Cry the Gospel with your Life - A talk given at the Methodist Church in Edmonton , North East London

I understand you have been looking at different aspects of the Bible and its importance in our lives for today?

I find it appropriate then to share with you something of the life of Charles de Foucauld and how we Little sisters who have been friends with members of this community for so many years are inspired by the witness of his life. Charles wanted to shout the Gospel – God’s word - from the rooftops not by his words but by his whole life.

Jesus was the Word, the Word of the Father.
"And the Word was made flesh and lived among us"

Charles helps us deepen our understanding of what Incarnation means. This became the passion of his life. He wrote:
‘Everything must be enfolded in love… I have lost my heart to this Jesus of Nazareth.’
I suggest we jump in at the deep end, and from the start, get a glimpse of the radicalism of Charles. What was motivating him from within? He writes in one of his meditations:

“A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”
'I desire with all my heart to give my life for you. I ask you with insistence for this; however not my will, but yours be done.’
Charles was led through the different stages of his journey, to an extraordinary resemblance to the Lord Jesus. This resemblance is all the more striking if we take into account his life’s itinerary.

Charles was born into a happy family but orphaned at the age of six; he and his young sister were brought up by their elderly grandfather. He lost all faith in God during adolescence, influenced by his voracious reading of authors who put in doubt the existence of God. He threw away a huge inherited fortune on high living and pleasure during military school where he was bored stiff. After a period in the army, which included dismissal for presenting his mistress as his wife, he undertook as a personal project, a daring exploration of Morocco, then a closed country, disguised as a Jewish rabbi, gaining for himself a medal from the French geographical society. He was touched by the faith and also deep friendship and trust, he encountered among the Muslims and Jews during his travels.

All the time he was searching for something more. His was a religious quest in earnest. Somewhere deep within, he was allowing himself to be led and touched by God. On his return to France, entering the church of St Augustine in Paris at the age of 28 he was invited to confess and receive communion. This moment of grace changed him for life. He wrote to a friend:
‘As soon as I believed that there was a God I understood that I could do no other but to live for him alone: My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith. The Gospel showed me that everything must be enfolded in love’ I have lost my heart to this Jesus of Nazareth crucified 1900 or so years ago and I spend my life trying to imitate him.’
Here we are already at the heart of his vocation. He is a man who, to quote from Fr Huvelin, his spiritual director: ‘made of religion a question of love’. This burning search for the one he loved never left him. It was a long interior journey which led him to the limits of himself.

In March 1887 at the time of his conversion a single sentence in a sermon, made a deep impression on him:
‘Jesus took the lowest place in such a way that no one has ever been able to take it from him’.
When he made his pilgrimage to the Holy land at the end of the following year, this reality of the Incarnation, that God, the all Holy one, could become as one of us, bowled him over. The God he was seeking took on the human face of Jesus of Nazareth. Charles writes:
‘Walking the streets of Nazareth, which Our Lord, a poor workman walked before me I discovered, the humble and hidden existence of the divine workman of Nazareth’.
From then on Charles never stopped trying to tread in the footsteps of this Jesus, his only model.

His 7 years in a Trappist monastery in Syria at Akbes in the midst of an Armenian, Turkish and Arab population, helped him to empty his heart of all that was over-human so that it might beat for God alone and Jesus could become, as he writes: ‘the unique necessity of his life.’ For me this single-mindedness, having one ultimate goal and aim in life, is another key to his holiness. His future journey in life takes many sudden turns but his focus on seeking to do what God wants, is the unifying thread.

Love and humility go hand in hand. Humility for Charles is rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation. When meditating on the feast of Christmas, he writes:
‘The Incarnation takes its source in God’s goodness. But there is something else, something so marvellous, that it shines like a dazzling sign: it is the infinite humility that such a mystery contains. God, Being itself, God the infinite becomes man, the least of men. So I too want to seek the lowest place of all, to be little like my Master.’
This gives Charles’ way of loving a special colour.

In Akbes however Charles had not yet found the Nazareth he was longing for. Despite the poverty of the monastery he realized that the ordinary families who lived in the shade of the monastery were living another kind of insecurity, something closer to what he imagined Jesus lived in Nazareth. He decided to leave the monastery and to continue his quest. He returned to the Holy Land to the town of Nazareth where Jesus himself had lived. He wrote ‘I long for Nazareth’

There he worked as an odd-job man for the Poor Clares, and lived in a hut in their garden spending many hours before Jesus in the Eucharist. God spoke to his heart. He was like a lover waiting on his beloved and never growing weary even through times of darkness and struggle. He also spent hours meditating the Gospel, often writing his meditations, that we must remember when we read them that they were never meant to be read – they were his own intimate journal. The words and deeds of Jesus were transforming him from within and caused him to raise new questions.

Love leads to wanting to share. He meditated on the Good Shepherd and thought of those who seemed the farthest away. He remembered the people of Morocco where he had once explored and been so struck by the Muslim faith of the people. He longed to go and share with them the good news of the Gospel. He accepted to be ordained and as Morocco was still a closed country he decided for Algeria and settled in the small oasis town of Beni Abbes near the Moroccan border.

His way would be marked by Nazareth, to be with, to be alongside. His poverty is very concrete. Not only did he wish to be with the poor but he chose to live like the poor. Not only did he give himself for the poorest, but his originality lies in being poor with them and like them.

Charles’ poverty is related o Nazareth. It is not a spiritual idea, it is a choice in life, that touches every aspect of it, material and social. We read in the Gospel: ‘He went back with them to Nazareth and was subject to them’ Charles writes for the Brothers:
‘You are to go back to live the life of poor workers who live from their work, in Nazareth.’
From Beni-Abbes,! He wrote to his cousin, His house was open to all, and his interest and concern was the same for whoever called, for all the people around him, of his time and world, be they soldier or officer, landowner or cultivator, rich man or slave. The spirit was moulding him. He became ‘approachable and very little’.

Charles wanted to be a real brother to each person whatever their religion or class. It is well known how Charles reacted to the horror of slavery, still very alive in North Africa, using every means to denounce this injustice through his connections with the military, the Church and his family. He wrote:
‘We have no right to be sleeping sentries, dumb dogs or uncaring shepherds.’
Paul Embarek who followed him to Tamanrasset, was one of these ‘redeemed’ slaves, through money from his family.

Thinking of those who would follow him he wrote:
‘We must be universal brothers, universal friends and as far as possible universal saviours like Jesus who was our brother, our friend and our Saviour. This is our triple relationship with him.’
He understood that to love is our most basic and fundamental relationship with others: First to relate to each person as a brother or sister recognizing the dignity of their difference as children of one Father in Heaven and responding in whatever way we can to the demands of justice, respect and human dignity. But as Jesus who said ‘I call you friends’, Charles went that step further. Friendship meant regarding the other as unique, seeking only the good of the other in a personal encounter, open to reciprocity.

In 1903, seizing on an opening offered by his friend Laperrine, the French General, Charles left for the Hoggar, the mountainous regions of Southern Sahara inhabited by the Tuareg. He went to the Hoggar not in search of solitude as it is often written and romanticized, but to reach out to people no one else would ever approach, to be available to them – in short, to love them. He tried in the light of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to make himself quite simply the friend and brother of the Tuareg in all their needs and in the problems they experienced. At first he envisaged his presence there as a preparation for proclaiming the Gospel but soon realized the time was not ripe. A long term preparation of the soil was needed. He learned the Tuareg language and became initiated in their culture, realizing more and more that before you can bring the Gospel to those to whom you are sent, you must love them and know them. This is what motivated his enormous linguistic work – He wrote down and translated 60,000 verses of Tuareg poetry, listening to the women in the evenings, and he composed a 4 volume dictionary Touaeg/ French, French/ Tuareg full of the intimate details of his observations – even with drawings of the women’s hair styles!

He realized more and more that his apostolate had to be one of sheer goodness. He writes:
‘When people see me, they must be able to say ‘Because this man is good, his religion must be good’, If anyone asks me why I am good and kind, I must answer ‘Because I serve one who is far more good than I am.’
This is a key phase into understanding Charles. Jesus whom he had encountered and contemplated during his long periods of Eucharistic adoration in Nazareth and Beni-Abbes was now someone he found in a very real way, in the little and excluded people whose life he shared, those who have little place in human society. Charles encountered Jesus in those who neither shared his religious world nor his culture.

Fired by the Gospel he was called to keep silent, in an infinite respect for the other, and to believe that it was through living his life, living Incarnation, that he was called to proclaim the gospel. This is a treasure for our world of today that he has left us. He who dreamed of giving his life for others was to receive life from them during a terrible time of drought when he was near dying from scurvy. The poor gave him life. Laperrine his Colonel friend writes:
‘The Touareg adolescents and children show complete confidence in him. Their veneration is mixed with familiarity. They consider him a big brother who understands them and with whom they can joke and have fun. Their jokes are harmless. Because of his missing teeth, they named a craggy rock with a large gap in it, which legend attributed to the stroke of a giant’s sword, ‘the jaw of the Marabout Charles’.

‘Certain young people confide in him to a point resembling confession. If he does not give absolution to penitent Moslems, after having scolded them severely, he very often works on their behalf to obtain pardons from the authorities, their parents, their good friends, depending on the nature of their error. In some cases the drama ends in a wedding!’
Four months before his death he confided to a friend the secret of his charity for all people especially for the poorest.
‘I do not think there is any word of the Gospel which has had a greater effect on me or transformed my life more than this one: "Whatever you do to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me". If we reflect that these are the words of Uncreated truth, and that they come from the mouth of him who said: ‘This is my body, this is my blood’, what a tremendous power impels us to seek and love Jesus in these little ones, these poor people.’
Once again we perceive how he wants to make his assimilation of the word and his actions in life one.

On the evening of 1st Dec 1916 as the war in Europe was gaining momentum some Senoussi Touareg who were not in allegiance with the French and who had growing influence in the Region, surprised and captured him, possibly wanting to use him as a hostage. A youngster appointed to guard him panicked and Charles was shot and killed. His longing to be a Saviour with Jesus, his desire to give his life united with the sacrifice of Jesus was achieved, the day to day offering completed, his death, the burying of the grain of wheat waiting for harvest.

When he heard of the death of Charles de Foucauld on December the 1st 1916, by a neighbouring tribe, Moussa Ag Amastane, who was the chief of the Hoggar Tuareg and a Muslim, wrote to Charles’ sister in France:
‘Charles, the holy man, has died not only for you but for all of us. May God have mercy on him and may we meet in Paradise.’
This is an extraordinary statement, summing up the depth of the friendship and respect between Charles and Moussa – a respect beyond their religious differences.

So what made this man so special, that a Moslem chief should speak of him in this way? Why was it that on 13 November 2005 he was officially pronounced to be among the blessed, like those proclaimed in the Beatitudes? What makes of him a companion for our road in reaching out to one another. It is all to do with the simple logic of his commitment…The Word was made flesh.
So as a follower of Br Charles today how come I end up on the 13th floor of a high rise in Hackney? What is important for me today?
- First taking Jesus as the one I love above all others, my brother, my friend and my God.
- Finding him in the Nazareths of my life: the ordinary little events and chores, the simple encounters of the daily round in the neighbourhood, in the block. Meeting people as I go up and down in the lift. Jesus said:
"You will find me in Galilee.."
- Trying to reach out to others and expressing my concern and love not only through words but through a way of being and doing things together
– being particularly attentive to those of other Religions and cultures, especially my Muslim brothers and sisters…
- Joining in whatever is going on in the parish or in the neighbourhood or at work.- Above all choosing to befriend the poorest, not though material giving but through real interest in one another and respect.

This has led us to having an open house and to a decision to study the Gospel every Friday night with those who wish to join in. We want our flat to be home, to be a welcoming place for all, where we live and share as a family.