Bl. Charles de Foucauld OCSO: Christ’s Witness in the Desert
A life made of contemplation, prayer and service to the least of Charles de Foucauld (1858—†1916), beatified on November 13, 2005, in the presence of the “blue men” of the desert, those Tuareg whom he had loved so much and for whom he had canceled to become the last of the poor. With the boundless Saharan horizons and their absolute silence, broken by the prayers that the Tuareg intoned five times a day, it had been love at first sight. It was the desert that brought him back to the path of faith, that made him discover that restlessness of the heart finds peace only in the hours of prayer, at the foot of the Eucharist. Precisely this yearning pushed him where no religious had ever gone – to Hoggar, in the deep south of Algeria – to bear witness to universal faith and peace. Like Jesus in Nazareth, he wanted his presence to bear witness only to goodness and brotherhood.
In the hermitage of Beni-Abbès, in the province of Oran, on the border with Morocco, he had placed these signs: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, renounce himself, take up the cross and follow me”; “Do everything to everyone, with the only desire to give Jesus to everyone”; “Live today, as if you were to die tonight, martyr.” And when the First World War, crossing over from the European continent, armed the hand that killed him right in his hermitage of peace, that death was simply the most consistent outcome of a life that, after his conversion, had been pure praise of God, putting himself totally back into his hands, until he dissolves like the grain of wheat, which however here we see reborn even in the desert and becomes still life for those who know how to take up the arduous example. 
The way of conversion
Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg on 15 September 1858 to a noble French family, but in 1864 he was shocked by an incident: within a few months he lost both parents. Taking care of him and his sister Marie is his maternal grandfather, Charles-Gabriel de Morlet, who after the Franco-Prussian war moved to Nancy, opting for French nationality. Here Charles completed his secondary studies and then attended the Jesuit school in Paris, in the rue des Postes. He will say later, recalling those years: “I think I have never been in a more deplorable state of mind. At 17 I was only selfishness, vanity, impiety, desire for evil: I was like outside of myself” and sadly admits that, “of faith, there was no trace left in my soul”.  Upon graduation, he takes the exam for the military academy of Saint-Cyr, where he enters in 1876, and two years later we find him at the cavalry school of Saumur.
In both environments he stands out for his indiscipline and transgressions, for the games packed evenings of card and girls, for the quality of the cigars he smokes and the expensive clothes he wears. In 1880 he reached the desert for the first time which would later captivate him. He is in Algeria with the 4th Hussar Battalion — 4e Régiment de Hussards—, already with the rank of lieutenant, but once again the transgression prevails: he has brought a lover from France, with whom he lives more uxorio. When the colonel finds out about the affair, forces him to put an end to it or to leave, Charles, who is not the type to give up, returns to France. But when, in the spring of 1881, he learns of the insurrection in Bou-Amama, in the southern Sahara, he cannot resist the thought of his comrades fighting without him. He leaves for Algeria, reaches the front and during the battle is noted for both his courage and solidarity.
He now has the desert and its inhabitants in his heart, to the point that he asks for a license to undertake a trip into the sub-Saharan regions, enabling him to study them thoroughly. He was only 24 years old: the unknown now dominated his future, he now felt that he was born to inhabit that desert, that he was there to listen to the silence that filled those vast horizons. Settling in Algiers, he begins to prepare for the exploration of Morocco, a closed country and wary of foreigners. But first he had to learn Arabic, so his desire for knowledge re-emerges —neglected during his school years— and he begins to go to libraries, to take private lessons, to consult those who could help him. He meets Oscar Mac Carthy, an old explorer who had traveled extensively in Africa: without escort or luggage, regardless of material comforts, with pockets full of notebooks and handwritten papers. Oscar tells him that the biggest problem is the choice of disguise, as it is impossible to enter that hostile country without hiding one’s status as a Christian. Only two ways of dressing would have made him go unnoticed: Arab or Jewish. Charles opts for the latter style and, having chosen a rabbi as a guide, leaves Tangier on June 20, 1883.
The trip allows him to create a scientific work —both geographic, military and political, Reconnaissance au Maroc—,  but it is also an opportunity to undertake a “reconnaissance” inside his own soul. He returned to France profoundly changed and, after having tried in vain to forget those places, in September 1885 he left for Algeria, where he traveled kilometres and kilometres, to listen to the voice of the desert in the silence of the night, to look at the immensity of the starry sky, to understand the reason for the charm that emanates from that country made of sand and light. In particular, he is struck by the faith of Muslims and their constant invocation to God; those prayers confront him with his lack of faith and so, after years spent suffocating that nostalgia, it comes to the surface stronger than ever: it recognises the mistakes of the past and tries to answer the questions that are multiplying in him.
God, who also knows how to manifest himself through unusual ways, waited for him one evening at the home of a cousin, arranging for him meet Abbé Henri Huvelin: a man of great faith, capable of speaking to souls and recognising their pain. He immediately understood what the restless eyes of that young man were asking, but he did not press and waited. At the end of October 1886 he was in the confessional, in Saint-Augustin, and Charles went to ask him to instruct him, because he had no faith. Abbé Henri Huvelin made him kneel and invited him to confess to God; then he gave him the Eucharist. From that moment Charles de Foucauld found peace, which now transpired from the smile and from the words, from the letters that more and more often spoke of God, from the life he led in his sister Marie’s house and from the search to discover God’s call. he made a trip to the Holy Land and, while crossing the streets of Nazareth, meditating on the words of Abbé Huvelin —“Our Lord has so occupied the last place that no one has ever managed to steal it from him” (p. 116) —, he had the clear feeling of being called to the hidden life, in all humility.
Brother Albéric and the call of the desert
Back in Paris, in March 1889, one last problem remains to be solved: which religious order is most suitable for him? He makes several retreats, spends months in prayer and finally feels that he is drawn to the Trappists so that, having given all of his possessions to his sister, he reaches Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, where he is admitted to the noviciate with the name of Brother Marie-Albéric. Despite the hardness characteristic of La Trappe, Charles stands out for his helpfulness, austerity, thoughtful judgment, but above all for his humility, which is reflected in his every gesture and in the words he writes to his sister: “For me, everything continues to go really well. From day one, my life goes on smoothly. And my soul, how’s it going? I was just not hoping for it: the good Lord makes me find in solitude and silence a consolation on which I did not count. I am constantly and absolutely with him and with those I love”.  Doing God’s will was his only desire, and that very will now asks him to leave Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and settle in the most remote monastery of the Trappists in Syria. He returned the call of solitude in the desert, the charm of those silent places, to live in greater poverty, near the Holy Land, where the Son of God had worked and suffered.
He leaves Marseille on June 27, 1890, heading for the Cheïkhlé Trappe —a monastery lost in the mountains, with about twenty Trappists—, where he continues his noviciate marked by work in the fields, meditation, reading and prayer, until the day of his religious profession. February 2, 1892. But brother Albéric, who wants to follow an even more demanding rule than the Trappist one, has the inspiration to found a small congregation that traces the life of Jesus as much as possible: only in this way does he consider it possible to witness the love of God in abandoned countries and where the Gospel is ignored. To do this, however, he must leave the Order he has just entered. He talks about it with his confessor, Dom Polycarpe, and writes the doubts that haunt him to Abbé Huvelin. The old spiritual director knew well that it was impossible to hold him back when he felt inside “the mysterious call” and therefore, after various correspondence exchanges, he authorised him to follow that project of a solitary and totally hidden life, but rejected the written rule for the foundation of the Little Brothers of Jesus, considering it impossible due to excessive severity.
It was February 1897 when he left Brindisi  to reach the Holy Land with a ticket given to him by the Trappists and, once he arrived in Nazareth, he went to the Poor Clares to have a place as a servant. The abbess, mother Saint-Michel, knew very well whom she was standing in front of and treated him like a sacristan: he would sleep in a hut in the shadow of the monastery, receive a piece of bread a day, and have plenty of time to pray. It was exactly what he was looking for, and the hermit life he managed to lead made him deeply happy, it allowed him to apply his rule to the hours of day and night, marked by intervals of work and prayer. The following year, Mother Saint-Michel sent him to Jerusalem to deliver a letter to those Poor Clares. He arrived totally exhausted, with his feet blistered and sore from the long journey and mother Élisabeth du Calvaire decided to hold him back for some time in order for him to recover. Confident of his great intelligence as well as of the immense faith of that man; he who had presented himself as a beggar, the abbess managed to convince him, with the help of the Abbé Huvelin, to embrace the priesthood. At the beginning of August 1900, Charles thus returned to Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, where Dom Martin had been waiting for his arrival, Dom Martin made Charles complete his preparation for the priesthood at the Grand Séminaire for the clergy in Viviers (Ardèche). It was a year of study, prayer, seclusion, but also of reflection, during which he discovers that he is called not only to the pure hiding of Nazareth, but to live that form of life by bringing the Eucharist to the wildest districts, among the “infidels” and the souls who have been forgotten the most or who are lost.
On June 9, 1901, he was ordained a priest and remained among the Trappists awaiting the answer: he had asked to settle between Aïn and Touat, in one of the French garrisons without a priest, and be authorised to aggregate some companions to practice the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament. In September he takes leave of the Trappists of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and lands in his Africa, taking with him only the necessary to build the chapel and a few books. The French soldiers, knowing that the well-known explorer, already their comrade, had come to the desert to respond to such a noble and admirable call, welcomed him with enthusiasm and wanted to escort him to Beni-Abbès.  Here he buys land where water passed and begins, with the help of the fusiliers, to build a hermitage, starting with the chapel where he would exhibit the Eucharist.  He spends many hours of the day and night in meditation or adoration, lying at the foot of the altar; the rest of the time he dedicates to the soldiers, who go to see him for advice, to be blessed or simply to listen to that man who inspired peace and holiness. He welcomed them into the “terrain of fraternity” —as he had defined it—, listened to them and then accompanied them to the boundary which, marked by the stones, represented the space of the enclosure.
The “Christian marabout” who loved the North Africans
The inhabitants of Beni-Abbès began to look at the “Christian marabout” —in the al-Maghrib al-Arabi (المغربالعربي) Maghrebi Arabic lexicon it means ‘holy man‘ and hermit— both with a mixture of fear and admiration. But, little by little, they came closer and closer to the hermitage, and he willingly sacrificed something of that contemplation, the breath of his soul, to receive them fraternally and help them where he could. He opened his home to unpredictable nomads, to reprobate slaves and to those who needed shelter. He did this in order to accustom “Christians, Muslims, Jews and idolaters, to consider me their brother, their universal brother. Everyone is beginning to call this house “fraternity,” and this gives me great pleasure” (p. 238). And for that purpose to come true, he used up all that he had in order to free some young slave.
The life he led in the desert was made up of little sleep, a lot of work, of consolation for the afflicted, of very little food, but above all of contemplation and prayer before the source of his love for him, the humble tabernacle. Through the witness of charity, humility, fraternity and forgiveness, Charles de Foucauld tries to follow the Gospel and to bring Jesus among those Muslims, whose conversion seemed to Charles, to be something that was beyond the bounds of possibility. The undertaking was difficult, but a sign came when a young Tuareg woman, during the massacre of the Paul Flatters mission (1880–81), not only treated the wounded, but opposed their killing. Wasn’t this Christian charity? The one that makes all human beings love, without exception? Now Charles no longer had any doubts: he would go among the Tuareg, the nomadic “blue men” of the desert, to bring them the message of universal brotherhood and Christian love. With the help of commander Laperinne, he began a visit to the Ahnet, Adrar and Hoggar regions, to get to know the six great components of the Tuareg people and to get closer to their language.
In the spring of 1905 he moved to the heart of the Hoggar, precisely to Tamanrasset, a village far from the main centres, in the middle of the mountains, inhabited by the gag-rali. From that period there remains a photo, now universally known, with Charles at the door of the hut, dressed in a white tunic that on the chest has a red heart sewn on it which is surmounted by a cross . He studies Tamacheq, the Tuareg language, enabling him to translate the Bible into their language, and then attempts to make the first approaches with his nomadic neighbours by entering the gardens where they work, talking to them, distributing medicines and small gifts, such as needles, which the women had so desperately needed. In the spring of 1907 he was offered to join Captain Dinaux’s mission of peace and civilisation, and Charles, who saw this trip as an opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the Tuareg language, accepts. In every village or encampment he promised a penny for each verse, for the songs of love or war, for the ancient or recent poems of the Tuareg peoples.
In a personal note extract we read: “We left Father de Foucauld on an ‘expeditionary‘ tour in the Hoggar, in company with Captain Dinaux. This officer, was keen to continue the work of Laperrine, met Moussa Ag Amastane, chief of the Tuaregs in the Hoggar and sixteen of his notables. On the June 23, 1905, the grand aménokal of the Hoggar made amends for his attitude over the last two years and, as a sign of submission to France, agreed to pay the tax. In addition, he offered to accompany the captain on his expedition, which resumed on the following 10th of July.”
To understand these moments he had tried to grasp every word lost in the desert and had made a small piece of his heart out of it, feeling part of that country. He was convinced that God’s will was being fulfilled through his stay in the Hoggar and through the drafting of a glossary,  to which he was dedicating time and energy as an essential element of communication and mutual understanding. He had made himself small and poor, annihilating himself in a hidden life, in order to bring the evangelical witness to those peoples whom the desert had long hidden. He knew that he would not win them over with preaching, but only with the presence of the Eucharist, with example, penance, universal fraternal charity. He was not mistaken, and when suddenly the “Christian marabout” fell seriously ill, the Tuareg took care of him by bringing him the little goat’s milk they had, in order to make him heal. He managed to recover and continued to move from one hermitage to another, made trips to France, at the insistence of his sister who wanted to see him again, suffered the pain of two serious losses: those of Father Guérin, his spiritual director, and of the Abbé Huvelin, who both died in 1910.
Meanwhile, the Tuareg, hit by drought, had migrated to Asekrem, a mountain town in the Hoggar, where Charles followed them, building a new small hermitage in order not to leave them. “This is a beautiful place to worship the Creator. May his kingdom settle here! I have the advantage of having many souls around me and being truly lonely on the summit. The soul is not made for noise, but for recollection, and life must be a preparation for heaven, not only through meritorious works, but also through peace and recollection in God “(p. 422). These were his thoughts as he received the Tuareg families in a cabin that looked more like a corridor, and shared with them what little food he had. His greatest concern than he was to make himself useful and relieve that people, whom he loved so much, from the inferior condition in which he had lived for years. For this reason, in May 1913 he embarks on a trip to France together with Ouksem, a young Tuareg of noble origins. He did not know that Providence was allowing him go home for one last time only.
Returning to the beloved desert, he too was overwhelmed by the serious repercussions that the First World War also had in the colonial territories. He then decided, despite the danger represented by the (السِّنُوسِيَّةُ) Sanousiyya —is a Tuareg tariqa (Sufi brotherhood) considered to be rebels who attacked the French army— not to abandon Tamanrasset, but simply to take refuge with some of his proteges in a more fortified place, where he continued to live in prayer and solitude, before the Eucharist, completing the translation of the Tuareg poems. “We live in days when the soul feels the need to pray. In the storm that blows over Europe one perceives the nothingness of the creature and one turns to the Creator. We stretch our arms towards the sky, like Moses during the battle of his gods, and, where man is powerless, we pray to Him who can do everything”(p. 477), he wrote a few days before being killed by some rebellious Tuareg.
It was December 1, 1916, when Charles’s earthly life was brutally cut short. But his universal brotherhood, born at the foot of the Eucharist and concretised in words, gestures and loving service to the least, was carried away by the wind, together with the sand of the desert, and reached growing men and women who, fascinated, they tried to follow him in that exceptional adventure.  They are those petits frères and those petites sœurs  and the many lay associations which, in various forms and denominations, are inspired by that charism and live in silence among the least in the world, trying to be, like their founder, witnesses of the Gospel with a presence made of loving and warm solidarity.
May Our Lord God through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s great devotion, make us worthy of the heritage ! Amen. recite 3 x Ave Maria!
Continue reading “Bl. Charles de Foucauld OCSO: Christ’s Witness in the Desert”