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    Shadowing the Carpenter

    I had set out to follow Jesus but found myself running a seminary instead. Charles de Foucauld inspired me to quit and truly seek the lowest place.

    By Andreas Knapp

    May 13, 2022
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    • Robert Weidman

      This piece was simply extraordinary. Its a lovely presentation of the spirituality of "Nazareth", and the charism of the Little Brothers. Thanks to you--and to Chris Zimmerman--for making it available to Plough readers. I've felt a deep attraction to the spirituality of [now] Saint Charles de Foucauld over many years.

    • jerry f krauss

      Geistliche coincidence? i read this beautiful geschicte by Knappe on Sunday, May 15. On this day, the Catholic Church officially de clared Fr defoucauld as a SAINT. pRAISE THE lORD, TJRE SUBLIME POVERTY AND LOVE OF THIS man has been recognized as an authentic profe -- shaming us all in this age of selfish consumption and conflict. AMEN, and thank you to PLOUGH for sharing this exquisite presentation of de foucauld's life and messaage. j. krauss

    • Bob Pounder

      An interesting and inspiring article. God is everywhere whether we may have sacred language or not. I’d like to know where the coastal towns are whose inhabitants are up to their necks in water. Really?

    Andreas Knapp, a poet, priest, author, and rector of a Catholic seminary in Freiburg, Germany, resigned from his post and went to live among the poor. Today, as a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, a religious order inspired by Charles de Foucauld, he shares an apartment in Leipzig’s largest housing project with a handful of other brothers; together they seek to serve Jesus by ministering to prisoners and refugees.

    I worked for years in an ecclesiastical ministry in Germany, as a university chaplain and as the director of a seminary. But I never really felt at home. An inner restlessness dogged me. For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing. As time went by, it became clear: I was subconsciously looking for a different life.

    Finally, in a discussion with a superior, I blurted out, “My original goal was to follow Jesus; but in the meantime I’ve turned into a civil servant.” I shocked myself with the bluntness of that formulation. But it mirrored my disquiet. I had become part of a comfortable social system in which following prevailing norms seemed to count for everything. And yet I was bothered by the fact that I had so little to do with people who were not part of this system – those who were cut out of it. I longed for a simpler life, one lived in solidarity with others; I wanted to share my day-to-day existence with like-minded people. I simultaneously yearned for more silence and more time for prayer. How could I feed the fire of my longing?

    As I searched for answers, I found inspiration in Charles de Foucauld, whose legacy – his life, faith, and writings – eventually led me to the Little Brothers of the Gospel. What fascinated me most was the way he showed me, step by step, how to live like Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth.

    In Jesus, God reveals his “interest” in ourworld, according to the literal meaning of the Latin inter esse – “being in between.” That is, he lives right in it, and participates in our human destiny. God becomes human, in a very specific place and context. He does not utilize a sacred language, as Hebrew was to the Jews of his day. Nor does he speak Greek, the language of the elite and the educated. Instead, he speaks the vernacular Aramaic – and that in the unmistakable cadences of Galilee. This is how Peter betrays himself in Jerusalem after having denied that he knows Jesus. He is unmasked with the accusation, “You’re also from Galilee!” Then there is John’s Gospel, which opens with a sublime song to the divine Word that has become man in Jesus. This Word speaks…in dialect! It is sufficiently clear that God does not reveal himself in ethereal terms or in holy places, but rather in what is wholly human.

    Precisely that is the spirituality of Nazareth: a holistic one that admits no boundary between the spiritual and the secular, no distinction between “pure” and “impure” places or foods, no divide between religious and social life. In many religions, including Judaism and Islam, such separations play an important role. Even among Christians, there is a sense that a church (for example) is a sacred space, while a sports arena is a worldly one. To many, an experience in nature – a view of the ocean or the setting sun – is mystical, whereas the hustle and bustle of a city is profane.

    The spirituality of Nazareth overrides this dichotomy: it calls attention to the truth that God can be encountered in the simple things and normal happenings of daily life because in Jesus of Nazareth, God has entered the world – one might say “secularized” himself. He does not dwell in an exalted temple, but on a dusty construction site in Nazareth. And so the divine is present in everything, and not merely in select religious contexts. It can be found everywhere, in every language, in all cultures. You do not need to undertake long pilgrimages to holy gurus or seek shelter in spartan ashrams in order to be subsumed by contemplation. It is enough to leave yourself and to seek encounters with your fellow human beings wherever you are. There, you will meet God quite unexpectedly – for instance, in the poor and oppressed.

    black and white image of Charles de Foucald

    Charles de Foucauld (Public domain)

    When God makes himself so small that he meets humanity in the person of the crucified Jesus, he topples cherished assumptions about honor and success, though also about guilt and weakness. It is not our performance that counts before God, nor our position, nor our power, but only love. The fact that God reaches out to touch the weak and the lowest of the low by entering the depths himself – therein lies the “wisdom of the cross” of which Paul writes. And Paul doesn’t care a bit whether such a conception of God is foolishness to the wise and pious people of his day. For him, it opens the doorway to a wholly liberated faith – one that is truly free, it would seem, to the point of foolhardiness.

    Throughout the history of the church there have always been “holy fools” who hoped that their provocative way of life might bear witness to the wisdom of the cross. Among them is the Frenchman Charles de Foucauld. The scion of a noble family, he emerges from childhood in a time and place marked by strict hierarchical structures. His military career reinforces his way of categorizing things as “above” or “below.” Not surprisingly, during his first brush with Islam, he is fascinated by the way an entire population literally submits to God, as is so plainly professed in the practice of Muslim prayer. Refocusing his gaze on Christianity, he discovers in the Gospels a reassignment of values so breathtaking that even the radicalism of the French Revolution pales in comparison: in Jesus, God has turned himself into a nobody – into a construction worker from Nazareth. This God does not rule, but serves.

    De Foucauld is so impressed by this revolutionary aspect of Christ’s life that he begins searching for a way to model this “downward path” in his own life. As he does so, he is motivated by insight from his confessor, Abbé Huvelin: “Our Lord took the last place so decisively that no one could take it from him.” This image of the “last place” taken by the “God who descended” deeply moves de Foucauld and takes on a motto-like significance for him: he decides to gives his life in sharing Christ’s lot and imitating his life as concretely as possible. To him Nazareth is more than a place name: it is a way of life that consciously seeks out the last and lowest place.

    De Foucauld’s search leads him to the town of Nazareth, and to a monastery, and eventually out of both. After a stint as a house servant in Palestine, he moves to North Africa, where he lives as a hermit and befriends the Bedouins of the Sahara. In making his home among the disenfranchised, he testifies to his contention that God dwells among all people – not just the privileged – and to his belief that God is right there where some might least expect him to be: with those at the bottom of the ladder and on the margins of society. If God prefers to be found among the disadvantaged, his argument runs, then bourgeois prejudices and class consciousness must be called into question. Moreover, it follows that God will reveal himself precisely in those political and religious structures that overcome discrimination. Against this backdrop it becomes clear that an ecclesial architecture that is not built according to the blueprint of the carpenter from Nazareth, but rather according to the power pyramids of Jerusalem and Rome, is nothing less than fatal.

    After all, whereas we humans rank one another according to monetary wealth, political power, and social influence, God’s standards are life-giving and anarchic, as expressed in the biblical “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55). This God “casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty-handed.” To this God, it is not our status that counts, but only whether we are willing to serve others. Only one hierarchy applies: that of love. And the true measure of a person is taken from the generosity of his or her devotion.

    And yet God’s love for us does not depend on how we present ourselves, morally or otherwise. In fact, the whole life of Jesus indicates that God does not attach conditions to his love. In this light, our emptiness is not a shortcoming, but a vessel that God can fill. Only with empty hands can we receive. Only where we acknowledge our neediness, and bring it before God, can he approach and touch us.

    De Foucauld must travel many roads, both inwardly and outwardly, before he is able to recognize his imperfections and limitations. At the outset of this journey, he tends to absolutize such ideals as self-denial, separation from one’s loved ones, and the renunciation of comfort. Despite his confessor’s warning, he tries to recruit companions; when some finally join him, he is forced to realize that he is not as accessible a character as he might imagine. As the saying goes, a saint is a wonderful person – as long as you don’t have to live with him.

    Whereas the solitude of a Trappist cell previously led him to write beautiful texts about love for all people, the harshness of the Sahara brings him down to earth. There are long marches through the desert, and one conflict after another – with the foibles and quirks of others, and on account of his own whims. In 1908, during a serious bout of scurvy, he reaches his limits. Immobile and completely helpless, he is forced to rely on the hospitality of locals who ultimately save his life. Through this brush with death, he learns a vital lesson: that solidarity does not only consist in giving to others. It also means accepting from others what they wish to give.

    On further travels through outer and inner deserts, de Foucauld learns more about accepting one’s own limitations – and begins to view the mystery of the Incarnation as a key to understanding his own life. If Jesus could accept the limits of what it means to be human, must we not do the same? If, in Jesus, God has chosen a very specific place to dwell, then each of us ought to do the same; that is, to seek our place, one that corresponds to our specific abilities and limitations. Those who permanently overtax themselves are battling their own body and soul, and will eventually destroy themselves. If, on the other hand, I can acknowledge my limits in a positive way, they become safe boundaries for me – borders that help me maintain peace. With myself. With others.With God.

    If, in Jesus, God has made himself my brother, then I can accept myself and deal with myself as a “normal” human being. There is no need to shine, to be somebody, to perform superhuman feats. I can be content to limit my dedication to what is actually doable.

    Sometimes, spaces will remain closed or inaccessible – spaces I would have liked to enter and shape and change. When that happens, I must simply yield. The task at hand becomes a “last place” for me – not one I have chosen, but one I have been thrust into. That is important, for as long as I can choose the people I want to reach, even if “in God’s name,” I am still in control, still holding the reins. How different it is when I have not chosen the person standing in front of me with a problem or concern! If he or she lacks sympathy or understanding and I nevertheless respond (even if with a sense of weariness), that is accepting the “last place” assigned to me.

    It is the same when I am not rewarded for my efforts, but belittled or even mocked; or when my efforts go unnoticed or unthanked – when I have invested time and energy, only to end up being forgotten, or reaping ingratitude. If I can refrain from bitterness even then, and the temptation to consider myself morally superior – if I can accept the inner emptiness of such an experience in silence and without irritation – then I have truly found the “last place.”

    When I can remain content even when I go unrewarded, not even with the feeling of having been a good Samaritan and thus an exemplary person – when I refuse to pat myself on the back for having acted “for Jesus’ sake” when in fact I simply did what had to be done – then I have really arrived at the side of Jesus.

    The spirit of Nazareth enables us to believe in the power of love even in such situations and contexts; to believe in the victory of good even when it seems to fall by the wayside. It is a source of hope contrary to all appearances, a spirituality marked by faith in the Incarnation which encourages us to carry out even the smallest, most inconspicuous gestures of love. Such a faith does not offer false consolation but becomes a burning call to work for this world with greater dedication.

    The way of life that arises and flows from all this allows us to experience God’s liberating presence here and now: in the immediate vicinity, in the most ordinary places, with the people right around us. Their faces will take on a divine radiance, and even the most mundane things will reflect matters of infinite value. Superhuman achievements will no longer matter, but only interpersonal relationships. As we come to peace with the fact that we cannot alter the course of the world, our eyes will be opened to see the little worlds around us with new eyes, and to recognize God’s nearness in them. And so we will not be tempted to resignation in the face of evil, which so often seems superior and more likely to triumph. We will not let ourselves be paralyzed by end-times talk, or the worry that since we cannot change anything anyway, we must piously and impotently await the end of the world.

    The decision to live from a perspective of hope must, of course, be made over and over. That is because our hope will remain fragile and embattled, and we will have to pray and struggle for it. In our day-to-day lives, question marks will appear again and again. Can we really hope that things will change for the better, in spite of everything? Is it really worth sharing a simple life in community with my brothers? What is the point of taking to the streets for the climate, when people in many coastal areas are already up to their necks in water? Why should I visit people in prison if society has already decided they are utterly hopeless? What is the use of silent prayer? Is it really effective?

    Sometimes I am overtaken by the creeping suspicion that my little attempts at living differently are doomed to failure. Should I really try to stop another leak on this great ship of fools? After all, when I look for visible signs of success, it all seems weird and futile.

    And yet: with Jesus of Nazareth at one’s side, no humane gesture is ever in vain. Every commitment to a more just world is a building block in the New Jerusalem, the city where justice will dwell forever. Each tear of the suffering is held by God; each one is a precious pearl. And the “last place” to which some people are relegated is not their final stop on the journey. Rather, it is a place card for the festive table to which God invites all people. No one is to be excluded from this table; no one is to be consigned to a corner. In the end, every soul will know what it means to be a brother or sister, because the love of God will reach each one.

    Our world, built as it is on the laws of competition and maximum profits, on exploitation and on oppression, cannot endure. Jesus has already heralded its end; its time is running out. Even if the power of Jerusalem and Rome, of Wall Street and the White House, appear to dominate our day, in the end only the power of Nazareth will remain. Because in the end, only faith, hope, and love count for anything – these three – and the greatest among them is love.


    Translated by Chris Zimmerman from Wer alles gibt, hat die Hände frei: Mit Charles de Foucauld einfach leben lernen (Droemer Knaur, 2021).

    Contributed By AndreasKnapp Andreas Knapp

    A poet, priest, and popular author in Germany, Andreas Knapp left a secure position as head of Freiburg Seminary to live and work among the poor as a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel.

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