With Charles de Foucauld canonised by Pope Francis on Sunday, I want to continue to celebrate him – Charles de Foucauld is one of my inspirations. I once preached through Holy Week, using Charles de Foucauld as a lens. Here, from that week, is my Palm Sunday sermon (somewhat in note form):
+ In the name of…
Let us pause a moment to see where in the readings we hear what Spirit saying to us as Church – to me; you; us…
[some introductory material not relevant more widely, connected to the particular context when first preached…]
The gothic buildings of Anglican Christchurch (NZ) speak from our monastic legacy. When I walk into Christ’s College [I served there as chaplain for 24 years – this sermon was preached at St Michael & All Angels during that period] each day – I’m quite clearly walking into buildings modelled on a monastery. The abbot’s quarters (Headmaster’s office), the refectory/dining hall; the cloisters; the chapel; the scriptorium/library; the dormitories.
This echoes through the Arts Centre – the old university – and on through the centre of the city. Green and gothic. Speaking silently. Speaking of monasteries/ monasticism. Hear what these buildings are saying to us. Hear what these buildings are saying to the church.
Monasteries can be a model/paradigm. They model such things as living balanced life: prayer, work, leisure. Solitude, community. Finding God in all things: sanctuary and scriptorium; shop floor and garden shed. This is part promise and challenge of monasticism to our green and gothic city.
Not surprisingly – monasticism was born in the desert. People who lived intentionally Christian lives in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine – the desert fathers and mothers we call them.
I say, that not surprised that monasticism was born in the desert – because that’s where our great faith tradition is born. In the desert. Ours is a desert religion. Like Islam and Judaism. Born with Abraham and Moses and Mohammed – in the desert. With Jesus in the desert. The desert fathers and mothers; early monasteries were trying to go back to cradle of our faith.
The wonderful BBC series on Sahara – by Michael Palin – in the fourth program deep in heart of Sahara:
“We’re now into what my French guidebook calls “désert absolu” – absolute desert. The earth stripped clean, as bare as a glacier, as featureless as the sea. the outside world is so far away as to be almost irrelevant. I can understand why so many religions were born in the desert the outside is so hostile, you have to look inside.”
As he is narrating this – Muslims are prostrating.
I have spent many months in the desert. Most significantly, hitch hiking 3 months through the Sahara.
The series reminded me – we’d be hitching with a trucky – and he would stop for prayers – imagine in NZ. It reminded me of the constant – sometimes tiring offer of hospitality – “because my religion requires it”. This religion of the desert.
Michael Palin continues – as a French paraglider buzzes into view, and this too is a parable if we think about it: “Then just as I achieve a little spiritual harmony with this great emptiness, I’m reminded that in the 21st century the outside world is always closer than you think. We don’t have the desert to ourselves after all.”
“I can understand why so many religions were born in the desert”
The desert – the cradle of our faith/spirituality.
Like early monasteries, Lent, also, is a going back to birthplace of our faith/spirituality. On the first Sunday in Lent we always head off with Jesus into the desert for these forty days there with him.
Easily, too easily, think of the desert as inhospitable; as dead; barren – not as life-giving. Our cities too, even our churches can have that sort of image of desert. The city can be an arid place, isolating, lonely, inhuman, smothering any signs of life in concrete and steal, harsh glass, and plastic.
The church too can seem obsessed with structures and reforms and political correctness; even our fixation with liturgical niceties can squeeze the life and vitality out of church so that the last place that some would think of looking for spiritual nourishment and refreshment might be a church. City and church can present the desolate image of desert.
And the desert is not like this – not all inhospitable, dead, barren. The desert is full of life and vitality and humanity and community and hospitality in ways that are not found anywhere else. There are cultures and lifestyles and oases in the Sahara which have a beauty and humanity we have lost in the city. There is water in the Sahara if one only has the ingenuity to access it.
One Oasis we stayed in – Timimoun – had over the centuries dug hundreds of kilometers of very gently sloping tunnels underground. Water would slowly seep into these tunnels, until the seeping became a trickle and the trickle a stream – by the time these tunnels got to the where the people lived there was a river in the middle of the Sahara.
And the desert speaks of God in a way nothing else can. If the NZ mountains & bush speak of God dressed in all God’s finery – then the desert speaks of God naked. The overwhelming stars at night; the voluptuous dunes rolling as far as eye can see in the day time. The desert is about deep intimacy with God – the intimacy of lovers. The God of the desert is the God of the Song of Solomon/ Song of Songs. God our spouse; God our lover.
We clutter our lives with trivia and entertainment, devices, and busy-ness We fear the emptiness of the desert. But we also fear its intimacy. Its sensuality. We have a bizarre attitude to intimacy, to sensuality, to sexuality. It is little wonder that there has not been a – I nearly said decent – It is little wonder that there has not been a significant commentary written on the Song of Solomon in the last two centuries.
The best that, Dean Inge, the nineteenth century author on prayer and mysticism, could say about it was that the Song of Songs is “simply deplorable”. Yet from Origen to St John of the Cross, the Song of Songs was the book of the Bible that was seen to speak most clearly of the good news of God’s longing for us and our longing for God.
Towards the end of the Song of Songs it says: “Who is this coming out of the desert leaning upon her beloved?” As we spend time with God in the desert we are espoused to God our lover – entwined, dependent, leaning upon God the beloved.
As I travelled South, deeper and deeper into the Sahara again and again I would meet up with places built by the Frenchman Charles de Foucauld. Converted from a dissolute life, Charles had tried the rigours of the Cistercian monks, living in Palestine as a poor hermit gardener to some sisters and finally moving deeper and deeper into the Sahara where ended up losing his life as a backlash to the Algerian war with France.
I visited his hermitages in Béni Abbès, in Tamanrasset, and on the isolated and barren but magnificent lunar-like landscape of the Hoggar Mountains of Assekrem.
We got up for one of the stunning sunrises at quarter to five. The moons last quarter, Jupiter, and Venus pointed to the dawn as we clambered up to de Foucauld’s hermitage. At 6.30 we joined some of the hermits in their chapel. They follow de Foucauld’s lifestyle and also look after one of the world’s most remote weather stations. Br Jean-Marie had been there 30 years.
After Mass Br Alain invited us for a cup of coffee. He had been there 3 years. We talked about his time there. “It’s nice here” was Alain’s simple response. I wish life could be so focused for me: It’s nice here – it is good to be here – and God saw that it was good. It is good. It’s nice here.
Here, in dramatic mud hermitages, amongst the Tuareg – the blue people of the desert, seeking to be what he called the “universal brother” Charles de Foucauld, much like Francis of Assisi didn’t want to preach the gospel with words – de Foucauld said: Je veux crier le Gospel sur les toits, pas par mes mots mais par ma vie
I wish to shout/ to cry the Gospel on the roofs, not by my words but by my life
In the desert, Charles de Foucauld gifts us with his own prayer of abandonment to God – a prayer that each day this week I encourage you to try and pray
And when I say try – it is not the saying of it that is difficult – it is meaning it:
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:Prayer of Abandonment Charles de Foucauld
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.
Here then, we have reached the heart of the desert – physically, at its deepest meaning, spiritually.
This spirituality, this faith, this plant, seeded and nurtured in the desert was transplanted into our tradition through the monasteries – through those gothic monasteries. And now we stand, with this spirituality, at the gate of our city. On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes up from the desert – the desert of our Lent – to bring the life of the desert into Jerusalem/the city. Through us – through you and me.
This Palm Sunday, this Passion Sunday, Jesus not only enters the city. He carries his cross through the city. He brings the life and vitality of the desert into the city. Into our city/Christchurch. The cross is like a portable desert. My God my God why have you deserted me – why have you made me like the desert.
We are not just remembering an event that happened two thousand years ago – we are living this story now. It has been lived again and again in different ways. In the sixteenth century St Ignatius Loyola experienced his desert by spending a year in prayer in a cave in Manressa. Then as he was going to Rome at a place called La Storta, Ignatius had a vision that God was placing him with his son Jesus carrying his cross.
Ignatius brought his desert into the city with Christ’s cross. And so with St Francis. And so with Charles de Foucauld. And so with you and with me.
Lent, our forty days in the desert, is drawing to a close. If we have been negligent of Lent, it is never too late. In fact if we could but pray the prayer of Abandonment sincerely we would have arrived at the heart of Lent/ of the desert. Having gone to the heart of the desert, this week with Jesus we will learn and seek from him to bring this vitality, this intimacy, this fullness of life to the heart of our city.