A brief summary of the life of father Jean THEVENON
1. Childhood and Youth
Father Jean Thévenon was born on the 27th of March 1925. He was the eldest of four children, and he spent his childhood in Suresnes, near Paris. His recollection of this period of his life was of a solidly-rooted Christian faith among the locals, an intense and charitable parochial life and also of a rural Parisian suburb, with its gardens and orchards. He liked to recall this period of his life. He would speak of his walks with his father on the heights over the Seine, where his father would show him Paris in the distance, covered by a light, bluish haze.
“These hills hadn't changed much since Corot had painted them (“Le Chemin de Sèvres”). “My father would tell me ‘in a few years from now they will be covered with houses.' He was right.” (1) Father Thévenon would evoke local characters, such as “Mama Spiced Bread”, or Fat Deval the paver, or Allais the grocer, Doctor Prache and Father Delattre. In his notes he would later describe the character of Father de Villars, a Jesuit and former missionary who taught catechism.
2. Meeting Father Fillere
After graduating from a technical secondary school, Father Thévenon began work as a technical draughtsman in the Armaments Service at Rueil Malmaison in 1945. It was during this period that he met Father Fillere, who became his spiritual guide and who inspired his religious vocation. Thévenon became an activist member of the “City Of Youth”, an organization created by Fillere. Thévenon was much influenced by the teaching of Father Fillere, especially regarding the education of the young, and he adopted Fillere's radical vision of religion, neither progressive nor conservative. As Thévenon later said, “Christianity precludes competition; it is totalitarian. God requires all of a man!” (2)
In May 1948 Thévenon entered the Don Bosco Institute, a seminary in Maretz, in the north of France. In 1950 he studied at the seminary for late vocations of Paris at Morsang-sur-Orge and at the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux. Father Thévenon was ordained priest on 29 June 1956 in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in Paris.
3. The Parish Years
In 1956, Father Thévenon was named “praefecti” at the Saint Nicholas School in Paris. His wish at the time was to undertake theological studies. His bishop, his Lordship Felletin, reacted indifferently to Thévenon's request and instead recommended that the latter take up technical studies in order to prepare him better to teach in the workingman's world. For Father Thévenon this was a cruel disappointment which showed up, to his eyes, the lack of interest felt by part of the Church hierarchy for the sacred, which is the soul of the church.
In 1957, Thévenon became vicar of Saint John's parish in Drancy, a Parisian suburb, and in 1959 he was named vicar of Saint Theresa of Avila at Butte Rouge, in the township of Chatenay-Malabry, a southern suburb of Paris. In 1960, Thévenon became vicar in the Sacred Heart parish of Malakoff, also a southern suburb of Paris, and his superior there was Father Jonvelle. In 1963 he was named chaplain in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre, Paris. At this time he created the “Rising Sun” group, a lay association whose aim was to study the social doctrine of the Church, theology, liturgy, and their application.
In 1966 he took up parish life again by becoming vicar of Sainte Geneviève in Rosny-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris. He continued his work with the “Rising Sun” group and created a youth group, “The Saint Michael Association”, whose aim was to promote Christian pedagogy among young people. In his parish he concentrated on the liturgy, that “privileged space where God and man meet” (3), “the principal source of spiritual life” (4), emphasizing gesture, the liturgy and chanting and doing away with the profane and sterile prattling so fashionable at the time.
He came up against a “progressive” faction in the parish which spared him no low blow, including petitions to the bishopric and calumnies. Suffering from asthma, he could no longer stand the deleterious atmosphere in his parish and thus decided to isolate himself for a while, with the grudging consent of the bishopric which, it must be said, never cut off his subsidy.
Two old farmhouses had been acquired by the “Rising Sun” group to allow the Parisians of the group to relax and be together in the country. In 1974, Father Thévenon retired to one of them, near the town of Le Mans. This “house” was an old farm outbuilding, with no comforts at all and even without electricity, its only facility being a well. Father Thévenon furnished it with monastic sobriety. He did not at the time intend to become a hermit. It was only later, when he had become known as “the priest of the forest” or “the hermit priest by the locals that he accepted this appellation, not without a certain amusement.
Perched in an attic open to the weather, under a roof and between two walls and two bits of tent, without heat or insulation, he organized his bedroom. His bed consisted of a couple of planks of wood and a sleeping bag.
Father Thévenon spoke seldom of his physical hardships. Once he wrote, in answer to a specific question, “My health is all right, although during the cold and humid spring I have asthma attacks, especially at night. Then I must get up and go breathe fresh air outside. These difficulties are the logical consequence of my problems with the current Church. I don't complain. A colleague and friend of mine suffered from a nervous depression and had trouble surmounting it. Another friend, whom I would visit in hospital (he had just suffered a second heart attack) used to tell me: ‘The progressives will have my hide!' And indeed they did. Etc. ” (5) Father Thévenon also suffered from arthritic pain in his leg and in his back. Usually he answered the questions asked of him smilingly: “Men are like houses: with age they lose their shingles and begin to crack.”
5. The Message
Two lines of thought will determine the rest of his life.
First of all, Father Thévenon was convinced that Christianity, as a political system, is outdated. “In the chaos of the modern world, only that which the Lord established will survive.” (6). Faithful to the spirit of his spiritual father, Thévenon taught that the only thing which counts for a Christian is what he called “The Mystic”, defined as “a passionate love for Christ and for His Church.”
Next, Thévenon believed that contemporary society, which is resolutely atheist, turned towards a vision of the egocentric individual, self-satisfied and seeking only comfort in life, is headed inevitably towards its own demise. One must, said Thévenon, prepare oneself to survive in precarious circumstances and struggle to conceive of everything through love of Jesus Christ, according to the simplicity of the evangelical message.
Thus he restructured “Rising Sun” to form Christian cadres, while ridding the association of all formalism in favour of “The Mystic”. At this time he created “The Companions of The Rising Sun”. These “companions”, trained in his doctrine, formed to religious life by the practice of the liturgy and filled with “The Mystic” must then create their own groups, without any central organization and with no other signs of belonging beyond being themselves Christian.
It was at this time that Father Thévenon concentrated particularly on the Holy Shroud of Turin and on Saint Benoit Labre. His conversation during this period was heavily impregnated with these two subjects, whose study he recommended to his friends.
Father Thévenon's door was always open to those in distress, and he had an ever-growing stream of visitors, some seeking counsel and others simply curious. Many would remain faithful friends, and he became the spiritual guide for a number of them.
6. The Hermit
Father Thévenon's life then became truly the life of a hermit. The ascetic life which he imposed upon himself became with age a trial which he decided to accept. He who in maturity lived precariously and in little comfort decided in his old age and in declining health to detach himself from all material things. He was no longer interested in anything except the contemplation of the crucified Jesus, as his last sermon on Palm Sunday 2002 shows. His health rapidly declined and his style of life began to alarm his friends. After a brief hospitalization he returned one last time to his abode and died on 10 May 2002. Several days earlier he had written: "Let us reflect on our final hour of life. It is not the end of life; it is a change of life, the entry into the true life. Let us observe that Jesus does not speak of the day when death shall come, but of the day when He shall come, He who is Life.”
(1) private conversation during the 80s
(2) Father Thévenon 1975
(6) conversation, in the 90s