Who was Fr. Déchanet?

Beginnings

I hope my own experience will be of interest to others equally desirous of serving men and remaining faithful to the message of the living God and his Christ!
— Jean-Marie Déchanet

Jean-Marie Déchanet, O.S.B. was born Gabriel-Robert-Vladimir Déchanet in Isches (Vosges), France, on January 18, 1906. His father, Octave Déchanet, died when he was only two. His mother, Marie-Rose Braconnier, ran a small general store but still needed her parents’ help to raise him and his older brother. He remembered his grandparents with great affection and learned with them what it means to be happy in the face of  poverty and war. 

As fate would have it, he was born with epilepsy—a neurological disorder causing unexpected seizures often resulting in broken bones when the person loses consciousness and falls to the ground. Another common side effect of epileptic seizures is hearing loss, which Pere Jean experienced throughout his life and may account for his soft spoken voice. 

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Today there is medication to prevent these seizures, but in 1906, there was no cure. As a child, Pere Jean grew up with frequent seizures, so you can imagine how he was treated by schoolmates—not well to say the least. His saving grace was his intelligence, determination to fulfill himself in life and his single desire to live out his days as a humble monk. 

He lived with his grandparents throughout WWI, where he was close to the battles, especially to the battle of Verdun. That battle was the longest, deadliest battle in human history: in 1916, over 700,000 people died during the ten month battle, an average of 70,000 per month. In his writings about that time, he describes feeling the earth tremble and his house shake when bombs exploded nearby. He remembered the hunger everyone experienced during the war and having to survive with very little meat. His mother and grandparents kept packed suitcases near the front door in case they had to flee at a moment’s notice.

Just after the war, his mother married a man who fought the Germans for the French. Pere Jean’s new stepfather might have suffered from what they referred to as “shell shock” at the time and PTSD today. The emotional disturbances of war might account for his volatility and abuse of Pere Jean. The relationship between Pere Jean and his stepfather became untenable so he was forced to leave his house and go to live with one of his teachers—a priest—while he finished pre-seminary high school. 

Eventually, this priest advocated on Pere Jean’s behalf to get him into Saint Andrew’s Monastery in Bruges, who originally refused to accept someone with epilepsy. The monastery accepted him, so in 1924, at 18 years old, Pere Jean entered religious life as a monk in the order of St. Benedict.

The monastery, one of the last large monasteries in Europe (400 members at the time), was economically segregated. Applicants from aristocratic families entered the monastery in a higher monastic class. Usually the lower class monastics were the ones who performed all the manual labor—and that’s where Pere Jean spent almost 30 years. Additionally, because of his epilepsy, Church law forbade him from ordination to the priesthood. Thus, he continued to live with social prejudice and institutional oppression even within the fraternal community of monastic brotherhood.

A Holistic Theological Formation

He was, however, able to study—the monastery hosted a classic monastic library with over 200,000 books dating from medieval times. Pere Jean eventually became an expert on William of Saint-Thierry, a medieval monastic in the 12th century, who played a key role in the monastic reform of that time. Pere Jean made some original discoveries regarding his manuscripts and teachings, and Pere Jean’s publications gained him international recognition. Beginning in 1936, he published scholarly articles and a full-length biography of William of Saint-Thierry. In the 1950s, Pere Jean corresponded with Thomas Merton about challenges of reading medieval manuscripts. Today, the monks in the monastery in Bruges recognize him more for his writings on William of Saint-Thierry than his writings on yoga, which came later in his life—after World War II.

“However strange it may appear, I was lead to Yoga by William of Saint-Thierry. For twenty years I lived under the aegis of his living psychology, which in turn had been taken and adapted from Origen (himself an Oriental), and my greatest concern has been to insure that in me there should exist that balance of anima, animus, and spiritus which he makes the precondition—a point he stresses over and over again in all sorts of ways in his writing—of the unfolding in man of the grace of our Lord, and of the transition of the image (the mark of which is clearly set on these “three”) to divine resemblance.”
— Jean-Marie Déchanet

“However strange it may appear,” writes Pere Jean in the Preface to Christian Yoga, “I was led to Yoga by William of Saint-Thierry. For twenty years I lived under the aegis and influence of his living psychology, which in turn had been taken and adapted from Origen (himself an Oriental).” Indeed, Origen (185-254 C.E.) was one of the early church fathers in Alexandria, who taught a type of holistic theology based on Old Testament thought and Greek philosophy. So William of Saint-Thierry was inspired by Origen’s understanding of human nature and used Origen’s thought to help reform 12th century monastic life. In William of Saint-Thierry, Pere Jean found a view of Christian life that spoke highly of the human body, the spirit or “heart” as the center of the human being, and of the benefits of living in harmony with the natural world. Thus, Pere Jean developed a view of Christian living that allowed him later to interpret his experience of Hatha Yoga.

Inspired by William of St. Thierry, Pere Jean sought a balance between his corpus-anima (body), animus-mens (mind), and spiritus-cor (spirit/heart). He writes, “It is a harmony among these ‘three’ that is sought in each of us by the grace of redemption” (15). With this idea of harmony, or maybe a type of unity, as an organizing principle of Christian spirituality, Pere Jean was well prepared to understand Hatha Yoga as a spiritual practice in a Christian sense. Given his experience of epilepsy he no doubt was in a desperate search for a theology and a practice that would help him achieve harmony amongst his body, mind, and spirit.

But Pere Jean had not yet found yoga. In fact, as WWII raged across Europe, he was drafted into the French army not as a chaplain, but as a foot soldier (because he was not yet a priest). His monastery in Bruges was also overtaken and occupied by Nazis for two years. To this day, the monastery retains scars from the occupation—doodlings of Nazi soldiers on the bricks, bunkers they had built, etc. After WWII, Pere Jean and the other monks returned to the monastery with their own internal and external scars.

Around 1946, when he was about 40 years old, Pere Jean began receiving medicine for his epilepsy. The medicine stabilized him, allowing him to explore exercise, gymnastics, swimming. The medicine allowed him to focus on the anima, the body dimension of his being, in ways that he could not have before. The medicine also finally allowed him to be ordained as a priest on May 22, 1948.

 He became a member of the Dynam Institute, a holistic health program in Paris. Because he had no money to pay for the course, the founder of the Institute signed him up for free on the condition that he complete the entire program via correspondence. Pere Jean accepted the generous and challenging offer and committed to the regimen as a spiritual practice. He benefited greatly in body, mind and spirit from the program but still felt the exercises didn’t fit in very well in his monastic life. 

A Yoga Academic and Practitioner

One day a magazine crossed his desk featuring an article on Hatha Yoga and describing the benefits of eight yoga exercises. After trying them out, he was convinced that this “gymnastics of repose” was more fitting for his life as a monk and that they would take him further on the spiritual plane. He had been searching for something like this by studying William of Saint-Thierry’s holistic theology and exploring the exercises from the Dynam Institute. So when he found yoga, he knew immediately that yoga would allow him to embody the teachings of William of Saint-Thierry more fully than anything else he had encountered. From that point on, he dedicated himself to yoga.

In the 1940s in Europe, yoga was already becoming something of a hot topic in academic journals, and as an academic and practitioner Pere Jean joined in the discussion. Again, the monastic library enabled his research. The monastery in Bruges had (still has) missions in China, Africa, and India, and gathered an impressive collection of documents and books from all areas of the globe—on display, they even have a tapestry featuring Ganesh. Thus, Pere Jean was able to do significant research and publishing on yoga within the confines of the monastery.

One of the books he read was called (in French) The Face of Silence: A Book on Yoga. It’s quite possible that it was from this book that he got the idea for his book: The Way of Silence (French title). The Way of Silence was published in 1956, and its English translation, Christian Yoga, was published in 1960. The first editions were published anonymously by “A Yogi of Christ.” Later editions named Déchanet as the author. 

In 1956, possibly because of his publications on yoga, the monastery sent Pere Jean to the Belgian Congo as a missionary. It was a terrible time to be in the Congo, which was in the middle of one of the worst disasters in human history. When King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo in the late 1800s, he did not do so to establish a Belgian outpost—he colonized for slave labor. Essentially, the entire population was enslaved in a forced labor situation. More than 10 million Congolese people died during Belgian rule.

Pere Jean arrived in the Congo while it was struggling for independence, a process of war. An example: the first democratically elected prime minister was soon assassinated by the CIA and the Belgian government. The civil war was worst in Katanga, where Pere Jean was stationed at Saint Andrew’s Mission Kansenia. 

Under Pere Jean’s guidance, the mission in the Congo flourished. Pere Jean also taught yoga, and he wrote Yoga in Ten Lessons as a correspondence course for his readers in Europe. After eight years in the Congo, when his requests to adapt rather than impose European monastic culture on the locals was rejected by his superiors, he chose to leave the mission and return to France. 

“Tossed around as we are, if God wishes to speak to us, his voice, small and still, will be lost in the hubbub of our daily lives; the racket and noise drowning our minds will prevent his penetration into that seclusion we call ‘heart’—the living witness of that life in us which is most sacred and most true: the life we call ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual.’”
— Jean-Marie Déchanet

He asked for a six-month leave to travel around France, which his abbot granted. By this point in time, Pere Jean was ready for some quiet: having survived the Battle of Verdun in WWI, being a foot soldier in WWII, and civil war in the Belgian Congo, Déchanet was done organizations. In the south of France, he learned of a hermitage that had just been vacated, and asked for permission to live there rather than return to the monastery. Thus, in 1965, at the age of 58, Pere Jean became the hermit of Valjouffrey.

The Hermit and Community

Valjouffrey is a small town in the Southern Alps, and the hermitage is a short hike away. In this case, “hermitage” is just a fancy word for a small one-room house made of wood, with a loft for a mattress. In this area of the Alps, it is winter for ten months of the year, so most of the time Pere Jean used snow for his water supply. Eventually, he was able to pump in some water from a nearby stream. Pere Jean’s favorite way of practicing yoga was “in natural et in naturalilus”—in nature and in a natural state: naked in the woods.

Around this time, a young couple in their early 20s who had read Christian Yoga and wanted to spend time with him. In Lent of 1965, Gerard Charrier became Pere Jean’s first visitor. Every summer thereafter, Gerard and Madé visited Pere Jean at the hermitage, camping with him all summer long. 

Over the next few years, more people joined them from all over Europe—over 1,500 people altogether (Benedictines are known for their hospitality!). For 30 years, the hermitage near Valjouffrey became something of a summer yoga commune where Pere Jean, Gerard, Madé, and others would practice yoga, partake in Mass, hold sessions on hatha yoga, theology, whole foods, and other complementary topics, and simply be together as Christians practicing yoga. 

A great community was born out of this annual gathering. They built a small guest house and a dining hall to accommodate some of the summer visitors. Guest instructors would come--other priests, dance instructors, etc. There are photos of people practicing yoga out on mountainous grassy plains in bridge pose, doing dishes together, learning what it is to live in this way of silence. His disciples formed the Association of the Friends of J-M Déchanet, which exists to this day, maintaining the hermitage property.

Pere Jean was a writer who published prolifically in French. He wrote books, articles, and volumes of short Christian yoga magazines that he sent out to subscribers. Three of his books have been translated into English: Christian Yoga (English 1960, La Voie du Silence 1956), Yoga and God (English 1975, Journal d’un Yogi 1967), and Yoga in 10 Lessons (English 1965, French 1964). A compilation of his teachings will be published by Dana Moore through Paulist Press in the near future (publication date TBD).  

Pere Jean occasionally did leave the hermitage. He served as a member of the yoga council of Leon, as the spiritual advisor to the council. Twice, he and Gerard went to Canada to lead workshops on Christian yoga; once they also went to Spain. Pere Jean periodically traveled up to Gerard and Madé’s home in Nancy, France, to meet with his publishers. For the most part, though, Pere Jean lived off the grid—living his yoga.

Last Days

In 1990, Gerard received a phone call from the villagers in Valjouffrey, asking him to check on the hermit. At 86 years old, Pere Jean was no longer able to live alone, especially in the rough conditions of the hermitage, so Gerard brought him back to the monastery in Bruges. By then, however, the French and Dutch communities in the monastery had split, and the French-speaking monks had left. Pere Jean no longer spoke the common language of the monastery, and the present monks really had no interest in the elderly rogue eccentric who brought his dog with him into the monastery. 

He did have one friend, though—a young monk named Father Benoit, who had read Pere Jean’s books and admired him. Father Benoit, now in his 60s, holds the story of Pere Jean’s last years.

Something happened with Pere Jean’s medicine—he didn’t receive it, and he had another epileptic fit. He fell, broke his pelvis, and was taken to the infirmary. The doctors stabilized his bones with rods, so he was strapped to his bed with rods through his pelvis. 

When it was clear Pere Jean was dying, Gerard wrote letters to the members of the Association of the Friends of J-M Déchanet. People from the Association wrote Pere Jean letters of support, their letters of goodbye, thanking him for his life. The insertion points of the rods became infected, and Pere Jean died of the infection on May 19, 1992.

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 Afterword

In Pere Jean’s personal photo album, there is a page with two photos: one of him at the beach, and one of him in the monastery. In the margins, in his own French handwriting, Pere Jean wrote, “At the beach, in the monastery—the same man. Oh yes.”

Gerard reports that Déchanet had a saying: “Ieo la vie.”

Ieo is a Bantu word that Déchanet adopted in the Congo, which simply means “yes.”
La vie is French for “the life.”
Ieo la vie means “Yes to life.”

Imagine Déchanet’s life—all the trauma, all the struggle, and all the freedom—and then say, “Ieo la vie.”

Yes to life.