Hilary Pearson writes:
Carlo Carretto (1910-1988) was born in Italy. In his early twenties he started a very active life as a teacher and leader of the Italian youth movement of the organisation Catholic Action. After twenty years, he left this active life and went to the Sahara to start as a novice with a religious Order, the Little Brothers of Jesus. This Order had been founded to follow the example of the French aristocrat, Charles de Foucauld, who had led the life of a hermit in the Algerian desert. The purpose of the Order was to combine a contemplative life with service to the very poor: ‘Contemplation in the streets’.
In his book ‘Letters from the Desert’ Carretto recounts how this change of life came about:
‘Then, when I was forty-four years old, there occurred the most serious call of my life: the call to the contemplative life… “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”…There is something much greater than human action: prayer; and it has a power much stronger than human words: love. And I went to the desert.’
Perhaps this is what God is saying through this imposed ‘desert’ of self-isolation to those of us who have been living very busy lives, doing what we can to serve God – ‘I want your prayer, your love, not your acts.’ Carretto writes about a revelation that he had while on the retreat each novice undertook, being alone in a cave in the desert for a week. He understood that he had been thinking of himself as a pillar, essential to holding up the whole Church; he now saw that if he walked away from that weight nothing happened because the Church and the whole world was being held up by Christ. He says:
‘What have I to fear, if everything is guided and sustained by God? Why get so worried as if the whole world was in the hands of me and my fellow humans?’
The day I am writing this, 8th May, is the feast of the anchoress, Julian of Norwich. She said something similar when she had a vision of a small nut in her hand, and realised it was the whole of creation. She was surprised that something so small continued to exist and did not disintegrate. She found the answer: ‘It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it. In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God.’
As we and the whole world face such an uncertain future because of this pandemic, let us hold onto this truth. God loves and sustains us now and will do so in the future.
After ten years in the Sahara, Carretto returned to Italy and set up a centre where lay people came to experience silence and learn to pray. He supported many Christian social activists, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
If you can get hold of a copy of his ‘Letters from the Desert’, you will find some profound and challenging reflections relevant to our current life in the ‘desert’.