“Sanctify the world”: Charles de Foucauld and our Lives as Mission Priests

charles-de-foucauld-1

–     A paper for a meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests

Father Richard Peers

Leicester, 10th September, 2016

 

 

Father,

I abandon myself into your hands;

do with me what you will.

Whatever you may do, I thank you:

I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,

and in all your creatures –

I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:

I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,

for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,

to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,

and with boundless confidence,

for you are my Father.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

It was sometime in the early years of this century. I was making a retreat with the Jerusalem Community in Paris and had a major life decision to make. The Community, like many French communities of the twentieth century is strongly influenced by the spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Knowing this I took as my text for the retreat the prayer I have just prayed known as the Prayer of Abandonment written by Blessed Charles.

Although I had prayed the prayer before and many times since I was determined to really mean it; to genuinely abandon myself into God’s hands; to genuinely let the decision I had to make unfold according to his will.

I spent many hours each day in prayer and reading the Bible – using one of Carlo Carretto’s books as a guide.

I prayed phrases and lines of the prayer, I sought biblical texts and especially psalms to expand the lines of the prayer.

Finally, after five days I felt ready to pray the prayer. The community gathered to pray compline together in the little chapel in their house, a chapel that contained a small icon of Blessed Charles. After they had retired I remained in the dark and prayed the prayer slowly a word at a time breathing between each word, willing God, wanting God to accept my abandonment.

At the end of the prayer I knew that Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament had accepted my prayer for what it was. A gift of love; however insincerely I might go on to live the prayer; however much I might in the future abandon him to whom I had abandoned myself I knew that He knew that I meant those words. I knew he was there and for some hours time stood still, before I finally went to bed and to sleep.

God wants every human being to experience his presence. Most of us will have had such moments. They don’t last long; for most of us they don’t happen all the time but if we are living our Christian lives they should be a part of our life.

That, quite simply is our mission as priests. To be people of prayer, which means nothing more, than to be people in relationship with God; drawing others to relationship with God.

Charles de Foucauld has drawn countless souls to God, mostly after his death and mostly through the communities that have been inspired by his example. In some ways it is his life rather than his words that inspire. He is probably best known through the words of those who were inspired by him. I recommend the writings especially of Rene Voillaume and Carlo Carretto. Carretto makes a powerful companion for retreats and quiet days.

There are plenty of books and much material available on the internet that will give you the details of de Foucauld’s life, so I will just sketch the main events for you before going on to think about some themes and how they might influence our Sodality as a community of priests and how they fit into some of the themes already raised in the teaching we have received, particularly from Fr Tim Pike and Canon Robin Ward.

Foucauld was born in 1858 to a wealthy and noble family, he was later to inherit the title Viscount de Foucauld. His family lived in the disputed Alsace region of France and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 which we know now from the musical Les Miserables, entailed his family fleeing to other estates. Before that, however, he had been orphaned and was brought up by a doting grandfather.

As a young man de Foucauld’s family despaired of him. He did badly at the military academy he attended; he was profligate with money to such an extent that they appointed lawyers to control his spending. He was promiscuous and eventually had a live-in mistress who he tried to pass off as his wife – which led to his temporary suspension from the cavalry. He ate and drank so much that he became obese and special uniforms had to made for him.

He was stationed in the French colony of Algeria and it was north-Africa, the desert and Islam that led him to return to the Catholic faith of his family and upbringing and to the heroic vocation which eventually led to his death.

Bewitched by the desert he sought and was refused permission by the army to explore the Moroccan desert. Undeterred he resigned his commission and travelled disguised as a Jewish trader accompanied by an elderly rabbi into dangerous non-French territory.

It is clear that he was profoundly changed by this experience. When he returned to Paris he went, in 1886 to see a wise and holy priest known as a powerful spiritual Director. This moment, with Father Henri Huvelin marked his conversion. This is significant for us as a Sodality because although all of Charles’s Catholic upbringing would have been influenced by the French School, Huvelin represented a formal and explicit link with this teaching and one that would continue in person and then by correspondence until Huvelin died in 1910.

Charles writes that his prayer as he approached Huvelin was:

“Mon Dieu, si Vous existez, faites que je Vous connaise!”

My God, if you exist, make me know you.

I think this is an important prayer and one which we need to encourage many of those who lack faith to make.

Fr Aidan Nichols writes:

“It was Huvelin who gave to de Foucauld, and so to the Petits Frères (and Soeurs) who follow him, their spirituality of the heart of Christ as the matrix of prayer.  In this teaching, Christ’s heart is seen as the source from which human beings can be rejuvenated, to the point of finding their own hearts alive with Christ’s love, especially for the wretched, the sick, the poor. For de Foucauld, personal devotion to the heart of Christ is the central and irreplaceable focus of the life of prayer, and, so far from, as is sometimes alleged, leading to a self-indulgent and individualistic piety, it is the essential way in which to affirm the universal scope of the Incarnation.”

Charles went on to make retreats at Solesmes and other French monasteries as well as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He then entered the novitiate of the Trappist monastery Notre Dame des Neiges, Our Lady of the Snows. The monastery is still an active community and well worth a visit, they have a substantial exhibition about Charles de Foucauld.

Charles had been deeply affected by the abject poverty he had seen in north Africa, by the desert and by his visit to Nazareth – all themes that would remain important to him for the remainder of his life. He believed his vocation was to this community because it was poor; because it had a daughter community in the desert in Syria and because the Trappists were the most rigorous and extreme of the religious orders – he was outraged when, during his novitiate the Vatican allowed the Trappists to introduce eggs and oil to their diet.

But even this community was not extreme enough for de Foucauld. He was given permission to leave and in 1898 became a labourer and hermit with the Poor Clares in Jerusalem living in a shack at the edge of their property. He wrote a Rule of Life for a community of hermits that Huvelin  described as containing everything except discretion.

He studied for a while in Rome then back at Notre Dame de Nieges before being ordained priest – for the diocese of Viviers – in 1901. Viviers itself is worth a visit and they have a remarkable statue of de Foucauld outside the diocesan seminary. He returned to north Africa and although he travelled back to France at times and to the Holy Land this was fundamentally to be his home for the remainder of his life. Although he was joined once or twice by others his life was too rigorous and no one lasted more than a few months. He lived among the poorest and in the most remote areas. He was given permission (needed at that time under Canon Law) to say Mass alone, prayed the Office and Rosary each day and spent many hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This prayer, the celebration of Mass, and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in his hermitage have become part of his enduring legacy to the communities that have been inspired by him and are I believe key elements that we as priests of the Sodality need to ponder.

During the First World War battles and skirmishes also raged in north Africa. De Foucauld retreated to a fort-like hermitage he had built in the Moroccan desert at Tamanrasset.

On Friday 1st December 1916, having celebrated – as a First Friday – Mass of the Sacred Heart, de Foucauld was murdered in a raid on the fort for supplies.

De Foucauld’s friend Louis Massignon – who was also to become a friend of Thomas Merton – formed an association for friends and commissioned a biography by Rene Bazin that was published in 1921, in the next decades several brotherhoods were formed, some adopting the habit that de Foucauld had worn, a simple white cassock and scapular embroidered on which was a simple heart surmounted by a cross.

In 1967 Paul VI described de Foucauld as “the universal brother, model of charity” and in November 2005 Benedict XVI declared him among the ‘Blessed’. The cause for his canonisation continues.

Well, of course you could have found out any of these facts by reading Wikipedia, but I have tried to highlight some elements that may be of significance for us. And in the end it  de Foucauld’s life that is his witness.

Two years ago when we had just begun the idea of forming a community of priests I remember meeting Mother Imogen for the first time at the National pilgrimage to Walsingham. She was highly recommended by some very unlikely people. Among the phrases we used and that I used that day and many times since about our Sodality was that it was a community for ‘extreme Anglo-Catholics’. It is a phrase I rather like. As we approach the centenary of Blessed Charles’ death this December I hope that we are an extreme group; extremists even. Like Blessed Charles I hope that our extremism is not just in the public things but in the Nazareths of our lives; in our prayer and devotion.

Blessed Charles described himself as a ‘missionary monk’. We are not monks but we are missionaries; among the many communities inspired and formed by the life of de Foucauld are communities of secular/diocesan priests, it is worth Googling them and reading their rules of life.

In a letter of May 1913 de Foucauld described three elements that characterised his mission; I believe that we can adopt them all:

1 imitation of the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth

2 exposition and adoration of the most blessed Sacrament

3 living among the forsaken and seeking their conversion

 

Nazareth

As diocesan priests we are called, ordained and licensed for public ministry. But we need to be sustained by a deep relationship with God, by regular moments in which we are fed by the movement of the Spirit within us. We need our Nazareth times. We need an annual retreat and regular quiet days – once a month?

The trouble is we have been indoctrinated by a lax and self serving culture. A retreat, a quiet day, a desert day is not a pampering day. Don’t take pre-mixed gin or a bottle of whiskey. Choose another day to have a lie-in; don’t make your day off your quiet day. This is the work of a priest. Don’t catch up on your reading, emails or writing a sermon. Ideally just have one spiritual author with you. And I can’t recommend Carlo Carretto enough, your Office book and a bible. Ideally arrange to be somewhere where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and even better where it can be exposed. It may be that we need to offer these resources to one another. Celebrate Mass at some point. Get up early and pray the psalms slowly. Painfully slowly. Chew them. Blessed Charles often reminds me of the Anglican hermit-priest Father William Sirr, often called William of Glasshampton; both were said to pray the psalms so slowly that no one else could bear to pray with them. I don’t recommend this for your usual prayer but try it at least in your Nazareth times.

It was at Nazareth that Jesus prepared for public ministry. In our Nazareth moments God will speak to us; we will hear his Word so that we can preach it to others.

 

The Blessed Sacrament

This week one of the tweets from Archbishop Justin stated that Renewal was only possible when we have a renewal of prayer. Some Catholics and others have been critical of the Renewal and Reform programme as being too managerial and not prayerful or spiritual enough. To those people I would say, simply, great, get on your knees and pray. As catholic Anglicans we have the greatest gift to our church; because it is the gift Jesus gives all Christians – his Eucharistic presence. No matter how humble the aumbry; how tucked away in a corner it is; Jesus is there.

Our birth right as Anglo-Catholics is the daily Mass and the Eucharistic presence adored and honoured in quiet adoration and solemn Benediction.

It is a wonderful thing to celebrate Mass every day. This is what Blessed Charles calls us to do. It is what Pope Saint John Paul II encouraged every priest to do, seeing it as sufficient reason – if needed – to celebrate alone. But if we offer the Mass the people will come; even if it is only one person.

Celebrate on your day off. It is a beautiful thing to celebrate at the dining table with your family. Henri Nouwen never travelled without a stole and a few hosts ready to celebrate wherever he was, whoever would pray with him. Being faithful to the Office as Blessed Charles was requires planning and commitment but is the basic diet of a priest.

 

The Forsaken and their Conversion

One of the marks of the Sodality is our commitment to wear clericals; to be dressed at priests whenever possible. This is a wonderful gift. But we must never be seduced by it and the generosity and kindness which people show us when we dress properly.

On the way to a conference this week I stopped at a motorway service station, I bought my Marks and Spencer sandwiches then I went to find a quiet bench to sit and read on as I ate (I had already said Mid-Day Prayer in the car). As I sat down I noticed a distinctly unsavoury character coming towards me. I kept my head down but he sat himself down, preceded by the odour of urine and alcohol. My heart sank. All the other picnic benches were occupied by the young and the beautiful; why didn’t they want to talk to me! Well, I did give him conversation and prayer and time. I am ashamed of my first thoughts and I was reminded of who we wear our collars for …

I do think there is a danger when as a church we have to be concerned about numbers in church and financial contributions that we will market ourselves for the successful. Anglo-Catholics have always had a mission to those on the margins. We need to rediscover that. It is a wonderful thing that it is the Bishop of Burnley who has spoken so powerfully about estates ministry. These are the people who feel disenfranchised by politics. We need to be at the forefront of a new politics that engages them. We need to choose to minister in these places. How horrific it is that a bishop said to me only a few months ago that the Holy Spirit didn’t seem to be calling any clergy to minister north of the Cotswolds …

We also need to believe in conversion. That the salvation of souls is hugely important. This, if we think it’s true will be hugely motivating.

 

Fasting and Discipline

One of the best books available on the spiritual disciplines is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. If you don’t know it do read it.

De Foucauld was profoundly touched by his encounters with Islam. He discovered in it a strong piety; he said that it produced in him a profound “bouleversement” – he was turned upside down by it. But he was able to find in Christianity a profound piety of the Sacred Heart; that depth of the interior life of Jesus which was utterly obedient, totally submissive, to the will of the Father.

In Lewisham I was privileged to encounter many Pentecostalist Christians who understood the importance of fasting in the spiritual life and of noticing the effect that food – let alone alcohol – has on prayer. Not infrequently a pupil or colleague would tell me that they were fasting for some intention, occasionally offering the fast for me and my work.

There is a very good book by Charles M Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting, which aims to rediscover this practice. The great Benedictine scholar Adalbert de Vogue has also written an excellent and very practical book, To Love Fasting, which is essential reading on this subject.

I really hope that as a Sodality we can develop expertise in using the traditional spiritual disciples and so foster a spiritual renewal in our church.

 

Essential to all this is Spiritual Direction:

I am horrified when priests, often working in extremely challenging circumstances tell me that they don’t have a director, or that they see someone they have been seeing for many years and now see only once a year.

No secular counsellor would be allowed to work at all without appropriate supervision. When I was a Head I had a SD and a professional mentor. This is essential to spiritual and mental well-being.

 

 

Authenticity and Integrity

Those of you who celebrated Mass from the Missal this week will have prayed the Prayer over the Offerings on the Birthday of Our Lady, it is a remarkable prayer:

 

May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son,,

come, O Lord, to our aid,

and may he, who at his birth from the Blessed Virgin

did not diminish but consecrated her integrity,

by taking from us now our wicked deeds,

make our oblation acceptable to you.

 

I believe that what makes Charles de Foucauld do attractive is his authenticity, his integrity. The spiritual disciples when practised with care, integrate our personalities, so that we become attractive to others. The spiritual life is not a helpful addition to mission, to renewal and reform, it is an essential prerequisite. It does not claim that we are saints, quite the opposite we become evermore aware of our ‘wicked deeds’ our sinfulness and selfishness.

Two weeks ago I received the aspiration of three young men to join the Sodality; they are just beginning their priestly formation. They are doing an heroic thing in offering their whole adult lives to God in service in the sacred priesthood. The Sodality celebrates and rejoices in that heroism; and is unapologetic in acknowledging it, as a sign and symbol for all the baptised of Jesus who is the model for us all. By our commitment to the Sodality we are making an offering, an oblation of ourselves.

I want to end with two things:

First, the sign that Blessed Charles wore and that has become the sign of all those inspired by him, the heart surmounted by a cross. Our society is hungry for authenticity, hungry for integrity. Hungry for heart. The truth is, of course, that the only way to the depth of God’s presence is the cross. ”The more devoted to the cross we are, the greater glory we give Jesus who is nailed there.” Wrote V

Blessed Charles. I am ashamed of the privilege and luxury of my life; of the blessings that God showers on me .. but I don’t want to lose them; that’s why the Prayer of Abandonment is so hard to pray.

It is why, also, as Robin Ward mentioned, the teaching of the French school on annihilation of the self, of slavery to Jesus and Mary is so hard to stomach.

 

If we are extreme Catholics it has to be because e at least want to be able to say with St Paul that we are “prisoners of Jesus” and that, out of our freedom, we have made ourselves slaves.

 

What is the purpose of our little Sodality?

the sanctification of priests through the hearts of Jesus and Mary, for the glory of God, and for all people.” The Manual, Day 1

Here is a charge to us from the writings of Blessed Charles:

Jesus speaks: “To souls in silence, I say go and set up your devotional retreats in the midst of those who do not know me; carrying the Gospel by the persuasive force of example, not by speaking but by living: sanctify the world, carry me into the world…”

“Christ’s heart is the source from which human beings can be rejuvenated, to the point of finding their own hearts alive with Christ’s love … personal devotion to the heart of Christ is the central and irreplaceable focus of the life of prayer, it is the essential way in which to affirm the universal scope of the Incarnation.”

May Blessed Charles inspire us to live our priesthood with I boundless confidence.

Aidan Nicholls

 

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