Charles de Foucauld: From Playboy to Beatified Hermit | Valerie Schmalz | November 14, 2005

Charles de Foucauld: From Playboy to Beatified Hermit | Valerie Schmalz | November 14, 2005

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) was an idiosyncratic, ascetic hermit–a one-time pudgy French playboy who died in the desert of Algeria killed by thieves looking for gold and arms. This past Sunday (November 13, 2005) he was beatified at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in a ceremony presided over by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes. French justice minister Pascal Clement and several other officials, as well as more than 200 members of the de Foucauld family and a delegation from the French military were expected at the beatification ceremony and the Algerian government was to send a representative from the Council of Islamic Affairs.

Father Charles de Foucauld (Charles of Jesus) was not your everyday Catholic. He defied commonsense and the advice of just about everyone; first as a former soldier in the French army who explored the deserts of Morocco and Algeria at great personal danger and then as a holy hermit living a diet so malnourished that he lost his teeth and was prematurely aged by the time he was fifty. By his own account, he never converted a single soul to Catholicism.

Although he originally felt called to a life as a hermit along the lines of the sixth century ascetics, de Foucauld also traveled in Africa and France. In 1916 he was assassinated by bandits in his fort at Tamanrasset (Ahaggar), in the southern Algerian region of Tamanrasset, where he had lived for the last years of his life among the nomadic Tuaregs.

De Foucauld believed his life’s call was to love: "Let us concern ourselves with those who lack everything," he stated, "those to whom no one gives a thought. Let us be the friends of those who have no friends, their brother. The love of God, the love of men, that is my whole life, that will be my whole life, I hope. When we can suffer and love, we can do much, the most that one can do in this world."

"This man, he’s like an addiction. He’s contagious," Fr. Lennie Tighe told National Catholic Reporter. Fr. Tighe is a Boston priest who is a member of Jesus Caritas, a fraternity of diocesan priests inspired by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. It, like the many Foucauld-inspired lay fraternities, emphasizes solitude, simplicity, a spirit of adoration, and "a love of the desert, of withdrawal from time to time," said Fr. Tighe.

The Jesus Caritas website describes de Foucauld in these words: "While longing to establish a community, he never had a member. He was a human being: attractive and enigmatic, a product of his time yet classically mysterious."

Born in France in 1858, de Foucauld was orphaned at age six when both parents died one after the other leaving he and his beloved 3-year-old sister to the care of their grandmother. Then, their grandmother died suddenly while out on a walk with the children a few months later, startled into a heart attack by a herd of cows rushing toward them. The deaths left Charles and his sister Marie to struggle emotionally their entire lives, related biographer Jean-Jacque Antier in his 1999 Ignatius Press biography Charles de Foucauld: Charles of Jesus. De Foucauld lost his faith in high school, came into inherited wealth, eventually joined the military, where he barely graduated from the military academy because of laziness and dissipation. While a soldier de Foucauld defied his superiors by keeping a mistress. In Africa he found fervor as a soldier and explorer, had a profound conversion to Christ, and spent most of the rest of his life trying to start a severely monastic way of life that did not find Church favor or any followers in his lifetime.

One of the people Charles de Foucauld was closest to was his older cousin Marie and at her urging, near the end of life, during a trip to France he met with her son Francois, who had taken a wayward path. An account by Francois de Bondy of that meeting is included in Antier’s biography of de Foucauld and it provides a telling sketch portrait of the man.

The wind was howling. It was cold and nasty. The snow was melting on the streets. I saw the black outline of a funny little priest. He entered the room and peace entered with him.

The glow of his eyes and especially that very humble smile had taken over his whole person. Aside from that intelligent, searching look, tempered if not belied by the determined self-effacement so etched into his face, nothing remained of the Charles de Foucauld whom I remembered. There stood before me a puny model of the secular priest, owing to the pathetic black quilted overcoat, which hid almost completely his missionary robe. It was only his chest that I could see something of the coarse white fabric, on which stood out the cross and the cherry-red heart. In his hand he held a pitiful clerical hat, which must have rolled in the mud, for it was streaked with dirt. And I look at that emaciated head, the face of the anchorite through the ages, without any age itself, lined and weathered, the scanty little salt-and-pepper beard, the short-cropped hair and the gray skull.

"I know that you have written a novel. If you can give me a copy, I shall be happy to read it."

"But is not at all the kind of work you would like!"

"Why not? I know the world. I too have lived. It must be very fine."

Such benevolence made me ashamed of myself, embarrassed at having, in face of the course so pure and so hard chosen by Charles, nothing but pleasures, foolish actions or at any rate frivolous ones to present to him, everything that he was likely to consider an unending trail of sins. So that, without his prompting me to do so, I berated myself for not leading a life in accordance with the one I might have originally envisioned, for being unceasingly prey to uncontrollable laziness and weakness, Contrary to what I had imagined, it was I who was reproaching myself and he who found excuses for me, with his kindness and humble gentleness.

After he was gone, I remained intrigued by this unusual visitor. A blessing was on him in the room, and there still floated around me something sweet and infinitely peaceful. He had said nothing of a nature to upset me. There was an incredible joy emanating from him who had given all, showing me the superiority of that which constituted his essence–stability, continuity. Having tasted ‘the pleasures of life’ and able to entertain the hope of not having to leave the table for a good while, I, upon seeing my whole sum of satisfactions did not weigh more than a tiny feather in comparison with the complete happiness of the ascetic, found rising in me a strange feeling, not of envy, but of respect.

Why should he have over my mind this mysterious power? He made no attempt to lecture me any more than he endeavored to convert Muslims. Perhaps he loved in me what he himself knew of enthusiasm–even though mine was directed toward everything counter to his ideals–because, in the wild extremes of my restless nature, at times I must have been close to feeling what he felt in that unbridled heart, which never beat with the reliable, restrained rhythm of the peaceful heart.

For the duration of that visit I had seen Charles surrounded by radiance, neither luminous nor visible, but perceivable to some sense that we have not yet come to identify. So much faith, hope, and charity placed around him that nimbus which painters, who can appeal only to the eye, depict as rays of gold. Silent music, beneficial waves, bringing beatitude and dreams. Thus, the minute with Charles is engraved in me, eternal.

Related Links:

Biography of Charles de Foucauld on Vatican website
Biography and pictures at the Jesus Caritas site
The text of the official Decree of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, given in Rome on April the 24th 2001
• An article on the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld, including The Prayer of Abandonment of Brother Charles of Jesus

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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