An Orthodox Politics?: Saint Jean of Saint-Denis

My priest and spiritual father gave me an English translation of Saint Jean of Saint-Denis’s Technique de la prière (A Method of Prayer for Modern Times, published by Praxis Institute Press in 1993), which I’ve been reading off-and-on since the fall. Saint Jean of Saint-Denis was born Evgraf Kovalevsky and was the first hierarch of the Orthodox Church of France. He was a friend and associate of Vladimir Lossky and wrote many French-language books on prayer and spiritual life before his death in 1970. He was canonized in 2008. Saint Jean’s writings are wonderful: a compelling mixture of mid-century French thought (he refers to insights from psychoanalysis, existentialist philosophy, comparative religious studies, and even Marxism) with the Orthodox mindset or phronema (a topic I wrote more about here). They embody a lovely balance of the universal truths between the Christian faith and the cultural particularity of Saint Jean’s life in France.

Much within the Orthodox mindset depends on moderation (for an Orthodox perspective on moderation, click here). This is not universally true in every culture: in certain societies (such as my liberal, secular, capitalist society), much in Orthodoxy seems extreme. But within in the broad historical and cultural streams that Christianity has inhabited throughout the millennia, Orthodoxy has usually occupied the moderate or middle way. The Orthodox Christian Church has sometimes drifted too far left or right, but it invariably corrects itself and returns itself to, well, orthodoxy. I don’t write this to valorize moderation qua moderation. Sometimes truth and righteousness compel us to take extreme positions. But in general, the Church has emphasized balance. This is unsurprising for an institution whose word for sin is often rendered as “passion.”

So I’ve been reading Saint Jean’s Technique de la prière, and I came across the following passage that really struck me as measured and thoughtful. It describes, I believe, a suitably Orthodox approach to politics in a liberal, secular society. Saint Jean is reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer in this passage, specifically the line “give us this day our daily bread.” He writes:

[G]ive us what maintains life, so that material problems will not disturb us beyond measure; in other words, free us from the useless cares of the world. … We frequently hear it said that it is easier to live in a monastery than in the world: no more taxes, no children, no fear of the future, etc., etc. I will reply, without dwelling on the spiritual difficulties which monks encounter, that one of the goals of monastic life is precisely to be freed from cares, for difficult sacrifices have no ‘a priori’ value. A man who makes his life especially painful is impossible for himself and others to live with. Social reforms, Christian socialisms, consist not in procuring justice or comfort above all, but in making life easier; all else is false romanticism. … That it is indispensable to overcome obstacles is true, but we should always applaud and collaborate as far as possible in the efforts which make life easier. The modern danger resides in the fact of creating and adding useless needs, confusing that which lightens the burden of existence with that which excites it.

I’ve written about my own left-leaning anti-socialism here. The idea that life can be rendered easier by modest and efficacious measures, and that Christians should support these measures, struck me as especially sensible. In our consumer-driven capitalist society, one frequently confuses “easier” with “faster,” “hungrier,” or “more efficient.” This is not what Saint Jean recommends; frequently, a “faster,” “more efficient” life creates what he calls “useless needs,” which burden us and obstruct our relationship with God.

Likewise, too much concern for abstract notions of justice and comfort can descend into what Saint Jean calls “false romanticism,” a desire to refashion the fallen world into Eden. Such false romanticism, as history attests, usually results in troubles greater than those it sought to vanquish.

Saint Jean instructs us to follow a path between cruel inaction, which hardens the soul to the plight of others, and blind adherence to worldly ideologies, which only supplant one another imperfectly in endless succession. Saint Jean’s middle way offers us a perspective on Christian engagement with politics, even with socialisms that are not openly hostile to Christian faith, that genuinely unburden modern humankind from its troublesome passions, appetites, and toil.

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