Charles de Foucauld in Tamanrasset : a fraternal life at the heart of the world

On July 22 of this year -2005-, it was exactly one hundred years since Charles de Foucauld wrote in his Notebook about a new project for life, just before setting himself up in a small village in the Hoggar, which he did not yet know and where he would complete his earthly journey. Among other things, he wrote "no cloister - like Jesus at Nazareth" [Tamanrasset Notebooks, p. 46]. Ch de Foucauld, talking to TouaregsCh de Foucauld, talking to TouaregsThis indication is surprising when one knows what importance he gave to the physical sign of the cloister. Whether this was a real wall, as at the Trappist monastery or a row of pebbles on the ground, as at Beni-Abbes, for him it was a visible sign of separation and distance from the affairs
of the world.
Previously, when he was living in Jerusalem near to the Poor Clare convent, he had argued in a letter to Abbe Huvelin, dated January 22, 1899, to obtain permission to make a special vow of enclosure which would forbid him from going out and thus from having to respond to any solicitations from outside or the various services people asked of him. Before leaving Beni-Abbes on November 24 1903, he wrote again to his bishop: "If only you knew how like a fish out of water I am as soon as I leave the cloister!…I am not made for going out" [Saharan Correspondence p. 237]. And three months before deleting the cloister from his programme, he wrote again to his cousin, on April 11 1905, "As for a change of place, leaving the cloister, for health reasons, is what good monks never did: the cloister is the foundation, the homeland, while waiting for heaven…"He went out, even so, out of duty, for the service of God, while regretting leaving this cloister. So how do we explain such a change in such a short time?
First of all we need to recognise that he confused "cloister" and "fixity", as in the letter in which he asked to make a vow of enclosure: "[…] I will never have either solitude nor fixity without a vow of enclosure […]" [Letters to Abbe Huvelin, p. 102]. This vow was intended to immobilise him and give him "fixity", forbidding him from responding to solicitations from the Poor Clares or others. He never felt called to a life of travelling between Nazareth and Jerusalem, in order to respond to the smallest request for service. In the same way, at Ghardaia in 1904, at the end of a whole year of travelling and continual moving, he said again to Father Guerin that his vocation was not to visit, in passing, the villages or garrisons, but to live at a fixed point, sedentary, at Beni-Abbes or in the Hoggar but not travelling between the two. It seems that the period of his youth was really over, when he spent seven or eight months in the south of Algeria continually moving around, just for pleasure. "That gave me a very active taste for travelling, for which I have always felt an attraction" [The road to Tamanrasset, by A. Chatelard, p. 308]. From this time on, he had a horror of travelling. Was this really true? He did it, out of duty like everything he did, tens of thousands of kilometres, on foot for almost the whole of his travels. One understands that he would often have expressed the desire to stop and remain in one place … with or without enclosure.

This abandonment of the cloister on his arrival in Tamanrasset is again explained by the fact that, in his thinking, it was only a temporary situation while waiting for companions to come and join him. He still read his rule for common life even though he was alone. However, he decided to "distance oneself resolutely from everything that does not serve the perfect imitation of this life (of Jesus at Nazareth)". The Rule was thus no longer the expression of Nazareth, and little by little the temporary became the normal situation. This new orientation was confirmed over the years in the direction of an openness to the unforeseen and a submission to the present event which communicated the will of God much more than to a Rule written in circumstances that were totally different. He no longer allowed himself to become enclosed in either a Rule or in a symbolic or ideological enclosure. On the contrary, he tried to live closer and closer to the inhabitants of the village and the nomads of the area, in relations of work, neighbourhood and friendship, and also in relations through work in the practical things, and especially in the study of the language.Ch de Foucauld with caravan of French soldiersCh de Foucauld with caravan of French soldiers
During the first years he avoided going to visit people, out of discretion and so as not to force relations with them, but he suffered as a result of not receiving many visits from the Tuaregs. He found excuses for them: "in winter, the Tuaregs, who are sensitive to the cold and badly clothed, do not travel around much: they are also not very eager to visit me: there is ice to break: that will happen with time… I have not been a hundred metres from the chapel" [Letter to Mme de Bondy, 18.03.1906].
When, a little later, in 1907, he found himself further south, among a large number of encampments, he rejoiced: "we are going to see a lot of local people during the month that we still have to remain almost stationary in this region; that is what I desire…" [Letter to Mme de Bondy, 28.04.1907]. He did not hide his satisfaction: "I am taking advantage of the presence of many Tuaregs to make acquaintance with them and collect documents about their language, blessing God for this stay and this contact. I have not had such close contact before" [Letter to Mme de Bondy, 28.05.1907]. When he got back to Tamanrasset a little later, he wrote: "My return here was a real pleasure, I was well received by the population, much more affectionately that I would have dared to hope." [Letter to Mme de Bondy, 11.07.1907]. After another absence, he wrote to Henri de Castries on May 16, 1911: "These first days of my return here have not been days of solitude; I have been received by the Tuaregs with an affection that touched me, and I have visits from them all the time… but soon there will be a semi-solitude, and already, as soon as the sun sets, there is the great silence which is so pleasant. Benedicite noctes et dies Domino. I am the only soul in the desert who says the canticle, Benedicite omnia opera Domini Domino [= All
you works of the Lord, bless the Lord] facing these beautiful mountains. May God deign to give grace to these Tuaregs, who are so gifted, that they may love and serve God and that their souls may praise the Lord as the inanimate creation does."

There is no doubt that this openness to others was intended from the day of his arrival in Tamanrasset. In August 1905 he still had eleven years to live in this village where he wanted to "take the life of Nazareth as the only example", as he wrote in his notebook on August 11. Can these eleven years without a cloister bring out clearly the originality of the message contained under the name of 'Nazareth'? It is difficult to use classical vocabulary, of his times or of today. The words have meaning but they are deceptive. It is impossible to classify him within a category of monk, missionary, hermit, solitary, monk in a mission land, monk-missionary, diocesan priest etc. Each of these labels, which he uses himself at one time or another, or encloses himself within, requires explanation because none of them allows us to discern the message that emerges from a life outside the usual norms. He continued to call himself a monk, "a monk, dead to the world" in speaking about his religious vocation which went back to the time of his conversion. But the cloister was no longer part of the definition of his life and he wanted, on the contrary, to be closer and closer to those from whom he did not want to be "separated"; "No habitation far from every inhabited place, but near a village, like Jesus at Nazareth". He had to move, at the end of his life, in order to enjoy living closer to the homes of his friends, and became aware that Jesus did not live "near" Nazareth but in it. He never did any great reflections on what, much later, came to be called an 'insertion' into a village or neighbourhood, but the logic of love which brought him closer to his friends caused him to get to know better the true face of the One who, at Nazareth, was not a monk but a man of the village, with a trade, a reputation, relationships. Until his death he continued to call himself a hermit because he was alone. He spoke freely about his hermitages, and people continued to do so after him, even in Beni-Abbes, the only place where he himself gave the place he lived in the name of 'fraternity'.Ch de Foucauld, with  OuksemCh de Foucauld, with Ouksem
From the time of Rene's Bazin's biography, many people were misled by this terminology, all the more so because, living alone in the Sahara and thus in the desert, he could not be thought of in isolation from the spirituality of the Desert. From that comes the representation of the hermit attracted by the "call of silence", as in the only film made about him. Although one cannot eliminate the word hermit from his vocabulary, it is necessary to know that it is not at all suitable for characterising the kind of life he led either in Tamanrasset or at Assekrem, where he moved, not to escape the crowd, but in order to be "at a central point", closer to the nomads whom he saw very little of during the beginning of his settled life in Tamanrasset. The term 'hermit' is suitable for describing the time he spent at Nazareth and Jerusalem, in the shadow of convents of Poor Clares, at the time when he conceived of a very elaborate and very idealistic project for bringing together about thirty hermits to live together. He wanted a companion, but he had to take on the solitude through the strength of his character and his faith in the living presence of God. This solitude seemed to him to be fortunate, not for recollection, but in order to be closer to the inhabitants, being "more little and more approachable". This was what he heard said to him at the time of his first visit to this region on May 26, 1904: "In relation to recollection, it is love that should recollect you in me internally, and not distance from my children". Was the reality of his life in the Hoggar described better by calling him a missionary? Certainly he was in "mission territory", and he participated fully, though in his own way, in the mission of the Church, for which he was concerned by making plans and reports for the missionaries, but he did not consider himself to be a missionary, and he even rejected this term in order to make a clear distinction between himself and the Missionaries of Africa. Although in the last year of his life he used it, he did so in order to explain that he was not a missionary like the others, that he was something else. He was aware of being in a unique situation, he could not even provide any kind of reference point, anyone with whom to compare himself. In reality, he was the first, with a special, exceptional mission, while hoping there would be many people like him.
People do not always see the difference between what he organised for himself at Beni-Abbes, where his activities closely resembled those of a missionary who was starting out, and what he planned later in reports, not for himself but for the White Fathers. Also, writing to a few Trappists who wanted to be more missionary, he suggested, in 1911, a programme of life as monk-missionaries, which was not at all what he was living at that time. In the same way, one cannot take what he wrote to any other people and deduce that this was how he was living at Tamanrasset. Knowing that he intended to spend the whole year of 1915 in France in order to launch his Association is certainly important, but it tells us nothing about his daily life in Tamanrasset. The Tuaregs never knew him as either a monk, a hermit, a missionary or even a priest. From his first day there until the hour of his death, in his final call for help, he was "the marabout", the "holy man". He had nothing in common with sorcerers or charlatans, contemporary or modern.Ch de Foucauld, his last home in Tamanrasset, which was built in order to be a possible place of refuge for the people of the villageCh de Foucauld, his last home in Tamanrasset, which was built in order to be a possible place of refuge for the people of the village He was the only one of his kind, a man who prayed, who was not married, who cared, gave advice, distributed alms, and was good to everyone: that is the portrait of a good religious. And this term comes from the same root as the word marabout, meaning "linked back to God", but not separated, because he was also "linked back to people" through the bonds that he tried to form with all those among whom he lived.
Like them he ate wheat pancakes and millet porridge, and also a kind of mixture with dates but not meat (the only remnant of the monastic regime). He drank coffee. His diet was better but still unbalanced, and he was surprised to find he had scurvy for the second time, at the end of 1914. He had written, "No special clothing, like Jesus at Nazareth". He wore a very simple habit which distinguished him from other French people. This was like a gandoura, but with a belt, with no other special signs, no rosary, no emblem on his arrival, without the heart surmounted by a cross which raised questions for everyone, an unsuitable and unreadable sign of the love that he wanted to give to all God's creatures. The only visible sign of his difference was his fraternal and friendly behaviour towards everyone he encountered, the French soldiers, the Tuaregs, the Arabs, Harratins, the slaves. He wanted everyone to be able to say, on seeing him, "See how he loves". This was the only legible sign that enabled people to recognise whose disciple he was. What characterised those years was work, work every day with a rhythm of 10 hours 45 minutes. One might well say that he 'worked like a Benedictine', but this was far from the monastic schedule and the eight hours that he attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.
What was the meaning of this work whose human dimension we are still very far from estimating? It has to be recognised that this work was primarily scientific work of high quality, a work of openness to another culture. And it was no less a work of 'fraternisation', the truest and most intimate approach to the sensibility of another people. He did a work 'on the ground', a work that put him in contact with men and women whose skills and memories he used. He did long walks and made some prolonged stays in encampments in the south in 1907, untiringly listening attentively to the poems recited by various men and women. He spent hours, days, months correcting this work in order to get the right phrases, the exact meanings. What precision and what perfection! No one had done anything equivalent.
We have to receive what he lived during his last years as a message, but there is still a lot more to discover in the details of his life and the reading of his letters in order to re-situate him in the concrete truth of his relations with the men and women to whom he wanted to make himself close. If he had lived elsewhere, in a non-Moslem country, would he have been the bearer of a new message? If he had remained at Beni-Abbes, would he have become what he was at Tanmanrasset? If he had received companions in a place more accessible than the Hoggar, he would probably have created a new monastic community that was not very different from a Trappist monastery, or he might have organised the lives of his companions, as he knew well how to do, without taking account of local realities to which, since he was alone, he adapted himself in an admirable way. On his own among these village people, he was able to maintain his faith and his identity while living close to them. And much more, by setting himself to listen to others and by trying to understand them, he allowed himself to be transformed by relationships of friendship and was able to develop in his ideas, projects and utopias.the last photo of Charles de Foucauldthe last photo of Charles de Foucauld He became the confidant of some, the advisor to others, and the friend of a few. In this way he became a point of reference and even a model for living together and for dialogue for those who, at the distance of a century and throughout the world, have to live in similar situations. He learned to love each person in a disinterested way, with respect for difference, while maintaining the priority of the general interest and the common good, becoming a creator of unity among people who were totally opposed. He had arrived thinking that he should convert others to his religion. But how could he continue to think that these men and women to whom he was linked could not be 'saved' because they did not have the same religion as him?
They obliged him, in some way, to think in a different way. At the end of his life, he no longer spoke about the 'salvation' of each person, and he had to work for the salvation of others in the same way as for his own salvation. For "God wants the salvation of all human beings". This was no longer to be brought about by making them change their religion. He retained this hope, but it was deferred for centuries. For the immediate future there was only one thing to do: to keep his own faith alive, to remain himself, to live a Christian life in the perfection of love, and to love each person as God loves him or her with respect for the beliefs of the other. That seemed so ordinary, something one might read without seeing its importance, which he noted a few months before his death in his last meditations, written on June 18, 1916: "To love one's neighbour, which means all human beings, as ourselves, is to make the salvation of others, like our own, the work of our lives; to love one another as Jesus loved us is to make the salvation of all souls the work of our existence."
From then on, the work of his life was to love each person as he or she was. The best means to work for the 'salvation' of others is to love them as God loves them. Nothing else needs to be done. That is the "work of our existence". No label can cover this reality except the one that he dared to use at the time of his arrival in the Sahara and no longer dared to bring forward at the end of his life: "brother, brother of all, universal brother". It was not enough to eliminate the cloister, on paper and in reality, for everything to become simple. It was not enough to eliminate the word 'hermit' from his rule, in order to become a brother to all. It was necessary to learn to live in this world without being of this world, by being involved in his world of the Sahara to which he felt he had been especially sent.

It should be no surprise that those who now walk in his footsteps have ended up by taking the same path, leading a life like that of every human being in the world, a life without the structures of a monastic setting, a life given, with no visible sign except that of fraternal love for every person encountered.
In this year which marks the centenary of his arrival in Tamanrasset and his official recognition by the Church (the beatification of Charles de Foucauld took place in Rome on Sunday 13th November 2005), may we be confirmed on the path of Nazareth and of universal fraternity.