The Universal Brother- Blessed Charles de Foucauld

4 Feb

«Mon Père, je remets mon esprit entre vos mains.» (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”) (Luke 23:46, Psalm 31:6)

Blessed Charles de Foucauld led into his prayer of abandonment, which I included in my previous post, with this quotation from Scripture that is a very appropriate summary of Charles’ own life. Charles de Foucauld continued:

«…C’est la dernière prière de notre Maître, de notre Bien-Aimé. Puisse-t-elle être la nôtre. Et qu’elle soit non seulement celle de notre dernière instant, mais celle de tous nos instants.» (“…That is the last prayer of our Master, our Beloved. May it be our own prayer. And not only that of our last moments, but that of our whole lives.”)

Indeed, Charles de Foucauld eventually would practice this everyday self-giving to Christ. He lived for three years in Nazareth in a humble tool shed, working as a servant to the Poor Clares. After ordination, he moved on to Beni-Abbes, to Algiers, and finally to Tamanrasset, in Algeria. Charles would live alone or with a few companions during this time in the desolate Sahara. He was a tireless ambassador for the Lord until his final breath. Our Master’s last prayer was also that of Charles de Foucauld. However, Charles’ life didn’t start out in the same way. It wasn’t until he was well into his military career that he realized his call to faith.

Charles Eugène, vicompte de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg, France, on September 15, 1858, and baptized at birth. He had one sister, Marie, who was three years younger than Charles. His surname suggests an aristocratic lineage. In fact, his family had a history reaching back to the Crusades, where his ancestors had fought alongside St. Louis. Charles de Foucauld was distantly related to an archbishop and to a priest who were martyred during the French Revolution. The family’s motto was «Jamais arrière», which roughly translates to “Never back” or “Never retreat”. Charles’ family held a large fortune.

Tragically, Charles and Marie de Foucauld lost both their parents in close succession in 1864. Their mother, Elizabeth de Morlet, died during a miscarriage, and their father, Georges Edouard de Foucauld, succumbed six months thereafter to tuberculosis. The children were cared for by their grandmother for a few months before she passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Their nearly seventy-year-old grandfather, Colonel de Morlet, then cared for Charles and Marie.

In 1870, France lost Alsace and Lorraine to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. In order to retain French citizenship, Colonel de Morlet moved his family to Nancy. There, Charles attended secondary school. He received the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Confirmation in 1872, and obtained a baccalaureate while studying under the Jesuits in Paris. Charles then began to prepare for entry into Saint-Cyr, a Parisian military academy. Before the end of the year, the Jesuit school dismissed Charles for unruly conduct and laziness.

Charles de Foucauld finished high school in 1874. By then he had lost his faith, becoming an agnostic. Of this time Charles later wrote: “For 12 years I neither denied nor believed anything, despairing of the search for truth, not even believing in God. No proof seemed to me clear enough.”

Charles was nearly turned away from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1876 because he was overweight, but his grandfather, Colonel de Morlet, used his military position to persuade the academy to accept his grandson. Due to Charles’ portly stature, he was ridiculed by his peers at Saint-Cyr. Charles was called «le porc» (“piggy”). More critically, Charles refused to apply himself to his military training. Out of a class of 87 at Saumur Cavalry School, Charles finished last in 1878. He had also become involved with a mistress, Mimi, who was poorly regarded by most of the officers and by their wives. In 1880, Charles de Foucauld’s regiment was sent to Algeria. He took Mimi along as if she were his wife, against the army’s orders. Charles was suspended and sent back to France, where he settled in Evian, eventually parting from Mimi.

The following year, Charles de Foucauld applied successfully for re-instatement into the army and was sent to Oran in Tunisia. Over the next eight months, he proved to be an exemplary officer. After the completion of the assignment in Tunisia, he resigned from the military and prepared to explore Morocco. Charles initially went to Algiers, where he learned Arabic and Hebrew.

On his journeys to Morocco and parts of northern Algeria, Charles was protected by Rabbi Mardochee, and also disguised himself as a Rabbi. In 1885, Charles de Foucauld was awarded the French Geographical Society gold medal for his Moroccan exploration. He thought of marrying at Algiers in 1884, but his family disapproved of the marriage. In part because of the influence of Islam, Charles first discovered meaning of commitment and faith while exploring northwest Africa. In 1901, Charles wrote that “the encounter with Islam caused (him) a great upheaval.” His journey toward returning to his faith had begun.

Charles de Foucauld returned to his family in France in 1886. Upon his return to France, Charles often entered various Catholic churches to pray: “My God, if you exist let me know”.

He met with his cousin, Marie de Bondy, who urged Charles to meet with Abbé Henri Huvelin, parish priest at Saint-Augustin in Paris. Charles de Foucauld told Abbé Huvelin: “Abbé, I have not faith, I have come to ask you to instruct me”… “I seek the light and I do not find it”. Abbé Huvelin, a patient and loving teacher despite being nearly paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis, asked Charles if he had been to Confession. The young man protested, saying he had not come for that purpose. Charles’ dissent was similar to that of the patron of Abbé Huvelin’s church, St. Augustine, who once longed for conversion “but not yet”.

Despite Charles de Foucauld’s initial complaint, he received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, followed by Holy Communion, from Abbé Huvelin. Sensing Charles’ deepening asceticism while he was still in Morocco, God had sent him an angel, some said, in the form of his cousin Marie, who had acquainted Charles with the holy Abbé Henri Huvelin.

After his conversion, Charles stayed with his family for three years to discern his vocation. He joined the Trappist order on January 15, 1890. However, Charles wrote later that he knew his spiritual path earlier than that: “My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith: God is so great…”

Following his hope, Charles was eventually sent to a poor monastery in Akbes, Syria in July, 1890. But Charles longed to live an even deeper poverty, walking in the Lord Jesus’ footsteps in Nazareth. He was sent to Rome to study in 1896. There, he began to formalize his plan for a new religious order. In January, 1897, the Abbot General of the Trappists dispensed Charles from his vows.

Charles de Foucauld arrived in Nazareth in March, 1897. He began to work as a servant to the Poor Clares. Charles wrote of his three years in Nazareth: “I obtained permission to go to Nazareth on my own, and to live there unknown, as a worker, from my daily work. Solitude, prayer, adoration, meditation of the Gospel, humble work…” During this time, he was advised by Abbé Huvelin to think about ordination to the priesthood. Charles returned to Notre Dame des Neiges in France to contemplate this call. He was ordained a priest at Viviers on June 9, 1901, at 42 years of age.

Shortly thereafter, Charles went to Beni-Abbes, Algeria, to build a fraternity where he would establish a religious order, the Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which would live according to a monastic rule that he wrote. Charles also freed many slaves and endeavoured to learn the culture and language of the nomadic Touareg people of the Algerian Sahara. Also, Charles de Foucauld, along with his friend Louis Massignon, a renowned Islamic scholar, ambitiously developed a Touareg dictionary of language, grammar, songs, and poetry. De Foucauld and Massignon also translated the Bible into a Touareg dialect.

Between 1909 and 1913, Charles de Foucauld made three trips to France to attempt the establishment of a Union of brothers and sisters of the Sacred Heart, for the conversion of people to the Catholic faith. Charles lamented that he was unsuccessful in converting even a single soul to Catholicism during his lifetime, but by his death 49 people had joined his Union. He returned to Algeria in 1914, this time building a small fort in Tamanrasset where he spent the remainder of his life alone. War began in Europe the same year, and the unrest stretched into North Africa. Rebels clamoured to destabilize a weakened French presence in the region.

Charles fell victim to this violence on December 1, 1916. A band of Touaregs surrounded his fort in Tamanrasset before luring Charles out and shooting him. There he died, alone. He had written shortly before, quoting the Scriptural parable of the grain of wheat: “If the grain of wheat that has fallen into the ground does not die, it remains alone. If it dies, it bears much fruit. I have not died, and so I remain alone… Pray for my conversion so that in dying I may bear fruit.”

Charles’ efforts bore much fruit. He was recognized by the Touareg as “marabout”, or “holy man”. His humility and austerity united him intimately to the “Humble worker of Nazareth”. Thus, Charles de Foucauld was nicknamed “the Universal Brother”. From the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1933 by Louis Massignon and other friends of Charles de Foucauld, there arose 19 related orders of religious brothers, sisters, or priests that still exist today. Charles de Foucauld was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on November 13, 2005.

In a letter to his cousin Marie de Bondy dated December 1, 1916, the day Charles was killed, Charles wrote of the mission to be carried out and how to achieve it: “Our self-abasement is the most powerful means that we have to unite us to Jesus and do good to souls”.

Again, I include Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s prayer of abandonment, as we pray for the canonization of this “Universal Brother”:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures-
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Mon Père, je me remets entre Vos mains;
Mon Père, je me confie à Vous;
Mon Père, je m’abandonne à Vous.

Mon Père, faites de moi ce qu’il Vous plaira.
Quoi que Vous fassiez de moi, je Vous remercie.
Merci de tout; je suis prêt à tout, j’accepte tout.

Pourvu que Votre volonté se fasse en moi, mon Dieu,
Pourvu que Votre volonté se fasse en toutes Vos créatures-
En tous Vos enfants, en tous ce que Votre Coeur aime,
je ne desire rien d’autre, mon Dieu.

Je remets mon âme entre Vos mains;
je Vous la donne, mon Dieu, avec tout l’amour de mon coeur,
parce que je Vous aime.
A qui ce m’est un besoin de me donner,
de me remettre en Vos mains sans mesure;
je me remets entre Vos mains avec une infinie confiance,
car Vous êtes mon Père.


Blessed Charles de Foucauld, pray for us…


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  6. Anonymous at 8:06 pm #

    Charles is most lovable because of all his worldly ways and such an example of how God’s grace works. For God to work in us He must find humility and tenacity. Charles had both. He gives ordinary souls hope that we too may with grace bring a deeper love and hope to our wounded world

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