BUILD BRIDGES NOT WALLS 1: A spiritual resistance to fear.

Do you know what I will be speaking about?
I would like to start with a story of Nasreddin. He lived in a part of modern day Turkey, comes from the Sufi tradition and is considered as a wise man remembered for his funny stories and anecdotes. He appears in thousands of stories, sometimes witty, sometimes wise, but often, too, a fool or the butt of a joke. A Nasreddin story usually has a subtle humour and a pedagogic nature.
Many people wanted him to give speeches. Once he was invited by a group and eventually he went. He asked them: “Do you know what I will be speaking to you about?” “No” they replied. “Then I will go. I will waste my time with people who do not know what I will be speaking about”.
So they tried to invite him another time. “Do you know what I will be speaking to you about?”. This time they said “Yes”. “Then I will go. I do not want to waste my time with people who already know what I will be speaking about”.
For the third time they managed to invite him. “Do you know what I will be speaking to you about?”. They were prepared for this question. Half said “Yes” and half said “No”. He replied: “Therefore I can go. Those who know, can you please inform those who don’t?”.
I am not wise as Nasreddin. I accepted this invitation immediately. And I am sure that you know what I will be speaking about. You have your own ideas, expectations, and concerns. And there are things you do not know which you will receive from others in the group.
On my part I will be offering a framework that can help us in our sharing. We are not here to discuss a beautiful phrase with no relation with our life, our concerns, our fears and our hopes. We are here to share our life, with our joys and sorrows. And it is a life nourished by a particular spirituality: that of Charles de Foucauld.

1. Context: why are we called to build bridges?

“We are all aware that we are living not only in an age of change but also of epochal change that raises new and old questions which call for a justified and necessary debate. ” The phrase “Build bridges not walls” needs to be understood against this background that Pope Francis often mentions. Thus, in the first section, I will ask whether “building walls” is one of the key signs of this epochal change. Or is it just a poetical expression. Secondly I would like to explore our place in front of these changes. Where are we as a Church, as a fraternity, as individuals? And what about the environment? In the third moment we need to face the main reasons why we are building walls. And lastly, to ask about alternatives: what does it mean to build bridges?

1. Is the building of walls a key sign of our times?

Recently I had the privilege to visit Harvington Hall, close to Birmingham. There we were shown around this manor house where we gradually discovered about 7 priest-holes. A Jesuit brother – Nicholas Owen – had become an expert in building these hiding places within the walls where the community protected Catholic priests during the Reformation. On the top floor we reached a false fireplace that led to two hides in the attic. The lady who was explaining told us that because of EU regulations on health and safety we cannot go up there. Then she added “Mind you, I am a ‘Remainer’. I did not vote for Brexit!”. Someone in the group silently remarked: “Do you notice how society is divided? Everyone has to align oneself on one side against the other”.
At the time of the fall of the Berlin wall there were about 15 border barriers (walls) around the world. According to an in-depth study on the subject by Elizabeth Vallet, the number of walls around the world increased to 70 since then. This research was partially quoted by President Donald Trump to state that he is not the only one building walls. In fact, an investigation estimates that the member states of the European Union and the Schengen area have constructed almost 1000 km of walls on their borders since the nineties, with the highest rise being in 2015 (from 2 walls to 12) . Research has shown that the reasons for their increase is not related to border controls as it was in the past (and no longer necessary today). The reasons given by political leaders is immigration. Analysts also point out how globalization and the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers are key elements for understanding what’s happening. There is an overall crisis of confidence and the general anxiety of people with respect to a number of issues (including security, family, work, health and personal wellbeing). Populists on their part channel this anxiety into concrete fear by identifying one target group that is made the carry the consequences. Thus migrants are turned into easy scapegoats. What I want to emphasize here is the centrality of “fear” in this process. As Martha Nussbaun remarks that “Through our basic propensity to fear, democratic societies are highly vulnerable to manipulation" .
In this context populist leaders who build a politics of fear and distrust give rise to racism and xenophobia, and bring division between people in the same nation . Neighbours find it impossible to understand the standpoint of the “other”, how certain leaders are voted into power, and thus the walls between people grow. And many feel helpless when facing these changes.
Ironically, what comes to unite Europe is becoming a fortress closed towards migrants but at the same time each EU member starts closing in on itself, seeking only its own interests. Thus Europe loses its sense of solidarity that was key in combating war and insecurity. Seen against this background, the rise in the building of walls in recent years can be seen as a sign of the fear that is becoming the main response towards the changes taking place and the politics of fear taking the upper hand. Concrete walls against migrants, but also invisible walls between member states and between citizens themselves.

2. Where are we?
2.1 Where are we as a Church? A Church in ruins?
Back at Harvington Hall I was touched by the mutual support between the community, their priests, and the lay brother expert builder of priest-holes. I felt challenged by their readiness to face fear in order to contribute to their troubled times with their faith. And that brings me to an apparent contrast in our experience of the Church today. At first sight, it looks like a place in ruins, stones thrown apart and standing on their own.
On the one hand, there is the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Church that has ruined the lives of innocent people and broken the bonds of trust. This has affected the relations between lay people and their priests, between priests and their bishops, between the Church and the world. We are faced not merely with the crime of a number of its members but also with a culture of clericalism that leads to abuse of power, abuse of conscience and sexual abuse. A culture: that implies that we all have a share in it. A culture where self-protection and protection of the institution takes the upper hand even to the detriment of people to be served and the very mission of the Church.
On the other hand, especially in Europe, we witness a great shift in our societies. We have the increase of people from different cultures and different faiths. We also see the increase of the “nones” – those who profess no faith and apparently no interest in questions of faith: “God is missing but not missed”. There is also the great mistrust in the institutional Church. For some Christians, the response is a depressive helplessness: “the last one out, please switch off the lights”. For others, an affirmation of one’s identity as Christian is established through opposition to the “other”, through creating an enemy. These can be an easy target of people like Steve Bannon. The former chief strategist adviser to President Donald Trump, proposes a right-wing kind of politics stating that the “Judaeo-Christian values” of Christian Europe are under attack from “outsiders” and must be defended. Politicians like Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy and minister of Interiors, and the prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, use Christian symbols (like the rosary) to promote a politics of walls and the demonization of migrants and Muslims.
Many feel a sense of loss and grief. Others a sense of anger as issues are not dealt with adequately by those whose responsibility is to care for the community: priests and politicians. These feelings need to be listened to and accompanied.
As we face these ruins, can we say that everything is lost? The phrase “build bridges not walls” constitutes a call, a vocation. It does not leave the members of the Church merely objects of what’s happening but subjects in their own right. Does that mean that the Pope has hope when looking at these ruins? What does it do to me to hear again the words of Jesus: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes'?” (Mt 21, 42). What does it mean for the Church to embrace Jesus Christ crucified and in this way build bridges out of the stones from the fallen walls of clericalism? What is the Spirit telling our Church in these troubled times?

2.2 Where are we as a fraternity? Fragile or flexible bridges?
As an International team, we met 3 years ago to plan the International Assembly held last year in Lebanon. We had two important decisions to take: the place and the theme. As regards the place: we saw the value of holding the Assembly for the first time in Lebanon, in the Middle East, a privileged place for Brother Charles. But first we had to face our fears: is it responsible for us to invite delegates in a region marked by instability? In the final analysis we decided for Lebanon as we saw that delegates, especially ourselves coming from Europe, would benefit from the witness of life and faith that this country has to offer. What has our experience of fraternity on an international level have to offer us in Europe?
The second decision: the theme. It came about after we were hearing the reports from the different continents. Something that stood out was the numbers and ages of a majority of fraternities, especially in Europe. What future do we have when we face these numbers and average age? The theme chosen - “Walking together with Hope: Renouncing, Denouncing, Announcing” - challenges that question. Rather than focus on self-sufficiency and self-preservation, should we not be led by hope, by the vocation and mission entrusted to us? One year later, partly the fruit of the Assembly, an assembly for young people in Latin American fraternities is taking place in Costa Rica. What should we receive from them?
Moreover, how do we view our numbers and age? Is it a fragility that weakens bridges or a flexibility that is its strength? René Voillaume, when noting that Charles de Foucauld had to renounce even the legitimate desire to have at least one follower, concludes: “No disciple of Brother Charles of Jesus must ever forget this hard and searching lesson, which meant renouncing all observable success, acquiescing to the apparent uselessness of an entire life, accepting failure in loving imitation of men’s Saviour, betrayed and crucified. For such is the “grain” from which Charles de Foucauld’s fraternities have sprung.” We can either be governed by fear and close ourselves into a comfort zone or be strengthened in our roots and share that wisdom.

2.3 Where are we as individuals? Fragments in a museum?
Do we find ourselves equipped to be bridge builders? Or are we divided in ourselves? We live in this society. So we are marked by its culture with both its positive and negative aspects. May I focus on two aspects: (i) speed, distraction, consumerism; (ii) information through social media.
On the one hand we have speed and distraction. Someone described our time as if we are on a plane and we are more concerned that everything is functioning well than on our destination. Pope Francis often speaks of the risks of consumerism that takes away our roots, our being manipulated by market forces. We experience these forces that lead us to dispersion and individualism.
On the other hand our culture is shaped by social media. It is a space we must live in and where we are called to build the Kingdom. Yet we also need to be aware of its pitfalls. We think that we are being connected with the world when in fact we are normally being connected only with the like-minded. Rather than building one global village, we can easily be closed in our own tribes and our bubbles.
“Pay attention to what you hear.” (Mk 4, 24)
If there is no centre of unity within ourselves, we remain fragmented in ourselves, become focused in ourselves, closed in our groups and manipulated by others. What helps us to be bridge-builders? We need a centre of unity within ourselves. That centre of unity is the committed love that “goes out” in love for our Lord and “goes out” in love for the other, that reaches out beyond the bubble to encounter, to come to know, to create bonds. Only love can see better. And only love can save us from fragmentation.
2.4 What about Creation? Better not to build at all?
During one of my homilies I was insisting that the Gospel calls for a change in lifestyle. And that is difficult. As an example I spoke of environmental concerns and shared the following joke. Someone went to the fish market, chose a beautiful fresh fish caught in the Mediterranean and then asked for a plastic bag. “It’s already inside the fish!”, came the reply. After the mass I went to the front of the Church to speak with the people and one of them told me: “That was a good one!” The other retorted: “You’re concerned about fish. It’s people we need to be concerned about.” And by that he meant the influx of foreigners in Malta and the challenges implied.
Pope Francis speaks of “integral ecology”. But very often we keep everything compartmentalized without realizing how everything is connected. How pollution affects the food we consume and the air we breathe; how global warming impacts the poor in a special way and migration in particular way; how a culture of waste leads to a throw-away culture that includes people as well.
Should we build bridges? Or is it better not to build anything at all? Eliminate any human action? It is the case of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement that “supports human extinction primarily because, in the group's view, it would prevent environmental degradation”. Where does this leave us? Fear of humanity itself. Fear of ourselves.
What can we contribute to recover both humanity and the rest of creation? What kind of material do we need for this kind of bridge? How is an ego-less bridge more eco-friendly? How does the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth indicate the necessary attitude for our actions in the world? And how can we contribute to a culture of sobriety?

3. Why do we build walls?
We spoke about the context. And we are told not to build walls. But first we need to face the fact that walls are being built. Why do we build walls?
The research done by Centre Delas in Spain concludes with the following observation with respect to the decisions to build walls: “All these policies have been legitimised and reinforced by a rise in xenophobic and racist policies, consolidating the structural violence that treats people as illegal and a threat to our security. Instead of focusing on humanitarian methods of dealing with large flows of migrants and addressing structural problems of global violence and economic inequality, they have chosen to build social, political, and physical walls arguing that this will prevent insecurity and terror in European territories” .
This finds resonance in our everyday conversations. In the village square, a friend told me: “They will invade us!”. By that he referred to migrants, understood African, and meant Muslims. After speaking about this “invasion” for a long time and in quite alarmist terms, his friend interfered: “By any chance, are you following those chat groups on facebook? They are extreme and not true.” “Yes, sure I am! I want to be informed. I am concerned for my children”! So fear and insecurity. If we do not want walls, we also need to listen to this fear and this sense of insecurity.
But we also need to be vigilant for manipulation. In his observations on the relation between walls and migration, Reece Jones asks:
“Why have so many (walls) gone up in the past 30 years? They are effective as symbols that demonstrate that politicians are doing something to address the perceived threats brought by unauthorized movement. These perceived threats can be economic in the form of smugglers or workers taking revenue and jobs from citizens. They can be cultural in the sense that migrants bring different traditions, languages, and ways of life that might not match with the local culture.” Thus we have politicians that build walls as a symbol that they are doing something while citizens’ fear of perceived threats is manipulated. It is not the scope of this paper to explore what kind of prudential policies can be proposed to ensure care for the local communities and care for migrants. But it must be done. Nor will I elaborate on the necessary denunciation of the media outlets for those kind of narratives that lead to a rise in fear of the foreigner and to xenophobia. Rather I would like to ask whether we can offer a different symbol from that offered by builders of walls.

4. Can we offer an alternative symbol?
Some political leaders choose the expensive policy to build walls not because it is effective but as a symbol that they are doing something. As Christians “how do we respond to the co-option of fear and the tendency to vilify, reject or destroy the ‘other’ presented as the scapegoat?” Paul Lakeland, a theology professor, suggests “spiritual resistance”. By “spiritual” he means “the motivation that shapes our outlook, intention, thought, praxis and protest; it is about living the Gospel”. This implies starting processes focused on “building relationships”. This is the kind of resistance necessary for the current scenario. Because fear shuts down the borders of relationships, as Nussbaum observes: "It (fear) is always relentlessly focused on the self and the safety of the self."
In this Brother Charles has become a parable for us. He has been sent before us spending his life responding to God’s call to live Nazareth among the Touaregs. No tangible results. No worldly success. But in the context of colonialism, he starts processes that will eventually, by God’s grace, lead to a new set of relationships.
What kind of spiritual resistance can we explore?
i. Nazareth
When commenting on brother Charles’ originality, René Voillaume states that he could have restricted imitation of the life of Nazareth to a framework: withdrawal from society, enclosure, silence. That is, religious life in its traditional setting, something that Brother Charles tried to do for some time. But
“the inner pressure of his vocation was too strong; he was soon to abandon all idea of separations and live in direct contact with the people around him, a contact, moreover, made constantly closer by his growing charity and the need he therefore felt of expressing it more and more with the familiarity of simple, fraternal friendship. …Merely being present was one of these (means), but there were also, the brotherly friendship, the gift of self, the intimate conversations, the testimony of the way he lived” .
The root of all this original approach was the discovery of Jesus at Nazareth and the desire to be united with Him, to imitate Him in the most radical way. That meant overcoming “separations” and seeking real and profound “contact” with the “other”. If we have to start building bridges we should take the same starting point and live it in a radical way.

ii. Prophecy
Brother Charles wanted to shout the Gospel with his life. What he lived and stood for was a prophetic symbol. He became a symbol of real hope for the Church and the world. But this is demanding on the life of the prophet because for a long time he stands on his own, in contrast to the world around him.
We can choose to build decorative bridges or reliable ones. If we want the latter, we need to invest in the prophetic dimension. I would suggest that fraternities take the prophet Jeremiah as a theme for their study and prayer. Like ours, his were not easy times and people were being led by false optimism under the appearance of trust in God.
“To have faith (for Jeremiah) is not to live in an enchanted world where God would rule out all our problems: it is first of all to look at the world in the face, the evil in the face.” . While speaking of the impending catastrophe (the fall of Jerusalem), imprisoned as a dangerous person, and threatened with death, Jeremiah announces that God will recreate everything, out of nothing. The destruction of Jerusalem is nothing but an episode in the history of the covenant of love that God offers to the world. “For it is not enough to hope; one must hope in God, and hope only in Him” .
To live this radical hope is necessary for the Christian as we live with our people in the insecurities of our time, especially those of a changing landscape. Although migration becomes the easy scapegoat, there are many other changes affecting people. There is the collapse of the promise of progress. We no longer trust in progress: we only hope to control the damage. Climate change is a key example. There’s the difficulty of Christians to pass on the faith and find a language to communicate with new generations. As we alluded to before, Christians can feel left aside as Islam grows. As Adrien Candiard put it: “Peppone is no longer interested in Don Camillo: he is totally focused on the Imam!” .
In this context where our own Jerusalem seems to be falling down, we need to have the prophetic courage of hope. It is to recognize where there is false optimism and illusion, where we are tempted to create our own Noah’s ark to protect ourselves and fight against others. We are called to hope in God, embrace the cross and listen to the new song the Spirit is teaching us. God does not promise Jeremiah triumph or success, but his presence. Hope is to be given a future by God in sowing it’s seeds now. Who would have shown Charles de Foucauld, killed in midst of the desert and alone, of the impact on the second Vatican Council, on the dialogue between Muslims and Christians, on the renewal of Christian life? No one! Only radical hope can offer a real foundation for lasting bridges!
iii. Visitation
We know that the Visitation is one of the pillars of the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. For him it was not merely that Mary went to help Elizabeth. Rather, he focused on salvation:
“John the Baptist was sanctified, and with him, the whole of Zechariah’s family, not through words or an invitation to conversion that would in any case have been impossible, but simply through the presence of the Son of God within her. […] Just as Mary sanctified John by going to his home and bringing Jesus himself, the living Gospel, within her, a soul that is filled with Jesus can bring salvation.”
It is interesting to note that reference to God’s visiting his people can be seen as a key to understand God’s act of salvation. Twice we find reference to this in the Benedictus of Zechariah: “blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited his people and redeemed them […] the loving mercy of our God who comes to visit us like the rising sun to give light to those in darkness and those in the shadow of death, to guide us in the way of peace”. (Lk 1, 68-79). One can read the gospel of Luke through this lens and contemplate how God saves through his visits. We can let this become an opening on how to understand our participation in the mission of Jesus to save in our contemporary context. How we visit the “other”, how we carry the Gospel in our way of life and our way of relating, how we communicate online can become a presence of salvation. But the visitation can become a provocation: how is God visiting us in the “other”, the one whom we term “foreign” to us?
I have argued that “walls” constitute a sign that helps us interpret the big changes our world is undergoing, how they are built on fear and breed further fear and division. I also tried to tie up with our concrete realities in order to let God speak to us through this very sign. We are not called to be armchair critics but missionary disciples, in a Church called to be a sacrament of unity. Lastly I tried to suggest some possible openings in order to offer a spiritual resistance to the symbols of fear.
In this process we are not alone. We join with theologians, challenged by Pope Francis to develop “a theology of discernment, of mercy and of welcoming, in dialogue with society, cultures and religions”. As Robert Mickens concluded: “it is the only responsible – and evangelical – way of doing theology in a world where some would use religion to divide rather than unite, to destroy rather than build, to instil fear rather than love and hope”.

1-POPE FRANCIS often refers to this time of epochal change, the recent one in his Letter to the People of God in Germany (29 June 2019). Cf. [Accessed 5 July 2019]

2-VALLET, ÉLISABETH (ed.), Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity? Farnham, UK, 2014
3-AINHOA RUIZ BENEDICTO - PERE BRUNET, Building Walls. Fear and securitization in the European Union, [Accessed 7 June 2019].
4-DANIEL P. Horan, Confronting the 'monarchy of fear' with spiritual resistance.
Prioritize relationship when tempted to close in on self, (12 June 2019) in
5-“There are many who have legitimate anxiety about dire circumstances or precarious situations, but they are regularly fed lies about the causes and potential remedies for that anxiety in the form of fear of the other.” In DANIEL P. Horan, Confronting the 'monarchy of fear' with spiritual resistance.
6-RENÉ VOILLAUME, Seeds of the Desert like Jesus at Nazareth, Hertfordshire 1985, 22.
8-REECE, JONES, Borders and Walls: Do Barriers Deter Unauthorized Migration?, (Migration Information Source, 5 October 2016), in [Accessed 1 June 2019].
9-DANIEL P. Horan, Confronting the 'monarchy of fear' with spiritual resistance.
10-RENÉ VOILLAUME, Seeds of the Desert like Jesus at Nazareth, Hertfordshire 1985, 48-49.
11-ADRIEN CANDIARD, Veilleur, oú e nest la nuit? Petit traité de l’esperance á l’usage de contemporains, Paris 2016, 16.
12-ADRIEN CANDIARD, Veilleur, oú e nest la nuit?, 19.
13-ADRIEN CANDIARD, Veilleur, oú e nest la nuit? 39.
14-[Accessed 9 July 2019].