Charles de Foucauld in 1904-1905

Priorities

Thus he established his priorities. Captain Dinaux, who afterwards became a general, in article written later describes Charles on the journey.

“He walked at a lively pace, bent forward, leading a camel by the reins, while his catechumen, Paul, led the other. His face was emaciated. His beard was bushy, and he used to trim it himself, with great strokes of the scissors. His face was lit up by the deep expression in his eyes, which were ardent and penetrating, and the great toothless smile which betrayed at all times the affectionate sympathy and goodwill he had for everyone. Humility, gentleness, spirituality, all these were expressed in his nervous body, which was controlled by his will, and a desire for spirit to triumph over matter. You could not help loving and respecting him. He wore a white gandoura, with a leather belt round his waist, and a rosary with big black beads. On his breast he had sewn the red heart with the cross above it.... his bare feet were cracked, but he had stitched together some camel-skin shoes for himself, which he held on by a cord between the toes.”

What is remarkable is, of course, that while all the others in the convoy were on horseback or camel-back, Charles walked. Sometimes it was a stage of forty kilometres, dictated by the pace of the camels. Sometimes they did a forced march to cross a particular part of the desert, travelling by night as well as by day. From 5 a.m. the sun was incredibly hot,with a temperature in the shade between 40 and 50 degrees: each of them drank 8 or ten litres of water each day. He was unbelievably tough. When they reached the place where they were to camp, and the soldiers collapsed on to their sleeping bags, Charles went all round the camp making sure that the officers and men were all right, doling out medicines and little glasses of altar wine, and paying particular attention to the native soldiers. He would go back to his own tent then, and start his language studies, studies which he was to maintain until his death 11 years later. He was determined to be a brother to the Touareg, and how could you be a brother without being able to talk ? And indeed Charles was notorious for striking up conversations with Africans of all descriptions, throughout this interminable journey, and however tired he was. Writing to his cousin, he talks about “breaking the ice”, and gaining people’s confidence and friendship. “With all my power,” he says in a letter to his spiritual director in Paris, “I try to show these poor lost brothers that our religion is all charity, all fraternity, and that its symbol is a heart.”

TouaregTouareg

But there was another motive for his studies, and that was to translate the four Gospels. Years before, during his four years in Nazareth, he had developed an incredible love for the Gospels. He wanted above all to share their secret with everyone he met. The project mushroomed even beyond this, and eventually Charles was to devote all his waking hours to composing a Touareg dictionary, a colossal undertaking.