Illustrated Life Story of Charles

Nomad friends El AbiodhNomad friends El Abiodh
"I believe there are no words of the Gospel which have made a deeper impression on me or transformed my life more than these: ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me.’(Mt.25:40) When we think that these are the words of Uncreated 'This is my Body, this is my Blood', how imperative it is that we go out to find and love Jesus in these his little ones'."

Charles and his sister Marie and their motherCharles and his sister Marie and their mother

Childhood

Brother Charles of Jesus was born in Strasbourg, France on September 15th, 1858. By the age of seven both his parents had died, and he and his little sister were brought up by their grandparents; but he always kept very fond memories of his mother.

"From my childhood I was surrounded by many graces. The son of a saintly mother, I learnt from her to know and love you, 0 God, and as soon as I could speak, to pray to you..."

"My upbringing was very pious, with visits to churches, a little altar in my bedroom and so on. My catechism lessons and instruction for first confession were guided by my grandfather, a good Christian.
I made my first Communion after long and careful preparation... Further studies followed with a holy and wise priest."

But Charles’ grandparents spoilt the children, and a total lack of guidance accentuated his melancholy loneliness. He loved reading, but this only isolated him more and tended to undermine his capacity for faith and trust in others.


Adolescence

"From the time I was sixteen, I lived without any faith at all. Nothing seemed proved with enough evidence; if people could follow such different religions with equal degrees of faith, that seemed to me reason to reject them all. I spent twelve years without denying anything or believing anything, giving up hope that truth existed. I lived, getting along as someone can when the last spark of his faith has been put out.”

At the age of eighteen the young Charles was sent to a well-known military school to prepare for the French Army. Though a bright young man, he made no effort to study, but somehow managed to graduate. Later, he was to meditate on this time in humble gratitude for the gift of faith:

Lieutenant de FoucauldLieutenant de Foucauld"Although I had completely lost the faith, I could still feel esteem for others. You also kept alive in me, Lord, a taste for serious reading, for study, for beautiful things and at the same time a repugnance for evil and vice. I indulged in wrong-doing but neither approved of it nor enjoyed it... You gave me a feeling of depression and sadness that I have never felt at any other time. It came every evening when I was alone, and made me morose and gloomy during our so-called festivities. I organized them but when the time came I went through them in silence, disgusted and bored. You gave me an indefinable restlessness, the sign of an uneasy conscience which is dormant, but not altogether dead! I have never felt that sadness, unhappiness and lack of peace since. It was your gift, O God, while I was still far from you in my confusion.

Army officer

On receiving his commission, Charles was sent to Algeria. He experienced, however, a growing feeling of futility and hopelessness. Soon he was discharged for misconduct.
Charles went off to a resort town in Switzerland, but when his regiment was called up for a dangerous assignment, he suddenly found reason to pull himself together. He applied for readmission and served as an officer in Algeria with distinction. He was then twenty-three. His strength, authority, responsibility and self-forgetfulness were to win him the esteem of the soldiers.

After the campaign, Charles applied for leave from the army, only to return to Morocco to explore its unknown interior. His vivid scientific curiosity and strong will to understand, led him into ever deeper contact with the Muslim people whose daily existence was so profoundly marked by their faith in God.

Explorer in Morocco

“The Islamic faith affected me deeply. Witnessing such faith and meeting people living in the continual presence of God gave me insight into something bigger and more real than worldly occupations."

Morocco mosqueMorocco mosque

Charles wandered even further into the interior, disguised as an itinerant Jew. He slowly discovered the call to search for meaning and faith in the depths of his own being.

Back in France again, he was thankful when his family welcomed him home. His respect and love for them influenced him and he could no longer dismiss their religion as groundless:

The search continues

“While I was in Paris getting the account of my journey in Morocco printed, I found myself with people who were very intelligent, virtuous and Christian. I began to think that perhaps their religion wasn't absurd. At the same time, grace was at work, and I began to visit churches, without believing however..."

"0 God, you gave me the certainty that I might find, if not truth, I did not believe we could know the truth, at least knowledge in the paths of virtue. And you inspired me to look f or it in Christian books. In this way you familiarized me with the mysteries of religion...! felt the need for solitude, for deep thinking and serious reading. There was a restlessness, an anguish in my soul, a desire for truth, and I used to pray over and over again, 'My God, if you exist, make me know you!'"

Church of St AugustinChurch of St Augustin

Conversion

Still searching, Charles entered the Church of St. Augustin in Paris. He was as if driven by some interior force. He presented himself at the confessional of Father Huvelin. This was the turning point of his life.
When Charles explained that he did not "believe "but wanted to study Catholic doctrine, Fr Huvelin replied, "Make your confession and you will "believe". He then invited him to receive Communion.

Brother Charles called this moment of conversion, "my second First Communion". From then on, he consecrated his whole life to the loving imitation of Jesus, his "Beloved Lord and Brother". Fr. Huvelin wrote about him: "For Charles, religion meant only love".

Icon of St John at the last supperIcon of St John at the last supper
"The Gospel shows me that the first commandment is to love God with all my heart and that it is necessary to do everything out of love. Everyone knows that love leads to imitation."

Charles' religious vocation was one with his conversion.

"As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live only for Him: my religious vocation dates from the same hour as my Faith. God is so great! There is such a difference between God and all that is not Him!"

Vocation

Charles wanted to discern what God was calling him to do. He wanted to live like Jesus. First of all, there was a phrase from one of Fr. Huvelin's sermons: "Jesus of Nazareth took the lowest place in such a way that no one has ever been able to take it from him."
He said later that these words were inviolably engraved in his soul. He referred to them constantly, for they showed him Jesus as a poor man, the least among the poor.
"To be rich and live in comfort among my possessions when you were poor, deprived, living in misery and burdened by heavy manual work...I just could not do it, 0 God, I could not love like that."

View over JerusalemView over Jerusalem
The pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Fr Huvelin advised him to make also left a deep impression on him. In Bethlehem, where he spent Christmas, he came to know Jesus in the mystery of his littleness and poverty, and later he was to write:

"By being so small, so gentle a child, I am crying out to you, trust me, come close to me! Do not be afraid, come to me... Do not be frightened in the presence of such a gentle baby, smiling and holding out his arms to you. He is your God, but he is all smiles and gentleness. Be all fondness, love and trust."
"How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage." (Mt. 5:3-4)

Charles also went to Jerusalem, and up to Calvary, where he meditated on the mystery of the Cross. And finally in Jesus' own town of Nazareth, he felt drawn "by the hidden life and was confirmed in his decision of wanting to model his life, on that of Jesus, to be poor like him.

Our Lady of the SnowsOur Lady of the Snows
With the TrappistsWith the Trappists

As a Trappist

At the age of thirty-two, Charles entered the Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows in France because he heard it was so poor there.

"Why did I enter the Trappist monastery? Out of love, out of pure love. I love our Lord Jesus Christ, although I would like to love more and better. But I do love Him and could not bear to live a life other than His. I could not bear a soft and respected life, when His was the hardest and most disdained that ever existed."

Akbes monasteryAkbes monastery
Charles moved to a monastery in Akbes in Syria but his search was not ended. He felt called to greater insecurity, a lifestyle closer to that of a poor worker. From the Trappist monastery he wrote: “I long for Nazareth."

Seven years later Charles left the Trappist monastery and set out again for the Holy Land with Fr. Huvelin's encouragement. He arrived in Nazareth on foot, dressed as a poor man, and was received at the Poor Clares' convent.

At the Poor Clares  NazarethAt the Poor Clares Nazareth

At the Poor Clares in NazarethAt the Poor Clares in Nazareth

Nazareth

"I have a great thirst to lead at last the life which I have been seeking for seven years, and which I caught a glimpse of while walking in the streets of Nazareth, the same streets once trodden by our Lord, a poor workman, living here In abjection and obscurity."

Wooden hut where Charles livedWooden hut where Charles lived
"I am settled at Nazareth. I live in a wooden hut outside the cloister. God has let me find here, as perfectly as possible what I have been seeking: poverty, solitude, abjection, very simple work, complete obscurity, a life as close as can be to that of our Lord Jesus when he lived in this same Nazareth. I have embraced here the humble and obscure existence of God, Worker at Nazareth."

Charles lived in Nazareth for three years, working and spending long hours of the day and night in silent adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist and in meditation of the Gospel, his living word. His prayer always kept a note of extreme simplicity.

"When we love someone, we want to speak to him endlessly. Prayer is nothing else: a familiar conversation with our Beloved. We gaze at him, we tell him we love him, we rejoice to be at his feet"

"To pray is to think of Jesus and love him."

In the silent hiddenness of Nazareth, Brother Charles, as he now called himself "became rooted in divine friendship. He perceived the Saviour's infinite tenderness for all people and His preferential love, because He is all mercy, for the poorest, the most abandoned, and the most despised.

Charles with his nephewCharles with his nephew

Priesthood

Brother Charles discovered that to love Jesus means to become like him, the friend and brother of everyone, and especially of those who seem the farthest away from knowing Jesus. He understood that he should not only share the labour of Jesus, Worker at Nazareth, but also enter with Him into his work as Saviour.
It was in order to follow Jesus more closely and to participate in his loving for the redemption of the world that Brother Charles accepted to become a priest. For a long time he had feared that this might tear him a-way from imitation of Jesus’ poverty and wished to be a priest, "like Jesus, for the sheep without a shepherd". He wrote later on:

"During my retreats for the diaconate and for the priesthood, I understood that I should lead this life of Nazareth which seemed to be my vocation, not in the dearly loved Holy Land, but among the most forsaken of sheep. I should offer the divine Banquet, not to relatives, not to neighbours, but to the blind and the poor, that is to say, to those most in need of priests."

Beni Abbes—the fraternity begins

Hermitage in Beni-Abbes. Charles with Bishop Guerin of the SaharaHermitage in Beni-Abbes. Charles with Bishop Guerin of the Sahara
Brother Charles was forty-three when he became a priest. Soon after ordination he left for the Sahara and settled in a place called Beni Abbes, very close to the Moroccan border. He had never forgotten this country where there was still not a single priest.


He wanted everyone to look on him as their friend and "brother”.
On December 1st 1901, he celebrated Mass for the first time in the Hermitage of Beni-Abbes.
Charles' ChapelCharles' Chapel

He wished his life there to be centered on the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and he longed to have companions. He started to write a rule of life for small family-like communities of Little Brothers who would lead the hidden life of Nazareth.

Charles' MonstranceCharles' Monstrance

"Everything about us, all that we are, should 'proclaim the Gospel from the housetops'. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

At his hermitage he welcomed a constant stream of visitors, and he often made long journeys into the desert to meet the nomads:
"I never stop meeting people and talking to them: slaves, poor people, soldiers, travellers, those who are ill or who come out of curiosity."

"I would like all the people here, the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews, to look on me as their brother, the universal brother. They are beginning to call my house 'the fraternity', and this makes me very happy."
Charles with the French soldiersCharles with the French soldiers
"The fraternity is a beehive from 5 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 8 p.m.”

The existence of slavery grieved Brother Charles deeply and he constantly tried to persuade the colonial government and friends in France to work to abolish it. He wrote in his Rule:

"We must stand up for the rights of our neighbour who is suffering from injustice; we must defend him all the more vigorously because we see Jesus present in him... Surely this is our duty because of our love for Jesus and our love for others for His sake. We have no right to be 'sleeping watchmen’ or 'dumb watch-dogs'. Whenever we see evil, we must sound the alarm.”

"When an injustice is being done to someone and there is something they can do to help, (the brothers and sisters) will not stand by idly, but will say or do all they can to help. Behind masks and outward appearances, they will see in everyone an inexpressibly sacred being in whom Jesus lives."

"Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light."(Mt 11:28-30).
"Should someone ask me why I am gentle and kindly, I would reply: 'Because I am the servant of One who is so much better than I am: if only you knew how good Jesus, my Master, is.'"

"My Lord Jesus, how quickly someone will become poor who, loving you with all his heart, cannot accept to be richer than his Beloved. How quickly he will become poor who accepts with faith your words, 'If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you own and give the money to the poor'... 'Blessed are the poor.'"

"Set up home as did Jesus at Nazareth,
obscurely, poorly, humbly, as a hard-working labourer. Imitate as closely as possible the humble and hidden existence of the divine Workman of Nazareth, living only from the work of his hands."

"Praising God means to lose ourselves at his feet in words of admration and love. It means to tell him in all the ways we know, that he is infinitely worthy of love. It means to tell him over and. over again and never to stop saying that he is beautiful and that we love him."

"Our love can be measured by how closely we imitate the one we love."

"The amount of good we do does not depend on what we say or on what we do, but on what we are.
It depends on the grace that accompanies our actions, to the extent that Jesus lives in us and that it is Jesus himself who acts in and through us."

"Obedience is the measure of love: let our obedience then be perfect, that our love may be perfect."

"The more we are united to the Church, the more we are united to the Holy Spirit who gives the Church life. The more we love the Church, the more we love our Lord Jesus, whose Body she is."

"Our hearts, like that of the Church, like that of Jesus, must embrace all mankind."

"Down to the last mouthful of bread, let us share with every poor person, every visitor, every stranger who turns up, and let us receive every human being as a dearly loved brother."

"Weakness of human means is a source of strength...Jesus is Master of the Impossible."

"One thing we owe completely to our Lord is never to be afraid of anything."
"Live every minute of the day as if you were to die a martyr in the evening."

In his hermitage as elsewhere, Brother Charles was always concerned about remaining united to the Church. In his writings he often repeated our Lord's words: "Anyone who listens to you listens to me." He also wrote:

Crossing the SaharaCrossing the Sahara

"Obedience is the most perfect expression of self-surrender to Love, because there is no greater manifestation of love than to do the will of the one we love."
But his availability to obey is far from passiveness. When he judged it necessary, he did not hesitate to take the needed initiatives, submitting' them to his Bishop in complete detachment, as we see in this letter written after he decided to leave Beni Abbes for the South:

"If at a later date I receive an order from you not to remain in the South, I will not stay on. I did not leave so hurriedly out of lack of obedience, but because the most perfect obedience, and this is part of its perfection, calls for initiative In certain cases. If I leave without hesitation, it is because I am ready to return in like manner."

First Hermitage in TamanrassetFirst Hermitage in Tamanrasset

In Tamanrasset

Moussa Ag Amastane the leader of the Tuareg in the Hoggar welcomed Charles and trust and friendship grew between them.
“ I live from day to day, trying to do God’s will at every instant he gives me.”

Moussa Ag AmastaneMoussa Ag Amastane
Moussa with CharlesMoussa with Charles
Charles with the TuaregCharles with the Tuareg
Brother Charles remained at Tamanrasset, in the heart of the Tuareg country, seeking simply to become the friend of this people he loved, making himself, as he wrote, "approachable and very little". Here he came to realize more deeply than ever that it was truly Jesus he met in the person of his poor and so deprived brothers.

Paul Embarek and his children who lived with Brother Charles for thirteen years and witnessed his deathPaul Embarek and his children who lived with Brother Charles for thirteen years and witnessed his death
With humble and respectful love, Brother Charles gave himself to his Tuareg brothers and sisters. He wished to become one of them, learning their language and doing an enormous work in linguistics.

He was interested in everything which made up their life and sought with them how to improve their future. He tried to advance step by step with them, whose deepest life he knew from within.

As early as 1904, he translated the Gospel into Tamasheq, the language of the Tuaregs.

Dasine from whom Charles learnt about Tuareg cultureDasine from whom Charles learnt about Tuareg culture
From Charles' note bookFrom Charles' note book

The hour had not yet come to announce it by his words, hut he wished his whole life to be a living Gospel, a sign of the Love of Jesus. He prayed continually for Little Brothers and Sisters to join him.
First Fraternity in TamanrassetFirst Fraternity in Tamanrasset

"Through their example, the brothers and sisters must be living witnesses: In seeing them, one should be able to see what the Christian life is, what the Christian religion is, what the Gospel is and who Jesus is."
"In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. For the salvation of all people, He continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the Holy Eucharist. To work for the salvation of the world, we must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way."

Hermitage where Charles worked on the dictionaryHermitage where Charles worked on the dictionary
Brother Charles had consecrated himself to a life of loving adoration of God and intercession for the Tuareg people, but imitation of Jesus had opened his heart to all people. His love went beyond the boundaries of the Hoggar mountains, reaching out to all the peoples of the world. In February 1910 he jotted in his notebook:

"Pray for the conversion of Japan, and do all you can to make it possible."

Charles with passing nomadsCharles with passing nomads
He had only one concern: to make:
"the salvation of all people the work of my whole life."

He had become the universal Little Brother.

The 'Frigate'chapel in Tamanrasset as it is todayThe 'Frigate'chapel in Tamanrasset as it is today
His life is centred on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament:

"God with us, God in us, God unceasingly giving himself to us. Such is the Eucharist, Jesus whole and entire."

Brother Charles sought to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Jesus' life as Saviour.
"It is by sharing the sufferings of Jesus that we can enter into the great mystery of his joy... profound joy which we experience in proportion to our love for Jesus."

Yet Brother Charles last years were marked "by extreme destitution, and he felt himself getting old. He was always alone.
"Jesus wants me to help build this double family, by suppliant prayer, by immolation, by dying, by becoming holy, in a word, by loving Him."

"This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends." (Jn.15:12-13)
He lived his life of faith in obscurity:
"Loving has to do with wanting to love, not with feeling that one loves."


"Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, 0 Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father."

A friend and brother to allA friend and brother to all
On December 1, 1916, at the age of fifty-eight, Little Brother Charles of Jesus died. He was shot by a frightened boy who had come along with raiding nomads from a neighbouring tribe, caught up in the confusion of the First World War. His death was hidden and silent, like the grain of wheat falling into the earth. He was alone, innocent and defenceless. For Little Brother Charles it was the final act of his loving imitation of Jesus:

"To become a martyr means to become like Jesus; it means to become his brother, his little brother, to the very end, following him hand in hand even to Calvary, and giving him the greatest proof of love: 'A man can have no greater love than Id lay down his life for his friends."

"Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest." (Jn. 12:24)

The grain bears fruit

Fr. Rene Voillaume set out for El Abiodh in the Sahara in 1933 with the first Little Brothers, and in 1936 the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart "began in southern France. In 1939 Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus started the first fraternity of the Little Sisters of Jesus at Touggourt also in the Sahara.

Since then many others priests lay people and religious, have followed Brother Charles in a life consecrated to the imitation of Jesus at Nazareth, and they all constitute his spiritual family. Like him, they are seeking to respond to the deep needs of a world more than ever marked by poverty, social division, and the need to believe.

"Only one thing is necessary: to love Jesus, to follow in His footsteps, hand in hand with Him, to live His life, to think His thoughts, to speak His words, to continue His action."

"Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied. Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven."(Mt. 5:6,10)

Charles'mottoCharles'motto