Charles de Foucauld, Silent witness for Jesus, 'in the face of Islam'

This lived faith-experience of the essential relationship between Islam and Christianity, as Charles came to reflect on it and formulate it, underlies his existential relationships with his Muslim neighbours after his return to North Africa as a 'monk'.

Following his conversion (in Paris, 1886, aged twenty-eight), Charles, after three years of search for his personal vocation, became a Trappist monk, going at his own request, a few months after his entry, to a poor and distant foundation in Syria. After seven years he left the Trappists. He felt called to a literal 'imitation' of Jesus' Nazareth life, and spent three years as a 'domestic' with the Poor Clares in Nazareth itself. In both cases he was in close touch with Muslims, a fact of which he was conscious (he regretted, for example, not to have suffered at the hand of the Muslim Turks, in one of the Armenian massacres', 17 along with many of his neighbouring co-religionists), but for the whole of this period the basic thrust of his life was away from human contacts, in the whole-hearted search for God as the one and all-absorbing absolute. Charles, however, was persuaded to accept ordination, which he had long resisted, and his preordination retreats (he was again, for nearly a year, with the Trappists) gave him the urge to return to Algeria with the intention of founding a 'fraternity', as a 'presence' among the local Muslims. This overall intention covers the remaining fifteen years of his life, from 1902 until 1916. It was a complete reversal: the original search for God continues unabated, but Charles now feels called to live this basic thrust in contact, in an increasingly close and consciously chosen contact, with his Muslim neighbours: neighbours to whom he 'went', to whom he felt himself 'sent'.

During this period, Charles normally refers to himself simply as a 'monk'.18 Occasionally he will use the expression 'missionary-monk', meaning 'monk in a missionary situation', but always with the proviso that the role and work of a 'missionary' is not his. Obviously he was an unusual monk, as he humorously remarks! He was alone, he had only his own self-made rule, he was constantly drawn away from any sort of stability or regularity, he spent less and less time in formal prayer, being absorbed in linguistic studies and human contacts ... But, as an agnostic visitor who knew him well, remarked, he was 'in no way the ex-soldier (as many then, and later, imagined), but every inch the monk!' And - a small but significant fact - he absolutely refused to have his linguistic works published under his name: was he not called to be 'a monk, dead to the world'?19