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225. June 12/25, 1976 St. Arsenius of Konevitz

Dear Daniel,

Greetings in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a brief report on the holy places of France and Switzerland which we hope you may be able to visit. Information of these will be part of our introduction to St. Gregory’s Life of the Fathers, but it is still in very fragmentary form. The whole of 5th and 6th century Gaul is extremely interesting and inspiring for us Orthodox Christians of the last times—probably most of all because spiritual struggle was then the center of attention for everyone in any way close to the Church, as opposed to our times when worldliness possesses everyone, including those most involved in the Church. If only God will give us the strength to complete and print this book!—please pray for this.

Our Russian book on Vladika John (200 pages) is finally printed, and we only hope we can get some copies sewn and bound in time for his feast, just a week away. We feel we have done our duty to Vladika John and Vladika Savva (whose book it actually is); but we rather expect to be persecuted for it. Vladika Savva told us that the difficulties of his last years were the devil’s revenge on him for glorifying Vladika John. May God grant us strength to endure whatever comes and not grow fainthearted. Please pray for us. We feel that very difficult times are ahead for all who wish to stay in the true spirit of Orthodoxy. The church-political atmosphere now is such that we actually feel like some kind of criminals just for saying elementary things, such as that Vladika John heals the sick and works miracles; so we were especially encouraged when, of the several bishops we asked, Archbishop Nikon sent us his brief memoirs of Vlad. John in time to be printed at the end of the book, in which he says this very thing—that because of his love and struggle, Vlad. John was granted by God the grace-given gift of healing those who come to him with faith. Vladika Nikon will probably die soon—another of the older generation to depart, and who among the younger will take the tradition and hand it on?

Now a brief report:

The Jura Mountains in Eastern France bordering on Switzerland, are the “Thebaid of the Gauls,” an area about 30 x 45 miles which in the 5th and 6th centuries and later abounded in monasteries and cells of monks and nuns. The monastery of Condat (or Condatiscum, now the town of St. Claude) was probably the next great monastic settlement in the West after St. Martin and Lerins, and was fully in their spirit. The Jura monasteries are especially interesting to us because they are a forested desert, very close to the spirit of the Northern Thebaid (or to the American Thebaid that could be if there were souls to match the mountains!).

The founder of monastic life in the Jura is St. Romanus (died c. 460) and then his brother St. Lepucinus. St. Gregory writes briefly about them in the Life of the Fathers, but we have also their complete lives in a 6th century text.

St. Romanus was born in the Jura and received his monastic formation at a monastery in Lyons, where in the first half of the 5th century there were disciples both of St. Martin and of St. Honoratus of Lerins. The latter s disciple, St. Eucherius, was Bishop of Lyons; to him St. Cassian dedicated seven books of the Conferences. He wrote the “Praise of the Desert,” which speaks of forested deserts. Inspired by such preceptors, St. Romanus at the age of 35 left Lyons and went into the mountains not far from his native village, taking with him St. Cassians Institutes and the Lives of the Egyptian Fathers, also some seeds and one tool for digging. After roaming the mountains he found a spot to his liking on a stream between two great cliffs—the present town of St. Claude. He lived at first in a fir tree whose branches reached to the ground and provided shelter against the deep snows of winter; then, after being joined by his brother and then two other desert lovers, separate wooden cabins began to be built for each—an Eastern Lavra in the forest. Only 70 years later, when fire destroyed the then numerous cabins which had become crowded together, was a barracks built and the coenobitic rule established.

Sts. Romanus and his brother St. Lepucinos (or Lupicinus) built three other main monasteries and a convent, and there were many sketes and cells attached to them—a veritable Athos of the mountains, with perhaps close to 1000 monks during their lifetimes. St. Romanus was abbot over all of them until his death, travelling from one to the other.

Of all these establishments there is not much left today, but for the Orthodox pilgrim the very mountains are holy, and probably there are many wild places left which look much as they did 1500 years ago. The following places would be of special interest:

(1) Condat: now the worldly town of St. Claude. (There is a long history of how the monastery became a wealthy landowner, the abbots were feudal princes; then came secularization of the holdings, etc.) The present cathedral (not too old, I think, though perhaps it does go back to 1400 or so, I don’t recall—here were kept the relics of St. Claude, a 6th-century abbot, which were burned in the French Revolution.) is probably close to the original settlement of St. Romanus. It is probably still surrounded by forest, and around one of the two cliffs which loom up on both sides of the town there used to be a “St. Anne’s Hermitage” which would be interesting to see if it still exists. What is the landscape like? Can you get photographs? What kind of forest? Can you get a cone and leaves of the firs or whatever tree predominates?—actually, we would like fir at any rate, because that was St. Romanus’ original cell. What is the elevation?

(2) St. Lupicin: a village a few kilometers from St. Claude, I think on the same river Bienne (a tributary of the Rhone)—perhaps you could get a photo of this river? Here in the 19th century the relics of St. Lepucinus were still kept and the villagers still piously kept his feast day and memory. This was the site of one of the main monasteries (with 150 monks), over which St. Lepucinus was placed— it was built to provide food for the monks, as farming was difficult at the original site. What is the countryside like here? Are the relics of the Saint still there? Can you get earth from near them, or anything else?

(3) St. Romain-de-Roche (St. Romanus of the Cliff)—5 km. southeast of St. Lupicin, further down the Bienne, site of the convent of La Balme (500 nuns), under the Saints’ sister, St. Yole. The convent disappeared early, and now there seems to be a Catholic monastery on the site. This is a valley ending in cliffs which have caverns in them (I don’t think there’s a record of nuns living in them, however). St. Romanus’ relics were once here—perhaps they still are? If so, please get earth or anything from nearby—in fact, it would be good to get a little earth even if the relics are no longer there.

(4) (Less important) Grandvaux, some miles of St. Lupitin, next to a lake—was one of the monastic settlements sent out after St. Romanus’ time. Six miles from here, on lake Bonlieu, was another monastic settlement (6th century, I think) with 20 monks (in a valley called Combe d’Ain). Apparently there are a few ruins of these establishments left.

(5) Romainmoutier: “St. Romanus’ Monastery.” This is apparently 30 or 40 miles from St. Claude, in Switzerland; there seems to be some doubt as to its origin, but very likely it is one of the monasteries founded by St. Romanus. In any case, it is interesting because it is one of the few churches of Gaul surviving in large measure from the 7th century or so. Apparently it is in Protestant, or perhaps government, hands now—could you get photographs? Is there any evidence that there were originally frescoes inside?

(6) Agaunum: further on into Switzerland on the same road from St. Claude-Romainmoutier. I don’t know if a monastery or anything survives there today, but this is the site of the martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, where there were monks’ cells in the time of St. Romanus (he visited them), and in 515 the rule of the Constantinopolitan “Laus perennis”—constant singing of the Psalter—was established, with 100 monks being sent from Condat to help form the choir. There must be at least some kind of church left there now, probably called “St. Maurice d’Agaune.”

Of course, there were many other early saints in this area and nearby, and probably there are still traces of some of them. But we would be most interested in the places I’ve mentioned. Just the “feel” of the mountains and forests, some photographs if possible, and especially information on relics, and at least a little memento of these places—earth and a fir cone!—would be very dear to us.

I must send this off. Pray for us. We look forward to hearing from you.

With love in Christ,
Seraphim, monk

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