“I have lost my heart to this Jesus of Nazareth, crucified 1900 years ago and I spend my life trying to imitate him as far as my weakness permits.”
Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg in 1858 of a very Christian family, whose motto was “Never backwards”. He lost his parents when he was six and the grandfather raised him and his sister Mary. In his adolescence he gave way to the religious skepticism and positivism that were characteristic of the period and he lost his faith. He immersed himself in a world life of pleasure and excess.
He was an officer at the age of 20 and was sent to Algeria. He made a mess of his military life. Once on sentry duty, as a prank, he left his post to disguise himself as a beggar. He even managed to bring with him, a young woman of dubious repute called Mimi. Three years later he left the army and undertook a scientific expedition to Morocco, risking his life in the process.
However God always finds a way. His encounter with the Muslim faith, his interior search for truth and the kindness and tactful friendship of his cousin brought him to a rediscovery of the Christian faith. It was a total and definitive conversion. He was 31 years old. “As soon as I believed God existed, I understood that I could do nothing else but live for him…”
One truth stuck in his mind. “Jesus took the lowest place in such a way that no one has ever been able to take it away from him.” Let me be there… at the one but last place, he reasoned.
Following this discovery he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the end of 1888. The reality of the Incarnation dawned on him. “Walking the streets of Nazareth, that Our Lord, a poor craftsman, had walked before me made me discover the humble and hidden existence of the divine workman of Nazareth.”
Nazareth became a key element in his life. At first he thought that he should live a cloistered life – hidden with Him alone. So he entered La Trappe in 1890. He stayed there 7 years emptying his heart of all that was overly human so that it might beat for God alone. Jesus of Nazareth had stolen his heart.
But God spurred him on. In his constant search, he left the security of La Trappe and went to Nazareth where he lived four years. This was a time of prayer characterized by lengthy and loving contemplation of the Eucharist. He discovered the joy of spending long hours day and night before the Tabernacle. “Solitude – prayer – adoration – Gospel meditation – humble work.”
The journey from Nazareth to Ein Karim the journey is short. He soon discovered that the hidden life in Nazareth necessarily leads to the mystery of the Visitation: taking Jesus to others in silence as Mary did.
And so he left Nazareth. He was ordained a priest at Viziers, France in 1901. Always ready to respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit, at age 43 he found himself in the Sahara. “To continue with the hidden life of Jesus in the Sahara, not to preach but to live in solitude and poverty doing the humble work of Jesus.” His hermitage became a beehive from dawn to dusk. “I want everybody – Christian, Muslims, Jews – to get used to seeing me as their brother, a universal brother. They are already beginning to call my house ‘the fraternity’ and I like that.”
Two years later he was again traveling, this time to Hoggar, a mountainous region in the far south of the Sahara, inhabited by a nomad population, all Muslims, called the Tourages. It was not easy. He wanted to reach the unapproachable. “When people see me, they must be able to say ‘because this man is good, his religion must be good’. If anyone asked me why I am gentle and good, I have to say, “Because I serve One who is far more ‘good’ than I am.” This was his apostolate.
And this was his prayer. “Father, I abandon myself into Your hands; do with me what You will. Whatever You do I thank You. I am ready for all, I accept all. I surrender myself into Your hands, without reserve and with total confidence, for You are my Father.”
And yet, we all know it. Goodness many times is not appreciated. On the evening of December 1, 1916 some Tourages surprised and captured him. They sacked the hermitage and a young man set to guard him panicked, shooting Brother Charles accidentally. His body was hastily buried in a ditch near the fortress. He was 58 years old.
“Whatever motive for which they kill us, if our heart is ready to an unjust and cruel death as a blessed gift at Your hand, if we do not resist, in order to obey your words ‘Offer the wicked man no resistance’, then, whatever reason they have for killing us, we shall die in pure love.”
Life is a song; sing it.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.