Friday, July 16, 2010


Carlo Carretto (1910 – 1988) was an Italian spiritual writer inspired by Charles de Foucauld and others who have sought God in simplicity and solitude. He was a school teacher, and a worker with Catholic Action. Between 1954 and 1964 he lived as a hermit in the Sahara desert, settling eventually in Spello, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life as a hermit and spiritual director. The English translations of his books became very popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and they helped me to grasp something of both the simplicity and the struggle of the Christian life. This post is much longer than usual, but if you haven’t read Carretto’s book “I SOUGHT AND I FOUND” (1984) from which it comes, I’m sure you will benefit from meditating your way through it!

If we could always remain children, little children in the Spirit, everything would be easier and faith in God would develop naturally, as a tree develops, containing the programme of its long future in its seed.

You see, there is something we must keep well in mind: It may be hard to believe, but it is a lot harder not to.

It is not easy to shrug off so colossal a thing as the whole universe with the simple phrase “I don’t believe”, and blithely refuse all response to the tremendous logic of things visible.

Like it or not, faced with the real, I have to find a plausible reason for it - a reason that will satisfy my thirst to know. After all, the real is there, right in front of me, with its life that I collide with, its light that envelops me, its love that seeks me out.

Saying “I don’t believe in God” ends up begging the question. 
What if God were to be everything that is real? 
Could I deny him then, saying that he does not exist while I am actually seeing him, touching him, experiencing him? 
Why not accept him? 
Why not say yes to all that is visible? 
Why not begin to fall in love with that? 
Why not go ahead and shout for joy at this reality clothed in light and flowers, and exult at its all-embracing might, and fall on my knees in ecstasy before its unutterable mystery? 
Why not? 
How many things it has to tell me, this All enfolding me, speaking to me through the alphabet of the stars, delighting me with its fantastic presence, always going before me and all but stifling me in the embrace of its infinitude and its all-enveloping unity! 
Have today’s human beings perhaps become more illogical then primitive man, who was so in love with the sun - adorable, fantastic thing that it is - that he made no bones about worshipping it? 
Do today’s human beings perhaps think they are “smarter” by saying no to everything with their wiseacre sarcasm, and looking at everything with a jaundiced eye?

This is the one way never to succeed in arriving at the truth. This is the tried and true way of becoming deaf, dumb and blind, and staying that way.

I too could decide to stay on the outside. But is certainly would not be very interesting.

It would be boring, to say the least.

And certainly joyless and uncreative . . .
And so I have often wondered: Can it really be such a difficult thing to accept so simple a notion as the idea of God?

What is at the basis of this difficulty I have in saying yes, a yes shouted out by all things? What makes it so difficult to accept a simple logic that rules all logic - to make myself available to so evident and so universal a love?

It was in this difficulty that I then discovered a terrifying, inexorable presence - a presence dominating the whole universe, and present in each of us, deep within our spirit, in the hidden recesses of our soul.

When I thought about this, I felt that this presence had something of the implausible about it and that it was precisely behind its implausibility that it chooses to hide, the more easily to prevail.

Nor do I know what name to give it, so as not to scandalize anyone or raise obstacles for anyone on the road to faith. When Paul VI made bold to refer to this presence, calling it Satan, many people were scandalized and accused him, the greatest and most prudent pope of our times, of reverting to the terrors and obscurantism of the Middle Ages.

Shall I call it the evil one, the Tempter? 
And why not call it Satan, as the gospel does (Matthew 12:26) 
Beelzebul, as Jesus himself does (Matthew 12:27) 
the devil (Matthew 4:5) 
the unclean spirit (Luke 11:24) 
the one who “possesses”, who takes over a person (John 8:48) 
the liar (John 8:44) 
the murderer, the one who brings death (John 8:44) 
the prince of this world (John 21:31) 
the reign of darkness (Luke 22:53) 
When Jesus challenged it to give its name, it replied: “My name is...legion, for there are many of us” (Mark 5:9)

There is nothing more mysterious than the evil one. 
But is God any less mysterious? 
We ought to have the guts to accept a little of darkness, while keeping the wondering eye of surprised childhood fixed that which is bright. 
I do not seek to understand him, I seek to believe. 
I have not arrived at God by understanding, I have arrived at him by faith. 
And Satan too. I do not understand him, I believe in him. 
And just as it is in experience that I have received the answer of the existence of God, so it has been in experience that I have received the answer of the existence of Satan.

Perhaps it would be better not to call him Satan for the moment. Too many things pop into our mind. We are too spoiled by our mania for conjuring up pictures of things that cannot be pictured.

After all, Deuteronomy says (4:15-18): 
“Take great care what you do, therefore . . . see that you do not act perversely, making yourselves a carved image in the shape of anything at all: whether it be in the likeness of many or of woman, or of any beast on the earth, or of any bird that flies in the heavens, or of any reptile that crawls on the ground, or of any fish in the waters under the earth.” 
“. . . you saw no shape on that day at Horeb when the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire...” (Deuteronomy 4:15)

I think the same goes for Satan, and I force myself to leave him behind a veil of mystery. Too readily have we drawn pictures of him, and in so doing have produced an irrational, distorted result.

Has he a face? 
Is he without a face? 
Has he a body? 
Is he a spirit? 
I do not know. 
But I have learned to feel him, to experience him, and I cannot deny him, and I am certainly not about to deny him.

I feel the presence as the Tempter. 
How does he act? 
I do not know. 
I only know that, as I look at human beings and their boundless abominations, it seems to me impossible for them to have managed to do such terrible things on their own.

Human beings are helped by someone else when they dig the abyss of sin in themselves, when they sink to the roots of despair.

There is someone behind them making suggestions when they deny truth and betray love. There is a sadistic spirit at hand, who stops at nothing when a tyrant starves a people. There is a planner when millions of people are gassed in extermination camps, and generations of children die of hunger under the indifferent eye of governments. 
There is, there is, there is! And there is one in us, too, when we no longer smile at life, when we have no more will to build, when we do not want a child, when we crowd the elderly into “homes”, when we hate our sister or our brother, when we are indifferent to someone’s suffering, or when we fling ourselves on the ground and refuse to keep hoping. 
And there is one in us when we stand before gleaming glaciers, or the trembling of the light upon the sea, and remain unmoved, empty of wonder. 
And there is one in us when we ask the Real One surrounding us for his identity papers, and shout in his face: 
“Who Are YOU?” 
“Have you come to disturb us?’ (cf. Mark 1:24)

After all, only I exist! I have no need of you! 
I do not want you, God, because your power destroys mine, your will limits mine. 
Yes, at bottom it is true, and the temptation of “If you exist, then I cannot exist.”

Can I still be surprised if I find it hard to believe in God?

If so many people cry out in their foolishness, “God does not exist?” 
If my night is dark, if my heart is dry and knows not how to love? 
If my hope droops and pales?

No, do not be astonished, my soul. 
Do not be astonished if, to your timid, feeble YES, with which you seek to affirm the existence of God, the deafening answer of the Evil One comes crashing back in echo, “NO!” 
No, He does not exist! 
Do not be astonished if, in the face of your effort to fulfill yourself in truth and love, you feel him throw you to the ground, vanquished for the umpteenth time. 
Do not be astonished if, in the face of your sincere promise to be faithful to man, you find yourself an hour later to be a two-faced traitor, a selfish, cruel, swaggering gangster and grafter. 
Do not be astonished! 
And do not be astonished either, when in prayer you hear the words of the Psalmist on your lips, “So longs my soul for you, my God” (Psalm 42:2), and immediately afterwards you hear in reply: 
“Where is your God?” 
“Where is your God?” 
“Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:4, 10)

Yes, the Evil One, the Tempter, is like the proliferation of a cancer inside me, spreading, developing wherever it possibly can, seeking to destroy everything within me, right to the roots.

There. Perhaps the comparison with a cancer is the most apt one, the most appropriate “sign” of evil personalized in Satan: of that tremendous reality that has impressed the generations, continuously being accepted or rejected, impossible to define in its mysterious, yet genuine and indisputable presence.

Yes, evil is within me and I cannot deny it. 
Sometimes it is so embedded in me, so identified with my own reality, that I can no longer distinguish it in its essence.

Am I a “cancer” unto myself? Or is it a cancer I can excise with a scalpel and get rid of?

Usually I perceive it as something other than myself, and I give it a name, as the gospel gives it a name, and I fight it as a mortal enemy.

It is a mysterious thing, and I prefer to take Jesusword for it and not discuss it too much. Otherwise I become lost in the maze of my own reasoning and fail to reach a conclusion. But there is one thing I do know about it, something I know from experience. I know that it always attacks me at my central part, at my relationship with God, trying to destroy what unites me with him . . . faith, hope, charity. 
It is a continual, life-and-death struggle, and I have never seen my poverty to be so real as in this combat.

This is why I feel pity for myself, and pity for all who claim not to believe or find it hard to believe. 
I know what that means.

I feel, too, that when the churches insist so much on moral codes and take so much interest in listing the various “legal” sins and getting them confessed, they do not realize they are putting a sticking-plaster over a wound, the deepest wound of all.

No, my friends, the real sin we should confess, and should confess everyday, especially today, is our
not believing, not hoping, not loving.

We have never sufficiently bewailed our weakness in faith, in hope and in charity, and we have never sufficiently noticed the presence of the Evil One in this struggle of ours.

Another thing that the spirit of evil seeks to do is to divide up my unity and to set me at odds with myself. 
This is why he is called the divider. 
When prophecy proclaims a truth about God to me, using the actual, real me, I immediately deny it. 
When I find myself with Abraham at the terebinth of Mamre, and the angel comes to say that Sarah will have a child, when I know that Sarah is sterile and old, I feel, rising within me, Sarah’s laughter behind the tent-flap as she thinks “It is not possible” (cf. Genesis 18). 
Woe to me if God were to hear and keep account of all the times that Sarah laughs within me! 
“...God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). 
And Sarah laughs, because it does not seem a likely thing to her. 
“The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14) 
And Sarah stands before the mystery of the God made visible on earth in Christ, and laughs. 
“...this is my body...this is my blood...” (Matthew 26:26,18), and the laughter goes on.

Here truly is the nature of evil, in the ability to say no to faith, to hope, to love. 
This is the sin in which we are immersed to the tops of our heads. 
This is the sin I confess everyday, and which everyday springs up in me anew. 
This is my poverty. 
This is our true poverty. 
this is our sorrow. 
This is our weakness.


Michael Gollop said...

Bishop David, thank you for that quotation. As a student I met Carlo Caretto at his hermitage in the early 1980s - one of those men who seemed to radiate holiness and goodness. He wrote a message in my copy of "I sought and I found" which I treasure to this day.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Fr! I would love to have met him. The other imaginative Italian whose books (not as many of them as Carretto, unfortunately) have meant a lot to me was Luigi Santucci. I put a great passage of his on the blog last year:

I've used it once in each of my parishes in the Maundy Thursday homily . . . it always works!

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