Charles de Foucauld: Correspondence with his old school friend Gabriel Tourdes - Extracts

1874 Rue des Postes, Paris. Charles on the bottom row, centre.1874 Rue des Postes, Paris. Charles on the bottom row, centre.St Genevieve's College, Rue des Postes, Paris, 1875 Tuesday

My dear old Tourdes,

It’s been a long time since I last wrote to you as I have been really busy. For two days now we havn’t had much to do, so you can see I am wasting no time to get back to you. We have ten days holiday for Easter. I will be coming on Friday morning to Nancy around 6.30. I warn you I am counting on you for the evenings. I am really pleased, ‘madly’ pleased, to be coming back for a time to Nancy. I plan to enjoy myself to the full in all that is agreeable to the body and to the spirit. I have already made a list of what we can read when we are on our own: I have chosen Arioste, (the Italian poet) and Aristophanes. I hope you approve of my choice. Of course we will intersperse our reading with some of the light hearted poems of Voltaire, and even with a bit from Candide. It is more difficult to choose which books to read in the evening. I cannot find any book that we could read right through. We will just have to take passages from different authors.

1976 Charles at St-Cyr1976 Charles at St-CyrSaint-Cyr, Military school, 1877 Friday

My good old Tourdes,

Thanks a lot for your letter. Do write often. It is always good to receive a letter when one is bored and I am bored stiff here. Nothing new at Saint–Cyr. It is as boring here as it was last year. Being trained to ride is obviously more fun than exercise on foot, and we need to polish ourselves up less afterwards. But if our situation has its advantages it also has its inconveniences: the trouble is we are punished much more than last year. It is very sad not to be able to read like last year, and to only have theory and infamous writings on fortification and artillery and such like subjects: to build oneself up with and to relax. It leaves you with an impression of savagery. Anyway, in about forty days, we’ll meet up, and we can talk together of less coarse things. I hope you will not have any law exams to prepare, and that your time will be your own and mine as a consequence, for the whole day. All yours, Charles de Foucauld

Saint-Cyr, 5 February 1878
Mt good old Tourdes,

I am really pleased that you wrote to me, first of all because your letters are always a joy to read : the way you write is so varied and then because it gives me the opportunity to write back. Writing to you is both a good pastime and it relaxes me. This is quite normal as I can talk to you about everything and I do not need to be on my guard about what I say. I can write without thinking too much. As well as this when I write to you you remind me of a whole chunk of my life which is now in the past. Do you remember our Easter holidays? I spent the whole morning in bed smoking my hookah. You came early in the morning. You sat in the big arm chair or you paced up and down the room and we chatted. You read aloud.

Charles' Grandfather dies in 1878Charles' Grandfather dies in 1878

Grandfather was still well then and he enjoyed our discussions. Our evening readings gave him the most pleasure. Now all that has come to an end. How happy we were then. You can still be happy but not me. I will never again enjoy this gentle happiness, this perfect bliss. We lacked nothing. We were young, free and without a care in the world. We were in our own family circle. Our only concern was to be happy. In these past months it is as if I have aged a lot! You are also in a new period of your life and I promise you, you will not be the better for it. Despite everything you are lucky. When you get tired of enjoying yourself you can be happy and peaceful like as in old times with your parents and with your books. It is not like that for me; in one go my family, my home my my peace and that lack of any worry, which has been so wonderful, has been taken from me. All that is something that is lost for ever. I will never again be happy and peaceful as when I lived at Nancy. All yours Charles

1879-1880 Saumur, Cavalry school1879-1880 Saumur, Cavalry schoolSaumur, Cavalry school, May 1879 Wednesday
Hello, my dear old Tourdes,

I should have written to you a long time ago, but what do you expect? My pens have gone rusty, my ink-well is dry, my desk is covered with dust. Sheets of writing paper are lying in my drawer unused. Today I’ve spent eleven hours on horse back and followed four hours of lectures. After such a timetable you can understand my misfortune, that if I do sit down at table to write, I fall asleep immediately. I need more lively activities to stay awake. I just cannot relax. I spend my days riding, my evenings riding or driving around in a convertible and this is always followed by a meal out! I need this type of activity to keep me awake. And then why write to you if I have nothing to say? I spend my life in the most boring way possible, a lot of riding, sometimes driving, never walking, hardly ever at home except when under orders of confinement or because of bodily fatigue. My mind is numb, we never open a book. This is what our life is like and its consequences. All yours Charles

Sfid, Algeria, 2 October 1881
My dear old Gabriel,

I should have kept you informed on a more regular basis of my comings and goings. As you know I left the 4th Detachment of the Hassards in April, (to do with a woman). This leave was my own doing. The garrison at Setif was a terrible place to be and being an officer there bored me. I had no regrets then in coming back to France and my plan was to enjoy for as long as possible this comforting frame of mind. With this perspective, I was staying near Evian, (on Lake Geneva). As you know it is such beautiful place. Just as I was starting to take pleasure in my comfortable surroundings they wrote to me from Setif to say that sections of my Regiment were leaving for Tunisia. Of course I asked to return, an expedition of this kind is too rare a pleasure to let go of. It was all to my advantage.

1881 With the Chasseurs d'Afrique near Saida1881 With the Chasseurs d'Afrique near Saida

I belong to a column manoeuvring on the high plains, to the south of Saida. It’s good fun: I enjoy life in the campus much as I hate life in the garrison. I hope this expedition will last a long time. When it’s finished I’ll try and go somewhere else where there is something going on. If this isn’t possible I am not sure what I’ll do. Your friend Charles

Hasi el Hadadra, Algeria, 18 November 1885

My dear good Gabriel,

I am writing to you from a little known spot that does not deserve to be so hidden. It is just a well.

1885 Masi Charef. Sketch by Charles1885 Masi Charef. Sketch by Charles

A well, isolated in a deserted ravine between El-Golea, where I am coming from and Ouargla, my destination. I want to tell you about what I have been living since I last wrote. I had it in mind, before publishing the account of my travels in Morocco, to visit the Algerian and Tunisian Sahara. As I only knew the southern regions I wanted to compare them to the Moroccan Sahara and highlight what they had in common. I am just off to Ouargla, and from there I will go first to Touggourt and then on to el Ouad, Nefta, Gofsa, Kerouan, Sousse and Tunis. Afterwards I will return to France. I plan to be in Paris around the 25th January. At that time I hope we will see each other often, my dear Gabriel. I am really looking forward to it. I am going to settle down for good in Paris. For good, is a big word and you’ll understand what I mean. Both of us are too philosophical to believe that anything in this world is for good. Your old friend Charles

1890 The Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Via Alexandrette, Syria.
My very dear Gabriel,

We do not write at the Trappist monastery, as you know, but for friends like you there are exceptions. And such friends are rare. Tell me a lot about yourself, my dear Gabriel, nothing would please me more. Are you sad, are you satisfied with life, do you find life heavy or easy-going ? These are the most important things for a friend who loves you to know, a friend who wants to rejoice if you are happy and share your grief if you are sad.

1890 Trappist monastery of Akbes, Syria1890 Trappist monastery of Akbes, Syria

And now I will share with you some of my news. My good Gabriel, sadly, together we forgot how to pray to the good God. Search now deep in your memory or rather deep in your heart for a prayer and pray it to thank this good God for all the graces he has given me.

Akbes CommunityAkbes Community

To tell you about the peace, the calm, which I live in the convent would be impossible. As for my health I can only say that from the beginning it has been perfect. I have never had a cold or a headache or a day of tiredness. Above all I want to tell you about my soul. In my soul I experience a special gift of God, a peace that cannot be described. I often think of the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the eve of his death 'I leave you peace, I give you my peace, not as the world gives it'. I feel this peace here, a peace that is beyond words, a peace not experienced in the world that I did not come here to look for and which I could not imagine, but which is a gift of God in his infinite goodness.

If you wish to be really close to me and live something of my life, enter for a moment into a Church and think of me while you pray. I often think of you when I am praying.

With love from the bottom of my heart. Do write back at length and soon. Brother Marie Alberic

Fraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Beni-Abbés, Region of Oran, Algeria

My very dear friend,

Friend from my early years and of every year. It has been such a long time since I last wrote to you but I always think of you. You have remained 'the friend'.

1897-1900 Hut where Br Charles lived at the Poor Clares in Nazareth1897-1900 Hut where Br Charles lived at the Poor Clares in Nazareth

Since my last letter, dated from Rome, I spent four years as a hermit in the Holy Land, living from the work of my hands like JESUS, using the name of brother Charles. Nobody knew my identity. I lived there in poverty, profoundly happy to experience obscurity, silence, material need in imitation of JESUS, an imitation that is inseparable from love. You know how anyone who loves wants to imitate. It is the secret of my life. I have lost my heart to this JESUS of Nazareth crucified 1900 years ago and I spend my life seeking to imitate him as closely as I can, in all my weakness.

1901 In Beni Abbes1901 In Beni Abbes

I then spent a year in a convent studying and I was ordained a priest.. As a priest since the month of June, I straight away felt called to be with 'the lost sheep', those furthest away, those most abandoned and forgotten, in order to fulfil the command of love, the ultimate commandment of JESUS 'love one another as I have loved you. It is in this way that you will be recognized as my disciples'.

Knowing through experience that no other people are more abandoned than the Muslims of Morocco, of Touat, of the Algerian Sahara, I asked and obtained permission to come to Beni-Abbes, a small oasis of the Algerian Sahara and to live as a solitary, as a cloistered monk, searching to become holy and to lead others to JESUS, not through words or sermons but through goodness, prayer, penance, the example of a Gospel way of life, and above all through the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Charles in his chapel at Beni-AbbesCharles in his chapel at Beni-Abbes

Dear friend, if in your heart you felt you would like to visit me, you know just how happy I would be to welcome you. You will be offered the best barley bread and the very best dates.

I am happy, very happy, extremely happy even though I have never sought for it in any way, for many years now.