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Charles de Foucauld Holy Week 2

My photo – Charles de Foucauld Hermitage Béni Abbès

With Charles de Foucauld canonised by Pope Francis on Sunday a week ago, 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, (having already put my Palm Sunday sermon notes online) is my Maundy Thursday sermon (somewhat in note form):

+ In the name…

Pause moment – where in readings hear what Spirit saying to us as Church – to me; you; us.

Charles de Foucauld said: I wish to cry / shout the Gospel on the roofs, not by my words but by my life

In middle of our three months in the Sahara, I  made a 2 week retreat in the oasis Béni Abbès – one of the places Charles de Foucauld had built a hermitage. On Palm Sunday here at St Michael’s I summarised the life of Charles de Foucauld and described some of his hermitages in the Sahara which I visited. 

De Foucauld was shot in 1916 in confusion of the French Algerian war. He had hoped to start a religious order. During his lifetime a couple of people at different times tried joining him – but found his lifestyle far too austere – he died an apparent failure. Then from 1933 – 17 years after his death – several communities including an order called the Little Brothers of Jesus – began to spring into being and flourish. Without trying to mimic/clone his life, they follow the insights of Charles de Foucauld.. 

I first met Br Henri at Beni Abbes – he is a priest – one of these Little Brothers of Jesus. He also was on retreat in the Sahara – the desert is a regular part of a Little Brother’s life. 

A year and a half later I visited Henri in one of the poorest parts of New York where the Little Brothers have a house. They live in an ordinary house, the tumultuous noise of the neighbourhood entering the little room which they have set aside as a chapel. Here they say Mass and spend at least an hour a day praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. They wear no habit; they work in factories and live as the poor do. They do not tell people they are priests, or monks, or religious, or even that they are Christians. Like Charles de Foucauld, they seek to preach the gospel with their life.

Recently someone who had got to know me a bit told me how much she had an aversion to religion and religious people. She said to me: “But you’re different to any other reverends I’ve met” – I asked her how: 

“You don’t try to convert me.” I took this as a compliment.

This person is typical of many – a rapidly growing number – in our society. People have less and less religious knowledge / contact with a healthy form of Christianity. What little they do know often from American Televangelists and ill informed media. 

[Some local statistics at the time about knowledge about Christianity, church membership, age of clergy,…]

Whatever statistics one examines, the curves are all heading in one direction. 

Hear what the statistics are saying to the Church.

Some parishes, some communities loudly proclaim how they are the exception. But it feels to me like people living in a wooden house and the kitchen is on fire – they are saying things are fine because the problem is somewhere else in the house – they are fine in the lovely living room. The fire is only in the kitchen.

Or first class passengers on the Titanic who know there’s a gaping hole on G deck and are discussing how thankful they are there’s no problem on B Deck. 

Hear what the statistics are saying to the Church.

This is the end of conventional Christendom in the West. A Christendom that has been around for 17 centuries – since Constantine. Some take this to be bad news – certainly it is not easy news – but it may be good news, great news if only we will listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us.

The structures and framework of conventional Christendom have been the way in which the life and message of Jesus has been transmitted and lived to this day and we thank God for that. But there has also been much that has been negative about the institutionalisation of Christianity. I don’t need to list off the effects on women, minorities, and those who differed from the standard accepted attitudes. 

But in, through and under institutionalised Christianity there has been, almost in growing circles, an expanding life of spirituality. Right from the time of Constantine, that watershed of Christendom – this spirituality was born in the desert with the desert fathers and mothers – through the closed monasteries this spiritual life grew throughout Europe, then bursting out of the monasteries, first with groups like the Franciscans, then beyond mendicant religious life with Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century, bringing spirituality & contemplation into the heart of active apostolic ministry.

But always lay people were second class citizens. As recently as the 1950’s no lesser light than Thomas Merton said that Lay People didn’t need spiritual direction because lay people didn’t really have spiritual lives: it was enough for them to get safely married and that was the end of it. Merton would change his tune as he matured and so has our world. For spirituality has burst the skins of religious and priestly life – spirituality is now a primary interest in our world – just look in any bookshop… And certainly not limited to Christianity – in fact in the bookshops more often Christian spirituality is neglected – unknown.

In my opinion, in this turbulent world & in this turbulent church – to be a Christian at all – to survive as a Christian in this new century/millennium – one needs to be contemplative – a person with a deep spirituality. One either is a Christian with deep spirituality or one will not survive as a Christian at all.

It is no longer enough to try and water and nurture spirituality as a tender pot plant in the safety & security of the sanctuary. The plant of spirituality has outgrown that pot/container. We don’t even have to do any transplanting – the roots have burst the pot. The tree itself has broken through the sanctuary and is now standing in the heart of our city – if we will but recognise it.

We live in a new world: post-Christian; post-modern; secular; multi-cultural, multi-faith, global-village. [Before the Christchurch quakes] I was in the square for the birthday of the Buddha – there was a leader of the Muslims speaking in front of a 4-5 meter high golden statue of the Buddha which itself was in front of our Christian cathedral. Muslim; Buddhist; Christian; This is our city today. Add to that, that for most people this was minority activity – there was no photo in the newspaper. Most people have no personal interest in such religious activities. We live in a secular world.

Possibly greatest spiritual challenge for religion in general, and for Christianity in particular, during this next century, is to find holiness in the secular. Indeed the holiness OF the secular. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

God is there in all creation; Christ is there in all creation

“God so loved the world – not God so loved the church” Christ is shimmering through all creation, deeply at work in the travail of culture and civilisation, and in the depths of our own and every person’s gritty hearts. For too long we have thought of God as safely within our church buildings, within our own little tradition. 

But our task now is to see and find God’s work precisely where there are no traditional and conventional religious symbols to reassure us and make it easy. We have for too long settled for too little. Our God has been too small. Too safe.

The instability and pain that we are suffering are the birth-pangs of a new reality. Nostalgia for a previous time are inevitable – when everything appeared stable. But these can also be exciting, exhilerating times for Christians – especially those who have the vision to see

Spirituality at the center of our Way. There is a cost for us – sure – we farewell our tried and beloved ways of many centuries – there is a death – I believe there is also a resurrection.

We are to be salt and light and leaven in the world. Salt, in the time of Jesus, not only acted in food to bring out the flavour and goodness; salt was put on the rubbish dumps and dung heaps as an antiseptic – to prevent the increase and spread of what was harmful. 

There is our task. To highlight the good that is already there; to be signposts to the action of God – already there (we don’t bring God to place – God is already active there); and we need to be preventing the increase and spread and consequences of human evil. There does not need to be a lot of salt, or light, or leaven. But we need to be there quietly, surreptitiously, anonymously even – salt and light and leaven in this secular city.

We who stand in what we call the catholic tradition, have resources that can pilot us into this new reality/ world. At heart it is the belief that creation is good; that creation conveys God. This is essentially Hebrew; essentially Christian. 

With bread and wine and water; with feet and bodies and oil; voices & art; gesture, music, & colour we celebrate, discover and manifest God. There is no fear of creation; no revulsion. It is good. We are good. The city is good. God is in the secular as much as God is in what we thought to be sacred.  

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Not just the church.

And so we come this night to have our eyes opened, enlightened – to see God in every fibre of creation.

During this week we have been praying or trying to pray to God Charles de Foucauld’s prayer of abandonment. We have found how impossible it is to do this with sincerity. But this evening God addresses this prayer to us. 

Jesus this night gave the means for us to see creation transformed.

As we come forward this evening and receive into our open hands a small piece of bread, a small piece of creation – creation transformed into God – as we receive this, God abandons Godself into our hands – Christ abandons himself into our hands.

God says to us/ Christ says to us: Paul, Sarah, Bosco, Rebecca (your own name) 

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,
I wish no more than this, Paul, Sarah.
Into your hands I commend my whole self:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Bosco/Rebecca, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my beloved.

God is with us. God gives Godself in sanctuary and in city. Christ is with us. May this night, may through the service of this three days, our eyes be opened so that we may recognise him.



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3 thoughts on “Charles de Foucauld Holy Week 2”

  1. Paidí Delaney

    Thank you. To read sermon notes expressing my own inchoate thoughts and dreams, written by a priest in far Aotearoa New Zealand – what joy! This will give me strength in dealing with accusations of being “too Catholic” and “too Zen”. God is good! Go raibh míle maith agat (“thank you very much”) from this Irish deacon.

    1. Delighted to e-meet you, Paidí! [I wonder how you discovered this site?] And thanks for the encouragement! Easter Season Blessings.

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