A dear friend of mine who has spent the past two years living in Nazareth introduced me to the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Somehow I had never heard his story before or, at least, it hadn’t caught my attention.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld, born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has recognized 27,921 Righteous Among the Nations. That’s the number of non-Jews who risked their lives to help and save Jews during the Holocaust that Yad Vashem has been able to ascertain with evidence.
These are remarkable stories of personal risk, self-sacrifice, living in truth, fidelity to conscience, charity toward neighbour, and the unshakable determination to live honourably in the sight of God.
Consider that number: 27,921. If you learned the story of one Righteous Among the Nations each day, it would take you 76 years.
I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.
In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.
I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.
These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.
What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.
The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.
Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.
The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.
Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?
The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.
The other day, a friend of mine shared this extraordinary quotation by one of my heroes – Fr. Alfred Delp:
A community that gets rid of someone—a community that is allowed to, and can, and wants to get rid of someone when he no longer is able to run around as the same attractive or useful member—has thoroughly misunderstood itself. Even if all of a person’s organs have given out, and he no longer can speak for himself, he nevertheless remains a human being. Moreover, to those who live around him, he remains an ongoing appeal to their inner nobility, to their inner capacity to love, and to their sacrificial strength. Take away people’s capacity to care for their sick and to heal them, and you make the human being into a predator, an egotistical predator that really only thinks of his own nice existence.
Fr. Delp was a German Jesuit and those words were his response upon viewing a 1941 Nazi propaganda film.
Who, in our lives, is appealing to our inner nobility?
Who is drawing us out of ourselves and our “own nice existence”?
To whom do we let ourselves to explode our inner capacity to love?
For whom do we let our sacrificial strength be tested?
These may not be the most natural questions to ask ourselves, which is why luminaries like Fr. Delp are so important.
Photo: My mom visiting her brother-in-law’s mother Mrs. Hall. My mom’s care for Mrs. Hall in her final years is one example among many of my mom’s inner nobility and sacrificial strength.
Twelve years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI canonized Jeanne Jugan about whom he said:
By her admirable work at the service of the most deprived elderly, St Mary of the Cross is also like a beacon to guide our societies which must always rediscover the place and the unique contribution of this period of life. Born in 1792 at Cancale in Brittany, Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters in humanity whom age had made more vulnerable, recognizing in them the Person of Christ himself. “Look upon the poor with compassion”, she would say, “and Jesus will look kindly upon you on your last day”. Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor. Jeanne lived the mystery of love, peacefully accepting obscurity and self-emptying until her death. Her charism is ever timely while so many elderly people are suffering from numerous forms of poverty and solitude and are sometimes also abandoned by their families. In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life. This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!
The other day I asked a visiting priest responsible for Catholic higher education to speak to us about the most influential teachers in his life.
To this, he immediately responded that he has had many teachers throughout the course of his life who were alright but rather unremarkable. He noted that he thinks this is the case for most people. But, he insisted, there are, of course, those one or two teachers who stand out and whose influence upon you is something you will remember and cherish for your entire life.
As he said this, it was clear that he was conjuring up his own recollections of these special and extraordinary teachers. Gradually, he told us a few anecdotes about them.
Then, he encouraged us not to expect every teacher to be extraordinary but insisted that we do establish the hope of encountering at least some of them who are truly excellent.
“Given the choice between 5,000 decent but mediocre and lukewarm people or 4,999 heretics and one shining saint, I would definitely choose the heretics and the saint,” this priest said. “The saint makes the difference.”
One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.
He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”
In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”
Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”
One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us: