A Letter from the Desert

A Letter from the Desert April 9, 2020

Pascal once said that most of our problems as human beings stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room by ourselves. Never was this more true than now. It certainly has been for me. As I thought about this, it led me to pull off the shelf one of my all time spiritual favorites, Carlo Carretto’s 1964 classic Letters from the Desert.

In 1954, at age 44, Carretto, a highly respected Catholic lay activist, left a busy life in Italy for the North African desert. There he joined the Little Brothers of Jesus, a small religious community based on the life and teaching of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), a soldier-explorer turned hermit. The book consists, literally, of Carretto’s letters from the desert to his friends back home.

Carlo said he had felt a call from God, urging him: “Leave everything and come with me into the desert. It is not your acts and your deeds that I want: I want your prayer, your love.” Letters from the Desert is the story of how he followed God’s “mysterious” call, which “comes in the darkness of faith.” That call, he writes, is “so fine, so subtle, that it is only with the deepest silence within us that we can hear it.”

He makes it clear, however, that he wasn’t hiding from the world. In fact, he insists, through prayer he feels more closely connected than ever to those he loves. He writes: “[O]ne never wastes one’s time by praying; there is no more helpful way of helping those we love.” One of the continued major appeals of this book, as author-publisher Robert Ellsberg points out, is Carretto’s own ascetic yet joy-filled spirituality. Carretto writes of his desert experience: “‘You will be judged according to your ability to love,’ this place reminds me insistently.”

It was in the silence of the desert that Carretto most fully encountered the God Who is Love. But it wasn’t easy for him, just as it isn’t easy for us today. Silence doesn’t come naturally. Carretto uses the example of Eucharistic Adoration: “No prayer is so difficult… One’s whole natural strength rebels against it.” For many of us, especially in the age of social media, it’s hard to sit still! At times it seems impossible, but as Carretto writes, “Jesus is God of the impossible.”

So how does all this apply to us today? Speaking for myself, friends, like many of you, I too am “feeling” the quarantine. In other words, I’m antsy. My den feels more like a cell than a “man-cave.” Sometimes I feel the need to get out of the house and go for a walk, but that’s not exactly the best idea these days living in New York City.

Once again, Ellsberg sums up Carretto’s appeal nicely:

Essentially, Carretto showed that it is possible to live a contemplative life in the midst of the world– the desert, after all, is really everywhere. The heart of the Gospel, he believed, is to make of ourselves an oasis of love in whatever desert we might find ourselves.

There, perhaps, we can directly encounter what Carretto calls the “perpetual newness of the love of Jesus.” Let’s pray to the God of the impossible, in these difficult times, that we can find yet Him in that “still small voice” (Ezekiel 19:12).

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, pray for us!

(The above drawing of Blessed Charles de Foucauld is by Pat McNamara.)

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