24 June 2020, The Tablet

De Foucauld, Dorothy Day, and Madeleine Delbrêl

De Foucauld, Dorothy Day, and Madeleine Delbrêl

A depiction of Dorothy Day in a stained-glass window at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Staten Island, New York, April 28, 2020
CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Living alone in a desert for decades, hundreds of miles away from your friends and family, and eventually being accidentally shot dead doesn’t sound like many people’s idea of a good time. Given that Charles de Foucauld is to be canonised in the near future, we have to believe that it is God’s idea of a good time. 

In light of the news that he’s due to be raised to the altars, it’s worth looking again at de Foucauld’s life and ministry. Christopher Lamb has adeptly summarised de Foucauld’s life story, and the lessons he can provide for inter-religious dialogue. An intriguing aspect of de Foucauld’s legacy - and one, in my view, that bears closer examination - is his influence on the two outstanding ‘social catholics’ of the twentieth century - Dorothy Day and Madeleine Delbrêl. 

Madeleine Delbrêl opened a house of hospitality in Lyon, in 1934, and lived and worked there with a lay community she founded for 30 years until her death in 1964. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is far better known in the anglophone world. Alike in their youthful marxism, their unvowed celibacy, and their social radicalism, Day and Delbrêl are often compared to each other. Both are now in the process of being canonised. And both were heavily influenced by de Foucauld and his spiritual successors, the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus. The worker-priest movement, which owed a great deal to de Foucauld - was enthusiastically supported by Delbrêl and Day.  

Given de Foucauld’s poor record of winning converts - in his whole ministry he convinced only two north Africans to convert to Catholicism - he might seem an odd model for evangelisation. His location in the deserts of the Maghreb, and the solitary nature of his apostolate contrasts sharply with Day and Delbrêl’s urban missions. 

But both Day and Delbrêl saw him as someone who had navigated a situation similar to their own.

De Foucauld struggled to convert the Muslim Tuareg tribes during his time in the desert. It’s not that de Foucauld’s neighbours were hostile to him - he was generally well liked. But they saw no real need to become Christian - and indeed, given the links between Catholicism and the local colonial power, were hostile towards proselytism. 

Decades after de Foucauld’s death in 1916, Day and Delbrêl confronted an analogous crisis; not amongst devout muslims, but in the dechristianised urban working classes of the west. These people didn’t think Christianity had anything to offer them. Worse, the Church seemed absent from the great economic struggles they faced. The desert had come to the city. 

In response to this, Day and Delbrêl turned to de Foucauld’s conception of Christ as “Universal Brother”. Believers are called to emulate Christ in manifesting the love of God, in practice, for everyone. Christians are called to be icons of God’s transcendent love to the whole of humanity, not only to fellow believers. Just as de Foucuald took a tabernacle into the desert, Christians are asked, not to “hide their light under a bushel”, but to bring God into the godless spaces of the world. 

That, of course, didn’t extend to going along with or accepting sin; but if sin excused us from loving others, no-one would be loved at all. 

This practical love - what Day called “fraternal charity” - wasn’t what’s called an antinomian love, the kind of sentimentalism beloved by bad television shows and worse politicians, in which real contradictions and struggles get drowned in syrup. And it wasn’t the emotivistic “love bombing” that some less than reputable Christian groups use to lure in converts. It’s a way of being in which supernatural charity is the basis of our relationship with every other human being.

“Supernatural Charity” is far easier to admire than to practice.  But it is, Dorothy Day claimed, the only sure means of evangelisation.

“...the only true influence we have on people is through supernatural love. This sanctity (not an obnoxious piety) so affects others that they can be saved by it.”

That conversion occurs more by what de Foucauld called “doing good in silence” than by a battle of cultures was an insight shared by Madeleine Delbrêl.

Delbrêl was deeply shaped by her experience, during a time of anti-christian animus in Lyon, of the Church’s withdrawal into herself. Responding to the hatred of the world, Catholics divided themselves from communists and other non-believers. 

Christians, Delbrêl said, tended to retreat, as her Church in Lyon did, into a “Christian mentality”, characterised by an exaggerated moralism, overt concern for rituals and symbols, and hostility to outsiders. Madeleine saw this as an equal, and in some ways a more insidious betrayal of Christianity than overt capitulation to the world. In becoming a hermetically sealed, esoteric subculture, we retain the gospel - but excuse ourselves from practicing it. 

Delbrêl proposed, instead, that Christians go out into the world, in order to manifest the love of Christ to those most in need of it. In doing so, we convert others, and in the process, convert ourselves anew to the demands of the Gospel. 

In her house of hospitality, social activism, and work with non-believers, Delbrêl put these ideas into practice at a local scale. Across the Atlantic Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, coming to similar conclusions, combined those ideas with a far-reaching political analysis.

Day, Peter Maurin, and their co-thinkers in the “Detacher” movement, a group of left-wing, bohemian American Catholics that included the novelist JF Powers and the politician Eugene McCarthy, saw the American Church as sleepwalking into an existential crisis. At the same time as Catholics were overcoming prejudice and oppression to assimilate into the mainstream of society, Christianity was on the retreat within the inner cities of the U.S.

“Detachers” argued that dechristianisation was rooted in the way that secular society separates and then subordinates the spiritual to the material, reducing humans to our physical needs. The Church, ceding economic life to the secular world, accepted this distinction, underlining her marginalisation by a privatised and pietistic spirituality.  

A prerequisite to effective evangelisation of the atheists and radicals of the modern metropolis was the reversion of this baleful historical trend, and the reintegration of spiritual and material life. One of the first books Peter Maurin handed to Day after they first met was by de Foucauld. Maurin pointed to the French hermit's belief that Christians should occupy the “last place” as key to the work he and Day were about to embark upon.

In the closing decades of the 19th century, intellectuals often condemned Christianity for being a “religion of slaves”. Christianity - they said - preached the humiliation and abjection of man; exalted weakness, guilt and suffering; glorified foolishness, stigmatised genius, and called for human beings to lower themselves when they ought to be raising themselves higher than ever before. Yes, said Charles de Foucauld. That’s the point. 

This wasn’t masochism on de Foucauld’s part, but a lived conviction that God is love; that we don’t find God except through love. And being willing to love means, in this world, to be willing to suffer, to serve others without thanks, to take up “the last place”. St Faustina once commented (somewhat acridly, I always imagine) “The greater the suffering, the greater the love”. The lower we place ourselves in regards to the world, the more we make, in de Foucauld’s words, “a total oblation of ourselves”. And the more we abandon ourselves to God and to others, the more capable we are of participating in God’s sacrificial love.

This cruciform spirituality - the willing and conscious pursuit of “the lowest place”- defined de Foucauld’s ministry in the Maghreb, and cast a long shadow over the work of the urban pioneers that followed him. Manual labour and voluntary poverty, alongside prayer, was considered by Day and Maurin as fundamental pillars of the Catholic Worker. Delbrêl, writing on de Foucauld, related it as essential to retrieve the spirit of the early church:

“The Apostles preached and lived their message and the whole of their message: the beatitude of poverty as well as the others. Our own failure to infect the world with the gospel message is due to our separation preaching from life, our word from our example.”

Neither Day nor Delbrêl were sympathetic to those who, even in their own time, thought that a radical Christianity had to separate and counterpose the gospels to the Church. They thought that the demands of the Gospel were imperatives exactly because of the Church’s claims to absolute truth. And for all their - sometimes bitter - struggles with Church authorities, both Day and Delbrêl had a profound, even visceral, conception of the church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Day and Delbrêl’s social radicalism was the fruit of living out the mysteries of the faith, rather than a divestment from them. 

Nonetheless, the characterisation of Dorothy Day in particular as a traditionalist avant la lettre is specious. Both Day and Delbrêl were, and in many ways still are, theological radicals. One aspect of that radicalism is found in their appropriation of a major theme in de Foucauld’s life: the centring of contemplation in the Christian life. 

That ordinary Catholics should pursue a spiritual life in a similar way to vowed religious is fairly commonplace today. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, things were quite different. The reaction of the average ecclesiarch on seeing a lay Catholic pursue a contemplative spirituality was roughly the same as if he had seen a dog driving a Mercedes: unusual, unnatural and likely to end in disaster. 

Most Latin Christians, if asked, would assume monasticism to be essentially communal. But the root word for ‘monk’ is the latin ‘monachus’, ‘alone’. Monasticism began in Christianity, in the third and fourth century as a retreat into the wilderness, away from civilisation, and into silence. And in that silence, monastic pioneers - the ‘desert fathers and mothers’ - listened for the voice of God. 

De Foucauld, a former Trappist, was heavily influenced by these monastic traditions. And his urban successors saw a reflection of their own struggles in the people that Thomas Merton called “spiritual anarchists”: the desert fathers and mothers.

For Delbrêl and for Day, it was necessary to go into the internal deserts - to “find solitude,” and so, in Delbrêl’s words, “to find God” - in order to then venture into the external desert of humanity’s separation from God. A constant theme in Day’s writing is the call to direct, individual prayer and adoration, beyond daily mass and group prayer. As much as both thinkers stressed the importance of community, their spirituality was - ironically - first concerned with the experience of the solitary believer. 

An intimate relationship with God, an intentional entering into the mysteries of the faith, was the obligation of every Christian, and not just the right of a selected few. Every Christian ought to be a mystic; that is, one who enters into mystery. Christians travel, wrote Delbrêl, between the “measurable abyss of the world’s rejections of God” and “the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God.”

Fraternal charity; the opening of the contemplative life to lay people; and the taking up of the last place, not simply with regard to the church but in relation to the whole human community. These themes were all taken up by the second Vatican Council. We can see the theological fruits of Day, Delbrêl, and de Foucauld’s work in documents like Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Apostolicam Actuositatem, the council's decree on the lay apostolate.

It’s harder to pin down an organisational legacy for the two “urban mystics”. Delbrêl’s community, the “équipes”, no longer exist. And although the Catholic worker has continued to grow over the years, the decatholicisation of the movement - that Day noted with dismay in the last decade of her life - accelerated after her death in 1980. Western societies have continued to move towards a world where, in Delbrêl’s words, “creation has taken the place of the creator”. In a “post-christian” era, the tendencies that the two “Servants of God” opposed - assimilation on the one hand, and subculturalism on the other- have not lost their appeal. 

But one figure in the contemporary Church seems appreciative of the ideas that de Foucauld wrote about, and that Day and Delbrêl put into practice. Pope Francis’s penchant for attacking a whole range of targets in the church - rigorists alongside semi-pelagians; those who want to proselytise along with those who want the Church to act as a humanist NGO - has been interpreted by some as a cunning political strategy; a “peronist” divide-and-conquer routine.

It seems to me much more likely that the present Pope - who handed over Rome’s seminary to a Little Brother of Jesus last year - has been looking to de Foucauld for guidance on how to be a “missionary without a boat”. Francis, like Day and Delbrêl, is interested not in a Christianity made “effective” - to paraphrase Henri de Lubac - but a Christianity that is lived effectively.

Seeing the desert of the world that excludes God for what it is is more difficult than pretending that no such desert exists. And going out into that desert - “pitching our tents” (John 1:14) there - is much more challenging than taking refuge in culture-war fantasies or self-referential sectarianism. The only plausible evangelisation is to live out the commands of the Gospel as fully as we can. If the Church wants to follow Christ out of the tomb, she has to be prepared to follow Christ into the desert too.

What do you think?


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