Charles de Foucauld: On being a friend

Father Tony Philpot, a close friend of our community for many years and member of the Jesus-Caritas priests' fraternity, one of the groups in the spiritual family of Charles de Foucauld, shared some thoughts on the witness of Brother Charles to a group of little sisters gathered in Rome this year, for a time of renewal and prayer. We thought we'd share some of his words with you:

Br Charles' hospitalityBr Charles' hospitality

How often the practice of religion can seem grim and hard! I remember the nuns who ran a convent school in my town, where I began my education in the 1940's. They were good women, but very serious, and their spirituality was demanding and unsympathetic, founded more on fear than on love—although I do not think they themselves were aware of this.

You might have expected Charles de Foucauld to have the same attitude. The catechism taught in his childhood was quite severe, and the accent on sin was very strong. After his conversion as an adult, he was if anything more aware of sin and of the need for individual repentance. Such a training could make a Christian very self-centered and rigid.

And yet, what people saw in him was friendliness. He knew how to smile, he knew how to put people at ease. There is a charming description of Brother Charles crossing the Sahara desert. He travelled with a military convoy, and all the others rode horses or camels. Charles walked. He had some rough sandals which he had made for himself, and he walked. Each night when they arrived at the place where they were to camp, everyone was exhausted. But Charles would go right around the camp visiting the soldiers. He had a bag full of medicines which he was accustomed to giving to the Arabs at Beni-Abbes. These he put at the disposal of the troops. He also carried with him a quantity of altar wine, so that he could celebrate Mass in the morning. He would distribute this too to the tired and thirsty soldiers. He had a great ability to meet and greet people where they were, and not where they ought to be. He was essentially a kind man. A captain who travelled with him talked of his "toothless smile."

A French general came on a tour of inspection while Charles was still at Beni-Abbes. He was curious about this hermit who had once been a soldier, and decided to test him out. He threw an all-night party for the officers: plenty to drink, plenty of coarse mili tary humor and coarse military songs. He did this in part to test Br. Charles, to see if he would run away. He was astonished to see that the Saint remained for the whole night, with the utmost friendliness for everyone who was there, and without any disapproval. In the early morning Charles slipped away to celebrate Mass, and the general decided to accompany him. He came back to the barracks in a state of astonishment. "I have been a Catholic all my life," he said, "but I have never witnessed a Mass like that." He was overcome both by the humanity of Brother Charles, but also by his holiness.

Another general, Laperrine, was an intimate friend of Charles de Foucauld. They had known one another since they were cadets together at College. They met again in Algeria, and renewed their friendship. In 1913, Laperrine wrote of Charles,

"He has conquered the hearts of all the Europeans who have met him in the Sahara. Most of them have kept up a correspondence with him, sharing with him their troubles and their joys, often asking his advice. Among these I know personally a Jew, several Protestants, and a man who was the secretary of the revolutionary youth movement of a big city in southern France. The same thing happened with the native population. There are Chambas and Tuaregs without number who have a tremendous veneration for him, along with a very solid friendship."

There was a tremendous charm about this eccentric man when he approached you: his extraordinary home-made religious habit, dusty and creased; his worn feet in those home-made sandals; his odd turban-like headdress; his forgetfulness and unconcern about his appearance; but above all his toothless smile, the laughter-lines around his eyes, the tone of his voice, his real interest in every individual. He was basically a very friendly man, not a severe man.

And of course it doesn't start with Charles. It starts with Jesus. So many examples of loving friendliness—think of the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus is travelling through Samaria, which is an unfriendly place. He sits by the well, and the woman approaches to draw water. "Give me a drink," says Jesus. The answer, to begin with, is hostile. "What, you, a Jew, and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?" Racial hatred and sarcasm are normal features of our world, and always have been. But Jesus persists, he does not take offence. It does not say in the Gospel that he smiled at her, but it is clear that he did. When he goes on to talk about 'living water,' it isn't a catechism lesson! It's an invitation... At the beginning of John's Gospel we have the calling of the first disciples.  It happens in the most friendly way. Jesus turns and sees two them following at a distance, and he says, "What do you want?" and they say, "Rabbi, where do you live?" and he says, "Come and see." It's affectionate and warm, this encounter. We are told that "they stayed with him the rest of that day." Again, it wasn't a catechism lesson. It was something much more personal.

And Nicodemus, coming by night. Nicodernus must have been embarrassed, for he was a Pharisee. But Jesus puts him at ease; otherwise, he would not have stayed for so long, while Our Lord talked about birth in the Spirit, and baptism, and spoke those sublime lines, "Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son...."

Often in the work I do in the parish, I have to deal with people who have dropped out of the Church, and the problem goes back generations. Adults who are not baptized, who know nothing about the Gospel or sacraments, who never go to Mass.  Poor immigrant people. Often I do not know where to begin. But I'm beginning to realize that I must always begin with a smile, with befriending the chil dren, with finding out where their home town is back in their country, with wasting time with them. I must not be a functionary. I must be a friend. In this way I can build a foundation on which, in his own way and in his own time, the Lord can build.