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France, la sainte: A pilgrimage with Vladimir Lossky

Seven Days on the Roads of France, June 1940
By Vladimir Lossky. Trans. Michael Donley (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012).

On June 13, 1940, Vladimir Lossky left Paris to enlist in the French army. His destination kept retreating from him as he went. Directed to one town after another, and misdirected along the way, it finally became clear that there was no army waiting to receive him. What began as his march to war would end as a “path homewards” (p. 52).

Seven days and 600 kilometers after he left Paris, he was reunited with his family in a small town in southern France. He wrote this diary of his journey a few days later. A brisk and engaging read, only published in recent decades, Seven Days on the Roads of France offers an intimate portrait,[1] quite different from Lossky’s academic writings, introducing him as a man of his time and place. On the road and on foot, he is no detached, intellectual émigré, but an acting, walking citizen responding to, and reflecting upon, the extraordinary travails and upheavals of life.

He made his way through the disorder and confusion of war, where fleeing crowds choked the roadways, already clogged by bombed-out or abandoned vehicles. His account, pervaded by an attentive and sensitive voice, seems sometimes artless and ingenuous. Reflecting on his first encounter with German warplanes, he writes:

Everything that had just been happening had been so unexpected, so abrupt and swift that, in my case, any reaction such as fear or panic was impossible, since nothing lasted long enough to take shape or sink into one’s consciousness. I had the strange impression of witnessing a child’s game: fireworks going off, cardboard buildings set on fire, the harmless rat-a-tat of toy machine-guns echoing high overhead. (p. 34)

At the same time, Lossky’s reflections are never far removed from his Christian faith. His diary is bespectacled with scriptural figures and echoes:

At Longjumeau some kind people gave us fresh water to drink and filled our bottles and canteens. It was the only thing they had to offer, but what a humane gesture, what an eternally precious gift, like the “cup of cold water” in the gospels. (p. 23)

Lossky sees biblical figures emerging in the experience of this strange procession, but he does not always know which shape they are taking:

In the train were people of all sorts, of every tongue and nation: Belgians, Poles, Russians, Spaniards, Greeks, Moroccans, Africans. The confusion of Babel? Or the miracle of Pentecost? Both interpretations were possible. (p. 62)

Lossky’s journey is a pilgrimage from the beginning. Setting out from Paris, he reflects on the way he is about to follow, the old Roman road to Orléans: “A road trodden by countless generations of those who have made France what she is. A road of kings and saints” (p. 22). As he walks in the footsteps of these saints, he meditates on France’s difficult pilgrimage and discerns God’s mysterious leading. Isaiah 55:8 becomes a leitmotif for organizing the twists and turns of his weeklong tramp: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

The diary reveals a cultured appreciation of the French landscape and its history, but even more strikingly, an immense love for the Christian history of Lossky’s adopted country. Crossing through a region distinguished for its historic resistance, he commends an even more central stronghold for France’s resistance:

Namely, the traditions of Christian France, hardworking and faithful to its ancient soil that was made forever blessed by her saints. Invasions come and go, empires crumble. France will survive. (p. 74-75)

I suspect that Lossky’s unmistakable patriotism will surprise many readers. Before reading this diary, I had scarcely thought of Lossky as French. Reading it, it is impossible to think of him as anything else. From this diary, he might not appear as a Russian émigré at all, but as a lover of France and her native traditions. France is “the most beautiful country on earth” (p. 73), but even more, the “elder daughter of the Church” (p. 54).

Above all, however, the land was sanctified from the very first centuries by the blood of her martyrs and the constant prayers of her saints. (p. 74)

In its more argumentative ruminations, Lossky’s diary is an extended meditation on the spiritual patrimony of France and a call for the renewal and regeneration of Western Christianity in the face of secularization. To be sure, his meditations do press against the subsequent development of Roman Catholicism — “No, the esprit latin is not the esprit français” (p. 36) — but they are not chiefly polemical.

What Lossky champions against Roman accretion he claims for France’s own patrimony. French Christianity, he insists, “keeps deeply rooted within her being the latent tradition of Gallicanism” (p. 65). And, for Lossky, Gallicanism seems little different from Orthodoxy:

Gallicanism is nothing other than the defence of the rights of one local church, autonomous in its interior life, faithful to its ancient traditions of ancient piety and the Christian culture particular to it. It is at the same time a universalism, but a concrete one based on the rich diversity of Christian territories each guarding its traditions; on a multiplicity of local churches, different from each other yet at the same time forming the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. For the mystery of catholicity lies in a unity which is diverse. (p. 65)

Lossky’s devotion is sincere and often touching. Arriving at Orléans, making his way to the gendarmerie, a chance encounter with a street sign sets Lossky on a more urgent detour:

Suddenly my attention was seized by a certain street name: Saint Aignan. I turned on my heels and headed straight for the cathedral, quite ashamed of myself. I had forgotten that Orléans was the seat of this great bishop. That, just like St Geneviève in Paris, he had halted the Huns at the very ramparts of the city. Before doing anything else, I felt I had to venerate his relics, for it was he who was the real master of this place. But where were they to be found? Nobody could tell me, and my question probably seemed ridiculous. The terrified population was busy packing its bags. The town was being evacuated. (p. 45)

On the road, Lossky continued to find among French Christians moving examples of authentic piety and faithfulness. Moreover, besides his devotion to ancient French saints like St. Aignan or St. Geneviève, Lossky’s piety could comfortably include the 15th-century saint Joan of Arc and even Marian apparitions of the 19th century. He was especially devoted to the apparition of Our Lady at La Salette (1846), in whose message he found the promise of a renewed faith and evangelical mission for the future of Western Christianity.[2]

Seven Days on the Roads of France recounts a formative personal experience and offers a new glimpse of a great Orthodox theologian. Looking back on his ordeal, Lossky explains what he learned from it and why he clings to it.

[The roads of France] had shown me the treasures of misery and that hope that shines amid the greatest imaginable distress. They had taught me to recognize Providence where we normally only see chance. They had taught me to know that the ways of God are not our ways, although we are called to follow them all the same, as did the saints of old. (p. 82)

Orthodox or not, you will benefit immensely from reading this diary, if you have already met Lossky in his other, academic writings. If you haven’t read any of his other books yet, starting with this one may benefit you most of all.


[1] This diary wasn’t published until 1998. The volume also includes remembrances from Lossky’s children. This English translation is the second volume in the Orthodox Christian Profiles series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

[2] “France could become a focus of regeneration for Western Christianity in a Europe that is becoming de-Christianised. She could become a land of a new Christian mission, the land of those ‘Apostles of the Last Times’ announced by the Holy Virgin to Mélanie on the hilltop at La Salette” (p. 66).


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