Wilderness & Paradise

Wilderness & Paradise

In recent years some odd theories have been put forward which, in order to highlight the noteworthiness of an active turning to the world and a ‘secular Christianity,’ have deemed it vital to simultaneously bring monastic solitude into disfavour. The ‘contemplative’ life of a religious is found to be of ‘Greek origins.’ Striving with temptation in the wilderness today, is seen as a peculiar and antiquated artefact of a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church which was called gnosticism, or perhaps some other heretical group. Solitude is revealed as essentially incompatible to the Christian message and life which are generally communal. Simply put, in this context the whole monastic ideal suddenly becomes theologically questionable. 

So how seriously should these idiosyncratic theories be taken? Should they influence a religious to embrace an entirely defensive and apologetic standpoint toward our monastic vocation? Or do we have to whilst remaining true to our vocations as hermits, monks and nuns, find ways of living unmonastically in order to defuse and negate this criticism? Do we need to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that we, hermits, monks and nuns are all intrinsically ‘secular’ too and that our monastic style of behaviour —or conversatio morum— is in actual fact our facing in the direction of the world and not in fact, away from it? 

We are not claiming to resolve this intricate question of the religious’ relation to the modern world. Before that question can even be tackled, the religious must have a concrete perception of what they themselves are supposed to be. If they set about, by compromising themselves they will not be able to avoid ambiguity and compromise in considering his relationship to the world. 

Monastic theology is not merely a search for a few specious texts in Scripture and the Fathers which will excuse or justify the monastic vocation. It is rather a study and meditation of revealed truth which enables the religious to understand how they, in a most special way, can respond to the call to follow Christ in the wilderness. 

Two studies by Protestant theologians, show that the theme of a call into the wilderness, a vocation to recover the paradisiacal life after suffering temptation with Christ in desert solitude, is but a variant of the fundamental themes of all Biblical theology: the pascha Christi, the call of the People of God out of Egypt, through the Red Sea into the Desert and to the Promised Land; the theme of the Cross and Resurrection; dying to sin and rising in Christ; the theme of the old and new man; the theme of the fallen world and the new creation. Not only is a Christian withdrawal to a ‘desert solitude’ excusable, licit and even praiseworthy, but the whole theology of the second Gospel is built upon the theme of Christ in the desert. 

The study by Dr Ulrich Mauser is limited to the biblical use of the desert theme, especially in the gospel of St. Mark. Dr George Williams in his survey of biblical, patristic, medieval and radical Protestant thought, gives us a remarkably interesting picture of a ‘Paradise-Wilderness’ concept running through the entire history of Christian spirituality and playing a most important part not only within monasticism but also in Protestantism and particularly in the universities and seminaries founded by the Protestants in the ‘wilderness’ of the North and South Americas. Both these books are of significant importance to men and women religious, and we will attempt to give a brief survey of their contents here, evaluating their consequences for a monastic theology relevant to our own needs. 

The Eremos, the desert wilderness ‘where evil and curse prevail,’ where nothing grows, where the very existence of man is constantly threatened, is also the place specially chosen by God to manifest Himself in His ‘mighty acts’ of mercy and salvation. Obedience to a divine call brings into this dreadful wilderness those whom God has chosen to form as His own people. The convocation of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai is the story of God leading men on what appears to be a ‘march into the open gates of death’ (Mauser). God places Israel in a seemingly impossible situation where, however, He reveals His name to His chosen, and thus places them directly in communication with Him as a source of unfailing help. On the basis of this free relationship rests the covenant of God with His people. 

YeShimon (Judean Desert), the Place of Desolation where Jesus spent 40 days.

Failure to trust Yahweh in the wilderness is not simply an act of weakness: it is disobedience and idolatry which, substituting the golden calf for the ineffable name, seek to shorten the time of suffering by resort to human expedients glossed over with religious excuses. Only a free act of grace can restore the violated covenant by reawakening in the people a true sense of the meaning of their desert vocation. They must recover their understanding that the desert calling implies a complete and continual dependence on God alone. For Israel, the desert life was a life of utter dependence on a continued act of grace which implied also a recognition of man’s own propensity to treachery and to sin. We know how the prophets urged Israel under her Kings and at the time of the Babylonian exile, to remember the desert time of espousals and to anticipate a new Exodus which would restore the authentic relationship of bridal love between Israel and her God in a ‘renewed wilderness time’. We know that this theme was taken over in the Pauline writings. 

Dr Ulrich Mauser shows that this is the message of John the Baptist at the opening of the second Gospel. The fact that the Baptist preaches ‘in the wilderness’ is of theological significance in Mark, for whom ‘the wilderness is a theme full of theological implications and not primarily a locality.’ John is in fact announcing what the prophets announced before him: One who is to come from God will appear in the wilderness and initiate the final work of salvation. Israel must go out to meet this one in the wilderness in an act of sincere repentance which acknowledges her whole history as one of disobedience and infidelity. The Baptism of John is a sign of recognition that God’s people are under judgement. Even Christ is baptised, thus showing His willingness to ‘endure God’s judgement’ and indeed to die for the sins of the people. Immediately after this, Jesus goes out to be tempted in the desert, for ‘only Jesus fully realised what it meant to go out into the wilderness: it meant the determination to live under the judgement of God.’ His going out into the desert is then the necessary outcome of His baptism. 

For all others, baptism is simply a gesture of temporary repentance. They return to the cities. But Jesus goes on into the wilderness as the sign that His baptism is fully serious, and that He is ‘the only true penitent whose return to the desert is (not merely a token gesture) but unfeigned’. One might argue that Christ’s stay in the desert is itself only a temporary retreat, a pause for thought and recollection in preparation for his active mission. Not at all; ‘The forty days,’ says Dr Mauser, are not ‘a period passed forever once Christ starts his public ministry,’ but as in the case of Moses and Elias, the desert retreat ‘sounds the keynote of his whole mission.’ 

Mauser then traces the development of the wilderness theme throughout the whole Gospel of Mark. ‘Mountain’ and ‘Sea’ are variants of the ‘wilderness’ in Mark. Invariably all stories of Jesus, in Mark, which have an ‘epiphany character’ take place in the ‘wilderness’, that is to say ‘on the mountain’ or by or on the sea. The underlying concept of Mark is in fact the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, the overcoming of the powers of evil in the world by the struggle in the desert, the agony in the garden and death on Calvary. Hence the whole Gospel of Mark is, for Dr Mauser, a development of the struggle of Jesus and Satan in the desert. To live in this state of struggle with the adversary of God, and to sustain this conflict in direct and complete dependence on God Himself, is the ‘wilderness life’. Even if one lives this confrontation far from the actual desert, one is in fact living ‘in the wilderness’ and ‘with Christ in the desert’. We see here the basic idea of all monastic theology firmly rooted in the second Gospel. 

What of ‘contemplation’? The Gospels do not use the expression ‘contemplative life,’ but the idea is expressed in other language. Christ is transfigured on the mountain, i.e., in the wilderness. The cloud, which would later have such fruitful destiny in Christian mystical literature, is since Exodus a permanent feature of the desert tradition: the ‘visible form of the governing, guiding yet hidden form of Yahweh’s presence’. The desert life is not only darkness and battle, it is also light and rest in the Lord who is our only help. ‘The epiphany of the glory of God is an indispensable element in the desert tradition.’ In fact, says Dr Mauser, the transfiguration is the sign of the Father’s approval of the obedience of Jesus in His desert vocation, His fidelity to a life of persistence in the desert.’ 

This persistence will of course lead finally to death, because the mountain of Calvary is the culmination of the desert vocation. ‘Jesus’s determination to persist in the desert … finds its conclusion in His decision to suffer and to die.’ Why? Because the very secret of life itself is that by renunciation one overcomes death and suffering (Mark 8:35) and enters upon life everlasting. The disciples of Christ who are called in a very real sense to follow Him ‘in the wilderness’ do not really understand the meaning of their calling. They are to a certain extent blind to the teaching of their master and to the significance of His life. The real cause of this blindness is their incapacity to surrender totally to their own desert vocation. ‘The unwillingness to endure tribulation and persecution, the care for security in the world, in one word the unwillingness to suffer — prevent the disciples from seeing and accepting all the implications of Christ’s teaching in their own lives.’ 

Even the apostolic mission of the followers of Jesus is marked with the sign of the wilderness. They are, in fact, called ‘on the Mountain’ and this, for Dr Mauser, is the ‘indication of (the) basic condition of their mission’. When they are sent out to preach in Mark 6.8 ff, the instructions given them are similar to those given to Israel at the beginning of the desert journey. In one word: the disciples of Christ are to be kept alive by nourishment from God, and they must not waste time and energy caring for themselves. The miraculous feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness in Mark 6 represents at once the convocation of the new Israel in the desert and the messianic and eschatological rest of God’s people with their King in the desert which has become His Kingdom and where He feeds them with His might in the new manna, the eucharist. 

From this brief resumé we can see at once that Dr Mauser has given us a monastic reading of Mark’s Gospel which is more thorough and more solid than almost anything we have in monastic literature since the Fathers. As monks we owe him thanks for a treatise in biblical theology which sums up the whole meaning of our own vocation to follow Christ in the wilderness, in temptation, to the cross, strengthened by His epiphany in the ‘cloud’ of contemplation, nourished by his eucharist and by the hope of the ‘eschatological rest’ with Him in the paradise of the transformed and flowering desert which is His Kingdom. 

The intricate relationship between the themes of desert and paradise is developed in a fascinating manner by Dr George Williams. The Church of the martyrs believed that the desert had become the arena, the sandy place where they fought the beasts and overcame the adversary of God in their agonia. Then the monks went out into the actual desert as Christ had done and their monastic struggle with temptation became a ‘martyrdom’ in witness to the faith, in obedience to Christ, in direct dependence on God for the grace without which one could not resist. This struggle was rewarded and the Church of martyrs and monks became also a ‘provisional paradise’ in anticipation of the eternal Kingdom. 

These themes are quite familiar to anyone who has read the monastic Fathers. But what is particularly interesting about Dr Williams’ book is the way in which he traces the development of the wilderness-paradise theme through the medieval universities (with their traditional autonomy from outside control) to Protestant sectarians who sought refuge in the ‘desert’ and ‘paradise’ of the New World, and who there built seminaries and colleges as ‘gardens in the wilderness’. Dr Williams sums up his thesis in these words: ‘Many major and minor movements in Christian history have been in substantial degree the history of the interpenetrations of the biblical and post-biblical meanings of the wilderness and paradise in the experience of God’s ongoing Israel’. 

Besides exploring the wilderness-paradise theme in the Bible, especially in the prophetic writings, Dr Williams gives special attention to Qumran and to Christian monasticism. Qumran was an ‘apocalyptic community that imitated the ancient sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai’, seeking to prepare the way for a priestly and a royal Messiah (two Messiahs in fact) by a paradisic covenant and communal life. The aim of Qumran is summed up in a phrase that has most fruitful implications for monastic theology: ‘the purity of paradise truth recovered within the fellowship of a disciplined wilderness encampment sustained by the Spirit’. Williams traces the themes of desert and paradise through Christian monasticism, shows the gradual interiorisation of this theme in the mystical literature of the Middle Ages, especially of the Victorines. He demonstrates that it persisted in the spirituality of the Mendicants and in the Universities, and quotes many texts from radical Protestantism which have the authentic ring of ancient monasticism, except that they apply to sectarian communities rather than to conventual families living under monastic vows. 

Puritan of the Massachusetts Bay Colony New England, on their way to church. December 22, 1620.

These texts incidentally offer much food for thought to anyone interested in ecumenical dialogue with Protestant visitors to our American monasteries. They show how completely a theme which is fundamental to monastic theology was taken over in the theology of radical Protestantism in the seventeenth century and hence entered into the formation of the Christian ideal of North American culture that grew up out of the Puritan colonies of New England. These words of John Eliot, a seventeenth-century New England Puritan, might equally well have come from one of the Trappist founders of the Abbey of Gethsemane: ‘When the enjoyment of Christ in his pure Ordinances is better to the soul than all worldly comforts, then these things (the hardships of the wilderness) are but light afflictions.’ Roger Williams is said to have practically ‘made an incantation of the word wilderness.’ Kentucky, we know, is still haunted by the thought of that ‘wilderness road’ through the Appalachian Mountains, over which the settlers came from Maryland and Virginia, including those Catholics who gathered around Bardstown where the first Cathedral west of the Alleghenies was dedicated in 1816. Bishop Flaget of Bardstown invited the first monks to North America. 

In conclusion, one very important aspect of Dr Williams’ book must not be passed over in silence. He is acutely aware, as too few Americans still are, of the criminal wastefulness with which commercial interests in the last two centuries have ravaged and despoiled the ‘paradise-wilderness’ of the North American mountains, forests and plains. The struggle to protect the natural beauties and resources of this country has not ended, and it is by no means to be regarded as an eccentricity of sentimental souls, bird watchers and flower gardeners. The disastrous storms of the thirties in the south-western dust bowl finally brought home more or less to everyone that conservation of soil and natural resources was an absolute necessity. Yet this does not prevent wastefulness, stupidity, greed and sheer destructive carelessness from going on today. So Dr Williams says, in words that monks above all should be ready to understand and appreciate: ‘Ours is the age of the bulldozer as much as it is the age of the atomic bomb. For good or ill, we need no longer conform to the contours of the earth. The only wilderness that will be left is what we determine shall remain untouched and that other wilderness in the heart of man that only God can touch.’ Anyone who reads the book will find this theme developed with its theological and religious implications. Meanwhile we might reasonably draw at least one obvious lesson from it. If the monk is a man whose whole life is built around a deeply religious appreciation of his call to wilderness and paradise, and thereby to a special kind of kinship with God’s creatures in the new creation, and if technological society is constantly encroaching upon and destroying the remaining ‘wildernesses’ which it nevertheless needs in order to remain human, then we might suggest that the monk, of all people, should be concerned with staying in the ‘wilderness’ and helping to keep it a true ‘wilderness and paradise.’ The monk should be eager to preserve the wilderness in order to share it with those who need to come out from the cities and remember what it is like to be under trees and to climb mountains. Surely there are enough people in the cities already without monks adding to their number when they would seem to be destined by God, in our time, to be not only dwellers in the wilderness but also its protectors.’ This judgement may, admittedly, reflect a personal preference. The two books discussed here certainly show that even a monastic life in an industrial setting can also find a theological basis in the Bible and monastic tradition provided it is in fact a true ‘wilderness life’ in the spirit of the theology of the apostolate in the Gospel of St Mark. 

Continue reading “Wilderness & Paradise”
Exterior and Interior Solitude

Exterior and Interior Solitude

When the monk has learned the secrets of solitude, when be has come to terms with his loneliness, he will find himself able, when obliged to mix with the world, to take with him his own solitude and live within it in recollection. He will have learned, without having consciously acquired a technique, how to keep sheltered his essential self in the midst of distraction. But even so, it would be foolish for him to take risks; solitude can be easily displaced, The monk, like Ruskin’s artist, should be “fit for the best society of men, and keep out of it.”  Continue reading Exterior and Interior Solitude

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

The Carthusians

To the poor of the world we give bread or whatever else our resources afford or goodwill suggests: we rarely receive them under our roof but instead send them to find lodgings in the village. For it is notfor the temporal care of the bodies of our neighbours that we havefled to this desert, butfor the eternal salvation of our souls. Therefore it is not surprising if we give more friendship and assistance to those who come here for the sake of their souls than to those who come for the sake of their bodies.

Guigo I, Consuetudines Cartusiae (hereafter CC) 20:1; (Latin text with French translation in Sources Chrdtiennes vol 313 (1984), p 206.

(Please note the that the photographs do not relate to the written article (but are of Carthusian origin) and are there purely for aesthetics)

Saint Bruno the Carthusian Ⓒ 2019 Theophilia @ deviantart

THIS extract from the earliest Carthusian customary (c.1125), the Consuetudines Cartusiae of Prior Guigo I, may appear somewhat chilly to those acquainted with St Benedict’s injunction to receive the poor as though receiving Christ himself (though in fact, as Guigo subsequently points out, the monks did give generously of what little they had to be distributed in nearby villages). But it underlines one of the most striking features of the early Carthusians, the ‘unworthy and useless poor men of Christ who dwell in the desert of the Chartreuse for love of the name of Jesus’, as another early prior of the Grande Chartreuse put it: the careful and coherent way in which, from the very start, they set about creating a manner of life that would be appropriate in every particular to the vocation they had embraced. The first charterhouses were, like the Chartreuse itself, in distinctly inhospitable (though not always uninhabited) places; the monks sought to be self-sufficient as far as they possibly could; and one of the distinctive features of the early communities was the way they set about clearing or purchasing the land around the monastery (within the termini they themselves specified) in order to guarantee the solitude they needed. This might seem to imply that the ‘poor men of Christ’ had little to do with the poor men and women of this world.

La Grande Chartreuse

Yet the contradiction is more apparent than real. One of the striking features of the early Carthusians, as with the Cistercians and others, was the way in which, even from their mountainous retreats, they took part in the affairs of the world outside. Like St Bernard (with whom he corresponded), Prior Guigo I did not hesitate to tell the Church how to behave itself, and to use his influence to espouse the principles of the Gregorian reform; and the early monks of the nearby monastery of Portes, one of the first to affiliate to the fledgling order in the early twelfth century, wrote a number of letters offering detailed spiritual guidance both to religious and lay people. 

For all the rigour of their asceticism, then, the early Carthusians did not see themselves as entirely cut off from the needs of the Church as a whole: indeed they saw their vocation not so much as a flight from the world as a flight for the world, and their way of life, centred upon what Guigo I called the ‘quasi bina dilectio‘ (almost twofold love, of God and of neighbour), as a challenge and even a witness to their contemporaries. The reluctance to help the physically poor was part of this asceticism, part of a means to a greater end: those who sought to live with the utmost simplicity and in the utmost poverty themselves would have little material wealth or property to share with others. What they could share was something altogether deeper: a philosophia, or ‘lived wisdom’, that might touch hearts and change lives far beyond the bleak termini of the charterhouse. 

From the beginning, then, what the Carthusians had to offer was not material wealth (they have succeeded, perhaps to a greater extent than any other monastic order, in avoiding that altogether), nor even gems of individual guidance, but the witness of their lives. The Grande Chartreuse itself was founded by St Bruno, formerly chancellor of the cathedral at Rheims, in 1084; and it is clear that the distinctive lineaments and rhythm of the Carthusian life owe their origins to him, even though it was the fifth prior, Guigo I, who (as we have seen) first committed their customs to writing. The life was a coherent and carefully worked out blend of the cenobitic and eremitic, each fulfilling the other; and it was made possible by the institution of conversi who were not so much servants as lay monks, and whose lives involved more manual labour than that of the choir monks, yet who from the start were clearly seen to be integral and full members of the whole community. 

There were no novice masters in the early charterhouses; and monastic formation took place in the cell: Guigo I says that one of the experienced monks (as well as the prior) would be deputed to visit the novice there ‘to instruct him in necessary things’. The life of a Carthusian choir-monk was minutely prescribed, and with good reason: the balance of solitude and community, the blend of prayer, physical work, recreation and study was carefully structured and maintained. From the start, then, spiritual guidance in the charterhouse was primarily a group affair, not an individual one: the whole community, in their corporate liturgy, chapter meetings and recreation as well as in their long hours in solitude, took responsibility for one another; and their founder described their life as ‘His [Christ’s] school, under the discipline of the Holy Spirit’. Tilden Edwards has pointed out that group spiritual direction is in fact the standard form of guidance in the Christian tradition; and the Carthusians were and still are among its exemplars. What this meant in practice is the subject of most of the remainder of this article. 

First and foremost, and notwithstanding the emphasis on the community already noted, the Carthusian monk or nun s had to develop a considerable capacity for self-knowledge and awareness. In a remarkable set of meditations, written in about 1115, Guigo I reflected constantly and critically on his own experience and reactions. This is what he wrote about a disaster at Vespers: 

Notice how, when you recently tripped up in front of the brethren by saying one antiphon instead of another, your mind tried to think of a way of putting the blame on something else–either on the book itself, or on some other thing. For your heart was reluctant to see itself as it really is, and so it pretended to itself that it was different, inclining itself to evil words to excuse its sin. The Lord will reprove you, and set before you what you have done: you won’t be able to hide from yourself any longer, or to escape from yourself. 

Some of the meditations are extremely short, such as the pithy Meditation 87: ‘Insult any harlot you like–if you dare’. Invariably, however, the emphasis is upon self-scrutiny: 

There are certain tastes, like that of honey; and there are certain temperaments and passions, like those of the flesh. When these things are either taken away or damaged, notice how this is for you (quomodo sit tibi vide). 

It is also worth noting that this self-scrutiny involves a genuinely pastoral concern for others: 

Notice how you can, in the hope of what is to come, love the harvest in the young shoot, and the twisted tree-trunk. In the same way you must love those who are not yet good . . . 

Not much is gained if you take away from a person something that he holds onto wrongly; but it is if, by our words of encouragement and by your example, you get him to let it go of his own accord…

This is not unhealthy self-absorption, but the indispensable precondition, not only for the Carthusian life, but for any life centred upon love: indeed the psychological acuteness of Guigo’s emphasis on understanding yourself and reflecting on your reactions to all that happens to you is remarkable. To know ourselves, as Guigo makes clear throughout his 476 meditations, is to become aware both of our inherent predisposition to run away from the truth, and of the divine love existing deep within us. Yet to face this truth will invariably be painful: for it is not just the truth, but the truth crucified, that we are called to worship (‘Sine aspectu et decore crucique affixa, adoranda est veritas’); and by discovering what it means to love God without condition or strings attached, we are freed from the dependence on (or possessiveness of) others in order to love them as we should do–to seek their true good, not simply what we think is good for them. The theology of love underpins the whole of St Bruno’s and Guigo’s conception of the Carthusian life, and informs its most practical prescriptions; and this constant and rigorous probing of one’s own interior intentions and reactions is its most fundamental prerequisite.

Secondly, the Carthusian life was characterised by the coherent interweaving of theology and lifestyle, of the individual and corporate, that is embodied by the Latin word utilitas. In his meditations Guigo I wrote: 

Happy is the person who chooses somewhere he may work without anxiety. Now this is a sure choice and worthwhile thing to work at (labor utilis) — the desire to do good to all, so that you want them to be people who do not need your help. For the more people seem to be concerned with their own interests (propriis utililatibus), the less they are doing what is good for them. For this is the distinctive good (propria utilitas) of each individual — to want to do good to all. But who understands this? 

Whoever, therefore, seeks to work for his own good, not only does not find it, but also incurs great harm to his soul. For while he seeks his own good, which cannot be sought at all, he is rejected by the common good, that is, by God. For just as there is one ~ nature for everyone, so also there is one common good (ita et utilitas).

It is worth noting in passing Guigo’s psychological perception here too: the emphasis upon seeking to set people free from being dependent on your help is a fundamental aspect of all spiritual direction. The emphasis on the common good, on the essentially corporate aspect of Carthusian spirituality, is even more important however, and underlines the stress on group support and guidance referred to above. And the integrated nature of their lives went further than that: both Guigo I and the Carthusians of Portes, writing letters of spiritual guidance, stressed the interweaving of what was traditionally called ‘spiritual exercise’ (the fourfold monastic pattern of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation) with public liturgical worship, physical exercise, study and other aspects of the common life. This a crucial point: whether later Carthusian (and other) writers, such as Guigo II, (whose Scala Claustralium or ‘Ladder of Monks became very popular after his death in c.1190) explored in great detail the relationship between the four different ingredients of ‘spiritual exercise’, Guigo I shows no interest in that at all, instead concentrating on emphasising the relationship between all of them and the other, more corporate, aspects of the Carthusian life, as well as to the heart of the monastic vocation itself. Love of God, and of neighbour— the two parts of the quasi bina dilectio belong together: by devoting his life to those exercises which, in the context of solitude and poverty, dispose him to receive and be transformed by the love of God, the monk who has apparently renounced his neighbour discovers instead the surest possible means of loving him. 

This exploration of the practice and theology of the early Carthusians may appear to have very little to do with the wider subject of spiritual guidance within the Carthusian tradition as a whole. In fact, however, it has everything to do with it: the distinctive features of Carthusian spiritual guidance are not to be found by examining later works which happen to have been written by Carthusians but which in most cases could as easily have been written by members of any religious order, but by coming to see that it was their whole lives, and above all their common life, which was their primary contribution to the lives of others. When Guigo I wrote his life of St Hugh of Grenoble (and, to a considerable extent, when Adam Abbot of Eynsham wrote the life of another early Carthusian, St Hugh of Lincoln), he was not producing just another work of hushed hagiography, but offering what is in effect the essence of the Carthusian life as it could be (and was) lived by busy Christians ‘in the world’: both Hughs were bishops, both were described as incarnating the theology of love which lay at the heart of the Carthusian vocation, and as seeking, in lives unconditionally devoted to God alone, to be free to discern others’ true worth as well as to issue prophetic warnings about social and ecclesiastical evils. Instead of simply giving the world aims, the Carthusians gave it people: a significant number of bishops and others emerged during the centuries from the termini of the charterhouses. Instead of compromising their own form of life, they offered its virtues, suitably adapted, for those living in the world. 

Not everyone, then, has to renounce everything and don the white Carthusian cowl in order to recognize, and live, the distinctive principles and dynamic which informed and still inform their vocation. The slow and costly process of reflecting regularly on your own experience and reactions, and above all on your own motives and intentions; the concern to foster a thoroughgoing openness, even passivity, towards God in order to be more free to love other people without seeking to dominate or manipulate them; the willingness to work away at creating (and helping others to create) a pattern of life that integrates both solitude and common life in such a way as to fulfil each; and the readiness to seek a genuine simplicity of life which might help you live in loving and hidden identification with the physically poor and deprived–all these are essential dimensions of any authentic Christian spirituality. And to achieve them we will need guidance; not only, or even primarily, the one-to-one individual guidance that has in recent years become popular, but also the kind of critical yet loving mutual support and encouragement that a group, family or Christian parish community can offer its members, not by the eloquence of its speech or even by the quality of each person’s private piety, but precisely by the openness and attentive love which informs its common life. 

The spirituality of the Carthusian life was influenced, like that of any other order, by the prevailing insights and circumstances of the times; and most of the authors and texts mentioned in the remainder of this article wrote letters and treatises on spiritual guidance which in large part could have been written by members of any contemporary enclosed order. The 1972 Statutes of the Order contain restrictions in this respect which not all former Carthusians have observed. The Statutes explicitly say, for example: 

We never give spiritual direction by letter; nor may any of us preach in public. If seculars do not benefit from our silence, much less will they from our speech.

From earliest times, however, the Carthusians were able to reach people without speaking: Guigo I himself describes in detail the distinctively Carthusian form of praedicatio muta, which was the copying of manuscripts, a form of apostolate peculiarly well suited to contemplative monks. This practice continued thereafter: Michael Sargent has pointed out the way in which late medieval Carthusian monks, particularly (though not only) in England, translated and copied earlier spiritual texts, partly in order to make them available to a wider literate (but not Latin-reading) lay audience, partly to combat the spread of Wycliffite and other forms of heresy. This is important: the Carthusians have never entirely separated theology from spirituality, and have never entirely lost their concern for truth, even in periods when the practice of prayer was at its most affective. The ‘Mirrour of the Blessed Life of Jesu Christ’ by Nicholas Love (c.1410), a Carthusian of Mount Grace, Yorkshire, is a good example of this: is a translation of an earlier work by the Pseudo-Bonaventure, and its popularity suggests that it served both a devotional and a propagandist purpose.

The writings of some later Carthusians certainly suggest that their praedicatio was anything but muta—and (as has already been said) much of it contains little that is distinctively Carthusian. Ludolph of Saxony, for example, who was a monk of the charterhouse of Coblentz and who lived from 1295 to 1377, wrote a Life of Christ which (to judge by the number of manuscript copies and printed editions) was widely disseminated: its emphasis on imitatio Christi was typical of the age, though Ludolph’s reflections on the delights of natural beauty recall similar passages in the beautiful letter of St Bruno to his friend Raoul le Verd. Others produced works that were more explicitly concerned with spiritual guidance: Robert, a monk of the charterhouse of Le Parc-en-Charnie in France who died in 1388, wrote Le chastel perilleux, a treatise written to his cousin, who was a Benedictine nun: it is full of practical advice about contemplative prayer, praying in common, the sacramental life and other subjects likely to be of interest to both religious and lay readers. Others seem to have acquired something of a reputation as spiritual guides: the prolific Denys, a Dutch Carthusian who lived from 1402 to 1471, wrote innumerable letters of counsel, only a few of which survive, and also complete sequences of sermons, both for religious and for those ‘in the world’: his complete works fill over forty substantial volumes. Finally, Richard Methley (1451-1528), also of Mount Grace, wrote a number of treatises on the monastic and spiritual life, and appears to have been in some demand as a director. 

As time passed, then, the Carthusians became involved in the practice of spiritual guidance to a degree far greater than was envisaged either by their founders or by their modern successors. And yet the primary concern of the Carthusians has never been spiritual guidance, but the way of living which, as we have seen, was their most distinctive act of witness. The establishing in 1984 of the first Carthusian monastery in the Third World, in southern Brazil, illustrates this point: their principal contribution to the poor among whom they now live is likely to be this hidden and loving identification, in the crucified pauper Christus, that is articulated in the Carthusian vocation, rather than any commitment to an active apostolate. And to a society less committed than ours to the pursuit of privatised perfection, such an apostolate might be infinitely more fruitful than we suppose. Why? Because, better than any frantic activist, it may help us all to rethink our values: in the desert, waiting and passivity and silence are inherently creative, not useless; apparent redundancy in the world’s eyes and your own can allow God to use you for his purposes; in and through the poor, the solitary and the powerless, God ushers in the kingdom of heaven. The most recent Statutes of the Order express this with simple eloquence: 

In choosing this, the ‘best part’, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation… 

If, therefore, we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut up in themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Set apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God.

Continue reading “Traditions of Spiritual Guidance”
The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The Church, in her fidelity, values all things according to the preferences of her divine Spouse. Now, our Lord esteems His elect not so much by the activity of their works, as by the hidden perfection of their lives; that perfection which is measured by the intensity of the divine life, and of which it is said: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Again it is said of this divine life: ‘You are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.’”

The good always seeks to spread.

In fact, the more perfect a being, the more good they radiate around themselves. Everything that is full of life, joy, love, seeks to spread love, joy and life. This is true for all things and in all areas of one’s life. Take the example of a flower which is perfection within a plant; it spreads the radiance of its colour, its fragrance and its seeds. A bird which is happy to live freely, rejoices the whole countryside with its melodious song.

Its the same for man. When a person has found something that they are happy with, they want to share it with everyone, a magnificent landscape, an inspiring book, just to give an example. All life, all joy, all love, wants to spread even if just a little. Because what we liked, what exhilarated us, that should and ought to also please our fellow men and exhilarate them in turn. 

It is therefore a consequence of human solidarity if we are full of ourselves and therefore full of bitterness and envy, we will only pass on to others what we have. However, if we are filled with the peace and gentleness of Our Lord, we will overflow with that peace and gentleness which enables us to console others. 

We are able to distinguish two kinds of joy and love: expressed and unexpressed joy, manifested and hidden love, in short, the active outer life and the contemplative inner life. 

A Carthusian at contemplation.

In the active exterior life, you know that you are able to communicate your beliefs and feelings, and how you achieve it. If truth be told, this is a gift that not everyone has in their possession; it depends a lot on one’s physical make-up. Those who have a beautiful voice, a profound air, gracious manners, and whatever else there may be? They know how to impose themselves upon others and transmit their ideas or their desire. They are the great orators, they are great teachers of men; some among them, are saints, other politicians, or even men who, without being on a public platform, succeed within society in uniting enthusiasm and empathy for them. 

Yet, it is quite another thing to have a heart filled to brim with love and a radiating mind or to have a gift in gratifying and persuading others. These are two quite distinct genres. 

You could, for example, be aflame with the love of God and have compassion for the poor, but be witless or blind and not have two pennies to rub together; in this case, no one would ever suspect what is within your heart. 

I read somewhere the story of a child who cried when he was happy and laughed when he was sad: it was impossible for him to communicate his joy and his sadness, but he still had inner joys and sorrows.

So we have to conclude this: a good word, a smile, these are really good entities and they spread a little consolation around them, just like a flower or a bird of spring. But this radiance of our words, of our actions, is not yet the radiance of our ideas or our feelings. 

Our ideas and our feelings, all that we have in the heart of light and love, these are realities which are no longer physical, material, but moral, spiritual, invisible, that is to say therefore, that they must also have a spiritual, invisible radiance. 

To better understand how necessary this is, let us for example compare, a good thought toward a star.

As God lights a star in the night sky, He instills within our minds an act of trust in Him and a desire to comfort all the poor suffering hearts upon the earth. What was most valuable and most important? The star, or the act of faith and charity? It is obvious that what is within our soul is far more important than the whole the celestial sphere; a scientist pointed out that if a man is materially very small in the presence of the stars, he is infinitely greater than all of them through his spirit since he can know them and know that God has created them, whilst the stars don’t know anything about God or creation.

So a good thought is infinitely greater in value than a star! A heart full of love is a home hotter than the sun! Could you ever believe that God would allow this absurdity, of a star to radiate its light which radiates billions of miles away and for millions of years, to make known the ardour of this distant entity, of this spinning globe of matter? in the frozen vastness of space, and that a soul united to God is deprived of its radiance or that its radiance depends on some type of unfortunate physical conditions: a voice more or less clamorous, a more or less intelligent air, a more or less considerable force? No! A hundred times no! 

The Church that is right when she teaches us the extraordinary and important dogma of the Communio SanctorumCommunion of Saints — the fellowship of those united to Jesus Christ in Baptism. All of our good thoughts and our good sentiments, our acts of Faith and Love which are just like spiritual stars; they radiate both faith and love ad infinitum. They are centres of consolation, and of strength; souls which are united to God forming an immense constellation which dazzles the eyes of angels and which must never be extinguished in the heavens of Holy Mother Church. 

The apostolate of the contemplatives, a silent and invisible apostolate, rests entirely upon this affirmation: love is something tangible, concrete, and even what is most real in the world, and the world can only be saved through acts of Faith and Charity

Carthusian nun at prayer

This is what God is asking of man, it is what repairs the evil caused by sin, it is what consoles and strengthens those who are suffering, not through good words, or money, not even (outward) examples of virtue, it is Faith and Charity, which give life to these words, to these alms, to these examples.

But Faith and Charity still have a far more extensive action than the external works which they have to animate.

Indeed, a heart united to Our Lord, an immolated soul cooperates in the redemptive action of Our Lord which in turn radiates love within hearts, in union with the hearth of divine Charity.

Outer works reach only the exterior part of men; inner acts of charity impart life and consolation to countless souls within hearts.

The material alms are extremely limited, but the alms of contemplatives are an inexhaustible source within both time and space. 

Thérèse of the Child Jesus

If the role of contemplatives is so little understood and so difficult to support, it is because, here, everything happens in the invisible; it is absolutely necessary to live in the night of supernatural Faith. But what makes this life so difficult is also what makes it worth. A man’s life is substantial and beautiful insofar as it is animated by Faith. Those who only believe in what they see are cowards who achieve nothing at all and will meet their death in a pensioner’s reclining chair, or behind a grocery counter without ever having made a fortune, because it takes a certain kind of daring and fearlessness to make a fortune! It is through a leap of faith that all great businesses become possible. Imagine what kind of a leap of faith it took for Christopher Columbus to be the first to set off on an uncharted and perilous ocean and discover the Americas! Well, to be a cloistered religious, to be contemplative, one has to have significantly greater faith. We must set off just as Saint Peter did, walk upon the sea which at any moment seems intent on swallowing us up. You have to (as the Little Flower Thérèse of the Child Jesus reminds us) go through extremely dark tunnels, so dark that you begin to wonder if the sun still prevails. You have to take a chance and risk your life, you have to throw yourself eyes closed into the arms of the Good Lord who is waiting for us within this darkness. This is the price of the heroism of the saints! Entering the unknown, taking a chance and without a second though, make the jump based on good faith. Its a risk that many would not take.

But what these heroes — whom are bolder than all of the navigating and explorers in history—, are discovering is not the New World, the continent of America, it is not even El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Gold —a new earthly paradise— it is, right here below, on earth, the true Kingdom of Heaven, promised by the Son of God.

It is for those who live like this in Faith that Our Lord said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29) and here I would like to remind you all that Faith in Our Lord is not blind faith. The Bible does not tell us to exercise “blind faith,” but a faith which is firmly embedded in objective reality.

Prayer to Saint Bruno

Saint Bruno

O God, merciful Father, who called Saint Bruno to the solitude of the desert to found the Order of the Carthusian monastery; We ask you to free us from the sorrows of this world through his intercession and to grant us the gift of peace and spiritual joy that you have promised to those who persevere in seeking you.

Amen

Continue reading “The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative”
Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolises — 

namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but 

transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we 

leave as brides.

Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …,” p. 22.

Introduction

St. John Cassian

In his two works, the Cenobitic Institutions and the Conferences of the Fathers, John Cassian described in great detail the path of spiritual progress for those who seek perfection or, one could say, that happiness that consists in the contemplation of divine things. Although written as two distinct works, the Institutions and Conferences have been conceived as a single project and form a whole that expresses two stages of the spiritual life. In the preface to the Conferences Cassian explains the link between the first part, the Institutions, and the second part, the Conferences, in this way: 

“From the external and visible aspect of monastic life — which I have dealt with in other books — I will now pass to deal with the interior and invisible life. From the prayer of the canonical hours, I now come to deal with that continuous prayer of which St. Paul. Thus the one who in reading the previous work earned the name of Jacob according to the spirit (after having eradicated the carnal vices), now, through the study of the teachings of the Fathers of the desert, will be able to reach the contemplation of divine purity, he will be encouraged to call himself Israel, he will learn what duties are to be observed on the very summit of perfection.” [1]

Here we find a summary of Cassian’s entire doctrine and his key ideas: the spiritual life understood as a passage from the exterior to the interior; the final purpose of “continuous prayer” which is at the same time the contemplation of divine things, the invisible things; the active (or current) life, the first step necessary to make further progress, symbolised by the figure of Jacob, and the end of the contemplative life, represented by the name Israel. It must be added that the place where this development takes place is “the inner man”, a terminology clearly inspired by himself. Paul. [2] This is the vision of possible spiritual progress that is precisely developed in the twenty-four conferences that follow. Here I will only address a few main points.

I. Jacob / Israel 

Jacob/Israel

The use of the names Jacob/Israel to designate two phases of the spiritual life puts us in contact with a rich tradition. This etymological/allegorical interpretation dates back at least to Philo of Alexandria who explains that “he who loves knowledge believes that one must leave the land of sensation, which has the name (חָרָן) Ḥārān”. Later he says that Jacob left Ḥārān at the age of seventy-five and, after explaining the meaning of the number, he continues: 

“In this issue we find the ascetic, still intent on gymnastic training and who has not yet been able to achieve a definitive victory. Indeed, it is said that “the souls born of Jacob were seventy-five in all” (Ex 1,5). [200] Souls, and not children of bodies, belong, therefore, to those who fight and do not succumb in the truly holy struggle for the conquest of virtue, even if they have not yet broken the bridges with the irrational and still pull the mass behind them of sensation. Jacob, in effect, is the name of the one who paws and prepares himself for the fight and the clash, but who has not yet won. [201] But when it became clear that he was able to see God, then his name was changed to that of Israel.” [3]

The allegorical/etymological interpretation of the two names Jacob/Israel, which is also found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in Anthony’s letters, [4] documents the widespread diffusion of the concept of the possibility of spiritual progress in early monasticism. Cassian himself returns to terminology in his twelfth lecture where he expands the interpretation with a chain of other allegorical interpretations. Referring to the text of Genesis 32:28, he says: 

“Whoever has passed the degree of chastity depicted in the” suppliant “Jacob, will not only paralyse the nerve in the side, but from the struggles for continence and from the work to substitute virtue for vices, will rise to the glorious title of Israel, and the his heart will no longer deviate from the right direction.” [5]

Cassian states that David also distinguished these two moments in the life of the spirit. He quotes the first part of the first verse of Psalm 75:2 “God made himself known in Judea,” explaining that the verse means “in the soul that has yet to confess his sins because Judea means confession”. Then he explains that “in Israel, which means” he who sees God “or — as another etymology wants — in man perfectly upright before God, the Lord is not only known, but “great is his name”, that is, the second part of the verse of the psalm. He then moves on to the second verse of the psalm: “His abode is established in peace” and comments: “In other words, the abode of God is not where the struggle against vice takes place, but in the peace of chastity and in the perpetual tranquility of heart.” [6] 

II. The goal of contemplation 

To better explain the difference between these two moments in the life of the spirit represented by Jacob and Israel, Cassian introduces the distinction between the end and purpose of the spiritual life.

Based on the saying found in Luke’s Gospel, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and following an already established interpretation, he identifies this interior kingdom with contemplation. This is the goal of the spiritual journey: to see God, to become Israel “he who sees God”.

Already during the first conference, however, Cassian was trying to give his reader at least a fleeting appearance of the happiness that awaits those who make progress in contemplation. He explains that “divine contemplation is to be understood in several ways” and offers a long list of possibilities, or possible starting points for developing contemplation. God is known not only through his incomprehensible essence, but through all creation. The grains of sand and raindrops also offer a starting point for contemplating his providence. The whole history of salvation, long-suffering, mercy, the grace of God, offer opportunities for contemplation. First of all it is the Incarnation of his Son that gives us material for the knowledge of God. Cassian concludes: 

“On all these occasions we rise to divine contemplation. Considerations on the type of those enumerated so far can be had in almost infinite quantities: they are born in our intimate in direct relation to the perfection of our life and to the purity of our heart”. [7]

III. The purpose of purity of heart 

To reach this end, this happy condition of continuous prayer in which everything leads us to divine contemplation, we must acquire “purity of heart”. This is the “purpose” of the spiritual life. With “purity of heart” vision of God or contemplation becomes possible. To explain what the distinction between the end and the purpose means, Cassian introduces the example of the archer who, to obtain the prize (the end), must aim at the target (the scopos). Then he quotes Paul: «the holy Apostle, speaking elsewhere of our goal, says: “Forgetting what is behind me, and throwing myself at the things ahead, I go after the sign (Latin: bravium), to reach the reward of God’s supreme vocation”». Cassian insists that the Greek text is clearer and also mentions it: kata skopon dioko. Then he adds a paraphrase: “It is as if the Apostle said: “In aiming at the target, I forget what lies behind me — that is, the vices of the carnal man — and I try to reach my goal which is the heavenly reward.”” It must be added, however, to avoid misunderstandings, that, according to Cassian, this celestial prize can already be obtained in this world. The kingdom of God is within us.

Whoever does not keep his gaze fixed on the target (purpose), which is purity of heart, is in great danger. “It is inevitable — says Cassiano — that a soul, which no longer has a point to refer to and anchor itself to, changes at every hour and every moment, according to the thoughts that occur and under the solicitation of external events: that is, it changes the I mean by changing impressions.”  [8] This target is called purity of heart because it refers to the elimination of vices and passions. [9] The practice of the other virtues is to make our heart pure and keep it «unassailable to all perverse passions. Thus we will climb – as on a ladder (istis gradibus) — towards the perfection of charity”. [10] From a positive point of view, the target is charity, charity that cannot coexist with vices, with anger, with pride, with the contempt of a brother.

In the tradition prior to Cassian (Philo, Clement, Origen, Evagrius Pontus) this purpose was called apatheia. The phrase “purity of heart” comes from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and offers certain advantages. The reward promised to the “pure in heart” is that they will see God. Thus we see the connection with the end, that is, contemplation. At the same time, with the use of this terminology Cassian avoids the now disputed terminology of apatheia, at least in the West with the anti-Stoic and anti-Evagrian controversy of Jerome. [11] The problem for Cassian is not the theoretical one, whether it is possible to eliminate all passions, but rather the impossibility of coexistence of vices with charity or with the vision of God. Cassian underlines and reiterates this impossibility in various ways. In the fourteenth lecture on spiritual science he explains: 

«If one wants to reach contemplative science, he must first commit all his study and all energy to acquire practical science, because it is true that practical science can be obtained without the theory, but theoretical cannot be obtained without practice. The two sciences are like two distinct but ordered steps, through which our weakness can ascend to heights. If the two steps follow one another in the order described, you can reach the peaks of the spiritual life, but if the first step is removed, it will no longer be possible to fly to the top. It is useless to think of reaching the contemplation of God who first does not avoid the contagion of vices. [“The spirit of God flees deception and does not dwell in a body that is enslaved by sin” (Wisdom 1:45)]”. [12]

In other words, it is impossible to progress in the life of prayer and contemplation without making progress in the moral life. According to Cassian, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the depths of the soul (animae recessu). “In our depths there can only be one situation: either the knowledge of the truth or its ignorance; either the love of vice or the love of virtue”. 

Then he quotes Paul: “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And he concludes: 

“If the kingdom of God is within us and consists of justice, peace, joy, whoever lives in these virtues certainly lives in the kingdom of God. On the contrary: whoever lives in injustice, in discord, in the sadness that generates death , is a citizen of the kingdom of the devil, hell and death. In fact, from these signs the kingdom of God and that of the devil are distinguished”. [13]

These generic considerations become more concrete in the course of the analysis of the different passions and vices. The person, for example, under the domination of the vice of gastrimargia (“gluttony”), is unable to withstand the struggles of the inner man. [14] 

She is too busy with the desires / pleasures of the throat. The incompatibility of vice with prayer/contemplation applies to all eight vices / thoughts. However, Cassian particularly emphasises the destructive potential of the passion of anger. Contemplation means seeing God, but the vision of a God of love is incompatible with the hatred and anger that destroy the inner and spiritual vision. Cassian says: “The impulses of anger, from whatever cause they are provoked, blind the eyes of the soul, and therefore, throwing into the sharpness of the gaze” the deadly beam “of a worse evil, they prevent us from contemplating the sun of justice”. [15] Towards the end of the conferences he returns to the topic in the context of an explanation of the need not to react to offences: 

“If one considers these and other similar damages well, not only will he bear all the offences, but also the insults and punishments of all kinds, even the most cruel, that can come to him from men. And the reason is that the thoughtful man will see how nothing is more harmful than anger, nothing is more precious than the tranquility of the soul and purity of the heart. For such a pearl, not only carnal goods deserve to be despised, but also those that seem spiritual: assuming that they cannot be acquired and preserved without endangering the tranquility of the heart”. [16]

IV. The small method 

The possibility and quality of contemplation depends on the extent to which the heart becomes purified, emptied of vices, of the motions of passion that blind the inner eyes. Without moral and spiritual progress, the contemplation of divine goodness will not come badly. The angry person is unable to experience the joy of human existence; he is not capable of making good use of opportunities, not even of giving thanks to God for all that he has received. The same thing goes for the proud man or greedy for money, and so on. All vices hinder that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle. 

However, if continuous prayer is not possible while the vices and motions of passion remain in the heart, prayer itself always remains a possibility in every moment of the spiritual life, indeed a principal instrument in the search for purity of heart. Towards the end of the second conference dedicated to the subject of prayer, after having spoken of the different types of prayer, Abbot Isaac reveals a small method, “a secret that has been revealed to us by those few Fathers belonging to the good old days “. The secret consists in continually repeating the verse of the psalm: “O God, turn to my help, Lord, hurry to help me” (Psalm 69:2). Isaac explains that this verse is suitable for expressing “all the sentiments of which human nature is capable; it is perfectly suited to all states and all sorts of temptations ». It expresses humility, vigilance, the recognition of our weakness, the confidence to be heard, the ardor of charity, the awareness of the dangers. This verse, incessantly invoked, becomes “an impregnable wall, an impenetrable armour, a very strong shield”. The abbot concludes: “In short: that verse is useful to everyone and in all circumstances. Asking to be helped always and in all things is equivalent to clearly recognising that we need God’s help when everything is favourable to us and smiles at us, as when trials and adversities assail us”. [17] 

He then offers a long list, in satirical form, of the occasions when this verse must be repeated. Some examples will make us the most concrete method:

«Does the passion of the throat haunt me?” Do I go in search of foods that the desert does not know? In my squalid solitude do I breathe the scent of the foods that are on the table of kings? Do I feel attracted to wanting them, even against my will? Here I will have to say: “God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me». 

The list of occasions follows the order of the defects already analysed in the Institutions and also in the Conferences. The verse can be invoked against sleep or when sleep escapes us, and against the temptations of the flesh. 

«I want to immerse myself in spiritual reading, in order to fix my thought in God; but here is the headache prevents me. Or: it is still early morning and my head falls drowsy on the pages of the sacred book and I feel obliged to increase the hours that the rule assigns to rest, or to anticipate the rest of this day. Sometimes, precisely during our meetings, sleep prevents me from continuing to recite the Psalms. In these situations, there is nothing to do but invoke: “Lord, come to my help, God, hurry to my help”».

«I’m still in the stage where it is necessary to wage war against vices: the flesh suddenly tempts me, tries to wrest my consent while I take my night’s rest. Lest an adverse fire burn the fragrant flowers of my chastity, I will cry out, “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

We must also invoke him against anger, greed, sadness, vainglory, pride. However, even if the heart were purified from all these vices, the temptation of spiritual pride would remain. Therefore we must continue the invocation of this prayer. But this form of prayer is not only useful in the fight of the active life against vices and temptations; it also serves in every moment of the contemplative life. For example, Abbot Isaac says: 

«I feel I have rediscovered, by gift of the Holy Spirit, the direction of the soul, the stability of thoughts, the joyful readiness of the heart. I feel that, due to a sudden illumination of the Lord, a source rich in spiritual thoughts is produced in me, abundant revelations come to me on the holiest mysteries, which until now had remained completely hidden from me. To deserve to remain in this luminous state for a long time, I will say repeatedly and fervently: “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

Isaac concludes the list of possible occasions with a passage that brings to mind another passage from the Scriptures where the Israelite is recommended to repeat the shema prayer. The prayer of this verse must be meditated continuously in our heart.

«In any work, in any duty, even while traveling, the monk must always sing that verse. In eating, in sleeping, in every other need of nature, he must meditate on those words. This continuous thought will become a formula of salvation that will not only protect from the assaults of the demons, but will also purify from every vice and from every earthly stain; it will raise to the contemplation of celestial and invisible things; it will lead to an ineffable ardor of prayer, which only a few know from experience».

This verse is for the monk his schema and, paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Cassian adds: 

«You will write those words on your lips, you will carve them on the walls of your home, in the depths of your hearts, so that they are a recurring theme for you when you pray, may they also be your continuous prayer”. The use of this prayer will lead to that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle and remembered as the goal of monastic life already in the Preface of the conferences. But it is capable and useful in bringing us to union with God that words are no longer able to describe. This prayer, explains Isaac, “is not fixed on some image, indeed it is not expressed even through words: it is born of a leap, from a fiery mind, from an unspeakable rapture, from an insatiable alacrity of spirit. The soul, transported out of the senses and visible things, offers itself to God amid unspeakable sighs and groans.» 

Here is the path of the spiritual life from the point of view of prayer and contemplation. This small method, this simple form of prayer should accompany the monk along the entire path of spiritual progress, from the beginning with external prayer to the peak of contemplation. He is able to lead him even to prayer so internalised that words are no longer needed. 

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HERMIT TO CENOBITIC: A STUDY IN EARLY CHRISTIAN MONASTICISM [‡]

HERMIT TO CENOBITIC: A STUDY IN EARLY CHRISTIAN MONASTICISM [‡]

The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word monos which means ‘alone,’ solitary.’[1] These words indicated the idea of solitude, of isolation. As we shall see, the term ‘monk’ has come to be applied to men living the same life in common —a life in which they are indeed separated from the world, but not from one another. Strictly speaking the term, ‘monasticism’, should be reserved for the form of religious life led by those who, having separated themselves entirely from the world, live in solitude — as, in fact, the etymology of the words ‘monk’, ‘monastery’, etc., clearly indicates.[2] 

Monasticism is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work.[3] Monasticism (Greek word monos means ‘single’) usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. Monastic orders historically have been organised around a rule or a teacher, the activities of the members being closely regulated in accordance with the rule adopted.[4] Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called ‘monks’ or ‘brothers’ (male), and ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called ‘monastics’.[5] 

Technically, monasticism embraces both the life of the hermit, characterised by varying degrees of extreme solitude, and the life of the cenobite, that is, the monk living in a community offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader.[6] The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing. It can be found in some form among most developed religions: Hinduism,[7] Buddhism,[8] Jainism,[9] Taoism, the Sufi branch of Islam[10] and Christianity.[11] 

There were only two Jewish groups —the Essenes and Therapeutae— engaged in any form of organised asceticism. The Essenes may be regarded as one of the most striking examples of monastic life outside of Christianity. They inhabited the monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea and appear to have lived in ascetic style, practicing chastity, poverty and obedience. The Essenes (circa. 150 BC) offer all the principal characteristics of the cenobitic life — community of goods, practice of poverty and mortification, prayer and work, meals and religious exercise in common, silence, celibacy, etc.[12] The Qumran monastery was destroyed during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, and the fate of the Essenes thereafter is uncertain. It is unlikely that they had any impact upon Christian monasticism, which began only in the late III century.[13] Although there is no direct relationship between them, it is nevertheless true that both Essenian and Christian asceticism derived much of their practice from the same source, viz. the Jewish religion.[14] 

The Therapeutae were contemporary with the Essenes. They abandoned families and possessions in order to live in ascetic seclusion far from the noise and commotion of cities.[15] Philo of Alexandria is our sole witness to their existence. He describes them as cenobites, leading a life almost identical with that of the Christian cenobites.[16] Nevertheless they do not seem to have exercised any direct influence on Christian monasticism. 

Christian asceticism is known to have begun in Egypt about the III or the IV century AD, and is associated with St. Antony. It is believed that about the end of the III century Antony’s life as a solitary ascetic was brought to an end by a number of disciples gathering round him. So he becomes the father of Christian monasticism. It was this type of monastic life that prevailed in Egypt up to the middle of the V century AD. All later Christian asceticism and monasticism is traceable to it. 

The origins of early Christian monasticism are not clearly known and are, therefore, subject to controversy. Some scholars believe that the monastic movement was prompted by Late Jewish communal and ascetic ideals, such as those of the Essenes. Still others speculate that Manichaean and similar forms of dualism inspired extremes of asceticism within the Christian family. However, the first Christian commentators on monasticism believed that the movement had truly gospel origins. 

Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ’s emphasis on poverty and on the “narrow way” to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage. Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society. 

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian church, modelled upon scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the scriptures. While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as “Something to do with living in a monastery,” from the Church’s point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity. Rather, the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed in the notion that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or run is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be ye perfect like your heavenly father is perfect”.[17]

Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle ages. 

The first Christian hermits seem to have stablished themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterword the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the III century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate called lavra or laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek Koinos bios, “Common life”) by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.[18] 

Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits; Saint Pachomius (d.46), with the first communities of cenobites in Egypt. Saint Basil the Great (f1.379), bishop of Caesarea, placed monasticism in an urban context by introducing charitable service as a work discipline.[19] 

St. Antony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an about or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order. The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the west at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in Central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the VI century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.[20]

Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisbis in Mesopotamia (350), and from his monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China. St. Sabbas the Sanctified organised the monks of the Judaean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.[21] 

The first monks of whom we have a good record represent an extreme phase in the evolution of monasticism. These are the so-called desert fathers, hermits, living in the eremitical style in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Enraged by sin and fearful of damnation, they left the towns for a solitary struggle against temptation. Some, like Simeon Stylites lived very exotic lives and became pilgrim attractions. More typical, however, was Antony of Egypt (c.250-356), whose commitment to salvation led him back to the community to evangelise unbelievers. His extreme asceticism deeply touched the sensibilities of the age. 

The reputed founder of Christian achoritism, Antonius, was first active in Egypt c.280-90 AD. But in 306 AD., one of his disciples visited western Syria, i.e., the intermediate region between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reported that monasticism was as yet unknown there. 

Moreover, its origin in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia seem to date back to the end of the III century, leaving insufficient time for it to have spread from Egypt. Thus it appears that monasticism arose spontaneously and independently in Egypt and in Syria-Mesopotamia. 

The hermits (‘desert’) lived in solitude in the desert; St. John the Baptist, and later St. Paul the Hermit and St. Antony, were the first of these. Anchorites or anchorites (‘retreat’) title is synonymous with the hermits, and indicates those monks who practiced the solitary life. This form of monastic life is the most ancient; it spread, first of all, in Egypt, then in Palestine and Syria, through the whole of the eastern world, and, finally, in the West.[22]

Pachomius (c.290-346), an Egyptian monk, preferred the communal life. He wrote a rule of life for monks in which he emphasised organisation and the rule of elder monks over the newly professed. The rule became popular, and the movement toward communal life was ensured. To the idea of community Basil the Great (c.330-79) added another element. In his writings, and especially in his commentaries on the scriptures, this father of Eastern monasticism defined a theory of Christian humanism which he felt was binding on the monasteries. According to Basil, monastics should care for orphans, feed the poor, maintain hospitals, educate children, even provide work for the unemployed. 

Toward the end of the IV century the individualist asceticism of the anchorites gradually became rarer. Ascetic impulses came increasingly to be expressed through the communal life of monasteries, where monks were subject to rules and bishops supervised their activities. Small and crude monastic establishments grew in size, acquiring fields, orchards and gardens, inasmuch as an entire community of monks could not be supported solely on the charity of surrounding villages. Often the presence of monks near a town was considered lucky, and the towns-people helped to erect buildings for them. 

The original foundation of a monastery frequently came about when a widely know anchorite was joined in his solitude by a few disciples, and the anchorite failed to send them away. This happened with the monk Saba (d. 366/67 AD) of Edessa. According to his contemporary St. Ephraim, Juliana was known to the “whole world”. This outstanding anchorite inhabited a cave in the vicinity of Edessa, where the practiced severe mortification, including long vigils and severe fasts. Gradually a group of admirers gathered around his cave, and Juliana organised a rudimentary form of common life for them. The fame of Juliana Saba led other monks to follow his example. 

Ephraim compared his role in the organisation of monasteries to a huge censer that spread incense through the entire country around Edessa.[23] 

Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women. As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholarship and other forms of service to the world.[24]

Continue reading “HERMIT TO CENOBITIC: A STUDY IN EARLY CHRISTIAN MONASTICISM [‡]”
Bl. Charles de Foucauld OCSO: Christ’s Witness in the Desert

Bl. Charles de Foucauld OCSO: Christ’s Witness in the Desert

Bl. Charles de Foucauld OCSO
Tuareg Blue-men

A life made of contemplation, prayer and service to the least of Charles de Foucauld (1858—†1916), beatified on November 13, 2005, in the presence of the “blue men” of the desert, those Tuareg whom he had loved so much and for whom he had canceled to become the last of the poor. With the boundless Saharan horizons and their absolute silence, broken by the prayers that the Tuareg intoned five times a day, it had been love at first sight. It was the desert that brought him back to the path of faith, that made him discover that restlessness of the heart finds peace only in the hours of prayer, at the foot of the Eucharist. Precisely this yearning pushed him where no religious had ever gone – to Hoggar, in the deep south of Algeria – to bear witness to universal faith and peace. Like Jesus in Nazareth, he wanted his presence to bear witness only to goodness and brotherhood.

In the hermitage of Beni-Abbès, in the province of Oran, on the border with Morocco, he had placed these signs: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, renounce himself, take up the cross and follow me”; “Do everything to everyone, with the only desire to give Jesus to everyone”; “Live today, as if you were to die tonight, martyr.” And when the First World War, crossing over from the European continent, armed the hand that killed him right in his hermitage of peace, that death was simply the most consistent outcome of a life that, after his conversion, had been pure praise of God, putting himself totally back into his hands, until he dissolves like the grain of wheat, which however here we see reborn even in the desert and becomes still life for those who know how to take up the arduous example. [1]

Charles de Foucauld, in front of the hermitage at Beni Abbes.

The way of conversion

Charles 5 years old, with his mother and sister 1863.

Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg on 15 September 1858 to a noble French family, but in 1864 he was shocked by an incident: within a few months he lost both parents. Taking care of him and his sister Marie is his maternal grandfather, Charles-Gabriel de Morlet, who after the Franco-Prussian war moved to Nancy, opting for French nationality. Here Charles completed his secondary studies and then attended the Jesuit school in Paris, in the rue des Postes. He will say later, recalling those years: “I think I have never been in a more deplorable state of mind. At 17 I was only selfishness, vanity, impiety, desire for evil: I was like outside of myself” and sadly admits that, “of faith, there was no trace left in my soul”. [2] Upon graduation, he takes the exam for the military academy of Saint-Cyr, where he enters in 1876, and two years later we find him at the cavalry school of Saumur.

In both environments he stands out for his indiscipline and transgressions, for the games packed evenings of card and girls, for the quality of the cigars he smokes and the expensive clothes he wears. In 1880 he reached the desert for the first time which would later captivate him. He is in Algeria with the 4th Hussar Battalion — 4e Régiment de Hussards—, already with the rank of lieutenant, but once again the transgression prevails: he has brought a lover from France, with whom he lives more uxorio. When the colonel finds out about the affair, forces him to put an end to it or to leave, Charles, who is not the type to give up, returns to France. But when, in the spring of 1881, he learns of the insurrection in Bou-Amama, in the southern Sahara, he cannot resist the thought of his comrades fighting without him. He leaves for Algeria, reaches the front and during the battle is noted for both his courage and solidarity.

Into the desert

He now has the desert and its inhabitants in his heart, to the point that he asks for a license to undertake a trip into the sub-Saharan regions, enabling him to study them thoroughly. He was only 24 years old: the unknown now dominated his future, he now felt that he was born to inhabit that desert, that he was there to listen to the silence that filled those vast horizons. Settling in Algiers, he begins to prepare for the exploration of Morocco, a closed country and wary of foreigners. But first he had to learn Arabic, so his desire for knowledge re-emerges —neglected during his school years— and he begins to go to libraries, to take private lessons, to consult those who could help him. He meets Oscar Mac Carthy, an old explorer who had traveled extensively in Africa: without escort or luggage, regardless of material comforts, with pockets full of notebooks and handwritten papers. Oscar tells him that the biggest problem is the choice of disguise, as it is impossible to enter that hostile country without hiding one’s status as a Christian. Only two ways of dressing would have made him go unnoticed: Arab or Jewish. Charles opts for the latter style and, having chosen a rabbi as a guide, leaves Tangier on June 20, 1883.

Itinerary of Fr. de Foucauld in Morocco 1884-1884

The trip allows him to create a scientific work —both geographic, military and political, Reconnaissance au Maroc—, [3] but it is also an opportunity to undertake a “reconnaissance” inside his own soul. He returned to France profoundly changed and, after having tried in vain to forget those places, in September 1885 he left for Algeria, where he traveled kilometres and kilometres, to listen to the voice of the desert in the silence of the night, to look at the immensity of the starry sky, to understand the reason for the charm that emanates from that country made of sand and light. In particular, he is struck by the faith of Muslims and their constant invocation to God; those prayers confront him with his lack of faith and so, after years spent suffocating that nostalgia, it comes to the surface stronger than ever: it recognises the mistakes of the past and tries to answer the questions that are multiplying in him.

Abbé Henri Huvelin

God, who also knows how to manifest himself through unusual ways, waited for him one evening at the home of a cousin, arranging for him meet Abbé Henri Huvelin: a man of great faith, capable of speaking to souls and recognising their pain. He immediately understood what the restless eyes of that young man were asking, but he did not press and waited. At the end of October 1886 he was in the confessional, in Saint-Augustin, and Charles went to ask him to instruct him, because he had no faith. Abbé Henri Huvelin made him kneel and invited him to confess to God; then he gave him the Eucharist. From that moment Charles de Foucauld found peace, which now transpired from the smile and from the words, from the letters that more and more often spoke of God, from the life he led in his sister Marie’s house and from the search to discover God’s call. he made a trip to the Holy Land and, while crossing the streets of Nazareth, meditating on the words of Abbé Huvelin —“Our Lord has so occupied the last place that no one has ever managed to steal it from him” (p. 116) —, he had the clear feeling of being called to the hidden life, in all humility.

Brother Albéric and the call of the desert

Back in Paris, in March 1889, one last problem remains to be solved: which religious order is most suitable for him? He makes several retreats, spends months in prayer and finally feels that he is drawn to the Trappists so that, having given all of his possessions to his sister, he reaches Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, where he is admitted to the noviciate with the name of Brother Marie-Albéric. Despite the hardness characteristic of La Trappe, Charles stands out for his helpfulness, austerity, thoughtful judgment, but above all for his humility, which is reflected in his every gesture and in the words he writes to his sister: “For me, everything continues to go really well. From day one, my life goes on smoothly. And my soul, how’s it going? I was just not hoping for it: the good Lord makes me find in solitude and silence a consolation on which I did not count. I am constantly and absolutely with him and with those I love”. [4] Doing God’s will was his only desire, and that very will now asks him to leave Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and settle in the most remote monastery of the Trappists in Syria. He returned the call of solitude in the desert, the charm of those silent places, to live in greater poverty, near the Holy Land, where the Son of God had worked and suffered.

He leaves Marseille on June 27, 1890, heading for the Cheïkhlé Trappe —a monastery lost in the mountains, with about twenty Trappists—, where he continues his noviciate marked by work in the fields, meditation, reading and prayer, until the day of his religious profession. February 2, 1892. But brother Albéric, who wants to follow an even more demanding rule than the Trappist one, has the inspiration to found a small congregation that traces the life of Jesus as much as possible: only in this way does he consider it possible to witness the love of God in abandoned countries and where the Gospel is ignored. To do this, however, he must leave the Order he has just entered. He talks about it with his confessor, Dom Polycarpe, and writes the doubts that haunt him to Abbé Huvelin. The old spiritual director knew well that it was impossible to hold him back when he felt inside “the mysterious call” and therefore, after various correspondence exchanges, he authorised him to follow that project of a solitary and totally hidden life, but rejected the written rule for the foundation of the Little Brothers of Jesus, considering it impossible due to excessive severity.

It was February 1897 when he left Brindisi [5] to reach the Holy Land with a ticket given to him by the Trappists and, once he arrived in Nazareth, he went to the Poor Clares to have a place as a servant. The abbess, mother Saint-Michel, knew very well whom she was standing in front of and treated him like a sacristan: he would sleep in a hut in the shadow of the monastery, receive a piece of bread a day, and have plenty of time to pray. It was exactly what he was looking for, and the hermit life he managed to lead made him deeply happy, it allowed him to apply his rule to the hours of day and night, marked by intervals of work and prayer. The following year, Mother Saint-Michel sent him to Jerusalem to deliver a letter to those Poor Clares. He arrived totally exhausted, with his feet blistered and sore from the long journey and mother Élisabeth du Calvaire decided to hold him back for some time in order for him to recover. Confident of his great intelligence as well as of the immense faith of that man; he who had presented himself as a beggar, the abbess managed to convince him, with the help of the Abbé Huvelin, to embrace the priesthood. At the beginning of August 1900, Charles thus returned to Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, where Dom Martin had been waiting for his arrival, Dom Martin made Charles complete his preparation for the priesthood at the Grand Séminaire for the clergy in Viviers (Ardèche). It was a year of study, prayer, seclusion, but also of reflection, during which he discovers that he is called not only to the pure hiding of Nazareth, but to live that form of life by bringing the Eucharist to the wildest districts, among the “infidels” and the souls  who have been forgotten the most or who are lost.

Le Grand séminaire de Viviers-sur-Rhône

On June 9, 1901, he was ordained a priest and remained among the Trappists awaiting the answer: he had asked to settle between Aïn and Touat, in one of the French garrisons without a priest, and be authorised to aggregate some companions to practice the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament. In September he takes leave of the Trappists of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and lands in his Africa, taking with him only the necessary to build the chapel and a few books. The French soldiers, knowing that the well-known explorer, already their comrade, had come to the desert to respond to such a noble and admirable call, welcomed him with enthusiasm and wanted to escort him to Beni-Abbès. [6] Here he buys land where water passed and begins, with the help of the fusiliers, to build a hermitage, starting with the chapel where he would exhibit the Eucharist. [7] He spends many hours of the day and night in meditation or adoration, lying at the foot of the altar; the rest of the time he dedicates to the soldiers, who go to see him for advice, to be blessed or simply to listen to that man who inspired peace and holiness. He welcomed them into the “terrain of fraternity” —as he had defined it—, listened to them and then accompanied them to the boundary which, marked by the stones, represented the space of the enclosure.

The “Christian marabout” who loved the North Africans

The inhabitants of Beni-Abbès began to look at the “Christian marabout” —in the al-Maghrib al-Arabi (المغربالعربي) Maghrebi Arabic lexicon it means ‘holy man‘ and hermit— both with a mixture of fear and admiration. But, little by little, they came closer and closer to the hermitage, and he willingly sacrificed something of that contemplation, the breath of his soul, to receive them fraternally and help them where he could. He opened his home to unpredictable nomads, to reprobate slaves and to those who needed shelter. He did this in order to accustom “Christians, Muslims, Jews and idolaters, to consider me their brother, their universal brother. Everyone is beginning to call this house “fraternity,” and this gives me great pleasure” (p. 238). And for that purpose to come true, he used up all that he had in order to free some young slave.

Paul Flatters Mission 1880-81.

The life he led in the desert was made up of little sleep, a lot of work, of consolation for the afflicted, of very little food, but above all of contemplation and prayer before the source of his love for him, the humble tabernacle. Through the witness of charity, humility, fraternity and forgiveness, Charles de Foucauld tries to follow the Gospel and to bring Jesus among those Muslims, whose conversion seemed to Charles, to be something that was beyond the bounds of possibility. The undertaking was difficult, but a sign came when a young Tuareg woman, during the massacre of the Paul Flatters mission  (1880–81), not only treated the wounded, but opposed their killing. Wasn’t this Christian charity? The one that makes all human beings love, without exception? Now Charles no longer had any doubts: he would go among the Tuareg, the nomadic “blue men” of the desert, to bring them the message of universal brotherhood and Christian love. With the help of commander Laperinne, he began a visit to the Ahnet, Adrar and Hoggar regions, to get to know the six great components of the Tuareg people and to get closer to their language.

In the spring of 1905 he moved to the heart of the Hoggar, precisely to Tamanrasset, a village far from the main centres, in the middle of the mountains, inhabited by the gag-rali. From that period there remains a photo, now universally known, with Charles at the door of the hut, dressed in a white tunic that on the chest has a red heart sewn on it which is surmounted by a cross [8]. He studies Tamacheq, the Tuareg language, enabling him to translate the Bible into their language, and then attempts to make the first approaches with his nomadic neighbours by entering the gardens where they work, talking to them, distributing medicines and small gifts, such as needles, which the women had so desperately needed. In the spring of 1907 he was offered to join Captain Dinaux’s mission of peace and civilisation, and Charles, who saw this trip as an opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the Tuareg language, accepts. In every village or encampment he promised a penny for each verse, for the songs of love or war, for the ancient or recent poems of the Tuareg peoples.

In a personal note extract we read: “We left Father de Foucauld on an ‘expeditionary‘ tour in the Hoggar, in company with Captain Dinaux. This officer, was keen to continue the work of Laperrine, met Moussa Ag Amastane, chief of the Tuaregs in the Hoggar and sixteen of his notables. On the June 23, 1905, the grand aménokal of the Hoggar made amends for his attitude over the last two years and, as a sign of submission to France, agreed to pay the tax. In addition, he offered to accompany the captain on his expedition, which resumed on the following 10th of July.”

To understand these moments he had tried to grasp every word lost in the desert and had made a small piece of his heart out of it, feeling part of that country. He was convinced that God’s will was being fulfilled through his stay in the Hoggar and through the drafting of a glossary, [9] to which he was dedicating time and energy as an essential element of communication and mutual understanding. He had made himself small and poor, annihilating himself in a hidden life, in order to bring the evangelical witness to those peoples whom the desert had long hidden. He knew that he would not win them over with preaching, but only with the presence of the Eucharist, with example, penance, universal fraternal charity. He was not mistaken, and when suddenly the “Christian marabout” fell seriously ill, the Tuareg took care of him by bringing him the little goat’s milk they had, in order to make him heal. He managed to recover and continued to move from one hermitage to another, made trips to France, at the insistence of his sister who wanted to see him again, suffered the pain of two serious losses: those of Father Guérin, his spiritual director, and of the Abbé Huvelin, who both died in 1910.

Meanwhile, the Tuareg, hit by drought, had migrated to Asekrem, a mountain town in the Hoggar, where Charles followed them, building a new small hermitage in order not to leave them. “This is a beautiful place to worship the Creator. May his kingdom settle here! I have the advantage of having many souls around me and being truly lonely on the summit. The soul is not made for noise, but for recollection, and life must be a preparation for heaven, not only through meritorious works, but also through peace and recollection in God “(p. 422). These were his thoughts as he received the Tuareg families in a cabin that looked more like a corridor, and shared with them what little food he had. His greatest concern than he was to make himself useful and relieve that people, whom he loved so much, from the inferior condition in which he had lived for years. For this reason, in May 1913 he embarks on a trip to France together with Ouksem, a young Tuareg of noble origins. He did not know that Providence was allowing him go home for one last time only.

Returning to the beloved desert, he too was overwhelmed by the serious repercussions that the First World War also had in the colonial territories. He then decided, despite the danger represented by the (السِّنُوسِيَّةُ) Sanousiyya —is a Tuareg tariqa (Sufi brotherhood) considered to be rebels who attacked the French army— not to abandon Tamanrasset, but simply to take refuge with some of his proteges in a more fortified place, where he continued to live in prayer and solitude, before the Eucharist, completing the translation of the Tuareg poems. “We live in days when the soul feels the need to pray. In the storm that blows over Europe one perceives the nothingness of the creature and one turns to the Creator. We stretch our arms towards the sky, like Moses during the battle of his gods, and, where man is powerless, we pray to Him who can do everything”(p. 477), he wrote a few days before being killed by some rebellious Tuareg.

Senussi going to fight the British in Egypt (c.1915)

It was December 1, 1916, when Charles’s earthly life was brutally cut short. But his universal brotherhood, born at the foot of the Eucharist and concretised in words, gestures and loving service to the least, was carried away by the wind, together with the sand of the desert, and reached growing men and women who, fascinated, they tried to follow him in that exceptional adventure. [10] They are those petits frères and those petites sœurs [11] and the many lay associations which, in various forms and denominations, are inspired by that charism and live in silence among the least in the world, trying to be, like their founder, witnesses of the Gospel with a presence made of loving and warm solidarity. 


Tomb of Blessed Charles de Foucauld in El Ménia, Algeria

May Our Lord God through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s great devotion, make us worthy of the heritage ! Amen. recite 3 x Ave Maria!


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