I’ve always loved Carlo Carretto’s Letters from the Desert. Autobiographical info about him online is sketchy, but apparently Carretto (1910-1988) was working to spread the social justice message of the Gospels in and around fascist Italy when he felt the desert call, burned his address book, and set out for the Sahara. Where he stayed for 10 years, after which he returned to Italy and went to visit his beloved mother. Who the whole time had been living an extremely active life, crowded with family, social, parish responsibilities. And he realized that for all his time in the desert in silent meditation and prayer, his mother was at least the contemplative he was.

Book Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Carlo Carretto
Essential Writings
Carlo Carretto, Robert Ellsberg
Orbis Books 09/07 Paperback $16.00
ISBN: 9781570757259

Carlo Carretto (1910 – 1988) was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order inspired by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. He was born in northern Italy and wanted to become a teacher. But his plans were upended by the rise of fascism in his country, and he joined Catholic Action, a movement that aimed to mobilize the laity in promoting the religious and social message of the church.

Carretto spent 20 years working with this organization and then in 1954, decided to become a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community of desert contemplatives. He led a contemplative life and served others in the spirit of Charles de Foucauld and Francis of Assisi. He lived in the Saharan desert of Algeria for 10 years and 20 years later wrote Letters from the Desert. It became very popular, especially with those who yearned for a new kind of contemplative life in the world. He went on to publish a dozen other books.

Robert Ellsberg serves as editor of this volume in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series. He has selected passages from Carretto’s writings that demonstrate his life and work and interests. There are chapters on The Wisdom of the Desert, God Is Love, The Church of Sinners, A Brother to All, Prayer, and Last Things. We were quite impressed by his thoughts on carrying others in prayer, the importance of contemplation in the streets, the God within, and the many manifestations of resurrection in the world. In his introduction to the paperback,

Ellsberg states:

“Carlo Carretto represented an ascetic, yet joy-filled spirituality available to lay people, even in the midst of pressing obligations, even amid the din of city noise, even in the midst of poverty and suffering. He showed that a life of prayer need not — indeed must not — relieve us of a passion for social justice and a spirit of solidarity with the least of our brothers and sisters. At the same time he reminded social activists that in the midst of their good works they must preserve a place of stillness, a place where they can listen to the word of God and find renewal.”

From Letters from the Desert:

One seeks not what is true, but what is pleasing to others. We seem to need this mask. We seem incapable of living without it.

Nazareth was the lowest place: the place of the poor, the unknown, of those who didn’t count, of the mass of workers, of men subjected to work’s grim demands just for a scrap of bread.

But there is more. Jesus is the ‘Holy One of God.’ But the Holy One of God realized his sanctity not in extraordinary life, but one impregnated with ordinary things: work, family and social life, obscure human activities, simple things shared by all men. The perfection of God is cast in a material which men almost despise, which they don’t consider worth searching for because of its simplicity, its lack of interest, because it is common to all men.

After Calvary, peace was no longer to operate on the thin blade of truth or in the court of law, but in the torn heart of a God who had become man for us in Jesus Christ.

The following are from I, Francis, in which Carretto “takes on” the voice of St. Francis of Assisi:

On non-violence:

In my time, the Crusade against the Muslims was considered a “just war,” and the Church itself promoted it.

In your times, you consider as just, very just, guerilla wars waged against totalitarian regimes, against dictatorships which oppress the poor.

Perhaps the Crusaders were right in my time. Just think of the Battle of Lepanto. And perhaps the guerillas of today are right.

I am not debating, and above all I am not judging.

I am only saying that there is another method of combating and vanquishing, that of nonviolence. And I am pointing out that in the Gospel it undoubtedly has the primacy. And I, Francis, consider it more effective as well, even though it may be more difficult.

The struggle against injustices and outrages, especially those committed against the poor and defenceless, is basic Christianity, and Christians are not permitted to be silent, to withdraw, to refuse to get involved.

If they understood, really understood, they would volunteer to die for justice.

That is what Jesus did.

But nowhere is it written that to make our adversary yield it is necessary or indispensable to employ the sword, the machine gun, or the tank.

The highest claim of the Gospel is that I can cause my enemy to yield with my unarmed love, with my bare hand, as Gandhi did, as Martin Luther King did, as all who believe in nonviolence do, as Bishop Romero did in your times.

What a sublime example this unarmed person gave! What wonderful words he spoke against the arrogant, who massacre his people!

Give a nation  a handful of men and women like that—give the Church a band of heroes of strength like that—and then you will realize that when Jesus proposed nonviolence he was not doing so in order to lose battles. He was doing so in order to win them, and win them in the only way worthy of a human being: without shedding the blood of others, but by shedding one’s own.

This is the principle of martyrdom, which has never been lacking in the Church and which is the highest witness a human being can bear upon earth.

Further than that one cannot go.

On the Church:

Until now, I had not well understood in what the mystery of the Church consisted: sinfulness, and infallibility; bad example, and assurance along the road; fearful blindness to the shepherds, and the certainty of reaching the Land of Promise with precisely those shepherds.

On poverty:

Judgments on the question of poverty are difficult to make. The garb of a pauper, a small house, a wooden table, a chipped cup, the plaited haversack—these are external signs. Then there is the reality, the true poverty, which is altogether interior and invisible.

Today, I prefer the reality. And I actually see it is better, see it in its real essence, because now it has become something more vast, and universal.
The one who cannot meet the rent is not the only poor person. He or she is poor as well who is suffering from cancer.

Those who live in burned-out slums are not the only poor. He or she is poor as well who is on drugs, who is unloved, who is marginalized, who is alone…
So it is difficult to judge.

And I do not wish to judge.

So I only say, place yourselves directly before God and be judged by him.

And keep one thing in mind.

At the vespers of your life you will be judged by your love, not by your poverty.

I say this because out on the frontiers of the Church poverty has become a battlefield, where the poor hate the rich, and the laborer hates his or her employer.

This is no longer blessedness. It is not even the Gospel. This is Marxism…

Never forget, God is love. Poverty is but his garment.

On politics:

The pity is that it is always the same ones who govern: the powerful, the rich, the professional politicians.

Try the little one’s in the government—the simple, the poets!

But who believes poets!

Try being governed by those who can still look at the stars at night, or spend an hour watching a beetle under a dry leaf in the forest, or dream over a glow-worm in a field of May wheat.

These are the ones who would see humanity’s problems better. At least they would not commit such horrors.


  1. To phrase the matter as simply as I know how: Carlo Carretto ROCKS! I have his book I Sought and I Found on order from the library, and I keenly lament the fact that his book on Mary (Blessed are you who believed) which I used to own, got lost in the shuffle as I moved from place to place during the past 8 years. Yes, if you have a religious bookstore in L.A. that's anything like the now-defunct Sheehan's in Boston, a religious bookstore that sells used books as well as new, snatch up everything by Carretto that you can find! He is ceaselessly edifying and unfailingly salutary. His writing is lovely and luminous.

  2. His book Letters from the desert is a gem.He is one of my all time favourite writers way back from from my teens well into my fifties.
    This link below
    is to a 2010 post I did on my blog and is one of the best reasons I have ever read as to why people who have left/are thinking of leaving might return/stay in the church. This was written before the present debacles but should stand us all well for whatever scandals are ready to meet us in the future as they will I am sure (!)

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