A new way of being together

"FAITH gives us new vision, new tastes, new ways of living".
So wrote 'Brother Charles of Jesus', as Charles de Foucauld came to call himself. That was in Nazareth, in 1900, where Charles was exploring for himself (and for us in our here-and-now - for Charles was always conscious of those who would follow the furrow he was tracing) the meaning and implications of his re-discovered faith as a follower of Jesus.

An explorer

Charles, in fact, was basically an 'explorer'. He had explored Morocco at the risk of life (it was then a country whose interior was closed to Europeans), but his whole life was an ardent and passionate (the word 'passion' recurs constantly in his writings) journey of exploration. He explored, unconsciously, the deep emotions of childhood, love and belonging. the deprivation of being orphaned and exiled. He explored consciously, but without faith and without aim, his selfhood in adolescence and as a young man. He sought for 'the truth' ("My God if you exist, make me know you")and being found by Another and having given himself to that Other, he began again to explore the mysterious 'call' he had received: what did his "Beloved Brother and Lord Jesus" wish him to be and to do? Having experienced the passionate love of his "Beloved Brother and Lord Jesus", he had found the 'treasure', but he had to explore, progressively, its contents, by reflection and life-commitment, and to do so continuously until death.

Who was this Jesus?

As a Trappist, his first faith commitment, Charles learnt the discipline of prayer and community and so found time and space to reflect. Who was this Jesus? The human embodiment of God’s Being and Love ("our religion is all love"), the 'man of Nazareth, the carpenter, the son of Mary', the 'poor man', 'one of us'. In fact, meditated Charles, Jesus is, quite simply, "God, the workman of Nazareth". The 30 years or so of Jesus' life in Nazareth, and the life—long (and indeed permanent) identity of Jesus as the 'Nazarene' struck Charles with ever increasing force.

A new discovery

It was a new discovery. Strangely, for some 1900 years, this basic truth had - and in the main still has - escaped notice: never, of course, denied or forgotten, it had simply rested 'on the back burner', waiting for the right moment to be brought to light and to be lived. What is this simple but so profound truth? That God has chosen to become involved with his people, to be with them as one of them: not as the rich one, hut as the poor one, the one without name or status, the anonymous one ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). But we know nothing about Jesus’ Nazareth life? Precisely: the Nazareth life of the Nazareth person, then as now, is not news-worthy. And, later, it is this precisely, the anonymous ordinariness of Jesus, that shocked his contemporaries when he proclaims, in public acts, the coming of the Kingdom ("isn’t this [only] the carpenter, the son of Mary...").

Where is this Jesus?

But where is this Jesus? Charles, as a Trappist in Syria, was sent to visit a poor Armenian family: he saw there, suddenly, the living 'image' of Jesus' family life and social situation. Conscious now that "my vocation is Nazareth", he had to ask to leave the Trappists and go, physically, to Nazareth, to try to find the present 'where' of Jesus. Jesus, he knew, was present in the Scripture and especially in the Eucharist but had he not said, "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me"? Charles speaks again and again of the 'pull' on him to live this double presence: presence of Jesus in his own person, drawing us through his death and resurrection to the Father, and presence of Jesus in 'his', and so 'my', brother and sister. In each case, what matters is the 'being with', 'the relationship with': with the other as one person to another person.

A tough job

Seeing this, and 'pushed' by a Poor Clare abbess and by circumstances, Charles leaves Nazareth, receives ordination as a priest and returns to North Africa: to a small Saharan oasis, Beni Abbes. There he has built a small mud and palm building, comprising chapel with sand floor, a few tiny cells and a courtyard. It will be a place of adoration and of hospitality. Soon, he called it the 'Khaoua', the 'Fraternity' and writes, "pray God that I may truly be a 'universal brother', a brother to each and all in this part of the country, be they Christian, Moslem, Jew or pagan". An easy ideal but a tough job in the class-structured, colonial situation of the day. For to be and to relate as a 'brother' is to see and treat the 'other'; as an equal, as of the same intrinsic value and human worth, be that other slave or master, colonial officer or local nomad chief. The possession and ill treatment of slaves was an obvious challenge which Charles took up, in the face of the expected bitter opposition of their 'owners' and the discontentment of the French authorities. Justice was at stake. But justice was also at stake in any lack of due respect for the other as having the right to be 'other' and to be acknowledged as such. Charles, with humility and humour, noticed and recorded his failures:
"I have lost patience with so—so—so who talks and talks!";
"I retreat when faced with fleas!";
"I have preferred to spend time with Commandant X rather than with a nomad visitor!"...

Brother and friend

While the 'brother' relationship respects the other as equal, the relation of 'friendship' builds on this to see and treat the other as 'one with oneself', making their concerns one’s own and moving forward together to a common destiny: "I have called you friends". Charles, particularly in his last years in the central Sahara (in Tamanrasset, then a scattered grouping of "some 20 to 25 hearths"), aimed to be both brother and friend. How? By being with and sharing the life of the Touareg; by spending hours each day in the painstaking recording of their language, their poetry, their traditions, in a word, their culture; by dialoguing with them on all matters concerned with their daily life, their welfare, their social and political future, their religious practice... For example, he taught the women to knit and he urged the men to recite an Islamic form of rosary, as well as engaging in long conversations (against his temperament) with passing visitors, children or adults...

A radical conversion

Charles' inspiration was Jesus' way of relating: treating each person with respect and admiration, and considering the other as one with oneself — the 'brother' and 'friend' ways of relating, lived to the end ("laying down one’s life for one’s friends"). He had to live and act in the world of his time, the world of European colonial expansion in Africa and of the 'militant' Christian spirit which saw the other as the enemy to be conquered. We may question this or that attitude and practice but it is certain that Charles underwent a radical mental conversion. The Touaregs, he discovered, considered the French colonisers as 'pagans and barbarians, men without religion who came to rob and destroy', and he came to understand and appreciate their view; before, of course, he had seen the civilising and Christianising role of his countrymen’s penetration, though increasingly disillusioned by their irreligion and injustices. Charles refused to leave, to abandon his being with the Touareg, in spite of known and obvious danger. As he had long wished, he was killed, having long united his death with Jesus' death, given for 'his' people. For as one said, "You are now one of us". Following his death, a local chief wrote to his sister "Charles the Marabout [holy man], our friend, has died not only for all of you, he has died for us, too. May God have mercy on him, and may we meet in Paradise". In our secular and interfaith culture, Charles shows us a new way of being together and of relating together. His legacy is today lived, however inadequately, by small groups of lay people (the on1y groups directly founded by Brother Charles), by diocesan priests and by various religious communities including the 'little brothers' and 'little sisters of Jesus'. But Charles’ message and hope is addressed to us all:
"Be patient as God is patient, loving as God is loving.. reject harshness, bitterness, condescension, the militant spirit which sees those who differ as enemies.. The Christian programme is simple: love, love; goodness, goodness.. see in every human being a beloved brother/sister and friend."
We only have to do that... But we do have to do it!