Charles de Foucauld “made a journey of transformation until he felt himself the brother of all men and women. [..] He oriented the desire for the total gift of his person to God towards identification with the last, the abandoned, deep in the African desert. » Fratelli tutti, 286-287.
The diversity of Charles de Foucauld’s spiritual family is impressive. We can find in it all the different states of a Christian life: lay faithful, religious men and women of active or contemplative life, consecrated lay people, priests and bishops. All succeed in drawing a rich and relevant inspiration from Brother Charles’s spiritual experience. We often forget the non-Christians and even those who do not have much religious practice but feel inspired by Charles’s experience.
The secret to such a spiritual depth and boundlessness is, first of all, faithfulness to the Gospel. The more closely a person’s life has been led according to the gospel, the more attractive and relevant it is to all Christians. In addition to this fidelity to the Gospel, Brother Charles went through all the states of Christian life: a lay faithful who lost and rediscovered his faith, a contemplative monk and hermit, a “free” priest, at the same time diocesan and “religious” in his own way, an extraordinary missionary. This depth and diversity of Charles de Foucauld’s spiritual experience implies the existence of some basic elements common to all who claim to be part of his spiritual family. Such elements should not be lacking in the spiritual life of anyone who would like to follow Jesus, drawing inspiration from the Foucauldian model.
1. A spirituality of the heart: turning religion into love
First and foremost there is love and mercy. The heart, seat and symbol of love, is the emblem of Brother Charles, the central, distinctive and specific element of his spirituality. Since his conversion, he wanted his heart to become like that of Christ. Throughout his eventful life, he did everything in his power to transform his heart and expand it according to the infinite limits of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This insatiable love for God and men is the main reason for all the unexpected changes and transformations in his life. In his prayer, he never ceases to call on Jesus to bring his reign of love into the world. We are familiar with Brother Charles’s abandonment prayer, but an invocation that came to his lips very often was: “COR JESU sacratissimum, adveniat Regnum tuum! (Sacred Heart of Jesus, your kingdom come!). He himself liked to say that the foundation of religion and spiritual life is the heart and love. What he wrote in the rule of the congregation he wanted to found is still valid for all those who wish to follow him: “Let us be burning with love like the Heart of Jesus! … Let us love all men” made to the image of God”, like this Heart which so loved men! “… Let us love God, in view of whom we must love men, and whom only we must love for Himself … Let us love God as the Heart of Jesus loves him, as much as possible! “1. On the subject of love he was convinced that one should love without limit and no restriction. He said, “Love is perfection; we can exaggerate in everything, except in love: in love we can never go far enough… ”2.
2. The Eucharist celebrated, adored and lived
We can borrow the consecrated expression of the Second Vatican Council to say that the Eucharist is the source and the summit of all the spiritual experience of Charles de Foucauld. In this spiritual experience, the presence of the Eucharist is fundamental, transversal and inescapable to such an extent that one can say that his life unfolded as a single contemplation and an ever deeper experience of the Eucharist. The Eucharist marked from start to finish everything he lived spiritually: his conversion, his prayer, his relationship with Jesus, the eventful trajectory of his vocation, his pastoral care of goodness, his universal brotherhood, his missionary vision, his presence in the Sahara, every moment of his life, his death…
One could not be a disciple of Brother Charles without an increasingly growing love for Jesus present in the Eucharist celebrated and adored. Despite his great Eucharistic devotion, he never ceased to make resolutions to love the Eucharist more. Like him, we also need to constantly renew our love for the Eucharist. We need to make our own this resolution that he formulated during one of his many spiritual retreats: “To stand at the foot of the holy sacrament whenever the will of God, that is to say a very certain duty, does not force me to move away from it… […] – Never fail to receive Holy Communion, under any pretext”3.
3. Universal brotherhood
Blessed Charles de Foucauld found in the Eucharist the source of universal brotherhood. Having clearly perceived that every human being is in one way or another, a part, a member of the Eucharistic body of Christ, he deduced from this the need to love all men without distinction: “we must love all men, venerate them, respect them, incomparably since all are members of Jesus, are part of Jesus… ”4. Considering also that the Eucharist is the sacrament in which the love of God is manifested in a supreme way, he thinks that its reception must make us tender, good and full of love for all men. Pope Francis has just given us Brother Charles as a model of universal brotherhood and friendship in these terms: Charles de Foucauld “made a journey of transformation until he felt himself the brother of all men and women. [..] He oriented the desire for the total gift of his person to God towards identification with the last, the abandoned, deep in the African desert. » Fratelli tutti, 286-287. An unavoidable and necessary challenge for any disciple of Brother Charles is this transformation into a universal brother, striving ceaselessly to become a universal brother for all men and women.
4. Love of the poorest
For Charles the adoration and tenderness that we have for the Body of Christ during the celebration as well as the adoration of the Eucharist must be the same veneration and the same tenderness for the poor. Brother Charles intuits that every time we say “this is my body, this is my blood”, it is the same Lord who says in the parable of the last judgment, whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it unto me. When he made his long expositions of the Blessed Sacrament at Beni Abbes and there was a knock on the door, he left the Tabernacle to go and meet the person who came to visit him. It is the same Christ whom he encountered in the Blessed Sacrament as in the poor who came to visit him. To stay with the poorest, to reach out to the farthest away souls, he accepted huge sacrifices: loneliness, poverty, insecurity, impossibility of celebrating the Eucharist…
5. Sobriety of life: penance, abjection, poverty, sharing
In order to imitate Jesus in his descent to the last place through his incarnation and the sacrifice of the cross, Charles de Foucauld led a life of abjection and intense mortification. Although at times in his life he had to tone down his mortifications, Brother Charles remained a great ascetic throughout his life. Penance and mortification are no longer in order in our spiritual practices and in our consumerist world, but the figure of Brother Charles constantly reminds us of Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his descent into our humanity and his sacrifice on the cross. How to claim one’s belonging to his spiritual school without a certain dose of penance, or at least of sobriety? We need so much sobriety to row against the tide of consumerism which disfigures so much the beauty of our world and threatens to destroy our mother earth. A spirituality of penance and sobriety constitutes a real antidote against any excessive and abusive use of the goods that divine Providence places at our disposal.
6. Contemplation of the beauty of God in nature
We said above that Charles’s life unfolded as a continual contemplation of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in Sacred Scripture. Daily, Charles spent long hours contemplating God, looking at him with love and tenderness in prayer. He was a person always enamored of the splendor and the beauty of the infinite love of God. Despite this intense life of contemplation Charles was not indifferent to nature; he also knew how to find there the splendor of divine beauty. He kept this sense of beauty in creation throughout his life. He said: “Let us admire the beauties of nature, all so beautiful and so good, for they are the work of God. They immediately lead us to admire and praise their author. If nature, man, virtue, if the soul is so beautiful, then how beautiful must be the beauty of one of whom these borrowed beauties are but a pale reflection!. (Meditation sur les psaumes, p. 66 ou: Ch. d. Foucauld, Rencontres á themes, Nouvelle Cité 2016. Chapitre: beauté)
7. Unalterable missionary zeal
Brother Charles’ spiritual life was marked by an unfailing missionary zeal. As soon as he discovered his vocation to be a missionary of the Eucharistic banquet for the poorest, the most distant and the most hungry – today we would say the most “peripheral” – he did not stop praying and working for the mission. For the Gospel to be known and proclaimed, he said he was ready to sacrifice everything to “go to the end of the world and live to the last day …”5 Whatever form our state of life takes, can we authentically follow Brother Charles without wanting the Gospel and the Eucharist to be known and loved throughout the world?
To end as we started, let us say once again that with Charles de Foucauld we are in front of an almost inexhaustible spirituality because of its direct connection to the Gospel. We have only outlined some of the basic elements of his spiritual experience. It is up to each one to question the place and extent of these central and fundamental elements in his or her personal spiritual life. Their presence and their deepening can be an indication of the authenticity of our fidelity to the spiritual experience of Brother Charles.
Ouahigouya (Burkina Faso), december 2020.
Fr. Savadogo Nabons-Wendé Honoré
Ab. Nabons-Wendé Honoré SAVADOGO, Burkina Faso
An orphan surrounded by affection
Charles-Eugène de Foucauld de was born in Strasbourg on September 15, 1858 to François Édouard, Deputy Inspector of Water and Forests, and Elisabeth Marie Beaudet de Morlet. He had only one little sister, Marie, born August 13, 1861. Charles’s childhood was marked by mourning. In 1864, at age 6, he lost his mother due to a miscarriage on March 13, his father on August 9 and his paternal grandmother in October. Charles and his sister were then educated by their grandfather, Colonel de Morlet, who surrounded their childhood with warm affection. Their childhood was also marked by the affection of the family of his paternal aunt, the Moitessiers. Charles especially forged a solid and deep friendship with his cousin Marie Moitessier who would play a decisive role in his human and spiritual growth. His grandfather assured him a good Christian education; he took his first communion and his confirmation on April 27, 1872.
The loss of his faith
Admitted to the Lycée of Nancy in 1872 and the Military School of Saint-Cyr in 1976, Charles lost his faith for about 12 years. This stage of his life was marked by excesses and deviations in his behaviour. The death of his grandfather on February 3, 1878 worsened his situation. Charles then sank into laziness, indolence, boredom, indiscipline, mediocrity, excessive celebrations and crazy financial expenses. He even became attached to a woman, Marie C, and made her his concubine.
As he was a poorly disciplined but courageous soldier, Charles was bored and eventually left the army in 1882 to devote himself to exploring Morocco. The brilliance of success restored him to the esteem and admiration of his family and of society. It is now inhabited by a moral and religious quest. The affection and faith atmosphere of his family supported him in his increasingly intense religious quest: “My God, if You exist, let me know You! “. He meets Father Huvélin at Saint-Augustin Church in Paris to discuss religion, but the latter invites him to take communion and go to confession. Charles de Foucauld thus converted at the end of October 1986 and his relationship to God will gradually be full of love, tenderness and total abandonment to God.
A Trappist and an inflexible imitator of Jesus of Nazareth
In 1890, barely three years after his conversion, he joined the Trappists at Notre-Dame des Neiges then at Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur in Akbès (Syria). But very dissatisfied with not being able to find the extreme poverty of Jesus in Nazareth in the trappist onastry and eager to found a congregation to fully live this ideal, he left the life of the Trappists in January 1897. Under the informed direction of his spiritual director, Father Henri Huvelin, he went to the Holy Land and became a servant of the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth in order to imitate the hidden life of poor Jesus, stripped of everything and seated in the last place.
The discovery of his priestly and missionary vocation
For almost three years, Charles de Foucauld lived daily very long hours of Eucharistic adoration, meditation on the Holy Gospel and theological readings. Very important changes then take place in the perception of his vocation and of the sacrament of the Eucharist. He perceives that above all, nothing glorifies God so much here on earth as the presence and the offering of the Holy Eucharist. He is also convinced that never a man imitates Jesus more perfectly than when he offers the sacrifice or administers the sacraments. Charles returned to Notre-Dame des Neiges to prepare for priesthood. The diaconal and priestly ordination retreats instilled in him the conviction that the Eucharist is a banquet to be given to the poorest. It requires living a universal brotherhood with all men, in particular with the most distant. From there on, his vocation to imitate Jesus in Nazareth was no longer to be lived in the Holy Land, but in the midst of the most neglected sheep, those of Morocco.
The evangelical clearing of the Sahara through friendship and kindness
Ordained a diocesan priest on June 9, 1901 at the major seminary of Viviers, he wanted to go to Morocco and settled for that in Beni-Abbès, a crossroads on the border between Algeria and Morocco. Brother Charles lived in the Sahara an evangelization of land clearing through friendship and kindness. In Beni-Abbès, he began by leading an intensely contemplative life with great fraternal availability to all those who presented themselves in his Fraternity: the caravans, the soldiers and officers, the simple travellers, the slaves and especially the poorest and most destitute.
In order to begin the evangelization of the Tuaregs he engaged in pastoral tours at the pace of military missions. He thus wanted to gain the confidence of the populations and enter into friendship with them. He settled later among the Tuaregs at Tamanrasset in May 1905 from where he made pastoral tours. He was embodied in their culture by learning their language and culture and translated the Holy Gospel and some passages from the Old Testament into Tuareg. Charles also carried out important linguistic work including the realization of an elementary grammar and two lexicons Tuareg-French, French-Tuareg. Despite many difficulties, Charles did not renounce his presence among the Tuaregs, which he summed up in these terms:
It is first of all to place in the midst of them Jesus, Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament, Jesus descending every day in the Holy Sacrifice; it is also to put in their midst some prayer, the prayer of the Church, however miserable the one who offers it is … it is then to show these ignorant people that Christians are not what they are supposing, that we believe, love, hope; finally, it is to put souls in trust, in friendship, to tame them, to make friends if possible; so that after this first clearing, others can do more good for these poor people1.
It was among the Tuaregs that Charles de Foucauld died on Friday, December 1, 1916, assassinated by Senousites who had come to ransack his residence and take him hostage. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on November 13, 2005 and canonized by Pope Francis on… 2021.
RELEVANCE OF CHARLES DE FOUCAULD’S SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
A multitude of “followers”
After 15 years of pastoral ministry in the Sahara, Charles de Foucauld hardly made any converts. His ardent desire to found a religious congregation to live out the perfect imitation of Jesus of Nazareth was unsuccessful. Despite this apparent failure, the life and death of Brother Charles were made fruitful by the Lord. This is how many disciples of Christ are inspired by his spiritual experience founded on the Eucharist celebrated, adored and lived, on universal fraternity, on daily listening and meditating of the Gospel, on total and trusting abandonment in the will of the Father, on the ardent desire to bring Christ to the poorest and most distant.
Transformation through the Eucharist
Charles de Foucauld’s spiritual experience is like a light that the Lord offers today to his Church to enlighten its progress. The intense Eucharistic devotion that he communicates to us is an effective means of living our Eucharistic celebrations and adorations in the freshness of the conciliar reform of Vatican II. In Brother Charles’s school, one cannot take part in the Eucharist without living a deep communion with Christ which opens us to all men, in particular to the poorest and the most distant. His model of Eucharistic adoration invites us to listen to the Word of God in order to be transformed by imitating the virtues of Jesus.
A model of evangelization in a situation of secularization and religious fundamentalism
The relevance of Brother Charles is also expressed through his model of evangelization. In the midst of a strongly Muslim world where he could not openly invite to believe in Jesus, Charles de Foucauld wanted to proclaim his Master by living kindness and friendship with all those he met. Isn’t it this fraternal, friendly and tender presence that we need to witness to Jesus in our increasingly secularized world?
Brother Charles saw his Muslim brothers become radicalized: “It is the Islamization of Hoggar, […]… It is a very serious fact […] in a few years, if the Tuatian Muslim influence takes over, it will be a deep and lasting hostility… ”2. Brother Charles’s attitude towards religious fundamentalism so prevalent today is more relevant and inspiring to us than ever. Whether we are in dialogue or in friendship with Muslims, whether we are victims of fundamentalism, we need friendship, dialogue, lucid knowledge of the other to “understand” him, kindness and love tenderness to promote the union of hearts.
Patron Saint of the Peripheries and of Universal Fraternity
The Magisterium of Pope Francis invites us to go to the existential peripheries of people in order to make all of them, especially the most distant and excluded, our brothers and sisters. We can find in Brother Charles the specialist, the patron saint of the “peripheries” and of universal fraternity. This is what he lived and taught: “we must love all men equally, rich and poor, happy and unhappy, healthy and sick, good and bad, because all are members of the Mystical Body of Jesus (next or distant matter), and therefore members of Jesus, a portion of him, that is to say infinitely venerable, amiable and sacred”3.
A heavenly friend who accompanies and challenges
Charles de Foucauld is above all relevant today because his presence with God, in the immense crowd of saints, is the fulfilment of the universal brotherhood he so sought. His participation in the glory and intercession of Christ makes him so present to us daily and active in our lives and that of the Church. Each of us can ask ourselves: what fruits has the friendship with Brother Charles borne in my life? Are there aspects of my life that Brother Charles challenges to change?
Saint Charles, pray for us!
Saint Charles de Foucauld, pray for us, help us to abandon ourselves totally to the Father, “without measure, with infinite confidence”, because he is our Father and you, you are our friend. Saint Charles de Foucauld, pray for us!