The Life and Death of Bl Charles de Foucauld

Today, there is talk of war, of jihad, reports of hostage taking, unspeakable atrocities and, now, a hellish public slaying. Almost a century ago there was similar talk. The war in question, however, was the Great War, and, on that occasion, the public slaying was not that of a Western journalist but of a Frenchman named Charles de Foucauld.

Born, on September 15, 1858, into a wealthy aristocratic family, de Foucauld was to have an unhappy childhood. His father suffered from depression, his mother was left to raise the boy and his elder sister. The cloud that hung over the home finally burst when, aged only six-years-old, the boy lost both parents in a matter of months. Any pretense at a normal life was now ended.

The child, willful from the start, was sent away to school by relatives. It proved of little value, he learnt virtually nothing, but he didn’t need to, for, in just a few years he would be rich. He studied little other than the cuisine that was on offer, gaining the name of a glutton. By then an agnostic, it wasn’t long before other desires surfaced and, in turn, enslaved him.

With family honor at stake, he was sent into the army: good for nothing else, the opinion was that the military would instil some discipline. Their hopes proved unfounded as his indiscipline continued. The endless stationary hours of barrack life only appeared to make matters worse with his attention now solely focused on pleasure. To his family, he was fast becoming an embarrassment, to the military a liability.

When at last the call came for his regiment to leave France for Algeria, he was excited. For all his debauched ways, he still wanted to be a soldier. This did not last for long though as he insisted on taking along his latest mistress. By now, his military superiors had had enough. On her discovery, de Foucauld was dismissed in disgrace from the army.

Statue of Bl Charles de Foucauld by Rabanus Flavus / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

On his return to civilian life, surprisingly, he found his former pleasures now bored him. His time in Africa, however brief, had affected him. Urgings to a life of aristocratic respectability in France only had the opposite effect. And, for all his nonchalance, the shame of his cashiering from the army burned within him. Soon he found himself back in Algeria volunteering for a dangerous mission.

The lands of the French Empire were vast and largely uncharted. De Foucauld’s mission from the French military was essentially that of a spy. He was to dress in the costume of a North African Jew and venture into the then unmapped territories of Morocco to make detailed records of the land and its peoples. Without hesitation he threw himself into the role, even if the chances of his being discovered and subsequently killed were high. With a desire to make amends to his family and to his country, he went forth into the unknown.

Two years later, in 1884, he returned to Paris a hero. Eventually publishing a memoir of his adventures, he was to become the toast of France, honored for his services to his country with a gold medal by the Geographical Society of Paris. Both the military and his family were impressed with the change in de Foucauld, but those closest to him noticed something more than just his maturing. He had returned from Africa strangely different. Days spent living amongst an alien culture, and nights spent under the vastness of the desert sky had left their mark. He had watched as Mohammedans dropped to the ground five times a day in prayer, and, impressed, wondered if this was the truth. He returned to France seeking answers.

Initially, no answer came. In fact, his inner restlessness seemed only to increase. He studied Islam, but decided that the truth was not there. He paced the streets of Paris at all hours, thinking, wondering. At the end of October 1886, he was on those streets again as day was breaking when he spied a church open. He entered. As he walked forwards, he noticed a confessional with a priest inside. He asked if he could talk; a voice, as imperious as it was to prove wise, decreed otherwise, and, instead, ordered him to kneel and confess. Echoes of his time in the military resonated and, obeying the command, he knelt down and confessed all. On that morn, after having heard Mass and received Holy Communion, he was reborn.

Along with his conversion there came a religious vocation. Ideas of marriage, and a respectable life, anticipated by so many on his behalf, now faded. From that morning on he had but one ideal, and it would burn as fiercely as his former lusts, only this Fire was one of Divine Love. Glimpsed in the magnificent canopy of the desert night skies, and hinted at in the religious devotion of foreigners, de Foucauld had finally encountered Truth itself in the faith of his ancestors, of his family, of his country. He had come home in more ways than one.

Shortly after he left Paris for a Cistercian monastery in the Alps. It was not to hold him for long. Soon, he asked, and was granted permission, to go to Syria to the poorest monastery in the entire Congregation. That did not hold him for long either. The austere life of a Trappist, enough for most seeking prayer and poverty, was not enough to satisfy de Foucauld. Walking to the Holy Land, he came to the Poor Clares monastery in Jerusalem. Asking to be their doorman, for a time, he was absorbed in prayer, living in a shack against a wall, doing manual work, eating very little and with feet as bruised and battered as once they had been pampered. His vocation was to prove unique, those closest to him, and who advised him upon it, recognized this. He came to realize that, from now on, he was to seek the hidden life of Nazareth with all its many vicissitudes. His way was now clear, if not yet his path.

At the urgings of the Poor Clares, he went to Rome to become a priest. Ordained in 1901, inevitably, it was to Africa that he headed, settling in southern Algeria, eventually at Tamanrasset. What followed next was, in worldly terms, as much of a failure as what had passed previously. He dreamed of a religious community based upon his ideals of seeking the lowest place: no one understood them, let alone joined him. Until his death, he was to labor for souls but none came: he converted no one. He had sought the region’s most distant, poorest, tribe, the Tuareg: in the end, winning their hearts but not their souls. And, until he obtained a Papal dispensation, for long periods he was without even the Eucharist to sustain him, but still he remained at his post, sensing that God’s Will for him was to be there, nowhere else, and so he persevered.

In his little oratory, miles from another Christian, he was to spend long vigils before the Blessed Sacrament praying for the conversion of the lands he had travelled through and their peoples with whom he now lived. He was to write:

Sacred Heart of Jesus, thank you for this, the first tabernacle in the lands of the Tuareg! May it be the first of many, and proclaim salvation to many souls! Radiate out from this tabernacle on all those round about, people who surround you yet do not know you.

His restlessness had been stilled by an inner Fire that continued to burn as brightly as when he had first encountered it on that decisive October morning. Now, however, it was in the furnace of the desert heat that his faith was to mature still further, just as years before it had matured the younger man. Having sought to be hidden and unknown, he was at last granted his wish—for a while. In the eyes of the world he was now of no account, however, that vision was eventually to become blurred by the blood of war. And then, as a deadly gaze fell upon the isolated hermit, there were those who decreed that both the man and his mission must be destroyed.

At the outbreak of the Great War, de Foucauld immediately wished to return home and re-join the army as a military chaplain. The bishop, under whose authority he lived, told him to stay where he was. He obeyed. In any event, France was under attack in North Africa. The Ottoman Empire, fighting alongside Prussia, called for an expulsion of the infidel from the lands of Islam and a full restoration of the Caliphate. Some Saharan tribes responded to this call for jihad. Tamanrasset was far from French military aid, and so, with little by way of hindrance, in the early hours of December 1, 1916, an armed gang of fanatical Senussi set out to deal with the Christian hermit.

There was an eyewitness to what happened next. The dragging of the priest from his refuge, his silence and lack of resistance combined with what appeared to be a profound sense of peace; his being forced to kneel as his captors offered him the chance to renounce his Savior—to confess the Shahada. He declined to do so. Subsequently, during a disturbance, he was shot in the head. His body, still in a kneeling position with his hands tied behind his back, was left in the sand whilst his murderers ransacked his home and oratory, later getting drunk on altar wine. When they had left the next day, those living nearby came and buried the man they had come to regard as their friend.

Three weeks later, a French military patrol came across the scene. Local people showed the makeshift grave to the commanding officer. Thereafter, with flags lowered, the whole patrol stood to attention as a simple wooden cross was solemnly erected over the site.

The later military report stated the following:

Father de Foucauld, since his conversion, never for one day stopped thinking of that hour after which there are no others, and which is the supreme opportunity offered for our repentance and acquisition of merit. He died on the first Friday of December, the day consecrated to the Sacred Heart, and in the manner that he wished, having always desired a violent death dealt in hatred of the Christian name, accepted with love for the salvation of the infidels of his land of election—Africa.

Before the army left that day, the officer inspected what was left of the hermitage, and came across a monstrance, thrown down in the sand by the priest’s killers. What they hadn’t realized, and what that French Catholic did, was that it still contained the Sacred Species.

When the soldiers gathered to depart, their commanding officer came forth holding the monstrance wrapped respectfully in a linen cloth. And, as they proceeded to march back into the desert wastes, he rode at their head with the Blessed Sacrament exposed upon his saddle; and, whilst this unique Eucharistic Procession progressed, the sands of the desert, blown on by the scorching winds of the Sahara, slowly began to cover the grave of Charles de Foucauld.

…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies….

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

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KV Turley writes from London

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