Carlo Carretto was an Italian monk who died in 1988. For many years he lived as a hermit in the Sahara Desert, translated the scriptures into the Tuareg language, and from the solitude of the desert wrote some extraordinary spiritual books. His writings and his faith were special in that they had a rare capacity to combine an almost childlike piety with (when needed) a blistering iconoclasm. He loved the church deeply, but he wasn’t blind to its faults and failures, and he wasn’t afraid to point out those shortcomings.
Late in life, when his health forced him to leave the desert he retired to a religious community in his native Italy. While there, late in life, he read a book by an atheist who took Jesus to task for a phrase in the Sermon on the Mount where he says: “Seek and you shall find”, meaning, of course, that if you seek God with an honest heart you will find God. The atheist had entitled his book, I Sought and I Didn’t Find, arguing from his own experience that an honest heart can seek God and come up empty.
Carretto wrote a book in reply called: I Sought and I Found. For him, Jesus’ counsel rang true. In his own search, despite encountering many things that could indicate the absence of God, he found God. But he admits the difficulties, and one of those difficulties is, at times, the church. The church can, and sometimes does, through its sin, make it difficult for some to believe in God. Carretto admits this with a disarming honesty but argues that it’s not the whole picture.
Hence his book combines his deep love for his faith and his church with his refusal to not turn a blind eye to the very real faults of Christians and the churches. At one point in the book he gives voice to something which might be described as an Ode to the Church. It reads this way:
How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you!
How you have made me suffer much and yet owe much to you.
I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, and yet never in this world have I touched anything more pure, more generous, and more beautiful.
Many times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face – and yet how often I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even though not completely you.
Then, too – where would I go? To build another church?
But I cannot build another without the same defects, for they are my own defeats I bear within me.
And again, if I build one, it will be my Church, and no longer Christ’s.
No, I am old enough to know that I am no better than others.
I shall not leave this Church, founded on so frail a rock, because I should be founding another one on an even frailer rock: myself.
And then, what do rocks matter?
What matters is Christ’ promise, what matters is the cement that binds the rocks into one: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone can build the Church with stones as ill‐hewn as we.
This is an expression of a mature faith; one which isn’t so romantic and idealistic that it needs to be shielded from the darker side of things and one which is real enough so as not to be so cynical that it blinds itself to the evident goodness that also emanates from the church. In truth, the church is both horribly compromised and wonderfully grace-filled. Honest eyes can see both. A mature heart can accept both. Children and novices need to be shielded from the dark underbelly of things; scandalized adults need to have their eyes opened to the evident goodness that’s also there.
Many people have left the church because it has scandalized them through its habitual sins, blind spots, defensiveness, self-serving nature, and arrogance. The recent revelations (again) of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by church authorities have left many people wondering whether they can ever again trust the church’s structure, ministers, and authorities. For many, this scandal seems too huge to digest.
Carlo Carretto’s Ode, I believe, can help us all, whether scandalized or pious. To the pious, it can show how one can accept the church despite its sin and how denial of that sin is not what’s called for by love and loyalty. To the scandalized, it can be a challenge to not miss the forest for the trees, to not miss seeing that, in the church, frailty and sin, while real, tragic, and scandalous, never eclipse the superabundant, life-giving grace of God.