent says: “How can you say that …But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer…’ Your narrow minded, prescriptive view of the world is really sad. The sadness is that you really believe the nonsense you sprout. God is infinite – to limit him to one narrow written tradition, and to damn all other prayer is arrogance which is breath taking.”

Yes, I do limit valid prayer to one “narrow written tradition.” That is the difference between many Catholics, for example, Thomas Merton (whom I wrote about here) and Carlo Carretto (whom I wrote about here).

In Newsweek, Sept 2005, appeared a feature article  “Spirituality in America.” It said: “Americans are looking for personal, ecstatic experiences of God.” The article went on to describe the Catholic use of Buddhist’s teachings. For example, Father Thomas Keating, the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, noticed how attracted Roman Catholics were to the Eastern religious practices As a Trappist monk, meditation was second nature to the Abbot. Americans, like everybody else, is looking for transcendental prayer, transcendental meditation (TM), which could, it seems, also stand for “Trappist Meditation.”

The contemplative life. Here again, people left the world to pray for the world and to be closer to God. “The act of contemplation, imperfect as it needs be, is of all human acts one of the most sublime, one of those which render the greatest honor to God, bring the greatest good to the soul, and enable it most efficaciously to become a means of salvation and manifold blessing to others.” (NewAdvent).

In the last decade, contemplation as a fruitful pursuit is gaining in popularity. A popular modern author on this topic is Richard Foster. He says:

The apostle Paul withdrew for thirteen years from the time of his conversion until he began his ministry at Antioch. He probably spent three years in the desert and then approximately ten years in his home town of Tarsus. During that time he no doubt experienced a lot of solitude. This was followed by a period of very intense activity as Paul carried out his mission to the Gentiles. Paul needed both solitude and activity, and so do we. (Richard Foster, “Solitude” in Practical Christianity. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 305.”

I gather from the Apostle Paul’s life that he did very little withdrawing, but was continually in the thick of people. Having said that, it is true that “time spent in quiet prostration of soul before the Lord is most invigorating. . . . Quietude, which some men cannot abide, because it reveals their inner poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty designs to walk. . . . Priceless as the gift of utterance may be, the practice of silence in some aspects far excels it” (Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to students”).

The Bible advocates time for solitary devotion, prayer and adoration of God, but not the kind of sustained and continuous withdrawal from life. Why does the Bible not contain any pattern of isolation? One might respond that an argument from silence is no argument at all, that is, just because the Bible doesn’t say anything explicit about leaving the world for a hermitage, this does not mean that it is wrong to do so. My response: the Bible stresses in many places the importance of community, how Christians are knitted together in the Body of Christ, that I should not be an Island; as much as I often wish I was.

“Let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water [the “water” of the Holy Spirit] let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: 24 and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh” (Hebrews 10:22-25).

“Be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-21).

This does not mean you can never have a pious tipple – even if you are a Calvinist. But it does mean that the melodies you sing be sincere and true; for example, if you are going to sing “I wanna be with you-hoo-hoo, Lord,” don’t add “but not yet.”


2 thoughts on “In search of French past (7): The hermit, the poet and the clown

  1. Pingback: Should Christians dance wherever they may be? In church? At all? | OneDaring Jew
  2. I was delighted to read about your rapport with Fr. Louis Albert Lassus. I met him in 1988 and we became fast friends. At the time, I was on my way to Rome to finish some exams for my degree in theology. He was a wonderful man who had a great impact on my life. I will always be grateful to God for the gift of P. Louis-Albert in my life.

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