His eyes stare out of the grainy black-and-white photo with an intensity I found frightening when, as a child, I first saw it on a prayer card. Later I began to imagine that perhaps this look was something to do with the romance of the desert. In my mind the nobleman who made the desert his home and could pass amongst its peoples was a sort of Catholic Lawrence of Arabia, or like Saint-Exupéry, stranded in his crashed plane.
I now realise that the key to understanding soon-to-be Saint Charles de Foucauld is St Anthony Abbot and the Christian tradition of flight from the world. The urgency of the new saint’s search for God is what gives him that look. He lived in deserts of bereavement and powerful passions from his earliest days. To mangle the phrase of Proust, a near-contemporary of Charles de Foucauld, inside everyone there is a desert and the desert is God-shaped. Only God can turn it into a garden, but most of us are not courageous enough to hang around and wait to see if it will bloom. We are scared at the way its lack of distraction starts to hollow us out. We contract and flee when we need to remain and embrace.
Blessed Charles managed to distil this spirituality into a single prayer, his sublime “Prayer of Abandonment”, which begins: “Father, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you …” It made a powerful impression on me as a seminarian.
Such prayers are vital to growth in the spiritual life. There is, of course, a kind of reaction-formation in saying them, what one might call a “fake it till you make it” aspect to their recital. I say that I want to surrender myself entirely, but the next minute some momentary reversal has my fragile ego rolling round before God like an Italian centre-forward trying to earn a penalty.
Aspiration to surrender born of self-satisfaction is one thing; inspiration quite another. The latter is always preceded by grace and sustained by it, even though it may reveal how much work grace has yet to do. God knows, it is a very difficult thing to abandon oneself to another. We experience this daily in any close relationship. If to surrender were but a single act it would be fine: one could “screw one’s courage to the sticking-place”. But this abandonment is something more gradual, as evidenced in the life of Charles, who was divested of one thing after another: parents, career, wealth, community – the things we assume constitute identity – until his eventual death at the hands of an assassin.
I might want to surrender many things but they are not fully under the control of my will and my reason. They are ruled by passion. That’s why Blessed Charles would sit with the word of God in Scripture or in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. Passion can only be transformed in this encounter with the Living God; not in all the counterfeit signs of Him which mask the silence and the emptiness. And in the silence of encounter, Blessed Charles makes this surrender sound sweet: “For I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself to you, to surrender myself into your hands with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.” I felt, on first hearing it, the overwhelming truth and familiarity of that need.
This is the taproot of vocation. Even the need to give myself to God is inspired by Him and sustained by grace; his love held out. Sometimes, but for the apprehension of this need within, little else identifies me as Christian. When it is so, I am making some progress, and glorifying my Father.