Archive, Reviews

Porion, Lettres et écrits spirituels

Published in Collectanea Cisterciensia, 77 (2015), 92-4

Having spent several months with this book, reading a letter or two a day, I put it down with a sense of bereavement. Dom Porion is a wonderful correspondent: gracious, concise, engaged. Each of his carefully crafted sentences is charged with meaning. The volume could stimulate prurient curiosity. Who is not fascinated by the closed world of the Charterhouse? Anyone hoping for indiscretions will be let down. Porion’s sights are consistently set high. Each text in this collection bears witness to his option for the inner life, the higher life, the life of the world to come. ‘Que les valeurs visibles soient légères dans vos mains’, he wrote to Georges Bourgeaud. Porion bore witness to that maxim by his life.
The outline of Porion’s biography can be sketched with great economy. Born in 1899, he joined La Valsainte in 1925. He served as Procurator General in Rome for 35 years from 1946. In 1987 he slipped into eternity. Though his life was resolutely hidden, it is full of interest. This is so not least because he had interesting friends. Stanislas Fumet, addressed as ‘Très cher Stouchk, tendre Minotaur’, was a figure of reference in Porion’s life from the moment the two men met in 1919, on military service. They had shared ideals, shared intellectual concerns, a shared sensibility. Fumet’s wife and family, too, became integral parts of Porion’s life. His exchanges with them, lasting throughout his life, bear witness to his gift for friendship. He was able at once to be distant and close, remaining always entirely a monk.
It was in a letter to Fumet’s son-in-law that Porion expressed the sense of the contemplative life: ‘Il y a un mystérieux progrès de la contemplation, qui ne ressemble à rien de ce qu’on nomme ailleurs ainsi: une découverte inépuisable du même.’ Fumet’s circle of friends embraced Porion as one of their own. He exchanged letters with Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Georges Cattaui, and Jean de Menasce. Charles Journet is another faithful correspondent. The two men had a similar understanding of many things, though they approached them differently. Journet, said Porion, ‘maintenait très fort le caractère exprimable des choses sur lesquelles il devait enseigner. Et cela se comprend. Alors que le chartreux, lui, est porté à croire que le dernier mot n’est pas un mot.’ The temperature of their exchanges rose during the years of the Second Vatican Council.
Porion feared that the Church’s stress on engagement with the world made it downplay the value of contemplative life. He also felt that much conciliar and post-conciliar discourse peddled a facile optimism: thoughtless confidence in ‘progress’, clerical naïveté face to face with the anguish of the world, a fascination with modernity, which, analysed close up, turns out to be ‘une capitulation de l’humain devant la technique’. He suspected that a too human spirit at times got confused with divine inspiration. In November 1967, after a day spent talking to an unnamed member of the OCSO, Porion remarked laconically: ‘ils croient que, par une explosion sans précédent de la grâce, le charisme de fondateur se trouve maintenant aussi répandu que la faculté de conduire une automobile.’ He was not convinced. Porion regarded fads in theology with detachment. While his contemporaries were swept off their feet by Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, and Teilhard, ‘estimables théologiens-journalistes’, Porion counselled caution. He was in no way small-minded. On the contrary! But he thought the day would come when apparent landslides in theology would be relativised, seen in a truer perspective.
Much of the volume is taken up by Porion’s letters to fellow Carthusians. With one such, the Dutch Dom GVD, he discussed the finer points of his translation of Hadewich, the thirteenth-century Beguine, whom Porion read with astonishment throughout his adult life : ‘elle danse à la limite des mondes, elles est en coquetterie avec l’ineffable’. Ruusbroec was another favourite: ‘Ayant relu l’Ornement des Noces, j’en ai été tout embaumé et ravi. J’ai relu aussi Maître Eckhart, avec des saisissement de joie.’ With another Carthusian, Dom TC, he shared his interest in Taoist texts, which he read in Chinese.
Of course, we find him referring again and again to the canon of Carthusian writings. Porion’s love of his Order’s heritage, of Carthusian ‘bon sens’, is unfaltering. He loved the contemplative ideal. But what is a contemplative? ‘Un homme qui s’enivre d’eau claire, bue à la source.’ The contemplative life calls for a continuous new beginning. In 1955, Porion confided to Charles Journet: ‘C’est une curieuse chose que la vocation contemplative: franchement, je ne peux pas dire que j’aie fait carrière dans les voies intérieures, et sincèrement pourtant je ne saurais concevoir le moindre regret de m’y être lancé, tout au contraire: il est mille fois plus intéressant d’échouer dans ce domaine que de réussir dans un autre.’ This great-souled man never ceased to strive ahead. When, a year before his death, he was immobilised by rheumatism, he embraced that, too, as grace: ‘Point de départ choisi par mon ange pour une vie de pas à pas simplement Contemplative.’ ‘Il est tout perdu en Dieu’, said one of his brethren at about that time: ‘on a parfois l’impression qu’il n’est plus sur cette terre.’ As Porion himself once wrote, sooner or later ‘il faut faire comme les séraphins: aller voir et ne pas revenir.’
This is a wonderful book. It offers a complex testimony to the interior life of a man who kept repeating, ‘il faut se simplifier’. Porion was consumed with longing for God, yet was a loyal, kind, attentive friend. His vast intellectual culture was a means to focus the mind on the unum necessarium. This polyglot master of language never lost his essential conviction : ‘je dévouvre toujours de nouveau le silence comme expression de l’unique certitude.’ We owe Nathalie Nabert and the Carthusian Order a debt of gratitude for sharing the legacy of Dom Porion. Any monastic library that fails to buy this book will commit a gigantic mistake.