The following is part of a book-length collection of poems on the life of Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), a French Catholic religious and priest who lived among the Tuareg people in the Algerian Sahara and whose writings inspired the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus.
Remover of rough stones that rise
from her flowerbeds, herbalist who thins dill
and creeping thyme, Mother Mary of Saint Michael
cares for whomever raps at her gate.
“Take some soup, not just the coarse bread,”
she whispers, hand over mouth, her voice
a puff of air. “Let us provide what you require.”
I share her toolshed with the hoe and the rake,
sleep on my side, curled like a leaf. I need
no soup, no mother. At vigils, my dark prayers,
a vine sprouts from my mouth.
In the dark, a word comes to me, tiny sprout,
moss on a moon-washed stone. I kneel
in the sheepfold between my shed and the ravine.
When the bell rings for lauds, I enter the chapel,
creep down to the cave that sheltered the Holy
Family when Jesus was a boy. I write meditations
all morning. I see him at five shaping clay into
animals, growing fast at fifteen, all gratitude,
no greed. I burn my hours, lay pride on the coals.
Full of greed, I hoard my hours, live as a hermit,
spurn my neighbors, refuse to help or be helped,
do not serve, hide behind prayer. When he visited
his parents in the cave, Jesus bent in the doorway
to not bruise his head. A solemn lesson: submit,
grow small. At terce, I walk the road, give apricots
and nuts to the boys who taunt me; I pass my clothes
to the market beggars. I withdraw to the hills,
dig slips of lilies and loosestrife for the mothers’
flowerbeds, and bring pails of manure.
Although I weed, carry manure, the turnips wither.
My stone wall crumbles. I fail to shoot the jackal
that kills Mother Elisabeth’s hens. Still, I try
to sow love in whomever I meet. Mother tells me,
of much use to God can be a day, a grain of sand,
a spider’s web, a gardener whose cucumber blights
on the vine, an ex-monk too stubborn to become
a priest. All things add to the kingdom, she says—
even my melons, which are mealy, not sweet.
I try to live on God’s words, pure and sweet—
but a new hunger howls in me, churns my guts:
the Mount of Beatitudes is for sale. I write my sister,
wanting my inheritance back. Like a snake
digesting a rat, I bloat with plans: a tabernacle
to build on that hill, pilgrim crowds needing a priest
like me. I ask the mothers for counsel. They say,
ponder God’s laws, God’s ways. A dead tooth
falls from my gums; I can’t chew bread.
My tongue sneaks back to check the empty spot.
The sisters will find an empty spot in the shed
where I slept. I must give up, flee, throw myself
among the Beloved’s friendless children. As a priest,
I’ll carry the spirit in my thoughts, my marrow,
my least cells. Let Mother Elisabeth remember me
as a thread of candle smoke. After the morning bell,
I will go forth. First, I must water the sisters’ herbs,
paint ferns on their walls, sweep the chapel floor.
Ferns at the ravine’s lip, a stream in its floor,
cool waters out of reach, the ravine walls too steep,
wastrel moon lighting each sheep-chewed blade
and fern. Shadow-wings, still night, perfect end,
the rest of the compline that I cannot chant.
Each holy word a chestnut burr in my mouth.
Stream that fills the star-refracting pools.
God is not in my shed, the chapel, or the cave,
but near the good thief, the poor, the least ones,
the disowned I’ll go to, the discarded stones.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.