A Sermon preached at Bread for the World on 27 May 2020 by the Revd Catherine Duce
Reading for this address: Luke 14: 7-14.
I wonder whether you ever look back over your life and wonder what you’ve achieved. I wonder whether you ever feel like your years are rushing by and your life feels a little unnoticed and a little mundane. I wonder whether you’ve ever craved a clearer sense of accomplishment – something concrete to show for all your quiet faithfulness and kindness over the years. If so then this sermon is for you.
On the surface, the life of priest and hermit Charles de Foucauld in the early 20th century seems very remote from ours. Here is a man with a fierce monastic austerity culminating in a ministry among the Muslim Tuareg people in the harsh Saharan desert. In fact, Charles life, by most people’s standards today, was a failure. He had a difficult childhood. He was a diffident military officer who became a Trappist monk only to leave the order after seven years (because it wasn’t austere enough for him) to then become a solitary missionary in Morocco where he baptised only two people in a dozen years. Some people even think his martyrdom in 1916 was a mistake.
And yet, Charles de Foucauld’s understanding of the essence of the life of Jesus, which he quietly lived out and witnessed to is deeply profound and transformative.
“I think it’s my vocation” Charles writes “to go downward”. “For me, I always seek the lowest of the low places, so as to be as little as my master, to be with Him, to walk behind Him, step by step, as a faithful servant.”
The more I’ve read about Charles de Foucauld’s life the more I’ve come to admire his extraordinary generosity of spirit, his passion for living alongside the poorest in our world and his total self-surrender and trust in God even in the face of failure. This is an inspiration and challenge to us today in our world of needing productivity and recognition.
Tonight I want to focus upon three aspects of Brother Charles’ life that are picked up in our gospel reading tonight: 3 Fs.
1) His fixation upon Nazareth as a hidden place of encounter with God; Finding ‘Nazareth’ in the wider sense became his vocation, seeking that lowest place echoing the life of Jesus
2) His mission of friendship in the desert as a universal brother
3) His spirituality of abandonment – as a way to make sense of his apparent failure
Nazareth – A vocation to the lowest places
In our gospel reading tonight – a parable about choosing places at the table, guests are invited to make their way to the lowest place. Jesus himself took the lowest place – beginning his life in a manager and ending his life between two thieves on a cross. His whole life long Jesus did nothing other than go down …becoming poor, forsaken, exiled, persecuted, tortured, placing Himself always at the lowest place. For Charles this became a deep calling. It was in Nazareth that Charles discovered that it was in going down that he could be raised up to God.
He writes: “How clearly Jesus preached humility at Nazareth, by spending thirty years in obscure labours…. I must imitate the hidden life of the poor and humble workman of Nazareth”
After leaving the army, and whilst discerning a call to become a Trappist monk, Charles rather reluctantly followed the recommendation of a priest friend, who suggested he go to the Holy Land. For two years he stayed in Nazareth living in a hut on the grounds of the Poor Clare Sisters. This experience was a turning point in his life.
Our vicar Sam Wells is fond of pointing out that we know almost nothing about 80% of Jesus’ life– which he spent being with people in Nazareth living in a carpenter’s household. Nazareth is an insignificant village: a backwater settlement near Galilee, from which no good could ever be expected. It symbolises a life of obedience, and a life of routine. Nazareth is the place where Jesus and subsequently Charles grew in stature, wisdom and favour with God.
Whilst Charles fell in love with Nazareth itself he also came to realise that God was calling him to discover his own Nazareth – his own hidden and obscure place living alongside and serving the forgotten peoples of the Saharan desert.
I wonder where your Nazareth place is in your life – where is the ordinary obscure place that Jesus is calling you to remain in and to seek, not prestige and recognition, but the company of those in the lowest place? For it is in humility that we are raised to God.
“Nazareth is a house” writes a friend to Charles “that you build in your heart, or better still, it’s a house that you allow the hands of Jesus, the child so meek and humble of heart, to build inside of you”.
That place can be like a desert place: “To receive the grace of God you must go to a desert place and stay a while. There you can be emptied and unburdened of everything that does not pertain to God. There the house of our soul is swept clean to make room for God alone to dwell… We need this silence, this absence of every creature, so that God can build a hermitage within us”.
But once at the table, taking the lowest place, how are we to relate to people? Are fellow guests empty vessels to be filled with the Christian gospel? Or are they each hidden wells, waiting to be affirmed and thirsty for relationship?
A mission of friendship
In Charles’ retreat notes of November 1897 he writes: It is part of your vocation to proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops, not by what you say, but by how you live”.
Charles modelled a ministry of presence in exemplary ways. For him, adoration of the blessed sacrament and his ministry of friendship and kindness to the men and women of the Sahara were inseparable.
Charles influenced the mutual understanding of Muslims and Christians at the time. His approach was to dwell with and learn from his Muslim neighbours, while at the same time living fully as a Christian, incarnating insofar as it was possible, Jesus among them.
Learning the local language was a key first step. One of the first phrases Charles learnt to say in Tamahaq language was “This heart drawn on my robe is there so that I remember God and human beings in order to love them”. How beautiful!
The work Charles set out to do was marked by “the suffering of love”. He built a whole monastery hoping for brothers to join him but no one was sent to him from the wider church. Instead locals visited him day after day – the poor, the lame, the lonely. He loved everyone who came to him and he was loved because he lived with them. Charles writes:
“I think there is no saying in the gospel that made a deeper impression on me and more transformed my life than this one: “Whatever you did to one of the least of these you did it to me”.
In his building of friendships he was joyful in his mission, his joy flowing from his life with God. Charles writes:
“Be human, charitable and always joyful. You must always laugh, even in saying the simplest things. I, as you see, am always laughing, showing my horrible teeth. Laughter puts the person you are talking to in a good mood; it draws people closer together, allows them to understand each other better; it sometimes brightens up a gloomy character, it is charity”
How much the church of today can rediscover when it crosses the institutional threshold and goes out to meet women and men of all creeds and none. What friendships are waiting to be born in unexpected places?
I wonder, does your ‘Nazareth’ place of encounter with God lead you to friendships with people who are different from you? With people you wouldn’t normally socialise with?
Finally we turn now to Charles’ radical realisation that a spirituality of abandonment and surrender to God and God’s will was an immense release from his own sense of inner disillusionment at the apparent failure to establish a monastery of brothers serving alongside him in the desert.
Abandonment as an Interior Compass
Charles’ enduring perseverance was astonishing. His efforts were enormous in every domain. Yet these appeared to yield very little fruit. But once Charles realised that the transformations he pined for would not come through greater effort on his part, he discovered the fruit of abandonment, of letting go. Abandonment is an attitude that recognises God is always present to us, yet so often we operate out of our own efforts and forget to be present to God. Charles gradually came to identify with Jesus’ own efforts which conferred on them a new kind of fruitfulness – Jesus’s efforts of choosing poverty, utter lowliness, humiliation, rejection, persecution, and suffering.
Charles did all he could and then he commended himself to God.
Out of this theology sprung his most famous prayer. This is the only prayer I have ever memorised by heart. It is a prayer I had recited in times of uncertainty and darkness, and in times of fruitfulness and joy.
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.
To end, Charles’ grave bears the inscription “I want to cry the Gospel with my whole life”. He certainly did this. His simple wishes upon death were: “I wish to be buried where I die, a simple burial, no coffin, very simple grave, no monument, just a wooden cross”. Whilst at the time Charles de Foucauld’s death went largely unnoticed. His embodiment of God’s scandalous choice to become incarnate in the poor town of Nazareth was to make him one of the most influential figures of the Church in the twentieth century, inspiring some twenty – one congregations today. I disagree with those who say Charles life was “More admirable than imitable”. Whilst we might not all be called to the harshness and heat of the Saharan desert, God is calling each one of us to discover our Nazareth hidden place – where in quiet faithfulness we can seek to imitate the life of Jesus, opening our eyes to the invitation to love and befriend those at the lowest place of the table. Try it. There are so many riches to be discovered there.
I am indebted to two books for this sermon:
The Universal Brother Charles de Foucauld Speaks to us today – Little Sister Kathleen (2019, New City Press)
Hidden in God Discovering the desert vision of Charles de Foucauld – Bonnie Thurston (Ave Maria Press)