Charles de Foucauld – fundamentalist of charity

Whether the ancient Greek anchorites or Egypt’s early Christian desert fathers, whether stylites and dendrites on high columns and trees, the beguines and begarden of the Middle Ages, inclusions in their walled-up cells or even hermits of modern times: they all radically withdrew from society. What were they looking for in solitude? Difficult to say – especially for us lateborns.

Especially since the ascetic isolation inevitably confronted such extremists of refusal not only with their own ego, but also with physical torment and deprivation, also infatuation and doubt. It is not without reason that the “Temptation of Saint Anthony” has been a classic theme in art, from Bosch and Brueghel to Dalí and Kubin.

The question of the meaning and purpose of permanent self-isolation is not easy to answer, even in the case of the man who today has the reputation of being one of the very few “spiritual masters” of Christianity from recent times. The man who, a role model in self-sacrificing moderation and also in matters of Christian-Muslim dialogue, Brother Charles de Jesus baptized and now on May 15 obtained canonization.

Without a doubt, this Charles Eugène Vicomte de Foucauld is one of the most extraordinary phenomena that France produced on the threshold of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Operetta Officer

1858 in Strasbourg in one of the oldest and richest noble families Grand Nation was born, was already an orphan at the age of six, came into the care of his grandfather and fled with his family to Nancy in 1870 from the German troops. At the grammar school there, raised at home in a devoutly Catholic spirit, he read Montaigne, Voltaire and Rabelais. It is the France of the Third Republic, of laicism and liberalism, of rationality. It is, of course, also a country reeling from the “shame of Sedan” and the Paris Commune – a colonial empire thirsting for battlefield revenge and where the clergy and legitimists continue to wield great influence.

Following family tradition, Charles chooses a military career. He attends the famous “Special Military School” of Saint-Cyr. But as a soldier-to-be, he cuts a far from good figure. Not only does he lack sportsmanship and, just 163 centimeters tall, elite dimensions.

Charles de Foucauld in his time as a soldier.

– © Babouba / Public domain / via Wikimedia Commons

He distances himself, cuts himself off, suffers from the conventions of camaraderie common in barracks. “Loss of interest” and a “flabby character” are stated by his superiors, and his appearance as “obesity and muscle wasting”. In the Saumur cavalry school, to which he transfers, he then compensates for his frustration with excessive amusements. Gala dinners, games of chance, princely tips, affairs without number, in addition elegant toilets, a private servant with a horse-drawn carriage … An existence like the parody of a light-hearted operetta officer. He squanders his immense inheritance so unabashedly that the family even places him under guardianship for a short time.

Another blue-blooded friend enthuses: “Anyone who hasn’t seen Foucauld, casually stretched out on his couch in his white, lace-decorated flannel pajamas, consuming a sophisticated foie gras with truffles and champagne, has no idea what a bon vivant is.” Among the waiters and lighthearted ladies of Montmartre, on the other hand, the fat paunch is known by the nickname “the little pig”. He later summed it up: “I lived for twelve years without any belief,” in “painful emptiness and boredom,” “silent contempt,” and “sadness.”

The radical change is announced in his mid-twenties: Foucauld, meanwhile in the army and fighting in Algeria against a guerrilla fired by the vehemently anti-colonial spirit of the Sufi Senussi brotherhood, experiences the desert for the first time. Their grandiose desolation awakens in him unexpected experiences of transcendence. But his encounters with the Arabs and Berbers also cast a spell on him. He watches their gestures with fascination when they kneel down in the evening, press their foreheads into the sand and say their prayers against the limitless horizon. “La ilaha illallah.” (“There is no god but God.”)

The image of the praying under the starry desert sky, he will later confess, “provoked a mighty upheaval in me. To see how these people believe and are constantly close to God made me sense something that was greater and more real than anything what I had seen so far.”

In the end, bored again in the barracks, he resigned and went on a study trip to Morocco in 1883. For more than a year, disguised as a Russian Jew, he collected a wealth of valuable scientific knowledge under enormous strain on his way through the unexplored country, which was largely forbidden for Christians. He became famous for his 500-page publication on this. But instead of savoring the status of “Africa hero” in the academies and salons, he – who now knows Arabic (and is noticeably narrower and more thoughtful in photos) – intensifies his spiritual search.

Changeable years

Back in Paris, he lives outwardly in an “Arab way”, but mutates into a regular churchgoer at the same time. In the fall of 1886, at the age of 28, he experienced a profound conversion during a general confession. “In that moment,” he writes, “it was clear to me that I could live for nothing but God.” Foucauld gives away all his earthly possessions and bids his loved ones and companions goodbye forever.

Eventful years follow: seven, after a first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in Syria as a Trappist monk; then ordination to the priesthood, theological studies in Rome, in between, again in Palestine, a rather unusual existence as a servant in a nunnery. There, in Nazareth, he finally feels the calling to henceforth imitate the poor life of his Savior as “mediator and humble brother of the Orientals and Africans” – quietly, obediently, very simply, working, praying, available for others. The contrast to the zeitgeist could be more stark Belle Epoque Not be.

De Foucauld's hermitage on the Assekrem Plateau in southern Algeria.  - © Albert Backer / CC BY-SA 3.0 ( / via Wikimedia Commons

De Foucauld’s hermitage on the Assekrem Plateau in southern Algeria.

– © Albert Backer / CC BY-SA 3.0 ( / via Wikimedia Commons

In 1900 he went back to the Algerian Sahara – first, near the border, to Béni Abbès. Declared goal: “… to prevent our soldiers from dying unexpectedly in places where many succumb to fever and there is no priest”. But also and above all “… to do as much good as possible for the so numerous and neglected Muslim population”. In 1904 he allowed himself to be persuaded to take part in a military reconnaissance tour in the deep south, the land of the Tuareg. The calculation of the army: a cleric, merciful to all, softens the negative image of the French as a brutal conqueror.

Foucauld conforms with France’s colonial policy due to the times. In order to help the peoples of Africa to develop, prosper and improve their morals, it is necessary, according to his way of thinking, to take on the “time-consuming and thankless task” of civilizing. He also regularly provides his compatriots with military situation reports. Of course, he ruthlessly denounces grievances. One must, he writes to a soul mate in Paris, explain to the people at home what is really happening in the colonies. Because instead of showing Christian brotherhood, many French showed dislike and violence.

In Tamanrasset, the capital of the south, he builds a hermitage, and 80 kilometers to the north, on the Assekrem mountain plateau, 2,700 meters above sea level, a second. Here, in the Hoggar Mountains, shortly after his arrival as interpreter of the meeting, Foucauld witnesses how an agreement for peaceful coexistence is reached with the proud chief of the Ahaggar Tuareg, initially on an equal footing, only to be transformed into military submission with a bang . Nevertheless, the chief of the tribe becomes his confidant and patron. It is thanks to their friendship and Foucauld’s mediation skills that the region’s nomads remain aloof from the rebellion against Europeans that is raging across the country. General Laperrine, military commander of the “Territoires du Sud”will describe him as “a key agent in the pacification of the Touareg”.

friend of the Tuareg

The last photograph of Charles de Foucauld during his lifetime (circa 1915).  - © Public domain / via Wikimedia Commons / Author unknown

The last photograph of Charles de Foucauld during his lifetime (circa 1915).

– © Public domain / via Wikimedia Commons / Author unknown

The locals quickly grow on the priest. He advises them on gardening and well construction, looks after the sick, provides vaccinations and medicine, settles disputes, counteracts slavery and the frequent divorces.

So he tries to bring the gospel closer to them by helping them, but never tries to actively convert them. At the same time, he has the highest regard for their culture. Learn the Tuareg language Tamasheq and the writing Tifinagh, wrote a 2,000-page dictionary, still a standard work today, and a grammar, collects poems, songs, legends. No wonder they like him too, worship him as a Christian marabout. And save their “saint” several times, for example in a famine, the life. Only once did their protection fail: on December 1, 1916, Foucauld was “accidentally” shot during an attack by rebellious Senussi in the tumult.

In the short term, his outwardly miserable life may secretly appear as a total failure. So his dearest wish to win confreres was not fulfilled. He himself, who is buried today in the oasis of El Meniaa, laconically stated in the year of his death that he could not produce a single converted Tuareg. And, as an indication of loneliness: “If I could at least feel that God loves me. But he never tells me.”

But six years later his biography appears in France and sets off a dynamic that will subsequently inspire the worker-priest movement and the Second Vatican Council, among others. In 1933, four young priests founded the first brotherhood in the Sahara Atlas, based on the rules of the order formulated and practiced by Foucauld, later to become the “Little Brothers of Jesus”. Soon after, the “Little Sisters” are born.

The two credo: be small – and be a fellow human being. They live without rank and possessions, seek work and wages, and unite in friendship with the poor. Regardless of whether they are Christians or Muslims, “pagans” or atheists. When Foucauld was beatified in 2005, the “Spiritual Family” that referred to him already consisted of twenty communities of lay people, religious, priests and secular institutes. Today, its 13,000 members are present in 44 countries.

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