Short Life Story of Brother Charles (Charles de Foucauld)

Charles de Foucauld - Brother Charles of Jesus -

1858 - 1916
His spiritual journey

The experience of God's tenderness

Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg in 1858 and had fond memories of the maternal presence that accompanied his early childhood. But his mother died in March 1864 and his father just a few months later. At six years old, he was already what one might call a wounded child.
During his difficult adolescent years he lost his faith. An absence of life joy is perhaps what drove him to sink into a life centred on pleasure seeking and partying.
But nothing could erase the emptiness and sadness that dwelt in the depths of his heart. Many years later, he reflected on the emptiness and sadness he had then experienced in the light of his present faith. He saw in them the discrete manifestation of a God who had never turned away but had always patiently waited for him...
Made an army officer at 22 years of age, he was sent to serve in Algeria.; He was thrilled by the discovery of new horizons. Three years later he left the army and undertook a risky exploration of Morocco. Several times during his expedition he was offered protection and hospitality by highly religious Muslims. These were to becomes friends. On seeing the way that they lived out their faith, he began to question himself: Could it be that God really did exist?
Having returned to France, he was deeply touched by the warm, respectful welcome extended to him by his family, specially his cousin, Marie de Bondy. His search for meaning began. Providence led him to meet Fr. Huvelin, a priest who would prove to be both a father and friend to him. In October 1886, at 28 years of age, he underwent his conversion.
In this way he discovered in God a gentle father who was infinitely close and had never ceased to wait for his child. His existence was entirely transformed and he spent the rest of his life searching for how he could respond to God's boundless love.

The discovery of Jesus of Nazareth

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed to him the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, who shared our humanity and chose to lead the obscure existence of a village carpenter for 30 years. He perceived in this poverty and humility, a calling which was addressed to him. He wrote:
I greatly long to finally lead that kind of life which I caught a glimpse of while walking the streets of Nazareth... streets which had been earlier trod by the feet of Our Lord, himself a poor carpenter, who lived in obscurity and abjection.
Brother Charles had found his direction, but the journey would be long and difficult He first spent 7 years as a Trappist monk and then 4 years as a hermit in Nazareth where he lived beside a Poor Clare monastery.
These years were marked by prayer and silence, through which God spoke to his heart. Day and night he spent long hours in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament He adopted the attitude of the lover, who's expectation of the Beloved does not weary, even though he has to endure darkness and struggle.
He also spent long hours meditating the Gospel, saturating himself with Jesus' words and deeds, so that they might change his heart. It was like the steady drop of water which ends up hollowing out even the hardest rock.
The Word of God was soon to raise new questions and compel him to move on.

A Brother's presence at the heart of the desert

There is a line from the Gospel which was to turn his life upside down : "Whatsoever you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me."
It drove him out of his beloved solitude in order to set out for lands that were more forsaken, where Jesus waited for him in the person of those whose lives were marked by suffering and poverty. He also longed to bring the love of God which burnt within him like a fire, to those who did not know Him.
Brother Charles rediscovered something which had earlier been said by St. John Chrysostom during the first centuries of Christianity : that equal attention must be paid to Jesus present in the poor as to Jesus present in the Eucharist.
God's preferential love for the poor, for sinners and those who never make it in this world, was to eventually lead him out of his hermitage in order to take up a life which would be ever more lovingly given over to the Lord, while also being increasingly marked by hospitality, availability and brotherly sharing with those who count the least.

He left Nazareth for good in August 1900, and spent several months in the Abbey of Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows) in order to prepare himself for the priesthood. Ordained on June 9,1901 by the Bishop of Viviers, he set off for Algeria a few months later and settled down in an oasis of the Sahara desert called Beni Abbes, near the Moroccan border. This time he didn't build a hermitage, but a fraternity, which was to say, a house that was to be open to all those who came, regardless of their nationality, race or religion: He wrote:
I want all the people here, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever, to see me as their brother, a universal brother. They have started calling my house the "fraternity" and that gives me pleasure.

The patient labour of friendship

After three years of being in Beni Abbes, Brother Charles heard about Tuaregs. They were a poor group of people, who lived in a place that was so remote that it was difficult to get to them. In 1904, some officer friends offered him an opportunity to travel with them in order to meet them. And so once again he took to the road.
He spent more than three months trekking through the desert in order to arrive at the Hoggar mountains where little nomadic groups of Tuaregs roamed. Right from the very begin¬ning he felt an inner urge to make his home among them. But these tribes were deeply wary of their French occupants and it would be a year before their leader, Moussa Ag Amastane, gave permission for Brother Charles to settle down in Tamanrasset. Alone and defenceless, he trusted their offer of hospitality and within a few days built himself a rough little earthen house which he made his dwelling.
He immediately began a passionate study of their language and showed a keen interest in their culture. He transcribed hundreds of poems which he heard sung around the evening campfire. Having been transmitted from generation to gene¬ration, these poems were in a certain sense the instrument that best expressed the soul of the Tuareg tribes.

Brother Charles carried in his heart an immense desire to speak to them of Jesus and the Gospel. But he quickly became aware of the fact that the time was not yet ripe for that. And so it was simply by means of the patient labour of friendship that he undertook to tell them about who was his God. In 1909 he wrote:
I want to be so good that people will say: "If this is what the servant is like, what must the master be? "

In the likeness of Jesus even unto death

The First World War broke out in 1914 and violence spread even as far as the remote solitude of the Hoggar. There was a widespread rebellion on the part of many tribes against the French occupation. Insecurity grew.
Brother Charles was aware of being in an increasingly dangerous environment. He was offered shelter in a French military post but refused. He couldn't bring himself to abandon those who'd extended him their hospitality for over ten years. Friendship and mutual trust had taken root over the years and he felt bound to the Tuareg people by a deep human solidarity.
Ever since being captivated by Jesus of Nazareth, he had sought to follow in his footsteps, living in imitation of him. He deeply wanted to become like him in his passion and death in order to give the proof of the greatest love.

Towards evening on December 1,1916, he was taken hostage by a group of rebels who, apparently, did not have the intention of killing him. But in a moment of panic, his guard shot him at point blank range. Brother Charles died on the spot, a victim of violence as so many others during the terrible years of the war.
His death resembled the fate of the grain of wheat. He died alone, but his death is a sign of hope that human solidarity is stronger than the hate which tears humanity apart.
Two weeks after his death, Moussa Ag Amastane, the Tuareg chief who had become Brother Charles' friend, while remaining a fervent Muslim, wrote to his sister:
"Charles the Marabout has not died only for you. He has also died for us all. May God grant him mercy, and may we all be together with him in Paradise."


A few Quotations which outline his spiritual journey

About the 12 years he lived totally without faith:

By the time I was 15 or 161 had no trace of faith left. The books I used to devour had done this to me. I didn't subscribe to any specific philosophy, as none of them seemed solidly proved enough to me. I doubted everything, especially the Catholic faith, since there were several of its dogmas that I found insulting to reason.
(Letter to H. Duveyrier, 21 Feb. 1892)

The experience of God's tenderness

How good the prodigal son's father is! But you were a thousand times more generous than he! You did a thousand times more for me than he for his son. How good you are myLord and my God!
(L’imitation du Bien-aime p.79

The discovery of Jesus of Nazareth

The Incarnation takes its source from God's goodness. But there is one thing about it so marvellous that it shines like a dazzling sign: the infinite humility such a mystery contains -God the Infinite, the Almighty...becomes human, the least of all human beings.
(La derniere place - Nouvelle Cite\ p. 50, 53)

Imitation is inseparable from love: it's the secret of my life. I've lost my heart for this Jesus of Nazareth, crucified one thousand nine hundred years ago, and I spend my life trying to imitate Him, as best as my weakness allows. "
(Letter to G. Tourdes, March 1902)

A Brother's Presence at the Heart of the Desert

I think that there is no saying in the Gospel that made a deeper impression on me and more transformed my life than this one: "Whatsoever you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me." If we remember that these are the words of Uncreated Truth and come from the same lips that said: "This is my Body, this is my Blood," how compellingly we are moved to seek out Jesus and love him in the "least ones, " the sinners, the poor.
(Letter to Louis Massignon, 1 August, 1916)

The Tuaregs around here treat me with growing trust. Those I was already friends with are now closer, and new friendships are forming. I do them what services I can. I try to show them my love. When it seems like a favourable occasion, I speak about natural religion, about God's commandments, his Love, how to live in harmony with his Will, loving one's neighbour, and so on.
(Letter to Fr. Voillard, 12 January, 1912)

In the likeness of Jesus even unto death

My Lord Jesus, you said, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." With all my heart I want to give my life for you, I beg it of you earnestly. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done. I offer you my life, do with me whatever you want most. My God, forgive my enemies and bring them to salvation.
(Voyageur dans la nuit - Nouvelle Cite, p. 35)