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Charles de Foucauld, a witness to Jesus and his Gospel
Little sister Kathleen shares some insights into the life of Brother Charles. This talk was given in Montreal in 2016 as part of the centenary celebrations for Brother Charles..A witness is one who steps forward, states his name and then take a step back, because he is not the message.Christian testimony always takes place within a much larger testimony where we find the Trinitarian dynamic of stepping back in order to make space for the other one. And so in talking about Br Charles, the really important thing is through him, to discover something about God.
In calling for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants to put the accent on a certain image of God. He is telling us that today, the big question isn’t “Does God exist” but “What is God like?” The year of Mercy invites us to search for God’s true face. Saint Teresa of Avila for whom Br Charles had a special love liked to say that in order to find God you need a “determined determination”. Searching for God isn’t a search for knowledge. What we get is not information but transformation. When we find him we shall be like him.
If there is one word that summarizes what guided Br Charles’ discipleship, it would be the word, “imitate”.
In order to do the work of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, you need to be his arms, his hands, his tongue, his members, living his life in such a way that He live in us. To imitate Jesus is, “the one thing needed”. 1
Who is Br Charles?He was born in Strasbourg in 1858, into an aristocratic French family that could trace its lineage back several centuries. He was a Viscount in a society that was very marked by the class mentality.
He recalled his childhood as being both “bitter and sweet”. Sweet…because he was a well loved child, bitter because he lost both parents at a very young age. He was only 4 years old when his father began to show signs of mental illness. He was sent to Paris for treatment and died two years later in a psychiatric hospital. The mother seems to have been so deeply affected by her husband’s condition that she fell into a nervous state that resulted in her own death several months before her husband’s. Her dying words were, “May your will be done” Those words are central to Br Charles’ prayer of abandonment and it is worth pondering how deeply they resonated in his own life.
Both orphans were taken in by their maternal grandfather who treated them with great affection but perhaps did not always show the firmness a strong willed boy like Charles might have needed. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1864, Strasbourg reverted to Germany and those who wanted to remain French had to leave the city. His grandfather was among those who chose exile and so by the time he was 6 Charles had lost father, mother, home, friends and school. It left its mark on him. He will be a loner.
His first communion took place in Nancy when he was 14 but very quickly he lost his faith. He attributed that to the things he read.
“I was left so free so young.” 2Rationalism was in its heyday and he devoured books. Sometimes his friend Gabriel Tourdes had to read him passages from Voltaire and Aristophanes while he did his morning wash or smoked his hookah in bed.
He was sent to high school with the Jesuits in Paris to prepare for the exams that gained admittance to St Cyr, an illustrious establishment where army officers were prepared. While there he fell into what he would later call a deplorable state of mind, writing to his grandfather every other day letters that were sometimes 40 pages long, begging to be allowed to return home to Nancy. It ended with him being expelled. Later on he will recall that “laziness wasn’t the only reason”. “Bored” and “fed up” are words that constantly appeared in his letters. His grandfather had to hire a private tutor and, Having had his own way, Charles did very well in his exam for St Cyr. Even though there was a bit of trouble finding a uniform big enough for Fats de Foucauld he was now embarked on a military career. His conduct at St Cyr and Saumur (cavalry officer training) was marked by a lack of discipline, lots of girlfriends and extravagant living, especially after coming into his inheritance following his grandfather’s death.
Years later as he reflected back on this period of his life he addressed the following words to God:
You made me feel a deep sadness, a painful hollowness, a sadness that I have never experienced except for then…it would come over me every evening when I found myself alone in my apartment…it weighed on me and kept me silent through what are called “parties”. I would plan them, but then when the time came I only felt infinitely bored, disgusted and speechless.In order to really appreciate what faith brought him, one has to measure the emptiness he experienced in his youth. After his conversion Br Charles did not forget his past. He did not recall his years as a bad boy just to ask God for forgiveness, but in order to give him thanks. He had turned his back on God but God had never ceased loving him. The sadness and emptiness were God’s gift, a voice calling him back, an absence full of presence. Those years would in fact serve to reveal who God was.
He managed to scrape through his officer’s training and in 1880 was sent to Algeria where colonization had begun 50 years earlier. He was immediately enraptured by the land and its people.
Islam shook me profoundly…the sight of their faith, of these people living in God’s constant presence afforded me a glimpse into something greater and truer than earthly preoccupations.3He always hated life in a garrison and decided to “not waste his youth” but quit the army and go travelling.
Worried by his instability and the speed with which his inheritance was melting away, his family went to court to have him declared incompetent and named a legal guardian who would manage his estate. He responded by breaking off relations with them.
In spite of his new financially constraints his mind was made up and he spent the next 15 months in Algiers preparing an expedition into Morocco. At the time, it was forbidden territory for Europeans. Being incapable of passing himself off for an Arab, he decided to dress up as a Jew. He hired Mardoché, a real Moroccan Jew to act as guide and that allowed him to travel, exploring the interior of the country and filling in the blanks on maps. Upon his return the French Geographical Society awarded him its Gold Medal.
As he prepared the publication of his findings back in Paris, his family welcomed him like the prodigal son. There were no questions, only affection, and that touched him deeply. He could guess that there was a connection between this attitude and their faith. His fascination with geography was beginning to wane and a new land, interior this time, beckoned. Was there a God? As was his custom, he first looked for help in books, but they left him disappointed. The only place he found solace was in churches, repeating what he called an odd prayer,
“My God, if you exist, let me know you.”He prayed to God before he believed in him.
One day he said to his cousin Marie de Bondy,
“You are so lucky to be able to believe! I am seeking for light and I can’t find it.”She answered him, “Do you really believe that searching all alone is the right way to go about it?” She steered him to Fr Huvelin. Just as he had looked for a professor of Arabic when he wanted to learn a language, so he now looked for a good religion teacher with the intention of asking him for lessons. He found him in his confessional one morning. Fr. Huvelin had certainly met him before and had the intuition that his search had already lasted too long because it remained only on an intellectual level. God is not a concept that you seize with your mind, but a person you meet. He invited him to enter into the sacrament of confession. He was taken aback but complied. Immediately afterwards he was sent to communion. A new love flooded his soul. He always cried when recalling this moment. His logo Jesus Love expresses this root experience that will accompany his whole life. He didn’t discover that Jesus is Love in a book, but found it inscribed on the pages of his life.
His conversion experience will generate an immense confidence. Pope Francis would say he had been mercied. Not only did Jesus choose the least in order to save them but he made them his closest friends and apostles. He will draw on that when he writes his rule.
Who am I to found a congregation, me an old sinner.But Jesus said that he who had been forgiven much would love more.
Theophany in Nazareth
Br Charles will say that,
“As soon as I knew that there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for Him alone. My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith.” 4Nevertheless, Fr Huvelin made him wait. He sent him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Did he sense that the explorer needed to see and touch Jesus’ land? He arrived at Christmas time and went to Bethlehem. It is there that the Saviour was born…in the lowest place. There was no room for him at the inn. His crib was a feeding trough for animals. From Bethlehem he went to Jerusalem where Jesus ended his life…again in the lowest place, crucified between two criminals. From Jerusalem his pilgrimage led him to Nazareth. It was a small town under Turkish occupation. The streets were filthy but that is where he will experience a kind of theophany. And as he walked along that he realized that the choice for the lowest place wasn’t just at the beginning and end but every day of his life. At Nazareth, he who had first had his religious awakening at the sounds of Allah Akbar (God the greater) sung from the minarets, experienced a shock and a call. His vocation would be to go down, to follow the man of Nazareth. And in fact, there are 30 years between his conversion and his death, just the span of the years Jesus spent at Nazareth.
Words from a sermon by Fr Huvelin will engrave themselves upon his soul:
“Jesus embraced the lowest place so totally, that never was anyone able to wrestle it from him.”“To go down” will be words that synthesize Jesus’ life and when he begins searching for a religious congregation his criteria will be whether they live Nazareth.
On a visit to a Trappist monastery close to his cousin’s chateau, he sees an old monk coming in from the fields. His robe was torn and his clogs all muddied. He was enthralled! Here at last was a congregation that lived Nazareth.
He was 32 when he entered the Trappists. He will say that leaving his family was the greatest sacrifice of his life. One cannot imagine the depth of attachment that had sprung up, especially towards his cousin Marie. But Jesus had given him all and he wanted to respond by giving all.
Once a Trappist his exemplary behaviour will cause the Abbot of the monastery to say,
“Our brother Marie Alberic 5 seems like an angel in our midst. The only thing he’s missing is wings!”The novice master will note, “Too much perfection and that worries me.”
He was right. Charles only lasted 7 years as a Trappist. Problems began to appear very quickly. Even though he was sent off to a very poor monastery in Syria6, it will never be poor enough. The community needed to build roads in order to get their agricultural produce to market. Who could be better suited for the job than this novice who had a Gold medal from the Geography Society? Br Charles obeyed unenthusiastically. Jesus of Nazareth hadn’t been in charge of work crews. One day he was sent to keep wake beside an old Armenian Christian who had just died. But what a difference between his hovel and the monastery! He was not finding Nazareth at the Trappists.
Three years after entering he began corresponding with Fr Huvelin to express his doubts. In spite of encouraging him to persevere, Fr Huvelin eventually had to face the fact that “something stronger” was pushing him elsewhere. He reluctantly gave him permission to express his doubts to his superiors.
“Your soul is becoming painfully divided and you are no longer where you are: the soul is where it loves.”Br Charles knew no half measures. He interpreted Fr. Huvelin’s reluctant permission as an order from heaven to request a dispensation and found a new congregation. He had been toying with the idea for quite a while. He immediately sent Fr Huvelin the Rule he had written for a congregation he wished to call the Little Brothers of Jesus. On reading it, Fr Huvelin was horrified:
“Impossible rule. There’s everything there except for common sense. I am so sorry…What worries me above all, my dear child is to see you found or think of founding something. I don’t see you as a spiritual director! Your rule is totally unworkable.”
Troubled that perhaps he was being deluded he decided to leave the final discernment to the Trappists. He expressed his desires to them but said that he was prepared to make solemn vows if the Order deemed that it was God’s will. It’s in this context that he wrote the meditation which is the basis for the Prayer of Abandonment. “Father, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will”. On January 23, 1897 the Abbot General gave his decision: Br Charles was called elsewhere.
Even though he left the Trappists his monastic formation left its mark on him.
“To be alone in the universe with God alone. It’s the first lesson which Fr. Polycarp gave me and I bless him for this lesson”.
Leaving the Trappists was both a moment of liberation and confusion. Fr Huvelin had forbidden him to found a new congregation and he couldn’t find one that corresponded to his desires. So he decided to return to Nazareth, where everything had begun. He arrived March 5, 1897 with a turban around his head, a long striped shirt, torn trousers and a huge rosary around his waist, the likes of which was strong enough to attach a calf! To his way of thinking, this strange outfit sung out the, “exquisite poem of divine abjection.” But the Poor Clare sisters who welcomed him said that it made him look ridiculous and destitute. He offered them his services as a workman in exchange for a daily piece of dry bread and a place to live. The Sisters had been forewarned that this strange looking man was in fact Viscount Charles de Foucauld and so they offered him a room. He, however, requested a tool shed he had caught sight of at the back of their property. They granted his request and he moved in, naming it, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help”. As far as his manual abilities went, the sisters recall that, “He didn’t know how to plant a lettuce.” But he reminded them of their patron Saint Francis and, apart from going to the post office, serving Mass and drawing holy picturess for them, he lived as a hermit.
Those three and a half years in Nazareth will shape him spiritually.
He spent much of his time in meditation. In his prayer he literally imagined himself to be the little brother in the house at Nazareth, surrounded by Mary and Joseph who taught him to adore his big brother Jesus. There were moments of great peace interrupted by periods of dryness and anxiety. It’s hardly surprising that a man who had criss-crossed Morocco on foot did not find it easy to be cooped up in a tiny hermitage.
Already three months after his arrival he wrote:
Dryness and darkness: everything is painful: holy communion, prayers, meditation, everything, everything, even to tell Jesus that I love him…I have to cling with all my might to my life of faith. If at least I felt that Jesus loves me…But he never says it to me.7…
Two beacons will shed light on his way: Scripture and the Eucharist
Fr Huvelin will tell him to write,
“because it’s a form of meditation which suits you well. It prevents you from drifting in your thoughts.”And he will write thousands of pages. It will help him a lot, but it doesn’t always help his readers!
Speaking personally, when I first became acquainted with Charles de Foucauld I found his writings most distasteful. Those written in Nazareth (when he wrote most of the spiritual writings we have) were especially saccharine and repetitive. I made a breakthrough the day I understood that what was important wasn’t so much the content as the sheer quantity of his Scriptural meditations. They represented a huge amount of work to get to know Jesus, because you cannot love what you do not know.
Commenting the same thing Fr. Voillaume wrote:
Br Charles gave us much more through his life than through his teachings. He wasn’t commissioned to teach or preach. Even his writings aren’t so much a teaching as the living and direct transmission of the daily rhythm of his life of intimacy with God. His writings are only meditations, insights into his intimate life: they are acts. 8
At the heart life in Nazareth he places the Eucharist because that is where Jesus is bodily present today. The Eucharist is the continuation of the Incarnation, where we see the human face of God. That is why he loved adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament. It is a form of prayer that puts the accent on Presence.
The Sacrament of the Altar and the Sacrament of a sister/brother
It’s under the guidance of St. John Chrysostom, whom he read a great deal at the time, that the two beacons merged into one light. Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist was inseparable from his presence in the least of his brothers and sisters.
I think that there is no passage in the Gospel which has made a deeper impression on me nor transformed my life more profoundly than this: ‘Whatsoever you do to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me”. When we reflect that these are the very words of Uncreated Truth, those of the mouth which said, “This is my body, this is my blood”, how powerfully we are impelled to seek and love Jesus in these little ones, sinners, poor people. 9
This is one of the most notable accents of his spirituality because it is the unifying principle in a life that will often be torn between a presence to God alone and a presence to the least of human beings. It is a heritage which he bequeaths to us. The sacrament of the altar and of the poor are inseparable.
He meditated the Scriptures a great deal because knowledge feeds love but love generates action. And so the question became: Where did he stand with the sacrament of the poor? What was he doing for others? After 3 and a half years in Nazareth he was no longer at peace in his hermitage.
He wanted to belong to something, but could not find an Order which “kept Jesus company in Nazareth”. In spite of Fr. Huvelin’s admonitions, he could not shake the idea of founding something himself. He spent his last months in Nazareth writing Constitutions and Rules for a congregation he wanted to call the “Hermits of the Sacred Heart”. But in order to found such a group, he would have to be a priest. Until then he had been firmly resolved against ordination since it appeared contrary to his desire to “go down”. And so, putting aside such reservations he began to actively seek the means to receiving ordination. Having been refused by the Bishop of Jerusalem he wrote to Fr Huvelin asking for guidance and then took the next boat for France. When Fr. Huvelin heard that he was on his way he sent a note to inform his cousin Marie de Bondy. He ended with, “The cannon ball has been fired, who can stop it!” Letters written by those who were close to him reveal their disquiet before this repeated instance of instability. He arrived at Fr. Huvelin’s place in Paris and spent the night with him before taking the train next morning to the Trappists. Marie de Bondy received another little note from Fr. Huvelin, “
I received your dear cousin…his outfit was strange. He seemed tired and not very present. He might be sick. But he was very tender. He is a very holy soul. He wants to be a priest. I told him how to go about it. He had little, too little money. I gave him some. He knew my thoughts very well: I had sent them to him in a telegram. But something stronger is pushing him. Besides, has a spiritual director ever really directed anyone? But I don’t need to lead him. I only need to admire him and love him.”
Even though he was no longer a Trappist, the community held Br Charles in high regard and arranged for his preparation and ordination by the local bishop. The retreat that preceded his ordination as a deacon was another important turning point. He went back to the Rule he had written in Nazareth and crossing out the word “Hermit” replaced it with “Little Brother”. He had initially thought of returning to the Holy Land but now it became clear to him that becoming a servant of the divine banquet impelled him to bring it, not where the land was holiest but where people were in the greatest need. Morocco immediately came to his mind but was still closed to Europeans. And so there was still Algeria. In spite of hostile relations between the French Republic and the Church, he received all the necessary military and ecclesial permissions in very little time.
A Little Brother in Beni Abbes
At 43 years old he settled in Beni Abbes, a big oasis on the Moroccan border. The White Fathers has already begun missions among the Muslim people, but he was firmly convinced that it was the contemplative life that prepared the way for evangelization. It was a means of clearing the ground, making it ready to receive the grain. He set off,
to bring the Gospel, not by preaching as did St Francis’ first holy disciples, which isn’t my vocation and doesn’t seem to me to be the way to make Jesus known and loved; but by founding a monastic colony of poor monks and adorers of the Blessed Sacrament.10
With his cousin’s money he bought a few acres of land half way between the ksars11 in the oasis and the French army garrison. He built a little monastery which he called the Fraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He planted enough date trees to feed a community of 25-30 little brothers. Through his writings one can sense how happy he was to finally be “at home”, to give material substance to the vision he had carried within for so long. In the chapel he painted a life size Sacred Heart with open arms, “in order to welcome and embrace all people.”
I want all the inhabitants, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish, to look on me as their brother, the universal brother. They are starting to call my house “the fraternity” and that gives me real joy. 12
In calling himself a universal little brother, he wished to reveal to those around him the infinite mystery of friendship for mankind hidden in God, and which was revealed in the heart of Jesus. But his open door policy was going to result in a flood!
Every day I have guests for dinner and supper. Some sleep over. The place has never been empty. One night there were 11 people! Without counting the blind old lady who’s here on a permanent basis, I have between 60 and 100 visitors a day.
Circumstances drove him from being a monk to a life of full ministerial activity. French officers would come to Mass. Bored soldiers started attending evening benediction. That meant preparing them sermons. He ransomed several young slaves, including a 3-year-old whom he called Abd Jesu. Unable to trust any one else with him, he had to look after him for a full year before being able to send him to an orphanage run by the White Sisters. He was alone for all the tasks that would normally require 25 brothers. After the initial thrill at being able to minister to Jesus in the flesh of these poor brothers and sisters, he began to feel increasingly torn between his Rule of Life and the demands of a situation he could barely cope with. It found eloquent expression in his oft-repeated plans for a thick and high wall of enclosure which would never go beyond being a line of stones on the ground. He himself would not go beyond the boundary but everyone else could come in.
He made repeated appeals to the White Fathers and Trappists to send him candidates. None were sent. In spite of their unbounded admiration, they considered it imprudent to encourage candidates for a pious and admirable undertaking, whose success nonetheless seemed unlikely. Who could be of Br Charles’ calibre?
Among the Tuaregs
As at the Trappists and Nazareth, Br Charles had settled in Beni Abbes, declaring that he was going to stay there for ever. But as soon as he says forever, that mean means that he will soon be gone. His life can be disconcerting as it is made up of a series of different stages that are all relatively short lived. But they do in fact have a direction. For him what was essential was to live a great love with Jesus. That always came before any state of life.
Henri Laperrine, a friend from his days as a young soldier, now the general in charge of the oases in Algeria asked him to take part in an expedition among the Tuaregs of the southern Sahara. They are a nomadic nation who speak a Berber language. They had a fierce reputation, but so long as the Sahara was of no interest to the French they were left in peace. Things changed as European powers consolidated their empires. France wished to create a link between its colonies in northern and central Africa. But in order to do that they needed to control the Sahara. In spite of a few battles, the Tuaregs were no match for the French army and had to submit to the rule of the invader. Some of the more enlightened military authorities such as Laperrine preferred to seek a peaceful understanding with them rather than enforced submission. He organized lengthy tours in order to meet the people and tribal leaders. He invited Br Charles to join him. He knew that a man of God would have far more influence than gunpowder.
Br Charles was not immediately keen. He was 50 years old. The expedition meant trekking thousands of kilometres in the desert heat and in the company of soldiers. It would be impossible to follow the regular prayer life for which he had longed.
Br Antoine Chatelard who has studied the life of Br Charles in depth speaks of a “call” to go to the Tuaregs. A call is something which disturbs us, and yet corresponds to a desire we carry deep within. What attracted him was the thought of bringing Jesus present in the Eucharist to places where he had not yet been. No priest could ever obtain permission to go there and here he was, being invited to go.
As he journeyed with the military caravan, he began to envisage not just visiting the Tuaregs but settling among them. He began to note locations might be favourable to building a “fraternity|”. Near a waterpoint called Tit, at a crossroad for desert tracks he saw two possibilities: one was among the boulders between the wadi and the track. It had the advantage of being easy to build but prone to many visitors. He saw another possible location, at the summit of a nearby rocky range. That had the disadvantage of involving costly labour being far from the track, it would provide him with solitude. Having weighed the pros and cons of both, he addressed Jesus in prayer asking him to help him discern. He noted the answer he heard:
It is love which must recollect you in me and not distancing yourself from my children. See me in them, and like me in Nazareth, live close to them, lost in God.. The journey towards the destitute people of the Sahara would lead him on a new path of contemplation which was not based on breaking with “the world” but sprang from relationships with people, especially the poorest.
He returned to Beni Abbes in January 1905 having trekked almost 1000 kilometres. He was exhausted. In letters to his cousin he complained of aching teeth and migraine. But hardly had he settled back into the calm of life at Beni Abbes that in April he again received a letter from Laperrine offering him a place in another expedition towards this south. Unsure of how to respond he wrote to Fr. Huvelin and his bishop who both happened to be in Paris at the time. He explained that he was being asked to set off again but was inclined to refuse. Fr. Huvelin, who until this point had often urged him to lead a more settled life, asked the Bishop which would be more useful for his mission and the latter admitted that no priest but Br Charles would ever receive permission to go into those territories. It was Good Friday and that evening they sent him a telegram with the words, “Suggest you accept”. Br Charles received the telegram the following day and noted in his book of meditations:
Lord, you who gave yourself for me, …I give myself to you, I give myself to you, I give myself to you. At the foot of your cross and your sepulchre, with Mary Magdeleine, breaking the alabaster jar and pouring out the perfume…Here I am, I come to do your will”. I give myself to you in order to obey and imitate you with all my strength.
But it was not just a case of obedience because the suggestion in fact met with something that was urging him inwardly. He set off yet again but this time he never returned. He met Moussa ag Amastane the chief of the Tuaregs who gave him permission to remain in Tamanrasset, a village that counted 20 fires. In six days his house was built: made of earth and stone, it consisted in two rooms, each 1.75 m by 2.75m. Outside there was a grass hut which he called the refectory and room for Paul, a 15 year old boy he had redeemed from slavery in Beni Abbes and brought with him since he expressed the wish to become a Christian. One can imagine his loneliness as the French soldiers moved on, leaving him behind. They promised to try to establish a monthly postal relay through Tamanrasset and he sold them his camel.
I will remain alone, happy, very happy to be alone with Jesus, alone for Jesus. 14
The beginnings were very difficult. He did not know the language and the local people did not welcome him very warmly. On top of having been placed there by the occupying power, they had to share the water with him. He had no other protection than Moussa’s word.
He wrote to his Bishop that with Paul they were having Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament each evening to give them courage in their “extreme solitude.”
He immediately set about studying the Tuareg language. Already on the road he had begun to translate the Gospel with the help of the military interpreter. But now that he was actually living among Tuaregs, he realized that his translations were of little value. The language was much more complex than he had been led to believe. Having no idea where to begin he invited a friend from Algiers called Motylinski. The man was an expert in Berber languages. He made Br Charles understand that when you want to learn a language, you don’t begin by translating what you want to say but by listening to what the people themselves say. So they set about gathering their poems and songs. After Motylinski’s departure Br Charles continued on his own. These will form the basis for his study of the language.
The following year was devastating for the villagers. “It has hardly rained in 17 months. Famine is raging in this land which mostly lives off milk and where the poor live only on milk. The goats are as dry as the land and the people as dry as the goats.” 15 He distributed his stock of wheat and ate so little and so badly that he came down with scurvy and nearly died. This time, he was the one who was poor and it was the Tuaregs’ turn to look after him. Moussa ordered the women to gather milk within a 4km radius. It was this growing reciprocity which allowed a true friendship to blossom. Later on he wrote to a friend in France:
I have spent all of 1912 here in this village of Tamanrasset. The Tuaregs are very consoling neighbours; I cannot tell you how good they are to me, how upright I find some of them. One or two of them are real friends, something that is so rare and precious anywhere.
He had hoped to work on the language only a few years but it occupied the rest of his life, finishing only 2 months before his death. The final document was 2028 hand written pages long… “a huge undertaking written on the edge of a crate, by candlelight”. Dassine, a Tuareg noblewoman said, “He knows our language better than we do”.
Behind all that is the concept that you don’t present the gospel to a people who have been crushed, but to a people whose dignity you recognize.
Today his dictionary preserves the memory of a language and culture which risks disappearing in southern Algeria due to Arabic influence.
The Apostolate of goodness
Br Charles frequently expressed his disappointment at seeing France getting wealthy from her colonies without a true commitment to improving the lives of the people in Algeria. He wrote to Fr. Huvelin:
I would like to ask your advice for one thing: our Algeria…for the past 70 years we have had more than 3 million Muslims there for whose moral progress we really haven’t done anything. The million Europeans residing in Algeria live totally cut off from them…ignoring everything that regards them…looking at them as strangers and most of the time as enemies. The duties of a people who have colonies are not those. 16
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul described the role of lay people in evangelisation at the birth of Christianity and he increasingly pondered on the good that some “Priscillas and Aquilas” might do in the Hoggar. He began to plan for an association for Christians who were concerned with the welfare of people living in their colonies. In this he was a forerunner of Vatican II which would speak so much about the apostolate of the laity. It was not easy to organize from Tamanrasset and it was in order to get this association off the ground that he undertook 3 trips to France.
He took a young Tuareg, Ouksem, son of his good friend Chikat as a travelling companion during his last trip to France which lasted three months. He wrote to his cousin:
“It means taking a lot of time away from my parish and from my parishoners. They’re all Muslim but that fact means that I need to look after them that much more. A long time spent one on one with the best among them will be useful to all.
During his stay with his sister, the former officer learned knitting in order to be able to teach it to his friends back in the Sahara. He not only brought back knitting needles and wool but cotton seed. He wrote to his cousin to send him more. “All these things are useful spiritually because everything hangs together.” 17 When he returned to Algeria, Ouksem wrote a letter to Br charles’ nephew: “The knitting goes on. Me a gazelle, the marabout a snail!”
He also taught them to make bricks with the result that 10 years after his arrival, huts made out of reeds had become a thing of the past.
Saviour with Jesus
In spite of his best efforts, Br Charles saw himself growing old without anyone coming to continue what he had begun in such labours. The absence of fruit had tormented him in his younger years. In 1908 he wrote to Fr. Huvelin,
It’s been over 21 years since you gave me back to Jesus and became my father; almost 18 years since I entered religious life; I’m in my 50th year: what a harvest I should have both for myself and for others! But instead of that I have only wretchedness and destitution for myself and not the least good for others…A tree is known by the fruit it bears and that reveals what I am. Please pray for your poor and unworthy child. 18
With time however, he came to understand his apparent failure in peace. He called it taking part in the work of the Saviour:
The means he used at the Crib, in Nazareth and on the cross were: poverty abjection, humility, abandonment, persecution, suffering and cross. These are our arms, those of our divine spouse who asks us to allow him to continue his life in us…Let us follow this one and only model and then we shall be sure of doing much good, for then it shall no longer be us who live but He who lives in us. Our actions will no longer be our human and miserable actions, but His divinely efficient ones. 19
Those words cast light on the tragic circumstances surrounding his death. He was killed on December 1 as night fell on Tamanrasset. In the context of the First World War, the Sahara had become a dangerous place, many of the French soldiers having been called back to Europe. The little fort he built in Tamanrasset to protect its inhabitants in case of attack was ambushed by a group of Tuareg rebels under the influence of the Senussi movement. One of them pretended to be the postman. He opened the door and was shot in the head.
It happened to be the first Friday of the month, a day traditionally attributed to the Sacred Heart. Later on, the French soldiers come from Fort Motylinski to investigate what happened found the pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament. It had been tossed into the ground alongside his body. Imitation had reached its accomplishment.
I began by calling Br Charles a witness. He testifies to a God who revealed his human face at Nazareth and became our brother to save us. The men and women of the desert knew of no other Sacred Heart than his, a divine love which addressed them through a human heart, and humbly sought their response.
Among the letters he had intended for the postman that December 1 was one to his cousin. His final words are an eloquent testimony to the man and his friendship with his Beloved Brother and Lord:
When we can suffer and love, we can do much, it’s the most that we can do in this world: We feel our suffering, but we don’t always feel that we love and that’s an additional suffering! But we know that we want to love and to want to love is to love.
2 Lettre à Marie de Bondy 17 avril 1892
3 Lettre a Henri de Castries 1901 07 08
4 Lettre a H de Castries 14 aout 1901
5 Name he received as a Trappist since he took the habit on the feast of St Alberic.
6 Due to government persecution, many convents and monasteries built houses outside of France where they could seek refuge in case of expulsion.
7 16 juin 1897 Voyageur dans la Nuit
8 R Voillaume Lettres 1 p. 317
9 1 aout 1916 lettre à L Massignon
10 Lettre à Marie de Bondy 30 mars 1902
11 Type of village in north Africa with connecting mud brick constructions.
12 Lettre à Mme de Bondy, 7 janvier 1902.
13 21 avril 1905
14 3 sept 1905 Lettre à Marie de Bondy
15 Lettres à Mme de Bondy, 17 juillet 1907, op. cit., p. 160.
16 22 nov 1907 lettre a Abbé Huvelin
17 Lettre à Marie de Bondy, 16 avril 1915
18 1 janvier 1908
19 Guérin 15 janvier 1908