Following Jesus of Nazareth

The Gospels were the key

The Gospels were the key to his understanding of the life of God made man and the Gospels taught him that the prime commandment was to love God with all his heart and mind and soul. The requirement to love took precedence over all else. The mystery of the humility of a God who had not merely been content to assume the human condition but chose to become the least of men so moved him that in the language of his day he referred frequently to this abasement of Jesus as ‘abjection’, and sought himself to be the least considered. The love for God became for him inseparable from a life of poverty, labour, struggle and love of his fellow human beings. ‘For me’, he wrote during his time in Nazareth, ‘it is not possible to say I love you without feeling an impelling desire to imitate you, and above all to share all the pains and hardships of your life’. He found the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament but also recognised Jesus in his fellow human beings. Gradually the conviction grew in him that to love Jesus meant sharing in his work of salvation and redemption and becoming, in his footsteps, the brother of all people but especially of those who did not yet know the love of Christ. These he believed he would find in the Sahara. At 43 he was ordained into the priesthood and shortly afterwards wrote of how he was getting ready to go to the Sahara to continue ‘the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth, not to preach but to live in solitude the poverty and humble work of Jesus, whilst trying to do good to souls, not through words but through prayer, through offering Holy Mass, through penance and the practice of charity.’ At Beni Abbes in Algeria he settled  amongst the isolated people of the desert, placing himself at the disposal of the poor soldiers, local slaves and passing travellers. The Arabs began to call the humble dwelling he built there the khaoua, meaning fraternity. It was an appellation which appealed to Charles de Foucauld who had by then begun to call himself ‘Brother Charles’. Later he settled at Tamanrasset. During a great famine in the years 1906 –1907 he shared everything he had in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the local people, then himself fell gravely ill. The local Touaregs nursed him back to health and through reciprocity the friendship deepened. Importantly, the ‘hidden life’ for Charles de Foucauld did not mean a life removed from people and the potential for such friendship. What was hidden in the life of Jesus of Nazareth was the mystery of the incarnation.
Charles de Foucauld dreamed of founding a congregation which would be the realisation of his ideal, the life of Nazareth. Yet he remained alone in his life of rigorous poverty and commitment to his ‘apostolate of kindness’. In 1904 he wrote: