Letters from the Desert by Charles de Foucauld, translated by Barbara Lucas (Burns & Oates £2.50) This is a curious and difficult book, but ultimately very rewarding. It contains letters by Charles de Foucauld to his Trappist brothers between 1889, when he first became aware of his religious vocation, and 1916, the year of his death.
Perhaps it is his intense earnestness which makes it hard to read these letters, as well as his constant self-deprecation: saints arc notoriously hard on themselves, and this does not always make them easy companions.
Suffering, and a tremendous longing tor Heaven, are the keynotes of his earlier letters. He wrote almost obsessively of total obedience in the long, didactic letters to Fr Jerome, a novice whom he had met in Algiers.
This is interesting in the light of a letter by his superior, Dom Louis de Gonzague. which states that Foucauld is "incapable of sustained obedience and discipline under a leader; he could become a saint, I hope it for him, hut in his own way, not through obedience."
In 1897 Charles de Foucauld was dispensed from his vows as a Trap pist and tor the next three years lived as a simple hermit in Nazareth. In his joy he scarcely seems to inhabit the earth, and writes urging Fr Jerome to raise his thoughts to Heaven "high up above the sad. mists of the earth , Thinking only of Jesus . . . let us forget this poor world."
After studying for the priesthood in Rome, Fr Charles left in September, 1901, for the Sahara. He dreamed of converting this Muslim colony, where were "the most abandoned, the most lost sheep." His missionary zeal was enormous, hut he had a high and austere ideal: he was going to preach the Gospel from the housetops, not with words, but by the holiness of his life.
His greatest disappointment was that he had been given no cornpanion. For the rest of his life he refers again and again to his loneliness, and more than once he asks Dom Martin, Prior of Notre Dame des Neiges, his first Trappist community, to send him a companion.
Dom Martin explained his hesitation in a letter to Mgr Guerin, Apostolic Prefect of the Sahara: "Outside books, I have never encountered such holiness on earth. But I have to admit to having reservations regarding his prudence and discretion.
"The austerities he himself practises and would certainly impose on his companions are such that I cannot but think a neophyte would soon sink under them."
With the years Charles de Foucauld mellowed. His great charm and courtesy and his saintly love for his sheep, the assorted soldiers and slaves who came to him, endeared him to the people of the Sahara, for whom he laid down his life.
In 1916, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which meant so much to him, he was killed. His death bore fruit in the birth of what must he one of the most inspiring orders of this century the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.