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Crying the Gospel – A Profile of Charles de Foucauld

Charles de Foucauld was born in 1858, the year of the apparitions at Lourdes. Napoleon III was emperor, and Catholicism was enjoying a revival after the horrors of the Revolution and the interference of the first Napoleon.

Charles had wealthy and aristocratic parents, but they died when he was small, and his grandfather brought him up. When Charles left school he decided to be a professional soldier. In 1876 he went to the military academy of St Cyr, where he failed to distinguish himself, and was known to be overweight and lazy. He graduated as an officer in the cavalry and became a great dandy, notorious for high spending and luxurious dinners. So far, a life of privilege on predictable lines. And then his regiment was sent to Algeria.

In Algeria he incurred the displeasure of his commanding officer by bringing his mistress into the country. He decided to leave the army. It was his first major setback. But no sooner had he resigned his commission than war broke out in Africa, and he realized that he had lost the chance of active service. He rushed to the French War Office in Paris and re-enlisted, accepting all the army’s conditions for doing so. He fought the campaign as a changed character, but resigned again as soon as it was over. So this was an unstable man, casting about for a meaning to his existence. He next decided to become an explorer, and set his heart on penetrating Morocco, at that time completely closed to Europeans. This was dangerous work. He disguised himself, pretending to be a Muslim, and with a companion penetrated deep into the heartland, keeping meticulous records and proving to be a high-calibre cartographer, so much so that on his return to Paris he gained an award, the gold medal of the Geographical Society.As a youth Charles had lost his faith and parted company with the Church. At the age of twelve he saw the collapse of the empire and the introduction of the anti-Catholic Third Republic. Being pious was no longer à la mode. However, while he was in Morocco he observed the simple Muslim tribesmen, and was struck by the way they prayed, regularly, simply and with great faith. ‘Islam pleased me because of its simplicity of dogma, hierarchy, moral code’, he wrote to a friend. On his return to Paris he was restless, sensing that he was missing the purpose of life but unsure what to do about it. He would drop in and out of churches, but found it hard to focus. ‘My God, if you exist, help me to know it’, was his prayer. He admired believers, especially his cousin, and this admiration made him reflect that if it produced characters so intelligent and virtuous, ‘maybe religion is not after all absurd’. He went in search of the learned and renowned preacher the Abbé Huvelin. He imagined that he could enrol with him for a course of instruction. But when he caught up with Huvelin at his church in Paris, the priest simply said, ‘You won’t get anywhere more through discussion: what you need is to go to confession.’ Charles made his confession there and then, received communion and underwent a total conversion. From being the most confused of agnostics he became the most fervent of Catholics. He afterwards said, ‘As soon as I believed that God existed, I realized that I could not live except for him.’

On the advice of Abbé Huvelin, Charles went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and it was there that the next step became clear to him. He became a Cistercian brother at an austere mountain monastery in the south of France, Our Lady of the Snows. From there he went to Syria, to a daughter monastery at Akbes. The life was extremely rigorous and hard, but not as hard as it was for the poor people at the gate: he at least knew where his next meal was coming from, while they did not. More and more he desired to spend his life with the most abandoned and abject people, sharing not only their hunger and hardship but also their insecurity, and this he could not do as a Cistercian. Finally, with the abbot’s blessing, he left the monastery and became a wandering holy man, what the Russians would have called a starets. He discovered an increasing love for Jesus in his hidden life, Jesus with the holy family at Nazareth, Jesus living a life – as he pictured it – of extreme poverty and simplicity, humbly concealed in the Galilean countryside. So Charles made his own way to Nazareth, and for a time became the handyman of the Poor Clare Sisters there, living in a shack in their garden. He spent long hours in the chapel, day and night: the Blessed Sacrament became the centre of his existence.

Charles became a priest in 1900 and went back to Algeria. His vocation was becoming clear to him. He wanted very much to work for the conversion of the Algerians. He planned to do it not by preaching or by charitable work, but simply by being a loving presence among them, disarming them by love. ‘I wish to be a universal brother.’ It was a new idea: to bring the loving, caring presence of Jesus to the very heart of Muslim society, and to let unconditional friendship and affection speak for itself. The French army, running the interior of the country, did not oppose this move. The Catholics among the officers and soldiers would gain enormously from the help and advice of such a priest, one moreover who knew the military life from the inside. He settled at Beni-Abbes, an oasis near the Moroccan border, building himself a little house and a rudimentary chapel. The other part of Charles’ vocation, as he discerned it, was to found an order of brothers who would live the same life as that of the local people, scratching a living from the barren soil with homemade tools, keeping open house, welcoming all the neighbours as true brothers and sisters, and at the same time spending much of their time in prayer and contemplation. He wrote a Rule for his new Order, planned out the first monastery for them with great exactitude, like a professional architect, even designed a habit, and waited for recruits.

They never came. This was the story of Charles’ life, and his perpetual disillusion. He longed for companions from Europe who would share his vision of bonté, of total self-gift in the service of neighbour, of smiling welcome for the sake of the gospel, of the conversion to Christianity of those territories where France ruled. But they never came. Inevitably, he became more and more a solitary. Not a lonely one, because the villagers and the troops were constantly visiting him. He had, however, no colleagues. He had dreamed of community life in the desert, and finished up living a religious life with a strict, self-imposed timetable but no companions.

From Beni-Abbes he moved south, in 1904, into the heart of the Sahara, to Tamanrasset. He had to negotiate this new move with the church authorities, and they were initially doubtful about it. He had heard of the Touaregs, savage semi-nomadic tribesmen who still practised slavery. He was determined to make his motto – ‘to cry the gospel with my life’ – a reality in the context of these tribesmen. Surely nowhere on earth were there people more abandoned, spiritually destitute as well as physically poor? To them he would dedicate what remained of his life. He settled among them, gained their confidence and even began to compose a French-Touareg dictionary, a work of immense difficulty: his dream was thus to make the gospel accessible to those who knew nothing of it. For several years he was deprived of the Eucharist, because although he was a priest he was not allowed to celebrate Mass without another person present: those were the rules at the time. Although the Blessed Sacrament was the great love of his life, he knew in his bones that it was even more important for him to be a Christian presence to the Touareg. (Eventually, though, the required permission came through, something which afforded him immense consolation.)

Charles was murdered rather than martyred. It happened halfway through the First World War. Although the tribesmen of the Sahara were not actively engaged in the war, the whole military balance of the region was disturbed by the withdrawal of European troops to fight at the front in Europe. Charles had made provision to shelter the local villagers in his house in case of an armed raid, and this involved holding a small cache of arms. A passing band of tribesmen stopped one day, searched his house, found the guns, decided that he was a hostile and dangerous Frenchman, sacked his house and shot him before riding on. He was not discovered for three weeks. Lying in the sand a few yards from where he had fallen was the simple monstrance from his home-made chapel, with the Sacred Host still in it.

Throughout his life Charles had the habit of nocturnal adoration, and when he caught himself nodding off to sleep he would keep awake by writing. A collection of these writings, the Spiritual Writings of Charles de Foucauld, shows how profoundly important the Gospels were to him, and how he based his prayer on imaginative contemplation of Jesus as found in the pages of Scripture. (In this he was following the advice of Ignatius of Loyola.) In Syria, we find him singling out in each evangelist the passages that touch on the soul’s personal encounter with God, on prayer and on faith. From Nazareth he leaves us lengthy, impassioned meditations on St Luke. His daily rule of life at Beni-Abbes includes: ‘From one pm to two, written meditation on the Holy Gospel; at seven, explanation of the Holy Gospel to some soldiers…’ As he travelled across the desert from oasis to oasis, he was dreaming of his translation of the Gospels for the Touareg. In 1909 he wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘If we do not live the Gospel, Jesus does not live in us.’
Charles de Foucauld failed as a religious founder. No one would join him. He failed as a missionary. The wave of conversions he longed for never even started. By worldly standards his life was one of non-achievement. However, in the years that followed his death, something major began to stir. The copious writings he left behind him, including his many letters and reflections on Scripture, began to have an impact. The warm human contacts he had nourished – with soldiers, with his cousin, with friends who shared his dream, with his bishop as well as with the Touareg – were, in retrospect, inspiring and unforgettable, and the news of them spread. Before long the religious order for which he had longed took shape. It still exists today. It is called the Little Brothers of Jesus. The foundation of the Little Sisters of Jesus followed, and then a host of other associations, of laypeople, of priests, of men and women all over the world who discovered that Charles’ way of living the gospel made sense for them.

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