When I first moved to Toronto, I used to pass a certain office building on my way to work. The windows, main door, and wall facing the street were plastered with signs telling visitors that this space was scent-free, smoke-free, violence-free, a place where harassment and disrespect were “not tolerated,” where racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia were anathema. The worries identified are urgent enough, although one wonders about “scent-free.” But the public signage felt like a desperate announcement of some tottering pile of anxieties, threatening to topple on the rest of us. Over time, more warnings have been added. The air around the building, the nearby alleys, and streets feels drained and empty, swept by the dry winds of aimless fears and resentments barely kept at bay.
The building in question is but a token of a larger cultural reality. The core of Toronto looks more like a Hieronymus Bosch landscape than the sleek spreads of Condé Nast, peopled by smartly dressed café clientele and shoppers. They are there, to be sure—along with the more numerous tired workers, and the shifting crowds smoking weed and muttering to themselves, mentally assaulted, homeless, wandering across crumbling pavement and strewn litter, all amid the endless muddy construction sites seemingly aimed at multiplying the aimless. You can spend a day walking here with little sense of a human community, a common purpose, or animating hope. In Toronto, as in many other large Western cities, there are plenty of church buildings around, but most are empty. Many have been turned into condos; almost all have little to do with their neighborhoods. These houses of worship hope at best to squeeze members out from the cracks of a splintered and depleted social terrain.
Within the small communities of faith that exist here and there—and they do—there can be enormous focus and energy. I have spent my adult life as a professional Christian. My workplace has therefore had its hopes rather than fears posted on the entryways. But outside these doors, it seems, lies that vast space “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). It would be dishonest of me to not admit that there are moments when this desert feels overwhelming.
Then I remember people like Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916). From the heart of the Sahara, he wrote: “Here there is a need for good people, good Christians of every profession, who will meet the local folk through a thousand daily activities.” He’s telling me: Stay outside.
De Foucauld spent the last years of his lonely ministry as a quasi-hermit in the Algerian interior, living among the Tuareg people. His call was driven by a sense of what the desert really is: the place where Jesus is most clearly seen—as if in a thin and unimpeded air—and thus most clearly embraced. The desert is where Jesus’s own embrace of others, in which we ourselves are taken, becomes the fullest form of our following. In the desert, the pared and pure solitude of being with Jesus and contemplating him is transfigured into the most “immolating” love for others.
De Foucauld is hardly unknown. He was canonized by Pope Francis in May 2022. His letters, meditations, and notes have been widely published and translated. His followers, in various communities and associations, are scattered around the world. Yet for all that, he only hovers on the margins of the Church’s imagination.
After several years in the French colonial army, de Foucauld fell in love with North Africa, did some well-received geographical studies, and then, experiencing a profound conversion, joined the Trappists in 1890. This was the beginning of a journey of ever-increasing ascetic withdrawal, first to the Middle East, and finally into the Algerian Sahara, where he was eventually murdered after being caught up in a local disturbance.
De Foucauld’s imagination was captured by the French colonial grab of North Africa. As a soldier, he participated in it personally, and eventually believed in its expansive providential value, in a way that should make even the most indulgent of his admirers blush. His goal, within this current of conquest, was the “conversion” of pagan souls to Christ. In this, de Foucauld was at one with a long tradition of Christian imperial missions. But de Foucauld’s understanding of how this might happen, and beyond that, why, was unique. Conversion, he insisted, came though the witness of a life devoted to Jesus’s humility, offered as the sole Christian gift. Evangelize “by example, fraternal love, goodness,” he wrote in the last version of his many plans for starting a religious order. In a way, this hope—boring into the depth of his desires—was an unraveling of those imperial dynamics he rarely questioned. While it would take his later followers to transmute de Foucauld’s cultural and political prejudices into a wider and more self-critical gaze, the “why” of his Saharan ministry was always clear: Jesus himself walked into the desert, stripped of all possessions, personal and material, and this destitution constituted his immovable power of redemption. In the words of de Foucauld’s mentor, Henri Huvelin, “Jesus took such a humble place that no one will be able to take it from him.”
Originally, de Foucauld believed that we are called into the desert, where temptation is the strongest, for one main reason: to be like Jesus, who in his own temptations triumphed over sin. Imitation of Jesus involved a program of ever more extreme self-renunciation, and de Foucauld’s attempts at writing “rules” identified practices of the strictest monastic denial: eating only bread and water, sleeping on boards, banishing leisure. Yet, although we find Jesus in the desert in a particular way, it is Jesus we find, someone whose life extends far beyond the taming of our passions.
Jesus lived a hidden life of humble labor in Nazareth; he preached publicly and proclaimed the gospel on the roads of Galilee and in the Temple of Jerusalem; he healed and encouraged; he stood up and died. As de Foucauld moved more and more into the actual desert in his last years, he saw that he was engaging all these forms—toil, obedience, truth-telling, care, suffering. The fullness of Christ’s life for the world became apparent.
It turned out that the Sahara was, in its own way, teeming with people: Bedouins, Berbers, the Tuareg. They were, as de Foucauld said, “the inhabitants of the desert,” to whom he realized he had been sent as an apostolic neighbor. De Foucauld wrote that the desert was a place of “unparalleled calm” in which God’s love could be contemplated undisturbed: holy solitude. He was drawn to this peace in the deepest way. Yet he discovered this calm was also a place of opening, where “hospitality” could be offered to all, a vast space of both thirst and dispossession, where the ordinariness of the world could be received as a divine gift and shared. Solitude was pressed into encounter. “Talking, distributing medicine and alms, offering the hospitality of the camp, demonstrating . . . that we are all brothers in God and hoping . . . to be in the same heaven, praying for the Tuareg with all my heart, this is my life now. . . . I can only say ecce ancilla Domini [behold the servant of the Lord].” The desert, against all his expectations, proved to be where private seeking is transfigured into public witness in the person of Jesus himself. To be like him! “Pray to God that I may truly be the brother of all the souls in this country.”
De Foucauld did not live to see his hopes for a new order fulfilled. But by the mid-twentieth century, groups of followers, taking up elements of his counsel, had formed under various names, the most well-known of which are the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus. Some revisited the actual Saharan paths of their mentor. But many others established themselves in the urban “deserts” of the world, in downtowns, in slums, in the haunts of the ever-toiling and sadly drifting. In Toronto, even. They work alongside their neighbors, they pray together and for others, they listen and encourage. It is a rich life, however cast into windy realms outside the precincts of safety. It is a life that is, in the end, no different in purpose and promise than any Christian life, even mine. I need reminding, as do we all. This arid place is my country.
In his last counsels, de Foucauld called for the regular praying of the Veni Creator Spiritus, “the cry of exiled brothers to the Father,” who might send his Spirit to us, to possess our souls, inspire, uphold, enable, lead, consummate. Do this in the desert, a vital place, trembling with divine presence, where Jesus went, where Jesus dwells.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.