|Cover story -- Essay|
Issue Date: November 11, 2005
The hidden life of Charles de Foucauld
An explorer, monk and priest who did nothing by half-measures
By KATE WHITE
Charles de Foucauld lived a remarkable life of adventure, deprivation and devotion. He was a man of extremes, an aristocratic bon vivant whose conversion to Christianity led him to embrace a life of radical solitude and prayer. He was killed in 1916 by a group of rebels in the Algerian desert where he had lived in the midst of a Berber tribe for 10 years, drawn to serve the poor and the forsaken.
Foucauld, who will be beatified in Rome Nov. 13, was inspired by the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth and hoped that other disciples of Jesus would be as well. He championed a life for religious that would not only be found in enclosed communities, monasteries or convents but lived among ordinary people.
He hoped lay missionaries would come to the southern part of Algeria. He envisioned Christians who would participate in the local economy and live a Christian life among a Muslim population. All this in the early 1900s.
The Muslim holy man who said of Foucauld, He has given his time to the Eternal, did not say, He has given his life but rather his time. To give ones time is a very concrete, demanding experience. To give ones life seems more abstract.
During many hours of adoration in front of the Eucharist, Foucauld had images of the role of the church. Missionaries should live among the poor and be witnesses to the life of Christ. They should not necessarily preach the Gospel with words, but live the joy and simplicity and poverty of a life like that of Jesus.
He thought the liturgy should be celebrated in the language of the people of the country where it was being celebrated. Foucauld wanted the Catholic worship of God to be open and understandable to nonbelievers.
His belief in the real presence in the Eucharist was so strong that he felt the presence of Christ in the Eucharist had a spiritual effect on the persons around it. He believed the real presence held the world together.
Those who were influenced or inspired by Foucauld include Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me.
This man, hes like an addiction. Hes contagious, said Fr. Lennie Tighe, a Boston priest who is a member of Jesus Caritas, a fraternity of diocesan priests inspired by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. It, like the many Foucauld-inspired lay fraternities, emphasizes solitude, simplicity, a spirit of adoration and a love of the desert, of withdrawal from time to time, said Fr. Tighe.
For some, Foucaulds appeal lies in his nonconformism. For others, the purity and intensity of his calling and the human struggles he experienced in his life attract them. Certainly, he was a man of paradoxes. The Web site for Jesus Caritas describes Foucauld in these words: While longing to establish a community, he never had a member. He was a human being: attractive and enigmatic, a product of his time yet classically mysterious.
He inherited a fortune
Charles de Foucauld was born Sept. 15, 1858, into a noble family in Strasbourg, France. During the summer, his extended family would meet in the country home of his parents. Charles parents died while he was still a child, and he inherited a large fortune. Aside from his sister, his closest family relationship was with Marie Moitessier, a first cousin nine years older, whose quiet faith would later greatly influence him.
Charles de Foucauld was excessive in whatever he did. As a young army officer at the Military Academy of Saumur, he was known for a great consumption of the best foie gras and the best champagne. He became almost obese. As a young army officer assigned to duty in the French department of Algeria, he made a liaison with a young woman, Mimi, whom he brought to all the gatherings of officers and their wives. This was the 1880s and the French army was known for its strong Catholic traditional opinions. The wives of the officers were not amused by the presence of Charles mistress.
When Charles superior officers requested that he not bring the lady to all the social functions, he refused to conform, resigned from the army and with Mimi returned to France.
In 1881, back in France and living in Evian, he read in a newspaper that the army division of which he was a member in Algeria had been attacked by a rebellious tribe and had taken serious casualties. Immediately he left for Algeria and rejoined his division to fight in the Sahara. In fighting the Arab tribes, he came to respect his adversaries and set out to learn Arabic. This led to studying the Quran and then the Bible. He was struck by the great sense of hospitality found in even the poorest Muslim homes. His spirit became immersed in the vast spaces of the desert. In their unlimited horizons, he saw an icon of eternity.
Charles was not the first Frenchman to grow to respect the Muslim faith. Several young Frenchmen, including Ernest Psichari, the grandchild of Renan, were converted back to their childhood faith through the experience of adoration by the Muslims in the desert. But while Charles was moved by the sight of a Muslim stopping in the desert to spread a rug and bow to the presence of the Almighty, he remained an agnostic. God, if he existed, was unknowable In 1882, Charles resigned from the army. Shortly afterward, he decided to go on an exploratory mission in the region of the Sahara that was along Moroccos Algerian border. Morocco, at that time, did not allow Europeans to enter its borders. Charles joined a caravan of Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews traveling through Algeria and Morocco. He was exceptionally gifted in foreign languages and managed to pass as an itinerant rabbi fleeing persecution in Russia. He took notes on the geography of the area and upon his return to Paris published his findings.
Another exploratory expedition, in 1885-86, took him to the oases in South Algeria and Tunisia. French soldiers were posted in the Algerian Sahara, and Charles ascribed to their presence a peacekeeping mission. Before the French army took control of the area, it was common for the villages in the desert oases to be raided by traveling tribes on horseback. It was so common that people in the oases felt discouraged from storing water, planting crops, building permanent dirt houses or undertaking other long-term plans. In his caravan trip to Algeria and Morocco, Charles saw up close the local population and their relationship with the French military. He thought the military could and should bring the benefits of the French republic to the desert dwellers and should put an end to intertribal warfare. Later when he lived in the Sahara, he worked to stop the practice of slavery among the nomadic tribes.
In 1886 back in Paris, Charles took an apartment near his cousin Marie Moitessier, now married and the vicomtesse Olivier de Bondy, and prepared his conferences on the topography of the Sahara near and inside Morocco. The Eiffel Tower was being built in Paris, but Charles was worlds away in his mind studying Arabic and the Muslim faith. Mimi seems to have disappeared from the picture.
God, if you exist
He was frequently in the home of his cousin, a devout Roman Catholic who never mentioned his excesses but hoped he would return to the faith of his childhood and incorporated him into her family. Her confessor was lAbbé Henri Huvelin, a popular diocesan priest assigned to the church of St. Augustine in Paris.
Not yet 30, he found the question of faith was much on his mind. According to a biography by Jean François Six, Foucauld would visit churches and silently pray, God, if you exist, let me know it. One October day in 1886 he went to see lAbbé Huvelin in the confessional at the church of St. Augustine. Charles said he wanted to talk about the faith and the priest answered, Why dont you begin with a good confession? Charles converted to faith in Christ at that instant. It reminds one of the conversion of Paul Claudel, the French poet, playwright and diplomat, who said that one Christmas day, as he was standing by a pillar in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, faith came to him in a flash.
Charles would later remark, My religious vocation dates from the same hour as my faith: God is so great.
Three events shaped his vocation. The first was a sermon by lAbbé Huvelin in which he said that Jesus took the last place. Foucauld wanted to be with Jesus in the last place.
With a friend, he visited a Trappist monastery and happened to see a monk who had an old mended habit. The monk looked like a beggar and Charles decided he wanted to be that poor.
The third was a visit to the Holy Land beginning at the end of November 1888 and ending in February 1889. His visit to Nazareth brought him a great desire to live as Jesus lived, hidden, a workman, without prestige or power.
Prayer, poverty, solitude
In 1890, Foucauld entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Snows in France. At the insistence of lAbbé Huvelin, he had waited three years before entering. Almost from the beginning, he struggled to fulfill his own sense of religious calling. He fought frequently with his superiors, who wanted him to become a priest, while Foucauld wanted to return to the desert to be a hermit. He longed to live a life of prayer, poverty and solitude, to triumph over his own feelings of laziness and half-heartedness. He wished for self-abnegation, even abjection, in his desire to imitate the life of Jesus.
Six months after he entered Our Lady of the Snows, Foucauld, at his request, moved to a poorer monastery in Syria, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The monastery employed over a dozen laborers, and Foucauld was in put in charge of the workers who were building a road. Foucauld was uneasy with this; he felt he had not become a monk to give orders to others. He wanted the last place and began dreaming of a new community of persons living with and among the poor. He remarked, Jesus lived by the work of his hands. He did not live on donations, offerings or the work of foreign workers to whom he gave orders.
In Syria, Foucauld drafted his initial rule for a religious community. As he saw it, no past worldly status of a monk should influence his place in the community. He did not want some monks to be priests and others to do manual labor. He believed that monks should not own property but should live from day to day as simply as possible. The diet was to be meager, based on that of the local people. He sent his rule to his spiritual confessor. Concerned that the rule was too demanding, even frightening in its severity, lAbbé Huvelin replied, Live as a poor person as abjectly as you like, but I beg of you, dont write a rule for others.
In 1897 Foucauld moved to the Holy Land to live as a servant to the cloistered Poor Clares in Nazareth. He lived in a tool hut in the back of the garden and was in charge of running the communitys errands in town. He did odd jobs, carpentry and masonry, dug in the garden and studied the Bible. He organized each hour of the day, praying, writing in his diary, eating the minimum possible, working, reading the Gospel, and back to praying. He would spend all night in the chapel in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Shortly before his move to Nazareth, the Ottoman Turks had massacred some 140,000 Armenians in 1895. Foucauld was deeply affected by the slaughter. He regretted not being a priest who could comfort the Armenians and minister to them in their own language. In Nazareth he began to think seriously of becoming a missionary and priest.
On June 9, 1901, Charles de Foucauld was ordained a priest and went to the Sahara near Morocco to live as a hermit missionary among non-Christians. He still dreamed of being joined by a small community that would live with him in the desert. He revised his rule, which was nonetheless still severe. He wrote that he would demand three things of his companions: that they be ready to have their heads cut off, to die of starvation and to obey him in spite of his worthlessness.
For the next 15 years he lived as a missionary hermit, settling first near a French military base and later in a Touareg village in the southern part of the Sahara. The Touareg were a Berber people, and Foucauld prepared the first dictionary and grammar of the Touareg language, translated the four Gospels into Touareg and undertook a translation of Touareg poetry. He divided his time between prayer, intellectual work and visits from the Touareg. All the time, he longed for manual work.
In a way he was not hidden at all like Jesus of Nazareth but was a focal point for the community. He gave as little time as possible to eating and sleeping -- to the point of becoming ill with scurvy. (This is the man who once had enjoyed the best foie gras and champagne.) The local people respected his life of poverty, prayer and hospitality. Foucauld made no attempt to convert them. Foucauld said once, It would make as much sense to start by preaching the news of Jesus to the Muslims here as it would for a Muslim preacher to go to a town in Brittany [a Catholic stronghold in France].
In 1916, Fr. Charles de Foucauld was shot by a band of robbers during an anti-French uprising. He was alone when he died, but within a decade of his death a biography had spread word of him and over time Foucaulds life and writings came to inspire others to follow in his path of prayer, adoration of the Eucharist, love of the desert and radical simplicity.
Today 19 different movements exist throughout the world of lay people, priests and religious following Foucaulds instructions to live simply among the poor, to do the same kind of work as their neighbors do and to live the Gospel faith not so much by word as by example. Initially, most of the members of the religious communities inspired by Foucauld worked in factories or as manual laborers. These days members of the Little Brothers of Jesus or the Little Sisters of Jesus do many kinds of work, for religious specialization is the antithesis of what Foucauld thought important -- that is, humble, fraternal love for Jesus and for others. Foucaulds originality lay in recognizing that it is not necessary to teach others, to cure them or to improve them; it is only necessary to live among them, sharing the human condition and being present to them in love.
Kate White lived in France for 20 years where she worked at the House of Ananias, a center for the catechumenate in Paris.
National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005
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