"Charles De Foucauld - Caught in the Camera's Eye"

        by L Sr Cathy  Published in Spirituality Magazine,  vol.22, Nov,Dec 2016, p.339-342,  Dublin. used with permission

        Charles de Foucauld was beatified on Nov 13, 2005.  In the U.S. he is relatively unknown but I think he has a word for us and our culture even if he died 100 years ago in Algeria.
       
One of my favorite pictures of Charles was taken of him some years before his death.  He appears to be walking towards the camera, grinning and “showing his bad teeth.”  It is not the beautiful picture of a “saint”, not the striking last picture that we have of him in Tamanrasset, nor the lovely recollected picture taken earlier in Beni-Abbes.  This picture catches something of sheer exuberance and joy with a little dash of the folly of his life.
        To look at this picture one would never imagine it to be that of the Viscount de Foucauld as he was born.  There are no signs of nobility, no hint of wealth.  Neither is there the sadness of being orphaned as a young child and displaced by war, nor the sullenness and emptiness of his wild youth.  About those years without faith he wrote:
            “…My life began to be a death… I felt a painful void, an anguish and a sorrow I never felt before or since. This anguish returned each evening as soon as I found myself alone in my apartment.  It held me numb and depressed…”

        In those years he was given a dishonorable discharge from the military because of the wild parties he threw, for keeping a mistress and for his overall behavior which was unbecoming an officer.  Some sense of discipline finally imposed itself upon him, not for its own sake, but because he decided to risk his neck to explore uncharted areas of Morocco, an Islamic land closed to foreigners at the time.  It was the call of adventure.

        This picture that I like so much is also not the picture of the young man who returned from his long journey and won a prize from the French Geographical Society.  In that one, we begin to see some maturity setting in along with the nagging questions that his travels provoked.
       
Islam had a profound effect upon me...  the sight of this faith and these souls living in the continual presence of God helped me to recognize something greater and truer than worldly preoccupations.”

        Back in Paris he went from church to church searching for intellectual answers to questions of the heart. 
          
At the core of my being I wondered if truth can really be known…  I made that strange prayer to a God in whom I did not even yet believe, ‘if you exist, let me know you.’” 

       
Charles came to know God through a conversion experience that rocked and changed his life.  He knew from that moment that his whole life had to somehow be an image of the love that he experienced through Jesus.  The image that grabbed his imagination was that of Jesus’ life at Nazareth.
For a number of years he sought it with the Trappist order but it eventually became clear to him that his call was something else.  He then tried being a hermit in Nazareth itself, three years of deepening his relationship with God which touched upon the mystical.  But he came to realize that for him “Nazareth” meant to live his faith through a deeply contemplative life in the midst of other people in such a way that his life itself would cry the Gospel.  It meant sharing in every way the ordinary life of others and making of it the place where he sought the face of God.
        I think that this is part of why this picture speaks to me.  I see in it a man whose face is open and inviting, one whose joy is apparent.  It was his great desire to share with the people of Algeria who had been so instrumental in his own rediscovery of faith, the love he had found in Jesus. But he came to understand that this did not mean converting them.  Rather, in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, in the image of the Incarnation, he saw his call to simply be a brother to each one, especially to the poor, the excluded and those whose life-style made them hard to reach… to simply draw near.  It was a bridging of the gap through simple presence.
        Charles’ faith in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and in the ones he called brother and sister pushed him to advocate against slavery.  This was not a theoretical opposition.  People who were being held in bondage were coming to him for help.  These were Jesus’ brothers and sisters and his own.  Towards the end of his life he wrote:

        “I believe that there are no others words of the Gospel which have made a deeper impression and transformed my life more than these: ‘Whatever you do to the least of these little ones, you do to me’.  If we imagine that these words are those of uncreated Truth and come from the mouth of him who said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood’, with what strength are we impelled to seek and to love Jesus in these little ones, the sinners and the poor…”


        The greatest part of his time in Algeria was spent in a place called Tamanrasset among the nomadic Tuareg people. There were such barriers of misunderstanding between the French and Muslim populations.  In this isolated region he worked hard at learning the language and culture, composing dictionaries and volumes of local poetry in order to begin the dialogue of friendship and respect.  He did this intuitively and not from any prevailing theory of evangelization which had not yet been articulated very clearly.  In this picture I see someone who had long discarded any standoffishness. The fact is that as much as he had given his life and heart to this people, they had saved his life during the great famine after he had given away all of his supplies to help others and lay ill.  They scoured the countryside for miles around for goats able to give a little milk to nurse him back to life. Charles’ only real tool in working towards the reign of God was his own very human life, which became tied to, and dependent upon, the life of the people among whom he lived.  His rule was the rule of love that he saw in Jesus who welcomed each one, and in the Gospel.
        It has been 100 years since Charles de Foucauld was killed December 1, 1916 in the midst of the turmoil of World War I.  He could have gone back to France, taken refuge with the military or fled to the hills with others.  He chose to stay in Tamanrasset in solidarity with those too poor to flee.  He built a refuge for the local population in case of attack and lived in it himself.  In the end he was killed in the midst of a probable kidnap attempt when the 15 year old who was guarding him panicked and pulled the trigger accidentally.  According to witnesses he died without a word, bound hand and foot.  He was buried in a shallow grave along with two Arab soldiers and the Muslim postman who were also victims of this raid.  
        W
hen the French arrived 2 days later they found in the sand near where he died the pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament.  Some years earlier he had written:

       “No matter why they kill us, if in our hearts we welcome an unjust and cruel death as a blessed gift from your hand, if we give you thanks for such a sweet grace, for such a blessed imitation of your own end, if we offer it to you in willing sacrifice without resistance in obedience to your word… and your example…  then, no matter why they kill us, we will die in pure love and our death will be a sweet smelling sacrifice.  And if it isn’t martyrdom in the strict sense of the word and in the eyes of men, it will be so in your eyes and it will be a very perfect image of your own death…  If we have not shed our blood for our faith we will have offered it with our whole heart, handed over out of love for you.”

        I began by saying that Charles de Foucauld’s life has a word for us today.  There is a hunger for something capable of sustaining and nourishing us at the deepest levels of our being.  Too often we look for satisfaction, as Charles did, in all the wrong places and we are left with our sadnesses.  He opened himself to grace and allowed God to transform him through a life deeply rooted in prayer.  It not only healed his own brokenness but became the source of his joy. It also gave him the desire to be a brother to others who were very different from himself in a very real way and in so doing to work towards building the Reign of God. 
        In our world of today, as some try to stoke the polarization of cultural differences, race, religion or class, his witness is not an exotic one even if the desert of North Africa seems that way.  That is one of the underlying treasures of the mystery of the Incarnation and of Nazareth… just reaching across the gap with our humanity.  Charles did this in a very obscure little corner of the world.  Maybe it is not so very different from our own obscure little corners of the world in many ways.  He risked becoming a brother to those who must have initially seemed so different and they came to recognize the same in him.  We might call it the communion of saints.  And isn’t this what our neighborhoods and world so desperately need today?

        I love this picture of Charles because there is something just a bit crazy about it.  The Gospel, which calls us to be fools for Christ as St. Paul says, seems crazy at times but it is finally the only call that makes sense of and in our world.


Home                   History                   Charles de Foucauld                   Resources                   Contact Us


Home        History        Charles de Foucauld        Resources        Contact Us