Page 6, 28th October 1983

28th October 1983
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Page 6, 28th October 1983 — Holy hermit of the modern desert
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Organisations: French Government
Locations: Algiers

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Holy hermit of the modern desert

Two Dancers in the Desert — The Life of Charles de Foucauld by Charles Lepetit (Burns and Oates, £3.95).

Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld, translated by Charlotte Balfour, preface by Rene Bazin, introduction by Algar Thorold (Burns and Oates, £3.50).

CARLO Carretto's foreword to the Life is itself a beautifully lucid little essay which provides an appetiser equally welcome to old friends, new acquaintances — and even critics of this paradoxical mystic whose only dancing partner in the Desert is God. That theme is worked out in vivid patches throughout the text.

Some people find nearness to God among mountains, at sea, in woodlands, in the bustling city — or in their own sitting room, Charles de Foucauld seems to have found it in the desert.

This man who was a great French nationalist with the fervent patriotism which is well known among his countrymen, — yet chooses poverty, deprivation and the great objective of taking the Gospel to the people who had never met it: in fact pure evangelism as instructed by Jesus. Charles had, in fact made his first real meeting with Christ in Nazareth.

His retreat period there was largely spent in writing down bible texts and then a great number of meditations arising from them. It is itself unusual for a young Catholic of Charles's background to have been so deeply preoccupied with the Bible at the end of the last century.

He seems to voice the words of Christ in such a way as to identify his mind with His . . . "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Follow me. Jesus. I have come to bring fire upon the earth. To save what was lost. I have other sheep who are not in this sheepfold. I must fetch them too .. . "

For Charles, prominent among the "other sheep" were Muslims, people of the desert. He had declared to his director Fr Huvevlin his intention of becoming a priest while in Nazareth, and later, back in France a month before his ordination his conviction that he was to "Bring fire on the earth" was confirmed in his heart. He felt drawn to Morocco "The only corner of the earth where Charles really learned how the poor and nonChristians lived."

At 42 years of age in 1901 as a priest he left for Algeria. He had to get permission to reside in the Sahara territory before setting out to his next destination — the oasis of Beni Abbes on the border of Morocco.

He had wanted to travel as a poor monk, on foot, with a donkey to carry his goods. That could not be: he was welcomed at each post with almost military honours.

He was happy at Beni Abbcs, occupying the mud hut built for him by soldiers, in a lonely spot but within reach of the oasis.

He soon prepared plans for the re-organisation of the area and sent them to his friend Major Lacroix in Algiers.

The old soldier sprang up in Charles. He envisaged a short military incursion without bloodshed — and the centre of the oasis and his fraternity would be Morocco.

A brief quotation from the chapter expresses Charles's situation as it was usually to be: "At the very time when the French Government was expelling the religious orders from France, Charles was thinking of an invasion of Morocco by priests and religious: a first wave of contemplatives, a second wave of teaching orders and evangelizers. He himself would be in the front line.

It was all very simple. He was like a general looking over his map. Only at the end of the plan did he come down to earth: "I am alone".

He pressed ahead — his immediate objective being to impress upon his bishop the urgency of destroying slavery which seemed to be sustained by the French Government.

The author of the book describes Charles as a complex man who had to be fitted into the rhythm of his Divine dancing Partner. One of Charles's greatest struggles was, as a man of action and impatience, to find time for the prayer which sustained his life: a common enough trial in the whole human story.

Charlotte Balfour has translated a collection which largely consists of letters and meditations he wrote from Syria, later, when on retreat in Nazareth, during eight days at Ephraim, and a collection of notes and letters written at various times and places.

The writings are powerful, scripture-soaked and rich in penetration of the meaning of the life and words of Jesus — and of the minds of his friends.

One feels that for most "ordinary readers" if such there be — the meditations are best taken in small portions. As Rene Bazin observes in his Preface, the hermit was writing for himself.

The meditations directly on the Gospels can well be used directly as a stimulus for our own — even in a practical Sunday-by-Sunday way.

This book should have a place in every "religious" library.

Constance Holt




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