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.
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.