Reflection from Lay Community Meeting in Malta

Lay Community International Gathering in Malta

Nazareth: presence – hospitality – encounter with the poor

The theme chosen by the organizers speaks of “Encounters in the Mediterranean”. The focus is on the word “Encounter”: that is the main aim. The word Mediterranean speaks of a concrete space and of real places. We are here, meeting here, in this particular context which is marked by a long history of encounters or lack of them. Our history in Malta is marked and shaped by meetings between different cultures, peoples from the South and the North. Without them Malta would not have its specific character, colours and noise.
Yet we also live in a world that is not only marked by encounters but also by clashes, fragmentation and waste. Something is being done on waste management: very often we speak of reuse, reduce, recycle. Still the amount of waste generation is not easy to be tackled. Yet there is another serious issue: that of wasting/throwing away people. People can easily be taken to be a means to an end and when not they are thrown away.

• Our question is therefore that which Pope Francis proposed in the Pentecost vigil: How can we create a culture of encounter, of friendship, of meeting those who do not have the same way of thinking?
• More specifically, how does Charles de Foucauld – his charism, his spirituality – help us to answer this question? What are the sources that he uncovers that enable us to contribute to this kind of culture of encounter rather than that of clash of civilizations, of peoples or groups.
• This is also pertinent for the reality of the world wide web. On one level there is the possibility of communicating with people from all areas of the world. But does this automatically lead us to be “universal brothers and sisters”? Very often this is leading to a replica of a tribal mentality: associating with like-minded people and closing oneself if not worse to those who are perceived otherwise.

So here we are encountering Charles de Foucauld once again.

1. Nazareth: as radical presence

Saying that Nazareth is central to Charles de Foucauld and his spirituality can be like a cliché to those who spent so many years exploring and living his way of life. But to explore it furthermore not only helps us to get the nuances but also to get insights to our questions. As the renowned theologian Gisbert Greshake states “we ought not speak of “the” spirituality of Nazareth, but rather of a variety of spiritual orientations that revolve around the keyword “Nazareth”. (...) if one were to isolate the single perspective of “hiddennes”, one would diminish the full significance of “Nazareth” for spirituality”(1) .

• For Bro. Charles, the source of the Nazareth experience is his love of Christ that led to his imitation of Christ: “The first effect of love is imitation”. This led him to a life of humility, prayer, silence and contemplation. This also meant his wanting to bring Jesus and his Gospel to others not through “words” but through a modest life of prayer on their behalf and in their place, through unconditional openness and radical presence among the people.
• “For the many”: this phrase changes everything. For him Nazareth implies being both closed and open; withdrawn from others and being ready to offer hospitality; contemplation and reaching out. “But it is precisely this “for the many” that drives him to radical existence for others. ‘I see myself, in astonishment, pass over from a contemplative life to a life of caring for souls. And, indeed , not because this is what I want to do, but because the people need it”(2) (7January 1902: letter to his cousin) In Beni Abbes he writes: “I desire that all inhabitants – Christians, Muslims, Jews, pagans – consider me as their brother, the brother of all men” ... “to be wholly there for the people of the area”. While living in this context, he then speaks out against injustice and slavery.
• Amongst the Touaregs, who never heard of the Gospel: I can do nothing better for the sanctity of souls than to bring the seed of the divine Word to as many as possible – not through preaching but through my actions.
• Walking through the world unknown, as Jesus did in Nazareth, like a person wondering in the night ... poor, diligent, modest, gentle and beneficent as he was”.

This is a way how to become present for the people who you live with and gain trust: a humble presence before God; a poor and humble presence amongst human beings like Jesus of Nazareth. What strikes you in Jesus’ way of encountering others? What inspires you?

Presence – Hospitality – in a concrete way

• What provided a model for his own establishment were the so-called “Zaouias”, the Islamic centres of hospitality, which offered travellers accommodation and shelter, whether they are pilgrims or beggars, no matter who it is who happens to stand at the door. Thus, the “newly discovered” characteristics of Nazareth come to include hospitality, a variety of relationships and a missionary presence.(3)
• Radical “presence” among and for: “Direct evangelization is not possible at this moment: the only possible way to live is the life of Nazareth, in poverty and its humiliations, in worship, in manual or intellectual work ... And all of this with the goal of gaining people’s trust, to earn their love and in a gentle and friendly manner, through brief conversations, to correct their false ideas about natural morality”.(4)
• This meant becoming involved in the affairs of those around him: proposes plans for an administrative reform in the Sahara region, protests against arbitrary confiscations or unjust administration of rights; advisor in political and economic affairs; takes interest in the new technologies that serve to develop the Sahara (railways, roads, the telegraph, meteorological stations) and defends them; he gives advice regarding the economy and the care and control of medicine; he teaches the Tuareg women knitting and crocheting. He teaches them the language and gathers together the Tuareg literary tradition.(5) This is what the word “presence” means for Br Charles: “Humble and lowly presence before God and humble and poor presence among men, just as Jesus himself lived it in Nazareth.” (6)

How does this theme of “presence” inspire you in terms of the people you live with. In concrete terms, what would you imagine this to be? Have you any positive experiences of this reality?

Encounter with Christ – Encounter with the Poor

The essence of Br Charles is this: not losing, whatever it costs him, the love of Christ Jesus. A love that gives birth to his radical and absolute desire with which he wants to follow Jesus till “a la folie de la dernière place”. To reach this aim of friendship with the Nazarene it is necessary to renounce everything, above all himself, living a life of total availability: “Not do anything else ... except to remain in the hands of God, ready for everything that he ask, available, but ... humble, grateful, trustful” (Letter, 29 July 1897). (7) He seeks his friendship: “Love consists not in feeling that one loves, but in willing to love; when one wants to love, one loves; when one wants to love above everything else, one loves above everything else” ... ‘I bless God for this life so hidden, so lost so similar to his life in Nazareth’ (10 September 1899).(8)
• Choice: dedicate his extraordinary abilities both technical and scientific at the service of those who are considered of no value for the majority of people. He managed to become the brother of all, because he renounced to possess that which he could have easily kept. He accepted the nothingness of others and relived it from inside through the expression of total dedication of his life: no one felt he has no place for him in his heart, ‘largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore' (1Kings 4,29).
• Contemplating Christ and thus become transformed in him. This leads us to become the Church of the poor that becomes a sister of every creature, thus promoting the spirit of universal brotherhood. We are indebted to Br. Charles for this.
• The basis in Br Charles is :
o God is Father of all, good and bad (Mt 5, 45)
o The incarnation is the mystery of the Word, image of the invisible God, who came to live among men to dialogue with them and for them ‘the firstborn among brothers’ (Rm. 8,29)
o Church as people of God called not to close herself in a citadel but to go out in a continuous diaspora to be leaven and stimulate the human potentiality of love and progress.
• Universal brotherhood for Br. Charles meant total and authentic communion with the last of the earth; for him ‘life of Nazareth’ meant the last place in the heart of the city of man, near those put aside, those not wanted, despised, used, sharing in everything their reality.

Vatican II:

• Link between the group “Church of the poor” (Msgr, Hakim took Fr Gauthier as peritus. The letter was familiar with de Foucauld’s emphasis on Nazareth.) The group was headed by Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna and they linked with Pope John XXIII’s statement who described the Church at the opening of the council in a ‘Message to the world’ as “the Church of all people, and in particular, the Church of the poor”. Lercaro took up this expression in a speech he made to the council in December 1962, in which he said: “This ought not to be simply one theme among many at the Council, but must become the central question. Theme of the Council is the Church, insofar as she is above all the ‘Church of the poor’” .(9)
• In line with Gauthier’s initiative, they analysed the situation of the Church in terms of a schism: ‘between the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the visible Church and the other mysterious incarnation of the poor Jesus in the poor ... If sanctity and poverty are synonymous expressions in the Old Testament, if Jesus, the Holy One, appeared as poor among men, then the holy Church on earth can only be the poor Church, and conversely only the poor Church can be the holy Church. The danger – the schism and the heresy – consists here, as it always does, in the fat that that which is a unity becomes separated: the mystical body, in which the poor have a privileged place through Christ’s will, is on earth no other Church but the Catholic and apostolic Church” .(10) Thus not only presence among the poor but the return to the ‘poor face’ face of the Church.
• Lumen Gentium 8 “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and obedience, so too is the Church called to follow the same path”.

To what extent is she truly the ‘Church of the poor’, and the poor, defenseless and lowly Church in the midst of society’s power struggles?

Footnotes:

1. Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, in Communio 31 (Spring 2004) 16.
2. Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 20.
3. Gslbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 20.
4. Letter from 1 October 1906 to Abbe Caron, in Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 23.
5. Cf. Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 23.
6. Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 24.
7. ANTONIO FURIOLI, Charles de Foucauld. L’amicizia con Gesu, Milano 2002, 78.
8.Antonio Furioli, Charles de Foucauld, 79.
9. Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 27.
10. Quoted in Gisbert GRESHAKE, The Spiritual Charism of Nazareth, 27.