Letters From the Desert
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.
Last year, in another book I came across the name and a few quotes from this man about whom I’d never heard. I read his book, The God Who Comes. I need to read Catholic mystics from time to time. Protestants have much to learn from their spirituality. This book shows the calling, sacrifice, and lifestyle that teaches us from a sobering, if not indicting, pursuit of God and neighbors that is edifying, educating, and encouraging.
To give some background on the man, born in Alessandria, Italy, in 1910, Carlo Carretto received his degree in philosophy from the University of Turin in 1932. During the Fascist era he was confined to Sardinia, and in the turbulent years following the war he served as National President of Catholic Youth in Italy from 1946-1952. At one time he held a key post in Italian “Catholic Action,” when this church organization played a frequently sinister role in anti-communist policies under Pius XII.
Here’s where his story gets interesting: At the age of forty-four he was summoned by a voice which said, “Leave everything, come with Me into the desert. I don’t want your action any longer. I want your prayer and love.” Carretto said “yes” without fully understanding. It gets more interesting: He left for North Africa, where he joined the Little Brothers without knowing anything of their rules, and embraced the way of life of Charles de Foucauld, of whom he had not previously heard! Sounds a bit “Ur-ish.”
Ivan Illich visited him when Carlo wanted him to help introduce his work to American and English readers, having originally written for his European friends. Illich said Carlo told him stories. Remembering them he always felt that outside the desert they would sound out of place. “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.” When Illich reached the marketplace of Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara, he found Carretto in a shoemaker’s shop. It took him some time to realize who it was that earned his living by cutting up old tires and making indestructible sandals. He had become Brother Carlo to children and cripples and pilgrims at the tomb of de Foucauld.
Originally published in 1964, the book is in its eighteenth printing, so that tells you something of its acceptance. It’s written in the form of a diary-epistle. From the publisher’s preface, “We have come to believe that the type of spirituality Carlo Carretto lives and writes about is perhaps more relevant, more needed now than it was in the seemingly serene pre-Conciliar Church.” The publisher adds that some will “see in Letters From the Desert a man who presents in himself the deceptively simple and timeless message of the Gospels.”
Carretto gave us a new definition of “cutting.” He had a thick notebook containing the addresses of old friends, thousands of them. God had never left him without the joys of friendship. He hadn’t been able to speak with each of them to explain the reason for abandoning them, to say he was obeying a call from God, and that he was going to fight on with them to work for the Kingdom, even if in a different way.
But it was necessary to make the “cut,” and it demanded courage and great faith in God. He took the address book, his last tie with the past, and burned it behind a dune during a day’s retreat. Carretto noted, “Burning an address is not the same thing as destroying a friendship, for that I never intended to do; on the contrary, I have never loved nor prayed so much for my old friends as in the solitude of the desert. I saw their faces, I felt their problems, their sufferings, sharpened by the distance between us. For me they had become a flock which would always belong to me and which I must lead daily to the fountains of prayer.”
“Prayer had become the most important thing. But it was still the hardest part of my daily life. Through my vocation to prayer I learned what is meant by ‘carrying other people’ in our prayer…I have remained true to my vocation, and at the same time I am completely convinced that one never wastes one’s time by praying; there is no more helpful way of helping those we love.”
For his part, Carretto says the things he has jotted down are “nothing systematic, nothing important…a few ideas matured in solitude and taking shape around an activity which has been the greatest gift that the Sahara has given me: prayer.” Here are a few of his jottings:
“Love alone is not a problem for him who lives it.”
“Live love, let love invade you. It will never fail to teach you what you must do.”
“It is love which gives things their value. It makes sense of the difficulty of spending hours and hours on one’s knees praying while so many men need looking after in the world; and in the context of love we must view our inability to change the world, to wipe out evil and suffering.”
“It is love which must determine man’s actions, love which must give unity to what is divided.”
“Love is the synthesis of contemplation and action, and the meeting-point between heaven and earth, between God and man.”
“Love and do as you will.” This is the crux. When I love, I can no longer do as I will.
“Jesus, God of the impossible, will help us. He will work, if need be, the miracle of making the parable of the camel pass through the narrow rusty eye of our poor sick soul.”
“After Calvary, peace was no longer to operate on the thin blade of truth or in the court of law, but in the torn heart of a God Who had become man for us in Jesus Christ. The era of victimization had ended and with Jesus, the reign of the victim was to begin. The true victim, silent and lamb-like, the victim who accepts to be a victim and destroys the thorns of injustice in the fire of His love.”
To read the ideas and reflections of this Saharan mystic helps both feed and recalibrate my heart to pursue the heart of God. Are there some doctrinal/theological disagreements with some of the language and conclusions? Yes, there are a few, yet none of them diminishes the takeaways and teachings imparted. If you need some soul maintenance and heart reorientation, you could do a lot worse than to walk a few miles in Carretto’s sandals.