It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Letters from the Desert

The following is the foreword that Ivan Illich wrote in 1972 for the English edition of a small but highly popular book called Letters from the Desert, originally published in 1964, in Italian, by Carlo Carretto.


My friend Carlo Carretto has asked me to introduce him to the American and English readers of these pages, which were written originally for his European friends. I find it as embarrassing to speak about a friendship which matured in the desert as I find it presumptuous to comment on meditations as personal as these. Allow me therefore to acquit my duty of friendship by telling you how I myself met Carlo.

It was October, 1959, shortly after General Massu had taken command of Algeria. Towards noon I finally reached the market place of Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara. I was looking for the house of the Little Brothers, the religious community established here fifty years before by Charles de Foucauld. I was unable to speak a word of Arabic, and no French word I tried elicited a reaction: not “La Fraternité” nor “Le Père de Foucauld” nor “Eglise.” So I tried again: “Le Pere Charles de Foucauld?” Immediately a bunch of youngsters began to shout, “Frére Carlo, Frére Carlo” They grabbed my bag, charged across the road and led me to the shoemaker’s shop.

It took some time to realize who it was that earned his living by cutting up old tires and making indestructible sandals. It was Carretto. It was the same Carretto whom I had last known when he held a key post in Italian “Catholic Action,” at a time when this church organization played a frequently sinister role in anti-communist politics under Pius XII.

For years I had tried not to think about Carretto, since I feared that by now he would be even more powerful as one of those lay or clerical churchmen who dominate Christian Democratic politics in Italy.

Indeed, it was Carretto, who had now become Brother Carlo to children and cripples and pilgrims at the tomb of de Foucauld.

Carlo hobbled out of his shop to lead me to the chapel in the adobe fort in which de Foucauld had been murdered: Foucauld the gourmet turned ascetic, the officer turned monk, the monk turned priest and hermit. The French nobleman had wanted to live here as poor and powerless as the least of the natives; he had died here because he had been asked to guard sixteen French rifles. On the way to the chapel Carlo stopped in front of a tombstone put up by the French Army:

Le Vicomte de Foucauld

Frére Charles de Jesus

More pour la France

The words haunted me while I crouched beside Carlo in the deep sand and peace of the chapel. In Algeria, France meant empire, even at the cost of torture. In Algeria, to be a priest meant (with very few exceptions) to be chaplain to French colonials and soldiers. In Algeria, to be a Christian meant either to make the ideology of “peace” a reason for withdrawal or -- for a very, very few -- a reason for joining the underground. And here, in Algeria, I had to read, “He died for France.” Carlo must have noticed what went on in me. When we left the chapel he pointed to the tombstone and simply said, “If you want to live like Jesus you must accept being misunderstood like him.. He too dies for the people -- and it was the High Priest of the Jews who said so.”

I came to know Carlo: this man who was dying to the world of power, the world of good causes, the world of big words and world of political parties. I came to experience the naked simplicity in the statements of his love for the Lord. I came to marvel at his lack of embarrassment at being judged childish when he said something true: his concern when he was judged escapist because he refused to be militant.

I first lived as his guest in Tamanrasset. Later, he installed me in a cave below the peak of Asekrem, two days, as the donkey trots, from his shop. He had furnished the cave with a bed of stone and protected it from the icy winds which blow without cease at several thousand feet in the Ahaggar mountains.

We became friends. When he came to visit me he told me stories. Remembering them I always felt that outside the desert they would sound out of place. The immensity of the desert overwhelms both the power and weakness of men. The Muslim shepherd’s song envelops the Franciscan tenderness of Italian in the austerity of unambiguous faith. The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness. I fear that outside this context and not knowing Carlo in person, many readers will have to make a great effort to learn from Carlo what he taught me.

But I do hope that at least some readers of these pages in English will do so on a day of complete silence -- to which they rarely treat themselves -- or, more often, to which they are condemned. I hope they will open this book in an Anglo-American desert: a lonely flat in Watts or Kensington, the ward of a hospital, in an asylum or prison cell, or on a commuter train.

Ivan Illich
Cuernavaca, Mexico

Born in Italy in 1910, Carretto earned his degree in philosophy, but he was confined to Sardinia during the Fascist era. After the war, he served as National President of Catholic Youth in Italy. At the age of 44, he was summoned by a voice: "Leave everything, come with me into the desert. I don't want your action any longer. I want your prayer, your love." Though he did not fully understand this call, he left Italy for North Africa, where he joined the Little Brothers, a religious congregation in the Catholic church that is inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld. Carretto died in 1988.

Here is an 11-minute video of "l'Ascension de l'Ahaggar" that gives some idea of the remarkable terrain that Illich must have encountered:

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.