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By: Simeon Dumdum Jr. March 02,2014 - 02:05 PM

In 1954, an Italian, Carlo Carretto, withdrew into the Sahara. He had decided to join the Little Brothers of Jesus, a congregation that Charles de Foucauld had founded. Before everything else, his superior required him to cut his connections with the world. This he made by burning a thick notebook that contained the names and addresses of his friends. And then he journeyed into the desert with only a hamper of bread, a few dates, some water and the Holy Bible. A priest celebrated the Holy Mass and then went away, leaving the Eucharist in the cave, on an altar of stones. For a week, Carretto was alone with the Eucharist, exposed day and night.

“No prayer is so difficult as the adoration of the Eucharist,” he wrote.  It required pure faith to put himself before what seemed to be bread and to say, “Christ is there, living and true.”

“You must strip your prayers,” his superior had told him. This meant putting himself in front of Jesus as a poor man, not with big ideas but with living faith.

In time, Carretto said, the senses would go to sleep. Or, as St. John of the Cross puts it, the night of the senses would begin. Prayer, though painful and dry, became serious, so serious that Carretto could no longer do without it.  At this point, he wrote, “the soul begins to share the redemptive work of Jesus.”

After this, he only felt freedom, a new, vast, real, joyful freedom.  This came from the discovery that he was nothing, that he was a man of no importance. When night came and he could not sleep, he left the cave and walked under the stars, shouting to the heavens through the strange silence, “My God, I love you!  My God, I love you!”

No doubt, Carretto’s week-long retreat was patterned after Christ’s forty-day withdrawal into the desert at the start of his public ministry. Mark very briefly and casually alludes to this: “At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan.  Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.”

“Desert” might suggest a vast silence and solitude where one seeks God, struggling with temptation and doubts.  But one need not withdraw to an actual desert or monastery for an encounter with the Divine.
Charles de Foucauld, a French nobleman and army officer, left a privileged life after discovering and falling in love with Christ, and entered a Trappist monastery. One day, his superiors sent him to watch by the corpse of a Christian Arab. In the hovel he came face to face with the dead man’s poverty – his hungry children, his helpless widow. Charles de Foucauld decided to leave the monastery and stay in “a small monastery, like the house of a poor workman who is not sure if tomorrow he will find work and bread, who with all his being shares the suffering of the world.”

He sought to use as model the house at Nazareth, a house in which to live hidden as Jesus did. He went on to organize the Little Brothers of Jesus, a group of men who would “choose a village, a slum, a nomadic town, settle in it and live as all the others live, especially, as the poorest live.”

Prayer is the Sahara’s great gift to me, wrote Carretto.  Prayer is words, poetry, song, he added. It is being – a craving to remain alone and motionless and silent at the feet of God, empty of thought, in an act of love. And this, Charles de Foucauld stresses, is possible anywhere, wherever one finds oneself. One need not go to an actual desert or a monastery.

I thought of this at the dentist’s clinic, while waiting for the wife, who was getting a tooth extracted.  There were other people in the receiving room, watching an HBO thriller on television. I had brought the Holy Bible with me.  Closing my ears to the sounds of the outside, I began to do the Lectio Divina, a prayerful reading of scripture, a monastic practice.  After asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I read a passage from the Gospels and reflected on its meaning for my life. After that, I prayed to God and then just sat there in His presence, allowing Him to speak to my heart, just as He said in Hosea: “So I am going to take her into the desert again; there I will win her back with words of love.”

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