Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the winter, 2002, issue of our magazine, under the title, “Venerable Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916).” In the intervening time — on Sunday, 13 November, 2005 — Pope Benedict XVI beatified our subject. We have changed the title of the piece accordingly.
In December, 1916, the United States was not yet a belligerent, but World War I had been raging by then for more than two years in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of combatants and innocent civilians, if not millions, had already been killed or otherwise had died on account of the conflict. Amid the global disaster, the world at large did not notice, save for a few lines in French newspapers, the death on the first of the month of a missionary priest and former soldier at a place called Tamanrasset in the Hoggar region of the Algerian Sahara. The name of the deceased was Charles de Foucauld or, as he had come to call himself, Little Brother Charles of Jesus. His death was not natural. He had been treacherously murdered by Mohammedan Tuareg tribesmen, ones with whom he believed he had successfully made friends. Last April 24 the Church declared him to be among her venerabili, a Servant of God worthy of the veneration of the Catholic faithful. The lines that follow are about him.
Reference to the Venerable has been made by this writer in two other articles published in From the Housetops. In “Islam vs. the Faith” (Issue No. 43) I wrote: “Our own century has not been without Christian witness, even to the point of martyrdom, given in Mohammedan lands. One thinks, in this regard, of the yet uncanonized but saintly Charles de Foucauld.”
In the second article, “Louis IX, King and Saint” (Issue No. 45), I wrote that the Crusades “could fairly be described as a national enterprise of France. The first one was called by Pope Urban II, a Frenchman. He came into his native land, to Clermont in France, to issue his call. The Second Crusade was preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and led by King Louis VII. That it ended in disaster is beside the point. The French vision of the Faith and European Christian civilization taking root and flowering in the Mohammedan Middle East persisted right into the 19th Century, when the liberal Louis-Philippe I colonized Algeria in the 1830s and the Bonaparte Napoleon III sent French troops into Lebanon to protect the native Christians in the 1860s. Indeed, it still existed in this century. Charles de Foucauld was its martyr, and so, many would say, were the patriotic French officers who sacrificed their careers to oppose Charles de Gaulle for abandoning the vision a scant forty years ago.”
Though I have twice referred to him in this publication’s pages, and both times in terms of martyrdom, now that I am to write of Ven. Charles de Foucauld at length, I see it will not be easy. That is for several reasons.
(Well, not quite all. Right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia have now been added to the State Department’s official list of terrorists. Apart from the addition suggesting how expansive the list of “enemies of freedom” may eventually become, it is obviously designed to justify, in the near term, intensified U.S.-supported operations against Colombians opposed to the Marxist insurgency of the FARC, but who are insufficiently imbued with the spirit of liberal democracy.)
Be that as it may, a writer can be perfectly aware of Islam’s essential hostility to the Faith, as manifested in acts like the murder of Ven. Charles de Foucauld, and still not want his voice confused with those of individuals and groups that are equally our enemy, notably including those Pat Buchanan once famously described as Israel’s “amen corner” in the U.S., and who right now are among those beating the drums of war hardest. For now, the main effect of the war they promote, whatever happens in coming months or years, is to strengthen an obviously already-existing policy, a policy that was stated thus in the article in Issue No. 43: Oppose Mohammedans in the Middle East because they threaten Israel and the oil supply, but support them in Europe (Bosnia and Kosovo) and exalt them as “good Americans” at home in order further to dilute the Christian character of Europe and America. Who can doubt that policy exists, even if it has never been proclaimed in so many words? Which serious Catholic would want to abet it in the slightest way? This writer does not.
It is also difficult to write about Ven. Charles de Foucauld because, for all his practicality, he was a contemplative, even a mystic. In his own writing, he often stretches his language to a point where words collapse and, in effect, lose their meaning. That in an effort to communicate what is essentially incommunicable by one human being to another. The present writer is no mystic. If our Venerable never fully succeeded, I certainly cannot put on paper what it was he experienced during the long periods when he was alone with God in the desert. Accordingly, that side of him will here be largely ignored. The reader should be aware of this. He is going to miss here most of an entire dimension of Ven. Charles de Foucauld.
Another difficulty arises from a kind of psychological impediment. It has its root in the awareness that the Ven. Charles de Foucauld presented here will be different from the one whom readers would likely find if they turned to almost anything else written about him in recent years. That is because few important religious figures of the past century are more seriously misrepresented today. That is to the extent many of today’s writers claim it was only in the past that he was misrepresented; that it is they who are now, at last, presenting the true picture of this extraordinary priest who was once a very public sinner. In a word, the present writer is aware that what he says here will be contradicted almost anywhere else, that it is my word against that of many. How can one short article by me, after all, refute all the claims of others when they are made so voluminously?
It cannot. However, it can be said why Ven. Charles de Foucauld is now presented as he is, and I believe my readers will understand, given the current state of the Church, that it is virtually inevitable that he be so presented. It is in order to make of him an apostle of false ecumenism, of a purely natural brotherhood, and even of universalism. If the Venerable’s own language in his writings lends itself to such misrepresentation, the misrepresentation is sometimes positively grotesque.
For example, in order to check certain biographical facts and dates against my memory of them, a number of sites on the World Wide Web were visited by way of preparing to write this article. On one of them, it was actually claimed that the Venerable was killed by “dissident French soldiers”! It was not explained who these soldiers were or how they happened to show up in a part of the Sahara Desert where no other Europeans lived besides Father de Foucauld. Why the fabrication? Evidently, if the Venerable did not seek the conversion of Mohammedans, if he did not intend and believe his own labors to be a preparation for that (a “tilling of the furrow,” as he put it), if all he wanted was to love and respect them and to live among them in peaceful brotherhood — and that was the extent of his mission as it is now usually depicted — it simply will not do to admit that Mohammedans murdered him. Instead, you make renegade fellow Frenchmen the killers!
There is a final reason why it is not easy to write about our subject, at least for an American audience, even if it is very Catholic. As one Internet writer puts it, not sympathetically — this was in a book review — our Venerable was guilty of “blatant Franco-imperialism.” Another writer gets at the same point when he describes René Bazin’s 1921 biography, the first one published by anyone, as “marked by post-[World War I French] patriotism, which was also to be expressed in Joan of Arc’s canonization.” That patriotism “was not detached from a specific period of colonialism.” It is also the same point the present writer was getting at, much more clearly, if I may say, when I spoke in my article about King St. Louis of “the French vision of the Faith and European Christian civilization taking root and flowering in the Mohammedan Middle East.” (I might have added: elsewhere, too.)
How may one enable American readers to see something of this “vision” and, so, understand that it really existed? It is, after all, totally alien to anything citizens of our liberal republic have ever envisioned for themselves as a national mission. God knows, we have sent soldiers overseas, and are doing so again, but only to “defend freedom” (as President Bush explicitly stated to the nation on September 20). The idea of U.S. soldiers fighting to defend the Catholic interest is totally un-American. In fact, when we first became seriously involved in our last major war, the one in Vietnam, it was precisely because we opposed President Diem’s aim of transforming his Asian nation into a Catholic one. Thus, public support for U.S. involvement was fueled by television pictures of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest against measures undertaken by Diem to achieve his aim. (Times change. Support for Operation Enduring Freedom is fueled by television reports of Taliban oppression of Afghan women.)
In any event, perhaps the French “vision” can be made clearer to readers by a description of a particular place in France, one well known to this writer.
The place is a chapel, a small one a few moments’ walk from the Palace of Versailles and just off the avenue down which a mob once infamously marched on its way to making a revolution. Like all churches in France, it is property of the state, but this chapel, like the much grander one consecrated to St. Louis at Les Invalides in Paris — the one tourists see when they visit Napoleon’s tomb — is military. It is consecrated to Notre Dame des Armes.
The chapel was built in the 18th century, but its windows are modern and ugly. However, glorious saints and events are depicted in them. Among the windows, there is one of St. Louis and another of St. Joan of Arc. There is also one that commemorates the Christian victory at Lepanto.
The walls of the chapel on both sides of the sanctuary are covered with votive plaques. They can be seen as little memorials to military expeditions and battles that are remembered by almost no one today, including most Frenchmen. All of them together can also be viewed as memorializing something that should never be forgotten and that we in the U.S., alas, have never known: a time when enough members of a society were serious enough about the Faith that soldiers among them went forth from places like this to uphold the Christian standard all around the world and thereby, incidentally, build an empire.
For instance, there are a number of plaques that express thanksgiving for a safe return from Madagascar in the 1880s. That was when the island nation’s beautiful and fearsome Queen Rasoherina, a kind of 19th-century Julian the Apostate, tried to extirpate Catholicism in her kingdom. It had been French missionaries who evangelized the people, converting many, and so it was the French, by force of arms, who restored to them their freedom to practice the Faith.
Madagascar was far from being the only place where the French defended the Catholic interest in the 19th Century. (Let it be noted, this was the century after the Revolution.) Why, in the 1860s, Napoleon III garrisoned troops in the very capital of Christianity, Rome, in defense of the Pope’s temporal power. It was only when he had to withdraw them to fight the Prussians in 1870 that the Piedmontese could enter the city and set up Victor Emmanuel II in the place of Bl. Pope Pius IX as ruler.
Somewhere on the walls of Notre Dame des Armes, there are probably votive plaques put up by members of that Rome garrison. Others would have been placed by veterans of French military expeditions to Mexico, Syria and Lebanon, India, Indochina and islands in the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and, above all, North Africa — Algeria and Morocco. This is where Ven. Charles de Foucauld comes in, and, as we say in American slang, if it was not this very chapel and all it represents, it was one like it that he was “coming from.”
He was born in Strasbourg on September 15, 1858. His family were aristocrats. In fact, if his name at birth were translated into English, it would be Charles Eugene, Viscount of Foucauld.
He would have no memory of his parents, his mother having died in March following his birth in September, and his father six months later. He was always conscious of this loss. Among the recurrent themes we see in his writing are deprivation and loneliness as no one could write about them except probably an orphan, or perhaps an exile.
Charles and a sister, Marie, were taken in and raised by their maternal grandfather. In 1871, when Strasbourg and all of Alsace-Lorraine were incorporated into the new Second Reich following the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the grandfather registered the children with authorities as French. Thus, Charles de Foucauld had his nationality not simply by birth. It was also chosen.
In 1872 the family moved to Nancy. There the grandfather sent young Charles to the Jesuits to be educated. Charles later continued his studies under the Jesuits in Paris until 1875.
France had been a republic (again) for four years when he was finished with the Jesuits. Not many vocations are suitable for an aristocrat at any time, not if he wishes to remain faithful to his heritage. In 1875 in France few were even open to one. A career in the military was. So, in 1876 Charles enrolled at Saint Cyr, France’s West Point. He passed from there to the Cavalry School at Saumur in 1878 and graduated a second lieutenant the same year.
His family was Catholic and his grandfather had seen to it that his education was the same. Moreover, though France was a republic, she was still sufficiently Catholic that by 1885 nearly everybody expected the monarchy to be restored. Yet, overall, the dominating spirit of the 19th century was not Christian, not in France or anywhere else. The most “advanced” men of the age, and anyone who wanted to get ahead in the world, embraced, not the teachings of the Faith to guide him through life, but rationalism, belief in progress, skepticism. Also, it is hardly unknown for adolescents to be inclined to rebel against their upbringing. For such reasons as these, Charles de Foucauld ceased to be a practicing Catholic. For a time, he endeavored to make the dominant ideas of the age his own.
“For twelve years,” he would later write of this period of his life, “I denied nothing, but believed nothing. I lived as one can when the last spark of faith has gone out.”
Living without that spark meant, for him, devoting himself to pleasure or, more precisely, pleasures of the flesh. Here we are not going to mince words. The pleasures of the young aristocrat Charles de Foucauld were food and drink, and women. He would sometimes remain at table for as long as three hours, often dining alone so that conversation would not distract him from savoring as completely as possible the kind of food and wine available few places on earth outside the best restaurants of France. As for women, we shall see in a moment to where that passion led.
In 1880, his regiment, the 4th Hussars, was sent to Setif in Algeria. This was his first experience of Africa, but it was short-lived. In March, 1881, he was discharged, put on the army’s inactive list, for “indiscipline and notorious conduct.” The notorious conduct was public concubinage. That is, not merely was he living in sin. He paraded it.
Having felt he could get by with that (or anything else), his discharge was a shock. He holed up in Evian, a French mountain town whose water has become very familiar to Americans in recent years. He lived there “with the vague disquiet that comes from a bad conscience that, although fast asleep, is not quite dead.”
A revolt against French rule broke out in the South Oran region of Algeria in May, 1881. De Foucauld applied for reinstatement in the army, his application was accepted, and he took part in an eight-month campaign to put down the insurrection.
We want to pause and consider these months in our Venerable’s lifetime. That is because all commentators today make much of them. Time and again, in book after book and article after article, we can read how it was now that the young officer Charles de Foucauld, seeing the Arabs around him praying five times a day no matter what, was deeply, profoundly impressed by their admirable Mohammedan piety. It is this, and virtually this alone, that is supposed to have started him turning toward religion, turning toward conversion.
Doubtless he was impressed by what he saw then and afterward in North Africa. However, too many commentators write of what he saw in such a way that readers are left nearly surprised that it was not Mohammedanism to which de Foucauld converted, or wondering if it was some Islamo-Catholic syncretist hybrid he finally embraced.
The commentators ignore a couple of things. Since they cannot deny that de Foucauld’s upbringing was Catholic, do they really suppose he had never seen genuine piety in France and never been moved by it? If he saw it among the Arabs, is it not likely that its chief effect was to make him remember where he had seen it before? Or seen its absence where it should have existed?
Not long ago (but before September 11), passing through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I saw a Mohammedan on his prayer rug underneath a stairway, bowing toward Mecca. The sight, I must say, impressed me. It made me think of all the Catholics I know who cannot bring themselves, apparently from fear of embarrassment, to do so much as make the Sign of the Cross in public — in restaurants before a meal, for instance. Why should it not have been a thought like this that the sight of Mohammedan piety inspired in de Foucauld, inspired to the degree of wanting to make his own Catholic witness? Why must it have been simply admiration he felt?
The commentators ignore something else. It is a truth once expressed by the poet William Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Yes, many who take that road are led nowhere except to dissipation and then, if they do not stop, perdition. But may we not conjecture that the sight of men praying to God, even Mohammedans praying to their false unitarian one, could act on de Foucauld’s soul only because he was ready for it, and ready only because his pleasures no longer satisfied, were perhaps becoming even somewhat repugnant? The calendar of saints is full of men who reached such a point. Some say that St. Ignatius of Loyola, to name one, fathered at least two children before his conversion.
Once the insurrection in Oran was put down, de Foucauld applied for leave in order to travel farther south to study the Arabs and their way of life.
Denied permission for the journey, he left the active army, moved to Algiers, and spent fifteen months learning Arabic and otherwise preparing himself for a trek into a part of Morocco that was still largely unexplored. In June, 1883, he set out on the expedition. He was 25.
Why this venture? Why this study of the Arabs? An army needs intelligence about the enemy, needs to know his strength, the disposition of his forces, something about the countryside in which he operates and resources at his command, in order to beat him, or have a better chance of doing so than when such intelligence is lacking. Similarly, when Christians still wished to be faithful to Our Lord’s injunction to baptize all nations, it was useful to them to have information about the lands and peoples they intended to evangelize. It might be different if the Christians were Protestant, which is to speak mainly of the English. Their usual intention overseas was simply to make a colony, the resources of which, along with the labor of the native inhabitants, could be exploited. The Catholic empire-builders, the French, Spanish and Portuguese, baptized, civilized, and finally integrated. This point cannot be stressed enough. True, the Catholics were more successful in some places than in others, and the greatest difficulty was always in the Mohammedan lands. Still, 75 years after de Foucauld’s first expedition, Algeria was certainly no mere “colony.” Legally and truly it was as much a part of France as Normandy and Provence. It had representatives sitting in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French parliament, in Paris. As explained at the time by General Salan, head of the Secret Army Organization, the body of officers who rose in arms against Charles de Gaulle’s abandonment of the territory, “The Mediterranean runs through France as the Seine runs through Paris.”
By May, 1885, having returned from Morocco and reported his findings to the Societé Française de Geographie, de Foucauld was living near Bordeaux. That month the Societé awarded him its gold medal in recognition of the work he had done. In September he set out to do more. This was with an expedition into southern Algeria and Tunisia. The journey continued until January, 1886.
That February he settled in Paris. There he went to work on a book, Reconnaissance au Maroc. It would be published in 1888. So it was that when he first became known to the French public, it was as an explorer.
Visitors to his apartment were struck by the austerity of the life he now led. He had no bed. He slept on a rug on the floor, wrapped in an Arab burnous.
He also began visiting churches at this time. The churches of Paris are dangerous for the non-believer, as the present writer is able to testify from his own experience. That is because they are full of history as well as God. You go into them for no reason except to look at the architecture or the windows or to listen to a famous organ, but there is probably not one built before 1900, as most were, that has not had some saint pray in it at some time. The remains of some of these saints, like St. Vincent de Paul and St. Catherine Labouré, can be seen. In a few, like that of the Carmelites in rue de Vaugirard, where 120 priests were massacred on September 2, 1792, faithful Catholics have been martyred. Miracles have transpired in some of the churches (Our Lady’s gift of the Miraculous Medal in rue du Bac is only one). Famous conversions have taken place (“He was kneeling next to that pillar,” you will be told in the Church of St. Severin, “when Charles Peguy had his conversion.”). These things, all these events, all this holiness, all the centuries of faithful witness, work on you when you visit these churches. You are made to realize that the Faith is real, that men far more intelligent, far more gifted — far better men — than yourself have apprehended that reality and found it such that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for it, some by dying, others by consecrating their lives to it. The first church in Paris was built in about 250. Construction on the oldest still extant and in use, St. Germain-des-Pres, was begun in about 900. The impression made by such places is hard to convey to somebody familiar with little but a suburban edifice built in the 1970s that looks like nothing so much as another McDonald’s surrounded by its parking lot.
It all worked on Charles de Foucauld. One night, kneeling before an altar, he prayed to God, “My God, if you exist, make yourself known to me.”
The prayer was answered, as all are. A cousin, Marie de Bondy, sent him to the Abbé Henri Huvelin at the Church of St. Augustin, and at the end of October, 1888, he made confession to this priest and received Holy Commuion from his hand. “As soon as I believed there was a God,” he later wrote, “I understood I could do nothing else but live for him. My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith. God is so great. There is such a difference between God and everything that is not.”
The next month, November, he sailed to the Holy Land, returning to Paris in February, 1889. His pilgrimage included, besides visits to all the usual holy sites, two stays in Nazareth. The time spent in the town where Our Lord had His “hidden life” affected him profoundly, as we shall see.
During 1890 he made four retreats in France, the first with the Benedictines at Solesmes. Another house where he retreated that year was the Trappist monastery at Soligny. The time spent there was especially important. It led to his entering the novitiate of the Trappists at Notre Dame des Neiges on January 16, 1891. He took the name in religion of Brother Marie-Alberic. He wrote to his sister Marie at this time: “Pray for me, I shall pray for you, for your family. You do not forget yourself when you come closer to God.”
The abbot of the monastery eventually would come to write of the fledgling monk, “I have never seen, outside books, such holiness on earth. The only thing that surprises me is that he does not do miracles.”
In June, 1891, he left for a daughter house, the Trappist monastery of Akbes in Syria.
Syria? the reader asks. A French monastery had a daughter house in that Mohammedan land?
We have said Frenchmen had a vision of making the Faith and its civilization flourish throughout the Middle East. Besides, does it seem stranger or less likely than that the Benedictines of Fontgombault should now have a daughter house in the buckle of the U.S. Bible Belt, Oklahoma?
Soon after arriving in Syria, our Venerable resigned his commission as an army reserve officer. “This act gives me pleasure,” he wrote in a letter home. “On [entering the novitiate] I left everything good behind, but there remained those wretched embarrassments, my rank, my little fortune, and it gives me pleasure to throw them out of the window.”
We have spoken of the Venerable’s writings, and also of letters he wrote. That sounds as if the two were quite separate. In fact — the reader ought to know this — the bulk of his writing that we have is his letters.
In February, 1892, Br. Marie-Alberic took his vows and was given the tonsure. He was unsure, however, that he really wanted to stay with the Trappists. Not even among them, he increasingly felt, could he do the full measure of penance that he believed he owed for past sins. Also, he knew his superiors were thinking of having him undertake advanced theological studies. His reaction: “If they speak to me of studying, I shall explain that I have a keen taste for staying up to my neck in corn and wood and an extreme repugnance for everything that might tend to distance me from this place, to which I came in abjection and into which I desire to sink further and further, following the example of Our Lord.”
What did he mean in speaking of that “example”? By the autumn of 1893 he can be seen in his letters beginning to formulate the notion of a new monastic order. Its members would be consecrated to living the same “hidden life” as Our Lord in Nazareth. That is, taking the Carpenter of Nazareth as their exemplar, they would live solely by the work of their hands, and in total obscurity. They would be called Hermits of the Sacred Heart.
The name is significant, devotion to the Sacred Heart being peculiarly and especially French. (Perhaps it should be said, it was — when France was more nearly herself than she is today.) Inspired by Heaven, its original apostles, Sts. John Eudes and Margaret Mary Alacoque, were French. The Kings of France, as is well known, were called to consecrate the nation to the Sacred Heart, and Louis XVI did, though too late to save himself or his throne. When French Catholics, spurred by the great Cardinal Pie, built a national shrine on Montmartre in Paris at the end of the 19th century in expiation for the sins of liberalism and the Revolution, it was consecrated as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur). A quarter-century after the death of Ven. Charles de Foucauld, when French Catholics believed that at last the Revolution had been turned back — this was with the fall of the Third Republic and the installation in Vichy of Marshal Petain as Chef de l’Etat Française — the state sponsored the establishment of a military order, the Knights (chevaliers) of the Sacred Heart. The Knights were to have had their training in North Africa. (Unfortunately, the project had not gotten very far before the Germans occupied southern France and the Vichy government lost most of its power to act independently from them. As far as this writer knows, the effort to set up the Knights of the Sacred Heart was the last made by anyone to establish a military order.)
We speak of all this to show that when our Venerable thought to name his projected order as he did, he was drawing from a tradition that was national as well as Catholic. It was the same when he decided that worship of Our Lord under the veil of the Eucharist — that is, adoration of the Host exposed in a monstrance — would be another of the devotions of the Hermits of the Sacred Heart. That devotion had the canonized French priest, St. Peter Julien Eymard, as its great apostle in modern times.
By June, 1896, Br. Marie-Alberic was drafting a plan for the organization and government of his order. Not long afterward, in October, he was sent to spend a month with the Trappists in Strauoueli, Algeria, as a stage on a journey to Rome where he was supposed to immerse himself in study for three years. He did in fact begin classes at the Gregorian University while living at the monastery of Tre Fontane, but at the end of three months he departed from the Trappists. The separation was amicable and done in perfectly good and legal order, the Trappist Father General dispensing him from his vows. He was now free to pursue his religious vocation as he saw fit.
He began by privately swearing vows of poverty and chastity. Then, in February, 1897, he embarked at Brindisi for another voyage to the Holy Land, this time directly to Nazareth. There he worked as a handyman for a community of Poor Clares. This was under the name Br. Charles of Jesus. “I cannot conceive of loving you, Jesus,” he wrote at the time, “without feeling a constraining need to do and be like you.”
“To be like you.” It meant a life totally devoted to God, of hard work, and completely unknown to the world.
During the time he worked in the service of the Poor Clares, he made two pilgrimages on foot to Jerusalem. He also made a retreat at Ephrem. In 1900 he conceived a plan to buy the Mount of the Beatitudes so that he and other Hermits of the Sacred Heart, once the order came into being, could live there. Nothing came of the plan. Neither did the order ever come to exist. Similarly, when our Venerable eventually went to live in the Sahara, he hoped and prayed that other men would join him there. None ever did. What we are saying is that at the time of his death, his life looked to be one of utter failure, not unlike Our Lord’s when He died.
In August, 1900, he left the Holy Land and returned to France, resolved on ordination to the priesthood. He did succeed in this. He was ordained at the seminary of the Diocese of Viviers on June 9, 1901. The Bishop of Viviers authorized him to go live, alone or in community if he could form one, in the vast but sparsely populated Diocese of the Sahara. On October 29, 1901, he arrived at Beni-Abbes, an oasis in the South Oran region of Algeria near the border of Morocco. On the day of his arrival, he said Mass for the first time. Soon afterward, he bought a little piece of land on which to build a “fraternity” — his word for a hermitage.
Once again, he had formulated a plan. As an army will go into training before going to war, or as Our Lord retreated in the wilderness for forty days before facing the trials that were the culmination of his life on earth, Father de Foucauld intended his time in Beni-Abbes to be one of preparation for the evangelization of Morocco.
In the meantime, he was seeing up close a kind of life that horrified him. It was the life of slaves. Americans have been more-or-less conditioned to think of slavery only in terms of the Old South, as if it never existed anywhere else in modern times, and as if it was never practiced except by white Christians holding blacks in bondage. We forget, or ignore, that as an institution it has existed nowhere more widely than among Mohammedans, and nowhere, too often, has its existence been accompanied by greater inhumanity. Indeed, if it is chattel slavery we are talking about, and not simply forced labor (as in the People’s Republic of China), the institution no longer really exists anywhere at the beginning of the 21st century except in parts of the Mohammedan world.
As we have said, our Venerable was revolted by what he saw of the institution, and on January 9, 1902, he “redeemed” (his word) his first slave. This is to say, for the first of several times, he bought a slave to set him free. He called the young man Joseph du Sacre-Coeur (Joseph of the Sacred Heart).
The following July he purchased his second slave, a little black boy just three-and-a-half years old. On August 14, he baptized him as Abd-Jesus (Slave of Jesus). In September, he bought two more slaves. (Mohammedans being notorious for their practice of certain vices, not much imagination is needed, and we need not be explicit, as to exactly the kind of abuse to which this little boy and these young men would have been subjected, had Father de Foucauld not redeemed them.)
On his way to Beni-Abbes, our Venerable had naturally called on the local ordinary. This was Msgr. Guérin, Apostolic Prefect of the Sahara. The two men became exceptionally close friends. Given the circumstances, their friendship was conducted largely by correspondence. Every letter from the priest to the bishop written during 1902 has to do with slavery and what was done to young slaves. They show, as did the letters Father de Foucauld sent home, that he had no illusions about the people among whom he lived. He romanticized nothing. “At bottom,” he wrote in one letter, “it is more-or-less a society of Apaches, men living to pillage, women cheering them on and living freely… If in Christian countries there is so much good and so much evil, imagine this one where there is nothing of which to speak except evil, where good is nearly totally absent: all is lies, duplicity, tricks, lust of every kind, and all of it with such ignorance and such barbarity!”
During most of 1903 de Foucauld still hoped and planned to travel into Morocco and establish a “fraternity,” a center for the evangelization of the country. He still hoped, too, that he would be joined by others in this enterprise. His companions would have to accept three conditions: “1) be ready to have head cut off; 2) be ready to die of starvation; 3) to obey me in spite of my worthlessness.”
By the end of 1903, it became clear that French civil and military authorities were not going to allow him into Morocco, not at that time, much of the territory not yet having been pacified. Accordingly, beginning in 1904 and continuing into the next year, he began a series of trips into the central and southern reaches of the Algerian Sahara. This is when he first came to know the Tuareg, a semi-nomadic people who are Mohammedan but racially and linguistically distinct from Arabs. Wishing to “convey the Gospel to the most abandoned,” he began to learn their language, Tamachek. Very soon he began to compile a dictionary and also to collect thousands of lines of Tamachek poetic verse, which he translated into French. By the time of his death, the dictionary was done. A translation he started of the Gospels into Tamacheck was not completed when he was killed.
He arrived in Tamanrasset in the Hoggar region for the first time in August, 1905. He decided to live in this settlement of “25 or 30 hearths” for at least part of the year, initially in a zeriba, a reed hut, the typical dwelling in those parts. Later he built himself a house of brick and dried mud.
For three years his time was divided thusly: three months at Beni-Abbes, six at Tamanrasset, and three months traveling between the two places. The routine into which he settled when he was not traveling was monastic. When not saying Mass or praying, he mainly worked on the compilation of his dictionary.
During a visit Father de Foucauld paid to Bishop Guérin in December, 1906, His Excellency assigned a new priest, Father Michel, to assist him. He also authorized Father de Foucauld to expose the Blessed Sacrament for Eucharistic devotion whenever there would be two worshippers present for a minimum of three hours.
Fathers de Foucauld and Michel spent that Christmas together at Beni-Abbes. Unfortunately, as the two made their way to the Hoggar the next month, Fr. Michel fell ill and had to stay at the oasis of In Salah to recuperate. He did later join Fr. de Foucauld in Tamanrasset, but left definitively in April, 1907. For the next year-and-a-half, our Venerable was entirely alone.
By January, 1908, the rigors of life in the desert had taken a toll. Fr. de Foucauld suffered a physical breakdown.
Medical doctors in recent years have finally begun to understand, or at least to acknowledge, that our physical state and spiritual being are intimately connected. We should not be surprised to learn, therefore, that from his breakdown in January, 1908, right through the summer and following autumn months (not that true autumn comes to the desert), our Venerable’s letters show him passing through a time of terrible spiritual desolation, the kind described by the Spanish mystical priest and poet, St. John of the Cross, as a “Dark Night” of the soul.
So it was that at the urgings of his family he left Africa in December, 1908, for a period of rest and recuperation in France which would continue until March. Not that he was entirely at rest. He used the time to write the statutes for a Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart. These statutes for this “pious union for the evangelization of the colonies” were approved by Bishop Bonnet of Viviers and Bishop Livinhac, Father Superior of the White Fathers, the missionary order.
By June, 1910, Father de Foucauld was back in Tamanrasset. There he remained, with brief absences, until January, 1911, and then again from May of that year until April, 1913. Back in 1903, when he had to abandon his plans for Morocco, he had shared with his friend Bishop Guérin his new intention of evangelizing the Tuareg. He had His Excellency’s full support in this. Now, in May, 1910, Bishop Guérin died. Father de Foucauld felt more alone than ever. “Alas, yes, it is a great loss to me,” he wrote home of his friend’s passing, “but one must not be selfish. It is right that the saints receive their reward.”
In July, 1910, he had built himself a hermitage on a mountain called Asekrem. While there in December, 1911, he wrote a will. “I wish to be buried in the place where I die and to remain there until the Resurrection. I forbid that my body be transported elsewhere, that I be taken from the spot where the Good Lord has had me finish my pilgrimage.”
During the next year, 1912, all of what would be known for decades to come as French Morocco was finally brought under French control.
In April, 1913, Father de Foucauld made another visit home. It lasted until November. He took with him Ouksem Ag Chikkat, a Tuareg tribal chieftain. What he wanted was for the man to see and experience Christian family life.
He was again in Tamanrasset by the time news arrived of the outbreak of World War I in Europe in September, 1914. His immediate impulse was to return to France for the duration, but he knew that, with most of his nation’s army needed for the new war with Germany, North Africans not yet reconciled to French rule would likely take advantage of the situation. As he wrote to his cousin Marie de Bondy: “You will understand that I suffer to be so far from our soldiers and the border; but my duty, clearly, is to stay here to help keep the population calm.”
Calm no longer prevailed after Arab tribes throughout southern French North Africa launched a rebellion in March, 1915. In months to come, he passed on to French military authorities all information that came his way concerning the movements of the insurrectionists. When the French fort at Djanet fell to Libyan raiders in April, 1916, there was nothing to stop Tamanrasset from being overrun at most any time. A French officer passing through the area did oversee the construction of a small fort supposed to provide protection if the settlement came under attack, and Father de Foucauld moved into it in June, keeping a loaded rifle at hand. On November 28 he finished his translation into French of the Tuareg poetry he had collected. We already know he was killed three days later.
The Decree of last April 24 of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints does not pretend, unlike the website earlier mentioned here, that he was killed by anyone but Tuaregs. It states: “On the evening of 1 December 1916 some Tuaregs surprised and captured him.” It does not report, as have others, that Ouksem Ag Chikkat was probably involved. Further, it goes on to say, “Brother Charles was killed accidentally when the young man set to guard him panicked.” It does not explain how a man who is bound can cause homicidal panic or what makes the killing of someone “accidental” when a gun is pointed at him and its trigger is pulled. However, far be it from this writer to contradict a Vatican Congregation, or even to want to do so, not even by citing verbatim other, long-accepted versions of the murder. The question of motive, which is not addressed by the Vatican, is much more interesting than the details of our Venerable’s dying. On that score, a number of sources agree that those who killed (or at least “surprised and captured”) him, said afterward that his goodness presented them with a problem. It tended to generate friendly feelings toward the French.
Beyond that, what is really of interest to us is that it was not friendliness to his countrymen and country, as much as he loved them, that Ven. Charles de Foucauld hoped to inspire. The Decree itself makes that clear when it quotes one of his letters:
“When people see me, they must be able to say, ‘Because this man is good, his religion must be good.’ If anyone asks me why I am gentle and good, I have to say, ‘Because I serve One who is far more “good” than I am.’ ”
Elsewhere, writing of what is needed to bring Christ to “those who do not know him,” he spoke of “preaching not with words, but by example.”
In one of the most often quoted passages he penned — it was in a letter to his cousin Marie de Bondy — he said, “I want everybody — Christians, Muslims, Jews — to get used to seeing me as their brother, a universal brother.”
It was Pope Paul VI who really made that line famous. That was when he hailed our Venerable as “the universal brother.” In doing so, he showed how our Venerable’s own language can be used to make him seem heretical. Of course, that was not Pope Paul’s intention. It remains, most commentators today echo the Internet writer I found — one, moreover, who presents himself as a contemporary disciple of the Venerable — who says, “de Foucauld was intensely concerned about universal salvation.”
The writer’s words are not much different from those of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints when its Decree says, “He also drew from his contact with Msgr. Guérin the strength to hope that every person could be saved…” However, the Vatican documents does continue: “and that the world of Islam could open itself to the message of Jesus.”
Which Catholic would not hope as much? We know that Our Lord Himself hopes it, wishes it, wants it. But to hope that all can be saved is not to say all are or will be. Ven. Charles de Foucauld knew this. Otherwise, he would never have written: “If we save the soul of one infidel, it is, if one can say so, Jesus whom we are saving from hell and to whom with God’s help we are giving heaven; a passionate desire to save souls: to order everything to this end, to do everything for this.”
It was his desire to save souls that led him to the life he finally led — life among the Tuareg. “In order to work for the salvation of souls,” he wrote, “we must go to them, mingle with them and live with them in close, familiar contact. We must do so for all the souls whose conversion God wants us especially to work, particularly the infidels. We should go to them first of all.”
So it was, exactly as the Vatican Decree says, “that he envisaged his presence [among Mohammedans] as a preparation for preaching the Gospel. But he found that the time had not yet come for sowing, but for preparing the ground for a distant future.” This gives the lie to commentators who pretend that all the Venerable wanted was to live in peaceful brotherhood. He was simply being realistic. It is why he spoke of his doing no more than “tilling the furrow.” It is why, when he wrote to a friend in 1909 of the drudgery of his daily duties, he said: “All this is to arrive at Christianity, God knows when, perhaps after a few centuries.”
He was willing to give himself entirely for that advent, and for nothing less. Not for the love of man. Not for the sake of brotherhood as that is celebrated by men who know nothing about it and have never sacrificed anything for anyone. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints tells us as much when it begins its Decree by quoting one of our Venerable’s own prayers:
“My Lord Jesus, who said, ‘A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends,’ I desire with all my heart to give my life for you. I ask you with insistence for this: however, not my will, but yours be done. I offer you my life. Cause me to live and die in the way that pleases you most: in you, through you and for you!”
Catholics today would do well to make such a prayer their own, those of them who live in a society not much less Christian than that of the Tuareg. To live and die for His Kingdom, after all, is surely more Christian, and therefore nobler, than to do so for any empire, let alone mere freedom.
This article was originally published in From the Housetops with three sidebars:
One, on Seven Meditations on Islam.
And one on No Lover of Islam.
Another on The Apostolic Heart of Brother Charles.
Here is his “Reflection on Death”:
“Reflect that you must die a martyr, stripped of everything, stretched out on the ground, naked, unrecognizable, covered in blood and wounds, violently and painfully killed… And desire that it be today… In order that I may give you this infinite grace, be faithful in staying awake and bearing the cross. Consider that it is in this death that your whole life must come to its conclusion: see therein how unimportant so many things are. Think often of this death in order to prepare yourself and to judge things at their true value.” In light of Brother Francis’ meditation on Islam, the “Little Brother’s” martyrdom may be the herald of the conversion of the infidels he so loved: “The issue of salvation is faith in God — Incarnate. The Church must reach the Moslems with this message, even if it has to pay the price it paid to convert the Roman world.”
Last photos of Venerable Brother Charles before his martyrdom