Spiritual joy: Jacques Lusseyran

Another exemplar of spiritual joy is Jacques Lusseyran, who was a high school student in Paris at the time the German army occupied France in 1940. Although he had been totally blind since age eight as the result of an accident, Lusseyran, who was then sixteen, decided to organize his friends and other students into an underground group to resist the occupation. Within a year the group numbered some 600 members who produced and distributed an illegal underground newspaper despite the risk of imprisonment, torture or death if they were caught. Lusseyran describes the mood of both surrender and joy he experienced in the resistance movement:

“Aside from Philippe, who had a family . . . I had not a single friend who had anything left to lose. They had given up literally everything except life. As a result there was not a trace of frivolity left in them . . . On my word of honor, the air was different where my friends were. There you could smell joy. Even when they were sad and talking about their own death, the smell of their talk was good and gave you a lift.”

Lusseyran was eventually betrayed by a pro-Nazi student who infiltrated the resistance group, resulting in the arrest of Lusseyran and other leaders of the group. During the intense interrogation sessions that followed, Lusseyran observed: “It was a fact that when I managed to forget their presence, when I forgot everything except what I found in the depths of my being, in the innermost sanctum of my inner world, in the place which, thanks to blindness, I had learned to frequent, and where there is absolutely nothing but pure light—when this happened the SS did not wait for my answers; they changed the subject. Then, naturally, they didn’t know what they were doing, and I knew it hardly any better.”

What Lusseyran is referring to in this passage is that after he became blind he found that he could sometimes perceive the people and objects around him as light or as a subtle “pressure” that projected beyond the physical limits of the objects. When out walking he could sense the location of trees along the road as well as other objects such as walls, doorways and windows. But he discovered that this was possible only when he was inwardly very still, attentive and receptive; if he tried to control the experience or became impatient, he failed. “I had to let the trees come toward me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move toward them.” When he was able to do so, “then rocks and trees came to me and printed their shape upon me like fingers leaving their impression in wax.”

The experience of spiritual joy which Merton describes would likely be facilitated by the ability to free the mind from the grip of incessant thoughts, impulses and emotions—to drop into a place of inner stillness and receptivity—and this is precisely the discipline which Luceyran’s blindness required of him. Lusseyran found that the arising of negative emotions was an impediment to his “seeing.” “Still, there were times,” he wrote, “when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing. It happened every time I was afraid . . . What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear. It made me blind . . . When I was playing with my small companions, if I suddenly grew anxious to win, to be first at all costs, then all at once I could see nothing. Literally I went into fog or smoke. I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes . . . all at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it. But when I was happy and serene, approaching people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light . . .” So, long before Lusseyran faced the ordeals of interrogation and imprisonment, he had developed a keen sensitivity to the arising of negative emotions and the ability to evoke a state of inner stillness.

Following interrogation, Lusseyran was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
One of the keys to survival, he discovered, was to live fully present in each moment as it arose, to “shut off the working of memory and hope,” for memory and hope consumed energy that was required for survival. “We had to live in the present; each moment had to be absorbed for all that was in it…. When a ray of sunshine comes, open out, absorb it to the depths of your being. Never think that an hour earlier you were cold and that an hour later you will be cold again. Just enjoy…. The amazing thing is that no anguish held out against this treatment for very long. Take away from suffering its double drumbeat of resonance, memory and fear. Suffering may persist, but already it is relieved by half.”

In the camp, disease and malnutrition were rampant, and Lusseyran himself became sick and was very near death. But at that point Lusseyran says he became aware that a will to live “had taken possession of me . . . and filled me to overflowing . . . Slowly I came back from the dead . . .” He recalled that “on May 8, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible . . . I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me.”

Lusseyran was asked by his fellow inmates to visit the various blocks of prisoners each day to share whatever factual information was available about the progress of the war and to dispel rumors. (The guards allowed prisoners to hear German news reports; Lusseyran was fluent in German and “read between the lines” of those reports to infer what was actually happening. He also received information from time to time via a clandestine radio which the prisoners had hidden.) Lusseyran writes: “The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face, his reassuring words, that on days when there was no news, they had him visit just the same.”

[Source: Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance (Parabola Books, 1998).]

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