Bernard Le Caro, who wrote the foreword for Father Placide’s last book « De l’Orient à l’Occident. Orthodoxie et catholicisme » (From East to West. Orthodoxy and Catholicism) was invited by Father Guy Fontaine in his program « Une foi pour toutes » (Note: a French play on words with ‘once for all’ and ‘one faith for all’).
Here is a transcription of the podcast:
Last November, Des Syrtes editions published the work of Archimandrite Placide Deseille: From East to West. Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This was his last book. Father Placid passed on Christmas Day of the Julian calendar.
With Bernard Le Caro, who wrote the foreword for this work, we are going to recall the memory of this exceptional man and talk about his last book.
– Hello Bernard La Caro.
– Hello Father Guy.
– He was a man who spent his whole life in monasteries, starting very young, wasn’t he?
– We have to admit that he had a very early monastic vocation. But perhaps before talking his monastic life itself, I think it’s interesting to talk a bit about his background.
His family was very diverse. On the one hand, people who were very Catholic, close to monastic circles, and on the other hand, outright anticlericals, and there were also Protestants and Orthodox by marriage in this family. So you see it was very diverse.
As for his “a ha! moment” towards monastic life and perhaps towards Orthodoxy, it happened when he was around 12 years old. He read a periodical in which they were talking about the Meteora monasteries. It left a very deep impression on him.
A few years went by and Father Placid’s final vocation for monasticism manifested itself during the German occupation, because he was living in the North of France at the time. He began to frequent several Benedictine abbeys, then he went to Solesmes. He could feel in himself, as he wrote himself in his autobiography, “an attraction for harshness and for the primitive character of the Gospel”. That’s what he was looking for and that’s what led him to go to a Cistercian monastery, in 1942, at the abbey of Bellefontaine.
And what is quite striking is that at the time, abbots were very strict when they received new postulants. They were putting them to the test. But when Father Placid met with the Abbot of Bellefontaine, the abbot told him right away: so, when do you want to enter?
So you see, there was really something very deep in him, and so when he was 16, he entered the monastery. That was the starting point of his whole journey. At the monastery, he discovered the writings of Saint John Cassian and of other fathers, especially Saint Benedict, and it is this patristic lineage that eventually led him much later to Orthodoxy. We can say it is the thread of his life.
– And what brought him to Mount Athos?
– This is another difficult journey, because before arriving on Mount Athos, he began to be interested in Orthodoxy, thanks to the Father Cyprian Kern who taught patristic theology at the Saint Sergius Institute. And it was Father Cyprian Kern who made him discover Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Maxim the confessor, Saint Gregory Palamas. At that time, Father Placid also met Vladimir Lossky and read his famous book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a book which he described at the time as explosive. And that’s really what directed him, I would not say at the time once and for all, but rather decisively towards Orthodoxy.
What we have to mention here is the importance of the Second Vatican Council in his life. As many people at the time, Father Placid had the impression this council would be a return to the fathers of the church, a sort of rejection of the spirit of the counter-reform. Now, as we know, things turned out differently, and this is not what Father Placid was looking for in spiritual life. Having said that, he thought he could live his spiritual life in the patristic sense by joining the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, and that’s what made him found his community at Aubazine. At the time, someone said that at Aubazine, there was loneliness, a rather rough poverty, and a great simplicity of life.
So for ten years, Father Placid lived with the Eastern rite while remaining Catholic. In this context, he traveled to Orthodox countries, to Serbia, Romania, Greece, and Mount Athos. He went to Mount Athos in 1971 and here, I would like to share something that is quite interesting, a personal memory: at the time, I spoke on Mount Athos with Father Basil, who was then Igumen of the monastery of Stavronikita and Father Basil had just met Father Placid. The question Father Basil has asked Father Placid was, When you celebrate the Eastern rite while being a member of the Roman Catholic Church, don’t you feel that something there is not right? And Father Placid admitted that it was indeed something difficult for him to live. Father Basil then told me, Placid Father is on the right track.
Something else I’d like to add about Mount Athos. At the Meteora, he had met Father Emilianos, a great spiritual father of our century. Then Father Emilianos, with his whole community, went to the monastery of Simonos Petra. So these are the first ties of Father Placid with Mount Athos.
– So he became Orthodox and then, if I can say, he made the reverse journey he had made earlier, that is, he became a witness of Orthodoxy in the West.
– Absolutely. What is very interesting precisely, is that on Mount Athos, specifically at the monastery of Simonos Petra, he became Orthodox, he became a monk if I dare say, he naturally continued to be a monk. Then Father Emilianos told him, do not stay here, go rather to France, to your country, and there bear witness to Orthodoxy.
We have to explain that at the time on Mount Athos, they still had concerns about foreigners, they did not know exactly who they were, etc., and Father Emilianos had the immense courage to take Father Placid and his community under his protection. So Father Placid returned to France and he founded the monastery that still exists today: the monastery of Saint Anthony the Great, and later the female convent at Solan. He was also the spiritual father of the monastery located in Terrasson under the direction of Father Élie. So a whole spiritual breeding ground was created, and it still bears witness today.
– And Father Placid was a witness in many works, books, translations. He left a work that we could describe as monumental, couldn’t we?
– Absolutely. It is an intense work with several components. He wrote books and he also translated a lot. And that’s what I would like to emphasize here. He made accessible in French fundamental texts of Orthodox spirituality and of the fathers of the first centuries. First of all, I would like to mention The Ladder of Saint John Climacus, the Homilies of Saint Macarius, and especially Saint Isaac the Syrian.
And I must say that Father Placid not only had some well-known spiritual qualities, but he also had a sense of language that is quite exceptional. His translations into French are both very accurate and at the same time I would say that there’s a flow to them. The language is very easy to understand. Having made myself a certain number of translations, I must say it is a challenge: either you remain too close to the text and it becomes illegible, or on the contrary you move too far away from it. And Father Placid found a happy medium. I would not want to exaggerate, but I have to say that his translations were really inspired.
– Can we say that he had some influence on Orthodoxy in France, in the West?
– I would say he really had a lot of influence. First precisely through his translations, translations also of liturgical texts. He translated the book of Hours, a number of liturgical texts, and especially the whole Psalter according to the version of the Septuagint. For instance, this Psalter is in use today in almost all French-speaking parishes or in parishes that have services in French sometimes. I would say that’s perhaps its biggest influence. And he was very often invited to give lectures in different Orthodox parishes and he really had an impact.