THE HIDDEN LIFE OF JESUS IS
THE HIDDEN TREASURE OF OUR LIFE:
(The discovery by Br. Charles de Foucauld)
The uniqueness of Br. Charles de Foucauld lies in his discovery of the profound mystery of the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth as the hidden treasure which he was constantly seeking to discover in his own life, and which he made the parameter for his own spiritual journey. For the contemporaries of Jesus, living in Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph was just an ordinary boy maturing into adulthood, involved in the life and works of a poor carpenter. There was an extraordinary dimension in the ordinary chores of life lived by Jesus in these hidden years of his life. Unless one makes an effort to search for the unknown treasure of our own ordinary life, as Jesus of Nazareth himself did, we will not be able to discover the inner richness of our life, and realize the spiritual meaning of human life. Here is an attempt to portray Br. Charles’ unique understanding of the hidden life of Jesus by Jyoti Sahi, an artist-theologian, one of the founding members of the Asian Christian Art Association, and father of five children, together with his wife Jane Sahi, and an intimate friend of the Little Brothers of Jesus in Bengaluru (Editor)
Jane and I were first introduced to the spirituality of Br. Charles de Foucauld when we came to Bangalore in 1970. The group of Little Brothers—Shanti, Arul, and Michael—living in a village called Alampundi, not far from the Ramana Ashram of Thiruvanamalai in Tamilnadu—had close ties with the Christian Ashram movement, especially Shantivanam Ashram, founded by the French priests Monchanin, and Le Saux (later known as Abhishiktananda). Swami Abhishiktananda, who became increasingly drawn to the spirituality of Ramana Maharishi, had lived in a cave on Arunachalam (the holy mountain that can be seen from Alampundi). In fact the life of Swami Abhishiktananda has been compared with that of Br. Charles de Foucauld. Both were drawn to a kind of contemplative Christian life, lived amidst people of other Faiths. In the case of Br. Charles, it was the deep spiritual life to be found in Islam. For Abhishiktananda, it was the Sanyasa tradition that has been an essential aspect of Hindu spiritual life.
However, despite the fact that the small group of Little Brothers of Jesus, following the path of Br. Charles, were involved with a Gandhian ashram working with leprosy patients, the Little Brothers never actually joined the Ashram Aikya, though Br. Arul did attend a few of the early gatherings of the Christian Ashrams, and there was an important exchange of ideas, and patterns of life, between what the ashrams were trying to find in an Indian way of life, and what Br. Charles tried to live in Nazareth, and later the Sahara.
What was of particular interest to us as a married couple, trying to find a spiritual dimension to our efforts at setting up a home in a rural Indian context, was the importance that Br. Charles gave to the witness of a family, lived in the spirit of the family of Jesus in Nazareth.
The Image of the Holy Family
Recently I have been reflecting about some of the early paintings of the Indian artist Angelo da Fonseca who was invited by the Anglican Jack Winslow to live in the Christa Prema Seva Ashram which he started in the outskirts of Pune in1927. For Angelo, who married late in life (he was 50 when he married Ivy, another Goan, who was much younger than him) the figure of the elderly Joseph, and his young wife Mary, and their child Jesus, gave a special significance to their own marriage. They had a girl child, and they lived a very simple life inspired by the Ashram. Angelo made a number of sketches and paintings of the family life he and Ivy were living, with their baby, and these became the basis for his depiction of the life of Mary and Joseph, and their child Jesus, imagined in an Indian cultural context.
Many artists have been drawn to the infancy narratives of Jesus. I am thinking of the frescoes of Giotto, for example, inspired by the spirituality of Francis of Assisi, who had the idea of creating a crib scene of the birth of Jesus, where a real baby was placed in a manger, with real animals nearby, to make the mystery of the incarnation more tangible, and imaginable. Little Sister Madeleine, who founded the Little Sisters through her own understanding of the spirituality of Br. Charles de Foucauld, had a special devotion to the child Jesus, having had a personal spiritual experience when she felt that Mother Mary had entrusted to her the baby Jesus which she held close to her heart. The hidden Jesus is the Divine presence that is born in the cave of the heart.
Peter, in his epistle speaks of a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the daystar arises in your hearts” (2 Pet 1:19) and in another letter of “the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit”(1 Pet 3:4). Mystics like Meister Eckhart spoke of an inner birthing of the Incarnation within the heart, like an inner light. This Christ who is born secretly in our hearts, is the spiritual meaning of the “hidden life of Jesus”, which is not simply the time Jesus spent unknown to the world in Nazareth, but is also his inner presence in the secret place of the contemplative heart.
The idea of the Holy Family at whose centre is the child Jesus, gives another dimension to the concept of a “fraternity”—or in the Indian tradition, the “Gurukula” or family of the Guru. It appears that in the mind of Br. Charles this “family” extends beyond the traditional understanding of an “order”, to embrace the whole community, envisaging what was seen in the early Christian community as a “house Church”. In this context a “third order” which includes those who are not a part of an institutionalized religious congregation, is not something just added on, to accommodate those who are not a part of the “first” or “second” orders specifically intended for men and women dedicated to a spiritual vocation. Rather, if the “hidden life” of Jesus growing up with his parents in Nazareth is taken as a model, this life as part of the ordinary working world, embraces all those who are termed “lay people”; married couples who are part of a secular pattern of life, with children and households. I think that one of the unique charisma’s of the fraternities that try to follow the vision of Br. Charles, is much more inclusive that the way traditional orders have been understood in the Church. This spirituality includes ordinary workers, employed in the secular community, and reaches out to what we understand as the everyday significance of family life.
The Ashramas of Jesus
Thinking in the Indian context of the “Ashramas of Jesus”, the first two Ashramas, or stages of life, that are Brahmacharya, and Grihastha, can be related to the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. A theme that Angelo da Fonseca liked to depict in his paintings of the childhood of Jesus, imagines Mary teaching Jesus how to read. The craft life of Joseph, and also Mary who according to the Gospel of James, was employed in the Temple in the making of the Veil which had to be renewed from time to time, links work to an inner spiritual path. For icon painters, and those who have devoted their art to the creating of liturgical objects used in worship, the practice of an art or craft is itself a spiritual path. The hidden life of Jesus focuses on a creative aspect of Christ, reflecting the Divine work of creating the whole universe, and the wisdom of the hands that continue to participate in the work of creation. This understanding of hand work as a form of contemplation, was very much in the minds of monks for whom work is to pray. This spirituality, which Br. Charles would have been familiar with as a Trappist monk, is given a new meaning by the “worker priest” movement which has been closely associated with the development of the ethos underlying the vocation of the Fraternity of the Little Brothers of Jesus.
A favorite theme in the Middle Ages was to depict Mary working with a spindle, preparing the thread which would be used to make the veil of the Temple. I have seen images of Mary occupied in this fashion when the Angel came to announce that she would conceive the Divine Word. Again, Joseph the carpenter links his physical craft to the fashioning of wood. This was to remind the Faithful of the Tree on which Christ was to suffer and die, for as St Paul insists, when speaking of the death of Jesus, the Cross on which he hung is the Tree that represents both suffering and Life.
This brings us to the third and fourth ashramas, according to the Indian system of the stages of life, which are called Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa. Vanaprastha is associated with pilgrimage to holy places, and Sanyasa to complete self-renunciation. These stages could be a basis for understanding the public ministry of Jesus when he is often described as on the way to Jerusalem with his disciples, and finally his suffering and death. Beyond these stages, the Way of Jesus leads to the Resurrection. Angelo painted a number of pictures of the Journey of the two disciples to Emmaus, when the Risen Lord accompanied them in their agonized searching for the meaning of his earthly life, which ended so tragically. I have thought of these disciples as being like the early Christian witnesses called Aquila and Priscilla, who were a married couple. This couple and their ministry in the early Church was again a theme very dear to Br. Charles, who saw in them the true vocation of marriage as providing the nucleus for a “house Church” . In fact the place in Emmaus where the disciples stopped to rest, and persuaded Jesus to stay on with them, could be pictured as an Ashram by the wayside, where finally they suddenly realized who their companion on the way was, in the moment of breaking and sharing bread. Angelo in one of his paintings of this theme has shown the two disciples as being Gandhi and Tagore, while in another painting he shows the two disciples as a Hindu and a Muslim. The “Oriental Christ” of Indian art is the ‘Christ of the Indian Road’ that the missionary Stanley Jones spoke about. This Christ is one who travels with other pilgrims, of different cultures and faiths, in search of a common experience of the Divine Presence in the world in which we live.
Ashramas are the four stages of life, discussed in the Hindu religious texts:student (Brahmacharya),householder (Grihastha), retired (Vanaprastha) and renunciation (Sannyasa)
The Hidden Presence
The teaching found in the Gospels that the Kingdom of God is already present, hidden in the hearts of those who are committed to Gospel values, has been expressed through the parables of Jesus where he speaks of a hidden yeast that works from within, in an unseen way, in the transformation of the dough; or again as the seed that grows secretly in the earth before coming to light, when the sprout emerges from the dark womb of the mother earth. Finally, there is the parable about the treasure hidden in a field, that a tenant worker discovers and gives all so as to be able to buy the field in which the treasure lies buried.
The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, in a study based on the seminal parable of Jesus concerning the hidden treasure,finds that the theme of finding buried treasure can be traced far back to the discovery of precious metals and stones that are mined from the earth, and are believed to have hidden spiritual power. The short parable in Mathew’s Gospel contains a wealth of significance that can be “mined” from the story traditions regarding hidden treasure that we find all over the world.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field. (Mt. 13: 44)
The image of ‘treasure’ that lies hidden under the ground can be traced back to the discovery of metals and precious stones that evolved out of the Stone Age, and is characterized by new technologies of mining. We find reference to this in the Book of Job where we are told:
Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold which they refine……Men put an end to darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness. (Job. 28: 1, 3.)
Crossan comments on the Jewish tradition that “all the treasures of Israel’s Temple were secreted in the earth from Palestine to Mesopotamia, and must remain hidden.He quotes a Jewish writer who says that the secret of the Kingdom will remain hidden
…until the advent of the Messiah, who will reveal all treasures. In his time a stream will break forth from under the place of the Holy of Holies, and flow through the lands of the Euphrates, and, as it flows, it will uncover all the treasures buried in the earth”. (Ginsberg: 4.321)
His talks on this subject were published in 1925, Cf. E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, published) by Abingdon Press,1925.
John Dominic Crossan, Finding Is the First Act: Trove Folktales and Jesus’ Treasure Parable, Scholars Pr 1979, Wipf & Stock Publishers Paperback, 2008
The Rock that is the Foundation of the Kingdom
We read in the first Epistle of Peter:
Come to the Lord, the living stone rejected by men as worthless but chosen by God as valuable. Come as living stones, and let yourselves be used in building the spiritual temple, where you will serve as holy priests to offer spiritual and acceptable sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. For the scripture says,’ I chose a valuable stone, which I am placing as the cornerstone in Zion; and whoever believes in him will never be disappointed.’ This stone is of great value for you that believe; but for those who do not believe: ‘The stone which the builders rejected as worthless, turned out to be the most important of all’ (1Pet2:4 -7)
Christ is himself the treasure who is mysteriously hidden. He is the rock on which the Kingdom of God is to be founded. It is this hidden treasure that Mary Magdalene goes searching for.
Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, ‘who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb? (It was a very large stone). Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back…” (Mk.16: 2-4)
The Spiritual Importance of Mary Magdalene.
According to the ending of the Gospel of St Mark:
After Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had driven out seven demons. She went and told his companions. They were mourning and crying, and when they heard her say that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe her” (Mk.16: 9)
Br. Charles had a special devotion to Mary Magdalene. There has been a tradition in the Church that Mary Magdalene represented a special, one could call it a hidden relation with Christ. Some have even suggested that she was the “beloved disciple” whom John the Evangelist refers to.
An apocryphal Coptic Gospel of Mary Magdalene which was discovered in 1896, and only translated into English by Walter Till and published in 1955, is thought by many scholars to have originally been composed in Greek in the 2nd Century of the Christian era. However, Karen King, Hollis Professor of the Harvard School seems to believe that this Gospel represents a hidden teaching that goes back to the times of Christ.This Gospel opens with Peter saying to Mary Magdalene:
Sister, we know the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know, but we do not, nor have heard them….
The figure of Mary Magdalene in the reflections of Br. Charles is certainly coloured by a popular French devotion to this Saint, who according to Legend came to France after the Resurrection. There is a Church dedicated to her in Provence, where she is supposed to have landed on the shores of France; and there is also a cave where she is believed to have lived as a contemplative hermit.
It is known that Br. Charles when he visited France was in the habit of going to these shrines dedicated to Mary Magdalene, to meditate there. These places associated with Mary Magdalene have also been linked to the pilgrim route to Compostella which played a very vital part in the spiritual journeys of the Faithful in the Middle Ages.
Mary Magdalene is pictured as a seeker. It is her search, looking for the treasure that the life of Jesus held for the disciples, that brought her in the early hours of Easter morning to find the body of Jesus which was laid to rest hurriedly in a newly cut tomb that belonged to Joseph of Aramathea. All the Gospels refer to the role of Mary Magdalene as a devout seeker, who was present, along with Mary the Mother of Jesus, at the foot of the Cross.
It is as the devotee that Br. Charles sees Mary Magdalene as fulfilling the part of the contemplative who discovers the Risen Lord in the cave of the heart. Hers is the way of Bhakti. In the thought of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who composed many sermons on the inner spiritual significance of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament of the Bible, the soul searches and longs to find the Beloved.
Br. Charles writes:
This is the contemplative life, the life of passionate love, of adoring love. This is the ‘Better Part’—the part of the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph of Nazareth; The part of the Blessed Virgin all through in her life, of Mary Magdalene of Bethany in Galilee, in Judea, in Provence….May it be our ‘part’? Let us imitate our Blessed Mother, St. Mary Magdalene, the passionate adorer of Christ. Only One thing is necessary. Order your activity in such a way that you do not waste your time…..to be able to live in a very contemplative manner while doing everything for everyone, and making yourself available so that you can give to everyone Jesus.
Throughout in his little book Archbishop Rowan William has focused on the theme of “hidden-ness” or secrecy in the preaching of Jesus. Jesus told those whom he cured “not to tell anyone”. When he appeared transfigured before his disciples on Mount Tabor, again he enjoined them to keep this secret. He taught through parables. The disciples (and presumably all those to whom these stories about the Kingdom of God were addressed) were puzzled. What was Jesus trying to teach them through these mysterious stories?
When he was on his own, the twelve and some others with them asked about the parables…. And he said ‘To you the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given. But for those outside, everything gets treated in parables, so that they may see and see, but never understand; so that they may hear and hear but never take it in, in case they change their minds and get forgiven. (Mk. 4:10-12)
According to Rowan Williams, the irony of the Gospel story was that even the disciples never really understood. The life of Jesus was itself the greatest parable.
John Dominic Crossan, Finding: Jewish Treasure Stories, p. 54
Meditations of a Hermit
The Hidden Meaning
Personally, as an artist, I have been fascinated by the hidden nature of the life of Jesus, and the Gospel he came to give. Br. Charles had an intuition that it was the hidden life of Jesus living in a remote, and “no-man’s-land” of Nazareth, that gives us a key to discover the meaning of his Gospel, and a quality of hidden-ness and secrecy even in his final public ministry that led to his Passion and Resurrection from the dead.
Rowan Williams quotes from the so-called Gospel of Thomas:“Jesus said: The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it!”
People want to understand what a story, text, or image “literally means”. But the secret of the Gospel is not to be found in this literal interpretation. The meaning of the Kingdom of God lies buried under the surface of the manifest narrative, like a kind of emptiness, or Sunya. This is I feel the mystery of the empty tomb.
As we find in the Tao te Ching
Because the eye gazes but can catch no glimpse of it—it is called elusive. Because the ear listens but cannot hear it—it is called rarefied. Because the hand feels it, but cannot find it—it is called infinitesimal….”
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel; But it on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house; And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
Rowan William, Meeting God in Mark, Westminster: John Knox Press, 2015
the Chinese classic about the Tao, or Way, a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism, written by Lao-tzu J. Legge, in 2nd century BC. Translation from “The Way and its Power: The Tao Te Ching and its place in Chinese thought” by Arthur Waley. Unwin, Mandala edition 1977
Kenosis—the Empty Vessel
According to St. Paul, Jesus emptied himself, taking the last and lowest place. That was the Way that he followed, and asked his disciples to imitate. That emptiness is itself a form of fullness that leads us to an experience of the Holy.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….” (Phil.2: 5-7)
Br. Charles had a profoundly intuitive understanding of the life and teaching of Christ. In a way, he almost literally tried to follow the Gospel, rather like St. Francis of Assisi tried to present the Gospel story of the birth of Jesus very literally by having a real baby in a manger surrounded by real animals, in an attempt to re-construct the original scene of the incarnation. But hidden in the literal fact of what might have happened, there lies a real mystery.
The Divine is everywhere, in the most ordinary and everyday events. But we somehow do not see that. Seeing the Holy in the secular requires an art.
For the hidden life of Jesus, working with a craftsman Father, was a life of making ordinary things of everyday use. It is these very tangible things that Jesus starts building his stories around. He is a master story teller, presenting what is hidden through very vivid imaginable narratives.
Arthur Waley, The Way and it’s Power, Ch. XIV
Arthur Waley, The Way and it’s PowerCh. XI
The early life of Jesus which we know little about, rather like the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel, points towards a Reality that is everywhere, but nowhere that we can see, hear, or touch.
What Br. Charles seems to have found, going far out into the emptiness of the Sarah desert, was a new approach to Mission. This Mission is not defined by what is manifest, and powerful. It is not a kind of irrefutable truth which can be proved logically. It is not to be reached by converting big numbers, or establishing impressive institutions. Rather, this is a very naked, humble type of Mission. It is characterized not by strength, but by weakness. Not in giving, but rather in a willingness to receive and respect the ‘Other’.
Br. Charles radically changed his understanding of Mission after his sickness in the desert, when he was taken care of by a Muslim family, which saved his life. He realized that his role of witness to Christ was not only to give, but also to receive, and be healed by those among whom he had chosen to live, and to whom he owed so much.
I believe that it is this approach to Mission that is particularly relevant for our times, when so much importance is given to power politics, and a consumer society. It is a mission that respects diversity of cultures, and also natural diversity. It is an Eco-Mission necessary in the world of today.
“teacher of the oppressed”