CHARLES de Foucauld came from a Christian family but became agnostic as a teenager, in his own words, “running wild… I was in the dark. I no longer saw either God or men: There was only me.” He served as an officer in the French Army in North Africa but lost his rank after an affair. He then turned explorer in Morocco, disguising himself as a Jew as Europeans were forbidden in that country.
On his return to France, he found himself longing for adventure of a different kind: “Even though I wasn’t a believer I started going to Church. It was the only place where I felt at ease and I would spend long hours there repeating this strange prayer: ‘My God, if You exist, allow me to know You!’”
At 28, a turning point was reached: he began to believe: “The moment I realized that God existed, I knew I could not do otherwise than to live for Him alone.”
Charles (he called himself ‘Little Brother Charles of Jesus’) lived as a Trappist monk for a while. He spent some time as a hermit in Nazareth within the confines of a Poor Clares community. He was later ordained as a priest and in 1901, left for Algeria. His vision was, “to shout the gospel with his life” and, for those he lived among, to find in him, “a universal brother”.
His house in Béni Abbès in western Algeria was known locally as “the fraternity” and consisted of a room, a chapel and three acres of garden. People constantly came to seek him out: “From 4.30 am to 8.30 pm, I never stop talking and receiving people: slaves, the poor, the sick, soldiers, travellers and the curious.”
Charles longed for others to join him but they never came: “Pray to God so that I may do the work he has given me to do here: that I may establish a little convent of fervent and charitable monks, loving God with all their heart and their neighbour as themselves; a Zaouia (Islamic word for school or monastery) of prayer and hospitality where such piety radiates that the whole country is illumined and warmed by it; a little family imitating so perfectly the virtues of Jesus that all who live in the surrounding area begin to love Jesus!”
Inspired by his vision, Charles wrote down a plan for new religious orders, patterned on the life of Jesus.
In 1904, Charles left Béni Abbès to dwell among the fierce nomadic Saharan Tuareg people; he wanted to live among, “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He learned the Tuareg language, compiled a Tuareg dictionary and translated the gospels.
He said:“Above all, always see Jesus in every person, and consequently treat each one not only as an equal and as a brother or sister, but also with great humility, respect and selfless generosity.”
Charles’ premature death (he was murdered in 1916) saw his plans for a community unrealised; in 1914 he had written: “not a single conversion! It takes prayer, work and patience.”
Did Charles die feeling his life’s labours had been in vain? A solitary seed, buried in the ground, unproductive and forgotten? It was not to be. Later, various communities such as the Little Brothers of Jesus and Little Sisters of Jesus were formed as they took hold of and implemented his vision and drew inspiration from his words. His legacy, unrealised in his lifetime, lives on. The solitary seed has multiplied and born abundant fruit.
Here is his ‘Prayer of Abandonment’:
I abandon myself to You.
Make of me what You will.
Whatever you make of me,
I thank You.
I am ready for everything,
I accept everything.
Provided that Your will be done in me,
In all Your creatures,
I desire nothing else, Lord.
I put my soul in Your hands,
I give it to You, Lord,
With all the love in my heart,
Because I love You,
And because it is for me a need of love
To give myself,
To put myself in Your hands unreservedly,
With infinite trust
For You are my Father!
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