Charles de Foucauld - Brother Charles of Jesus 1858 - 1916 - His spiritual journey

Experience of God's Tenderness

1858 -1876 Childhood - Youth

'I who have been surrounded since childhood, with so many graces, son of a saintly mother...' November 1897

Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg in 1858 and had fond memories of the maternal presence that accompanied his early childhood. But his mother died in March 1864 and his father just a few months later. At six years old, he was already what one might call a wounded child.

During his difficult adolescent years he lost his faith. An absence of life joy is perhaps what drove him to sink into a life centred on pleasure seeking and partying.

'Lord I was growing farther and farther away from you...a faith had disappeared from my life.'Retreat November 1897

But nothing could erase the emptiness and sadness that dwelt in the depths of his heart. Many years later, he reflected on the emptiness and sadness he had then experienced in the light of his present faith. He saw in them the discrete manifestation of a God who had never turned away but had always patiently waited for him...

1876 - 1886 Military life and Explorations

'Islam really shook me to the core. The sight of such faith, of these people living in the continual presence of God, made me glimpse something greater, truer than worldly concerns.'Letter January 8th 1901

Promoted to become an army officer at 22 years of age, he was sent to serve in Algeria. He was thrilled by the discovery of new horizons. Three years later he left the army and undertook a risky exploration of Morocco. Several times during his expedition he was offered protection and hospitality by highly religious Muslims. These were to becomes friends. On seeing the way that they lived out their faith, he began to question himself: Could it be that God really did exist?

1886 - 1889 Conversion

'As soon as I believed that God existed, I understood that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.' Letter August 1901

On returning to France, he was deeply touched by the warm, respectful welcome extended to him by his family, specially his cousin, Marie de Bondy. His search for meaning began. Providence led him to meet Fr. Huvelin, a priest who would prove to be both a father and friend to him. In October 1886, at 28 years of age, he underwent his conversion.

He discovered in God a gentle father who was infinitely close and had never ceased to wait for his child. His existence was entirely transformed and he spent the rest of his life searching for how he could respond to God’s boundless love.

The Discovery of Jesus of Nazareth

During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he discovered the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, who shared our humanity and chose for 30 years to lead the obscure existence of a village carpenter. He perceived in this poverty and humility, a calling which was addressed to him. He wrote:

'I so long to lead at last that kind of life which I caught a glimpse of while walking the streets of Nazareth…streets trod by the feet of Our Lord, himself a poor carpenter, who lived in obscurity and abjection.'

1889-1900 Religious Life and Nazareth

'My religious vocation goes back to the same moment as my faith. God is so great.' August 1901

Brother Charles had found his direction, but the journey would be long and difficult. He first spent 7 years as a Trappist monk and then 4 years as a hermit in Nazareth where he lived beside a Poor Clare monastery.

During these years of prayer and silence, God spoke to his heart. Day and night he spent long hours in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He adopted the attitude of the lover, awaiting his Beloved and never growing weary, even through times of darkness and struggle.

He also spent long hours meditating the Gospel, becoming saturated with Jesus’ words and deeds, so that they might change his heart. It was like the steady drop of water which ends up hollowing out even the hardest rock.

The Word of God was soon to raise new questions and compel him to move on.

'Anyone who loves tries to imitate. I have lost my heart to this Jesus of Nazareth... and I spend my life trying to imitate him as much as my weakness allows.' Letter to his friend, March 1902

A Brother's Presence at the heart of the Desert

There is a line from the Gospel which was to turn his life upside down: 'Whatsoever you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me.'

These words compelled him to leave his beloved solitude and set out for lands that were more forsaken, where Jesus waited for him in the person of those whose lives were marked by suffering and poverty. He longed to bring the love of God which burnt within him like a fire, to those who did not know Him.

Brother Charles rediscovered something which had earlier been said by St John Chrysostom during the first centuries of Christianity: that equal attention must be paid to Jesus present in the poor as to Jesus present in the Eucharist.

God’s preferential love for the poor, for sinners and those who never make it in this world, would eventually lead him out of his hermitage in order to take up a life which would be ever more lovingly given over to the Lord, and increasingly marked by hospitality, availability and brotherly sharing with those who count the least.

'My retreats showed me that I ought to live the life of Nazareth among the sheep most forsaken. I am a minister of a divine banquet which should be offered not to our brothers, relatives and rich neighbours but to the cripple and blind, to the most forsaken, where priests are most in shortage.' 8th April 1905

1901-1906 Beni Abbes and Visits to the Tuareg

'To continue with the hidden life of Jesus in the Sahara, not to preach but to live in solitude and poverty doing the humble work of Jesus.' April 1901

He left Nazareth in August 1900, and spent several months in the Abbey of Our Lady of the Snows, preparing for the priesthood.

Ordained on June 9, 1901 by the Bishop of Viviers, he left for Algeria a few months later and settled in an oasis village of the Sahara called Beni Abbes, near the Moroccan border. This time he did not build a hermitage, but a fraternity, a house that was to be open to all, regardless of their nationality, race or religion: He wrote:

'I want all the people here, Christian, Muslim, Jew or non-believer, to see me as their brother, a universal brother. They have started calling my house the 'fraternity' which makes me very happy.' Letter to Marie de Bondy, January 7th 1902

The Patient Labour of Friendship

In 1904, after three years in Beni Abbes, an opportunity arose to go south to the Hoggar, the home of the Tuareg. Some officer friends invited him to travel with them.

He spent more than three months trekking through the desert in order to reach this remote part of the Sahara  where nomadic groups of Tuaregs roamed. From the very beginning he felt an inner urge to make his home among them. But these tribes were deeply wary of their French occupants and it would be a year before their leader, Moussa Ag Amastane, gave permission for Brother Charles to settle down in Tamanrasset.

1907-1916 Tamanrasset

'My apostolate is goodness... 1909

Alone and defenceless, he trusted their offer of hospitality and within a few days built himself a rough little earthen house which he made his dwelling. He immediately began a passionate study of their language and showed a keen interest in their culture. He transcribed hundreds of poems which he heard sung around the evening camp fires. Having been transmitted from generation to generation, these poems expressed in a special way the soul of the Tuareg tribes. Brother Charles carried in his heart an immense desire to speak to them of Jesus and the Gospel. But he quickly became aware that the time was not yet ripe. The way he chose was simply through friendship. Through the loving and patient labour of friendship lived out day by day he would reveal the love of god for all. In 1909 he wrote: 'I want to be so good that people will say: 'If this is how the servant is , how then must the master be?

In the Likeness of Jesus even unto Death

The First World War broke out in 1914 and violence spread to the remote areas of the Hoggar. There was a widespread rebellion among many of the tribes against the French occupation. Insecurity grew.

Brother Charles was aware of living in an increasingly dangerous environment. He was offered shelter in a French military post but refused. He could not bring himself to abandon those who had offered him their hospitality for over ten years. Friendship and mutual trust had taken root and he felt bound to the Tuareg people through deep human solidarity.

Ever since being captivated by Jesus of Nazareth, he had sought to follow in his footsteps, living in imitation of him. He deeply wanted to become like him in his passion and death in order to give the proof of the greatest love.

Towards evening on December 1, 1916, he was taken hostage by a group from a neighbouring tribe. Their intention had not been to kill him but in a moment of panic, his guard shot him at point blank range. Brother Charles died on the spot, a victim of violence as many others during these terrible years of war.

His death resembled the falling into the ground of the grain of wheat. He died alone, but his death is a sign of hope that human solidarity is stronger than the hate which tears humanity apart.

Two weeks after his death, Moussa Ag Amastane, the Tuareg chief who had become Brother Charles’ friend, wrote to his sister:

'Charles the Marabout has not died only for you. He has died also for us all. May God grant him mercy, and may we all be together with him in Paradise.'

'When the grain of wheat falls to the earth and does not die, it stays alone, but when it dies it bears fruit. I have not died, I am alone. Pray for my conversion so that I can die and bear much fruit.' Letter to Suzanne Perret