Charles of the Desert

By Rebecca A. Spears

charles-of-the-desert-a-life-in-verse-5One early June, traveling to a wedding in San Diego, I’d taken the long way from Dallas by train. I wanted to see the Southwestern deserts. Two days later Amtrak’s Sunset Limited broke down in the Mojave Desert.

Pretty quickly it became clear: We are not so great. Nature is. God is.

Perhaps this is one reason why Charles de Foucauld went to live in the Sahara: not only to offer the people there hospitality and love as Jesus had, but also as a way to empty himself of the temptations of civilized life, allowing himself to be humbled by the vast universe.

The Christian hermit and martyr Charles of the Desert (1858-1916) is a complex, puzzling character. William Kelley Woolfitt’s new book of poems Charles of the Desert develops a full portrait of this mystifying cleric from childhood in 1863 to his last day in Algeria’s Hoggar Mountains. The poems, written in first person, proceed on a timeline, zigzagging geographically from France to the Holy Land to Algeria.

For over a decade, Père Charles lived a stringent life in the Sahara, a life that would kill most of us. He lived and worked among the Tuaregs, who saw him at best as an eccentric, at worst as an enemy. In 1916, he was assassinated by rebels attempting to rob and kidnap him. He left to the world a four-volume dictionary of the Tuareg language, a new order—the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus—and a public fascination for his austere life among the Muslims, whom he hadn’t been able to convert. [Read more…]

Imitating the Saints

Heaven's gatesSt. Therese once wished aloud that her own mother would die. When her mother scolded her, Therese explained that then she could sooner go to heaven.

My children received this anecdote with perverse joy, telling their siblings to jump off a bridge, run out in the street, and let go of the tree branch…that you may sooner see paradise, of course.

Given a choice between heaven and hell, they will gladly choose heaven. But faced with a choice between heaven and earth, they start hedging: Are there Legos in heaven? Who’s going to be there? Is the music any good? Why do they have a gate that keeps all the fun people out?

They’ve already noticed the problem that villains are usually the most interesting character in any novel or movie. It’s far more troubling to envision characters who are not completely wicked, characters who struggle with temptation but don’t succumb.

I tend to love my heroes too much to attribute them with serious flaws. Or I imagine there is a class of unsullied souls, anointed souls who somehow, magically, don’t sin. They may have sinned in the past, but no more. They meet Jesus, they fall off their horse, or maybe they’re just born with an incredible endowment of piety, and sin can’t touch them. A heaven full of such insufferable people really doesn’t sound appealing. [Read more…]

Believing in the Beach Boys

The_Beach_Boys_(1965)The first church I attended as a teenaged new believer swiftly taught me two doctrines:

  1. There won’t be any Democrats in heaven.
  2. Secular music is tantamount to heresy.

The first one was easy enough to get. Reagan had saved us from the devil Jimmy Carter, and now Jesus had the go-ahead to return whenever he wanted. The second proved a little more complicated. What was I supposed to listen to?

The youth pastor’s wife took me to a Christian bookstore so I could tell the musically redeemed clerk about my favorite bands and find equivalencies worthy of the kingdom of God. My ears turned pink as I told the twenty-something, crisp-collared man about the Beatles, Erasure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees cassettes rattling around in the passenger seat of my car. He raised his eyebrows, then grabbed a copy of Maranatha Praise, Volume 6, the closest match. I put it in my tape deck on the way to school the next morning, a first step in my journey of spiritual transformation. [Read more…]

Better Call Saul

better-call-saul-netflixBetter Call Saul, a prequel to AMC’s milestone series, Breaking Bad, further establishes co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to be among the most intricate moral thinkers working in the dramatic arts. Whereas the first series rendered the ethical decline of a dying man who makes something of a noble bargain with his conscience—attempting to provide for his struggling family by entering the methamphetamine trade—the second series focuses on an altogether different landscape of principles.

Instead of depicting the inch-by-inch, then mile-by-mile, depravity that follows a dubious but not wholly dishonorable decision, Better Call Saul illustrates the confluence of causes that can make a man see himself in a certain way. If Breaking Bad’s Walter White is “Mr. Chips turned Scarface,” as Gilligan described him, Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is Willie Stark turned strip-mall consigliere.

The series, now beginning its second season, is set in 2002, some six years before the action of Breaking Bad. As such, it gives the backstory on how Walter White’s outlandish shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman, becomes the man that he is. Goodman is the epitome of the ambulance-chasing, tasteless advertising (“Better Call Saul”) attorney, complete with a debased clientele and a shameless talent for truth perversion. [Read more…]

Sonia Sanchez Made Me a Jewish Poet; Rhonda Magee Helped Make Me Whole

soniasanchezBlack. Muslim. American. Woman. Poet.

The languages she spoke. The ground on which she stood, singing her suffering, power, anger, love. Between the painful past and the dreamed of future: her presence. That’s what I remember. More than the timber of her voice. Definitely more than the poems she read that Saturday afternoon.

Fall, 1977. McGlinchey’s, a restaurant and bar in downtown Philly. Having finished, for the time being, the life that had been programmed for me—I had recently graduated from Glassboro State College (now called Rowan University), I was discovering and inventing my identity in Kiryat Shemonah, Tzfat, Jerusalem—Israel! Then, eighteen months into my new life there, I was home (or was I away from home, visiting America?) for a short visit.

I was a poet, and I was becoming a poet. I was a brokenhearted man, and I was learning how to use a broken heart to get women. I was, not by choice, an American. That’s how I was seen in Israel. I was a Jew by birth, and I was becoming a Jew by choice. [Read more…]


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