It started in Montreal in 1971. . . . I had noticed that the grounds of the "Terre des Hommes" exhibition (otherwise called Expo '67) were still open. I was intrigued by a new kind of cinema there . . . the film was projected on all the walls around in a circle. The film showed snippets of daily life around the world . . . .
I remember very well that at a certain moment there were two scenes very familiar to me, but diametrically opposed. On one side was the little town of Assisi, like a jewel in the Umbrian plain, glowing with the joy of St. Francis. On the other side was New York, overrun with crowds, teeming with frenzy, the concrete jungle, crowded with skyscrapers.
I had just spent a very pleasant year quite close to Assisi, at Spello. It had been a year of detachment, a religious time, the period of my novitiate. . . then, at the conclusion of that lengthy retreat, I came to New York after eight days on shipboard.
Now, New York and Assisi were juxtaposed on a single movie screen during a beautiful summer afternoon in Montreal. Here were two worlds that were extremely alive within me and in front of me, apparently irreconcilable, but somehow cohabiting and crying out their reality.
On that summer afternoon in Montreal, another world was
also still alive in me whose image would be repeated later in a new way.
|Charles de Foucauld, hermit of Beni-Abbès.|
Click image for more on Charles de Foucauld.
Photo from the cover of the Catholic Truth Society biography on the disillusioned soldier, atheist and aristocratic playboy who at age 30 changed his life's course to search for God in Sahara's suffering poor people.
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My memory recalled a week's walk through the sands of the Sahara that led me to Beni-Abbes. There were a dozen of us, the same group from Assisi, during that same year, on a pilgrimage of prayer and hope in the African desert, under a leaden sky. . . . Three Arab men came to meet us . . . They carried a big, carved silver tray with hot tea, sugar, and cups. It was all for us, a pure gesture of hospitality, a surprise of sharing, of broken strangeness, a glimmer of kindness in the heart of the desert. . . .
And now I am living in New York. I feel the need to escape from the buzz of the city, from its banality and artificiality, to break out of the habitual round, to clear out my mind, to distrust the ordinary. Nothing is ever truly ordinary. . . . I want to be a sharer in human experience and solidity, in the real hardship of life, and at the same time I want to hope and have confidence in what is to come. But how is it possible to reconcile experience, some harsh, and hope? Should one bind them together because experience is a basis of hope, or separate them forever because experience is a barrier to hope? . . .
But what is happening right now within my soul is the enormous anonymity of the city, the blindness of a thousand massively denaturing, brutalizing forces, ranging from pollution to violence and including every kind of human tedium. . . .
I have no desire to detail the tough harshness of New York, no taste for settling accounts. Dullness and resentment cannot
be a way of life. Everything tells me that that is not the way to begin my attempt to study, to show, to explain.
Moving out of the crowd without separating from it, I feel a need to share a little of what I think I have learned, the things I have experienced and that have very quickly become for me an endless place for encounter, for unity and for vital reflection. The right way to describe the density, resistance and profundity of it would be to talk of mystery. So let me say just once, and in a whisper, that the mystery is firmly established in a jail called Rikers Island in New York's East River. I have been a chaplain there for ten years.