May is the month an extraordinary man was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Charles de Foucauold was an orphan, a prodigal, a spendthrift, an agnostic, a soldier, a debauchee, a map maker, an explorer, a Trappist Monk, a hermit, an inspiration for religious communities, and finally, a victim of an assassin’s bullet. His wild, careening life is a fascinating story.
His early life made him an unlikely candidate for sainthood. Born Viscount Charles Eugene de Foucauld on September 15, 1858, in Strasbourg, he labored under the hand of his father, Edouard, who liked to drink and overeat. Worse, he succumbed to a depression so severe he began raving, unable to recognize even his own family.
Edouard Foucauld’s degeneration caused his own father (Charles’ grandfather) to die of grief. Then Charles’ mother died during a miscarriage at age thirty-four. Edouard died several months later. Then Edouard’s mother, entrusted with the care of his children, died of a heart attack. Charles was six.
His maternal grandfather, Colonel Morlet, became the guardian of Charles and his younger sister, Mimi. Then the Prussians crushed the French army and took over the country, claiming Strasbourg as their own. Bereft of his family and his homeland, Charles’ single passion was to kill Prussians, something he was in no position to do. Overweight, hypersensitive, and given to outbursts of rage, he was a vulnerable young man.
Charles’ grandfather entered him into a Jesuit boarding school in Paris. There were many rules and much rigor, too much for Charles, who rebelled and declared himself a free-thinker. At first theology and the Mass disgusted him, then it just bored him. He never claimed atheism, choosing instead a determined agnosticism.
He was also mismatched at Saint-Cyr military school, a barracks school even more rigorous than the Jesuits. Charles’ passion for killing Prussians could not sustain him through the physical requirements of military training. He was chubby and slothful, in poor contrast to his fellow would-be officers. Yet his grades put him near the top of his class.
Then in 1878 Colonel Morlet died, leaving Charles a large inheritance. Around the same time he received a large delayed inheritance from his parents estate. He was twenty.
Charles immediately indulged himself in all the pleasures of the flesh. His second year at Saint-Cyr was a disaster; he finished near the bottom of his class. He spent most of his time eating imported delicacies, smoking imported Havana cigars, drinking champagne, and entertaining young ladies. He became known to his classmate as “Fat Foucauld,” or simply “Le Porc” (the Pig). “I’m doing what my father did,” Charles said. “I’m eating.”
He graduated last in his class and was assigned as a cavalry officer. He continued his life of debauchery, and was eventually placed under house arrest, and put on inactive status. He languished in his decadence, vaguely realizing something was wrong, but not having a glimmer as to what to do about it.
When Charles heard that his regiment was headed for Algeria to put down a jihad, he unaccountably straightened up, and was allowed to join his regiment in Tunisia. To the surprise of all, Charles not only withstood the sweltering heat and poor conditions, he proved himself a leader. His commanding officer wrote of him: “Cheerfully putting up with the harshest trials, constantly risking his life, scrupulously looking after his men, he won the admiration of the regiment’s experts…” (Antier, p. 59).
But when the battle campaigns were over, Charles found ordinary camp life unbearable. He resigned from the army and, resolving to explore Morocco, began learning Arabic and Hebrew. His family appointed a legal conservator over his finances, and threatened to cut off his funding. Charles went ahead with his plans. He hired as a guide a former rabbi with a thirst for gold that turned him toward alchemy. Charles disguised himself as a poor rabbi and the two went into the desert.
With a sextant and notepaper, Charles began analyzing the entire country, something the French hadn’t gotten around to doing. While staying at Jewish homes, Charles learned that Morocco longed for the prosperity of French controlled Algiers. The sultan was bleeding Moroccans white with taxes, and doing nothing to stop bands of murderers and robbers from victimizing farmers, the wealthy, and the innocent.
Even though he hired an armed guard to travel with him, he had numerous brushes with death. Had the roaming thieves and murderers known he was a French spy they would have cut his throat immediately (not that disguising himself as a Jew warded off many dangers).
Through it all Charles doggedly mapped the country, traveling through endless plains, forests of palm trees, mountain passes with snow-capped peaks towering over his head, and vast deserts full of ever changing sand dunes, and dotted with mysterious, life giving oases. At night he looked up at the immense blackness, poked through by millions of stars. Sometimes he thought he was being followed, and turned quickly. He could see nothing.
In the end he mapped out 1700 miles, wrote down thousands of observations, drafted 135 drawings and 20 maps. He returned to Paris a hero, and lashed everything together into a book that was eagerly received and widely praised. Among the honors given him was the Gold Medal of the French Geographic Society. When things were back to normal, however, Charles was bored once more; but this time he recognized it as despair.
Islam attracted him, an appeal aided by the love he felt for Africa and African peoples. He still declared himself a free thinker, but his long exposure to the beautiful, harsh, silence of Creation started his road to conversion. He read a book his cousin, Marie de Bondy, had given him for his First Communion (by Bossuet), and the words leapt off the page at him. Marie had introduced Charles to religion, and prayed for him all these years. He concluded: “Since she possesses such an intelligent soul, the religion in which she so firmly believes cannot be the madness I think it.” (Antier, p. 95.)
He began visiting Catholic churches to pray: “God, if you exist, make yourself known to me.” One of the churches was St. Augustine’s. The parish priest was Marie’s confessor, Father Henri Huvelin. Early on the morning of October 30, 1886, Charles resolved to visit Father Huvelin. He found him in the confessional.
Charles told Fr. Huvelin he did not come to make a confession because he didn’t have the Faith. When questioned, Charles admitted that he was born and raised a Catholic, and once believed. Fr. Huvelin told him: “What is missing now, in order for you to believe, is a pure heart. Go down on your knees, make your confession to God, and you will believe.”
Charles protested, but Fr. Huvelin insisted he confess. Charles did so. A good while later he received absolution. “Have you eaten?” Huvelin asked him. Charles said no. “Receive Communion.” It was a order. Afterwards, Charles didn’t just believe, he knew: “As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood I could do nothing else but live for him, my religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith.”
The conversion of Charles de Foucauld was another one of those abrupt, out of nowhere veerings that characterized his life. His faith seemed to grow for the rest of his life. His main difficulty was finding the proper outlet for it. He asked Father Huvelin to be his spiritual advisor, and the priest agreed – something he would later, at times, regret.
Huvelin came to believe Charles was a saint. Like most saints, Charles’ personality was left intact. This caused numerous problems, the majority of the problems afflicting Charles more than others.
He was best suited to be a hermit, but at times he longed for human contact, particularly with his family. Yet he was always moving away from them to follow God. As he explored Africa, so would he explore his new religion; basically alone, unearthing mines of spiritual treasure.
“He makes of religion his love,“ Father Huvelin told Charles’ family. He was a temperamental lover in that he seemed to careen from states of profound inner mysticism to profound anguish at his lack of growth in the spiritual life. In the beginning this arose out of pride, and his waning attachment to Islam. Father Huvelin told Charles to simply live “in imitation of Christ.“
So it was that Charles’ imitation sent him to the Holy Land, “to put myself at the foot of the cross.” From Jerusalem he went to the noisy Arab city of Bethlehem, and finally, to Nazareth. He found the wisdom he was looking for: to truly imitate Christ he would have to be obedient and obscure.
Charles returned to Paris, entered the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges, and completed his novitiate in six months. The former rebel and free thinker was such a model of obedience that his superior admitted:
“This fine young man has cast off everything. I have never seen such detachment and, along with that, overwhelming modesty. He can boast of having made me weep and feel my lowliness.”
Stopping in Paris long enough to say good-bye forever to his family, and to give all his worldly goods to his sister Mimi, Charles set sail for Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur, an impoverished, remote priory in the Syrian wilderness, where he was known as Brother Marie Alberic. Charles felt great peace – for a time. Then his fasting and scourging made him ill. Observing an “excessive love of bodily mortification,” his Superior told Charles to lighten up.
His Superior also wrote a letter to Charles’ former Trappist superior: “Brother Alberic is still the little saint you know…he always sets an example, often makes us joyful, and sometimes frightens us. Keep praying hard for him. His perfection is too great to be lasting.”
The test came when Charles discovered his Superiors wanted him to become a priest, and eventually, the Superior of their Order. He was mortified: the priesthood was too high, too exalted a vocation for him. But he obeyed – barely. Secretly he was drafting a Rule for his own Order, based on the Rule of St. Benedict, but more severe. Most likely any neophyte that came within Charles’ orbit at that time would have either died or fled into the night.
In 1896 Charles was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood. His new Abbot, Dom Wyart, soon realized that Charles present vocation was not the priesthood. It was a difficult decision to allow this promising, saintly man, to leave his Order. As for Charles, he remained silent, willing to accept Dom Wyart’s decision, convinced that he would have to become a priest out of obedience. The Abbot declared: “You are free my son. You can follow the particular vocation that seems good to you. After prayer, study, and reflection, the fathers recognize in you a special vocation outside the rule. May God guide your footsteps.”
The footsteps led back to Nazareth. Charles became a gardener for the poor Clares. He lived in a tool shed perhaps seven feet square. He spent much of his time in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. He ate one meal a day, bread and water. When he slept, which was seldom, a stone was his pillow. He was ecstatic. The Abbess remarked: “He leads a life more angelic than human.”
Although his ideal was to be “a humble, obscure workman of Nazareth,“ Charles was spectacularly incompetent at any sort of manual labor. One sister said Charles “was incapable of planting a head of lettuce.”
The Abbess and all the poor Clares began praying that Charles would reconsider the priesthood. Perhaps their prayers were heard, for Charles became determined to become a priest – a very unusual priest who had no parish, no monastery, and no mission other then to roam about and begin his own Order.
He returned to France, but was turned down for the priesthood by the Archbishop of Paris, who considered Charles a spiritual gadfly who couldn’t stay put. Charles traveled to Rome to talk to the Pope about the priesthood, and the Order Charles wanted to start. The closest he came to Leo XIII, however, was a general audience. Then he was shunted off to Vatican bureaucrats, and a dead end.
He returned to Notre Dame des Neiges, and was greeted happily. His Superior prepared him for the priesthood. On June 10, 1901, Charles celebrated his first Mass, in the presence of his sister Mimi. He immediately resolved to leave for Africa, to live in poverty and obscurity.
He spent the rest of his life shuttling between Beni-Abbes and Tamanrasset, redeeming slaves, feeding the hungry, teaching, evangelizing, and being absorbed in contemplation. In 1908 he visited France at the request of his family. While there, the Bishop of Viziers (the diocese Father Foucauld was loosely attached to) approved statutes for Foucauld’s fraternity: “The Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart – a “pious union for the evangelization of the colonies.”
Father de Foucauld’s method of evangelization was not to argue with the Muslims, who many of the White Fathers considered impossible to convert. He lived among the poorest as an obviously devout Christian, feeding, caring, and praying for them, and letting this example speak for itself. He sought “To see Jesus in every human being; to see a soul to be saved in every soul; to see a child of the Heavenly Father in every man; to be charitable, peaceful, humble and courageous…”
He called himself a “universal brother,” a term that was seen favorably only after the Second Vatican Council. Critics within the Church say disapprovingly that Father de Foucauld did not try to convert Africans, that he saw no need for it, that he simply sought to share their poverty as a fellow human being.
Charles saw it this way: “Welfare and hospitality, the example of the evangelical virtues, above all the prayers and holiness of all those who serve, and still more the great number of Masses and tabernacles, will begin the work of conversion.”
In 1914 the Great War began in Europe. As Germany sought to penetrate French borders, German arms were supplied to tribal chieftains in the French colonies in Africa, and they began an insurrection. Most of the French Army had been pulled back to France, and small outposts like Tamanrasset had little or no military support. Father Foucauld was urged to leave, but did not.
On December 1, 1916, he was pulled from his prayers by a band of rezzou who sought to kidnap him and ransom him for Muslim prisoners. They lashed his arms behind his back at the elbows. They beat him, forced him to his knees, and demanded he pledge allegiance to Allah. He said no word and shook not. His lips moved silently, in prayer, or repeating a meditation found in one of his notebooks:
“To be as poor and small as was Jesus. Silently, secretly, obscurely, like him. Passing unknown on the earth like a traveler in the night, disarmed and silent before injustice, like him, the Divine Lamb, I shall endure being shorn and sacrificed without resisting, without speaking, and the hour come, I shall imitate him in his way of the Cross and his death.”
The mob tore his clothes and threatened him with death. There was confusion and rifle fire, and Father de Foucauld slowly fell onto his side, a bullet through his head. They buried him in the sand and pillaged the mission, strewing de Foucauld’s writings about as they looked for treasure.
Just before Christmas a small French regiment came to Tamanrasset. One of the notebooks they recovered was entitled, “Live as if I were to die a martyr today.” They put a cross over his grave, but did not disturb it. The following year the body was exhumed in order to move it to higher ground. The hands were still behind the back, the body in a kneeling position. General Laperrine wrote Charles’ family: “Your brother was as if mummified, and he could still be recognized. The transfer of his remains has been a most emotional experience.“
In 1927 the cause of beatification for Father Charles de Foucauld began. In recent years he has been hailed as a forerunner of Vatican II, and his humble coexistence with Muslims are noted. He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2005.
Jean Jacques Antier, Charles De Foucauld, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999.
The Catholic Counter-Reformation in the Twenty-First Century, February, 2005 edition, “A Son of the Church, The Spirit of Father De Foucauld,” by Brother Bruno of Jesus.
Catholic World News Report, Online Edition, and numerous Charles De Foucauld web sites.