Two enlightening models of the desert/wilderness experience are Blessed Charles deFoucauld, the nineteenth century holy man of the Sahara Dessert, and Father Carlo Carretto, a twentieth century writer and disciple of deFoucauld, both of whom had personal conversions, profound desert experiences, and productive legacies. Blessed Charles was born to an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France. Orphaned, he was raised by his devout grandfather, but rejected the Catholic faith as a teenager. Inheriting a great deal of money from his grandfather, Charles went to Algeria with his army regiment -- and with his mistress, Mimi. Charles later left both Mimi and the army and, with the help of a Jewish rabbi, disguised himself as a Jew and in 1883 began a one-year exploration of Morocco which he recorded in a well-received book.
Inspired by the Jews and Muslims whom he met, Charles resumed his Catholic faith and returned to France in 1886 where he joined the Trappists in Ardeche, France, later transferring to an abbey in Akbes, Syria. Leaving the monastery in 1897, Charles worked as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901, he returned to France and was ordained a priest. Eventually Charles journeyed to Beni-Abbes, Morocco, to found a monastic community in North Africa that offered hospitality to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and non-believers. Alas, his prayerful, peaceful, hidden life attracted no companions.
An army comrade invited Blessed Charles to live among the Tuareg people in Algeria. Learning their language, he wrote a Tuareg-French dictionary and translated the Gospels into Tuareg. Some Tuareg poetry was published after his death. In 1905, he came to Tamanrasset, where he lived the rest of his life. In early 1909, he visited France and established an association of laypeople who pledged to live by the Gospels. His return to Tamanrasset was welcomed by the Tuareg. But seized in a raid by another local tribe, Charles and two French soldiers were shot to death on December 1, 1916. Blessed Charles had recently mused: “The love of God, the love of one’s neighbor: all religion is found therein. How do we get to that point? Certainly not in a day since it is perfection itself. It is the goal we must always aim for, which we must unceasingly try to reach and which we will only attain in heaven.”
Today the Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of the Gospel, and Little Sisters of the Gospel draw inspiration from the peaceful, largely hidden, yet hospitable life that characterized Blessed Charles. He was beatified on November 13, 2005.
Father Carlo Carretto was a member of these Little Brothers of Jesus, in a community of desert contemplatives. In his book Letters from the Desert, Carretto recounts the fruitfulness of his ten years in the African Sahara. While working for the Catholic Action movement in Italy, Carretto had felt a strong desire to lead a contemplative life and to serve others in the spirit of Charles deFoucauld. He deeply felt God’s call: “Leave everything and come with me into the desert. It is not your acts and deeds that I want; I want your prayer, your love.” As a contemplative, Carretto recognized the desert as the most challenging experience of his life but also as the most fruitful. In him the desert ignited the purification of the senses, thoughts, soul, mind, and heart. In the wilderness, he experienced the living God, that Presence which stirs the soul to love and to service.
Reflecting on Carretto’s life, Jesuit Father Santi Rodrigues mused how the Spirit drives believers to retreat to one’s own desert. For most believers, the desert is a situation away from the place and pace of one’s busy life where they can connect more deeply with God. The desert is a place to meet God, a place to be vulnerable and powerless, a place of yearning, silence, and prayer. The Spirit drives believers to that place where they can empty themselves in order to tell Jesus: fill me with yourself alone. In the desert, the Spirit moves disciples to take time for prayer, penance, and reconciliation. In the wilderness, God invites believers to remove all that makes them prisoners of sin and confines them to mere worldly expectations. Gradually, one’s true heart, the essence of one’s being, is revealed. This solitary experience allows Christians to breathe Jesus—and Jesus alone. The practices of penance, fasting, prayer, and silence allow Christians to experience the freedom that moves believers to reach out to all people in need. In the desert, the Spirit prompts mankind to get rid of those aspects of life that separate humans from God, from one’s true self, and from others, ultimately purifying believers to live the Christian life as active missionary disciples.