Born: 15 September 1858 in Strasbourg, France
Died: 1 December 1916 (age 58) in Tamanrasset, French Algeria
Beatified: 13 November 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI
Feast: 1 December
The thin, gaunt man knelt quietly on the ground, praying silently as a mass of armed men swept past him and into his hermitage. Although he lived in a remote location, Brother Charles – the Marabout (holy man) – was accustomed to visitors showing up at all hours; part of his mission as a ‘little brother of Jesus’ was to be available to the needs of his neighbors. But when he had heard the knock on the door that night, he had been cautious. The effects of World War I had been felt even in this isolated corner of the desert, and Charles had fortified his hermitage and begun to take unusual precautions; he had been warned that Tuareg rebels might be looking for a chance to strike back against ‘French infidels’.
The man at the door who had claimed to be the mailman was actually a local tribesman known to Charles. But what Charles didn’t know was that the tribesman had accepted a bribe in return for betraying him. He had had no warning; the desert sand had muffled the sound of the arrival of the rebels and camels. When Charles unbolted the door and reached out his hand, the men grabbed him, tied his arms behind his back, and forced him to the ground next to the door. While some searched the hermitage for valuables, others attempted to interrogate him. But even though a fifteen-year-old boy held a rifle to his temple, Charles refused to answer their questions. After about 20 minutes, the guards heard two camels approaching. “Arab soldiers!” they cried. The rebels had only meant to kidnap him, but the young guard panicked and shot him through the head. Blessed Charles de Foucauld died instantly.
“Foucauld’s lonely death,” writes author Robert Ellsberg, “was in character with the solitude and obscurity of his life. He had spent years in the desert preparing the way for followers who never arrived, and his efforts had ended this way, with a shot in the dark, a sound quickly absorbed in the cold sand of the surrounding dunes.”1 By any conventional standards, his life had ended in failure. “At the time of his violent death he had published none of his spiritual writings; he had founded no congregation nor had he attracted any followers. He could not even claim responsibility for a single conversion. And yet, in time, many would regard him as one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century.”2
Viscount Charles-Eugène de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg, France on September 15, 1858.3 He was descended from a proud, aristocratic family, who “had fought in the Crusades and stood beside Joan of Arc at Orleans, thus earning the family a title and a coat of arms emblazoned with a heroic motto: Never Retreat.”4 His mother was very devout and particularly revered the memory of Charles’ great-uncle, Blessed Armand de Foucauld (1751-1792); he had been the archbishop of Arles and died as a martyr in Paris during the French Revolution.5
Sadly, Madame de Foucauld died in childbirth at the age of 34, when Charles was just six years old; six months later, his father died from tuberculosis. Charles and his younger sister, Marie (who was three years old) went to live with their maternal grandfather, a retired colonel in his seventies.
Charles’ grandfather hoped his grandson would carry on the family’s proud tradition of honour and service to the Church and to the king. However, Charles was spoiled, and as he grew older, he “turned increasingly to frivolous diversions and the indulgence of his considerable appetite. He had little interest in studies. Any religious faith he might once have known had been casually discarded along the way.”6
To please his grandfather, Charles applied to the military academy of Saint-Cyr, and with the help of special tutoring (and because of allowances for his family name), he managed to just squeeze through the entrance exam. He couldn’t however, “squeeze his overfed body into a regulation uniform. For this a private tailor was commissioned. As a result, in years to come, even when he had become a scrawny hermit, he would be affectionately known by his comrades in the elite officer corps as ‘Piggy’.”7
Unfortunately, “the uniform did not make the cadet,”8 and Charles was constantly in trouble during his years at the academy. But he was popular with all the cadets, for Charles “carried off his escapades with such joie d’esprit that he seems instead to have endeared himself to his classmates, many of whom would remain his lifelong friends. As one of them later recalled, ‘If you have not seen Foucauld in his room, clad in his white flannel pajamas buttoned with frogs, sprawled leisurely on his divan or in a commodious armchair, enjoying a tasty snack of pâté de foie gras, washing it down with a choice champagne, then you have never seen a man really enjoying himself.’”9
Charles was only 20 when his grandfather died, leaving him a considerable fortune. He used his newfound riches to host extravagant parties in his room and was generous with what he had, “sharing the contents of his wine cellar and the services of his personal barber.”10 But sometimes Charles went too far. “One time he slipped off base in disguise, defying a confinement to quarters, in order to keep a dinner engagement with his mistress, a certain Mimi. When the ruse was discovered and he faced his superiors he explained that he could hardly do otherwise – a commitment to a young woman was a matter of honor. … He managed to escape with a severe reprimand.”11
In 1879, Charles went on to cavalry school, graduating 86th out of a class of 87. “The inspector general described him as ‘a remarkable person … with no thought for anything except entertainment’.”12 He was posted to Algeria, but he quickly got into trouble after sending Mimi on ahead, “passing her off as the Viscountess de Foucauld.”13 In the ensuing scandal, he was given a choice: the army or Mimi. He chose Mimi.
Charles resigned his commission and returned to Paris. But when he received news that his comrades had been called up to go into battle against Arab rebels, he couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the sidelines. He reapplied to rejoin his old unit and broke off his relationship with Mimi – this time forever – and returned to Algeria.
“To everyone’s surprise, he fought valiantly in battle and demonstrated considerable skill as an officer. The more lasting effect of this experience, however, was a new fascination with the North African desert and its people. After only six months in active service, long enough to rehabilitate his honor, Charles again resigned his commission to pursue an ambitious and dangerous mission.
“Charles had decided to undertake a one-man geographical expedition to Morocco, a vast territory as yet unexplored by Western outsiders. Because of the risks facing any lone Christian in this Muslim country, Charles disguised himself as a wandering Jewish rabbi. For eleven months he traveled the country, armed only with a sextant and compass, finally emerging with the material for a book. When it was published in 1885 he was awarded the gold medal of the French Geographical Society.”14
Road to Faith
Back in Paris once again, Charles’ heart was restless. He had been strongly impressed by the piety of the Muslims he had encountered in Morocco, and he found himself yearning for the faith of his youth. He wrote, “My exposure to this faith [Islam] and to the soul living always in God’s presence helped me understand that there is something greater and more real than the pleasures of this world.”15 He prayed constantly as he roamed the streets of Paris, imploring, “My God, if you exist, make your existence known to me.”16
In the fall of 1886, Charles sought out the famous confessor and spiritual director, Abbé Huvelin. He opened his heart to him and asked if he could recommend some Christian reading. “Huvelin, with inspired insight into the character of this seeker, told Charles that what he needed was not to be found in books. All that he needed to do was make his confession, receive communion, and he would believe. Charles complied, and at once he felt his life transformed. He left the church that day determined to give himself entirely to God. As he wrote later, ‘As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood that I could not do anything other than live for him. My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith.’”17
Charles was uncertain as to what he should do next, and Abbé Huvelin suggested he go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was an experience that would have a decisive impact on Charles’ life, inspiring him to embrace a life of prayer and poverty. Charles renounced his fortune and applied to the austere Trappist order, “eventually [settling] in a monastery in Syria, the most remote and impoverished community he could find.”18
He stayed for seven years, but life as a Trappist didn’t satisfy his deepest yearnings. “For one thing it fell short of his imagined ideal of poverty. Despite the rigors of the Trappist life, Charles found it altogether too comfortable. ‘We are poor in the eyes of the rich,’ he wrote, ‘but not so poor as Our Lord was.’ … When he was once sent on a pastoral errand to the hovel of an Arab Christian who was dying of cholera, Charles was appalled to acknowledge the contrast between the dignified simplicity of the monastery and the actual poverty of a common peasant.”19 He began to question whether he was really called to traditional monastic life. As he reflected on his time in the Holy Land, he realized that “the ‘hidden life’ of Nazareth, and not the monastery, should be the model for his own spirituality.”20
Charles eventually obtained a dispensation from the Trappists and returned to Nazareth where he found a position as a servant at a convent of Poor Clares. He spent three happy years there, dividing his time between his “minimal chores and a far more rigorous schedule of prayer. … ‘I have now the unutterable, the inexpressibly profound happiness of raking manure’,”21 he wrote.
But the holiness of his life had attracted the attention of the mother superior of the Poor Clares. She convinced him that he had a more important mission and urged him to become a priest. Although Charles felt unworthy of ordination, he was excited by the idea of founding a community of likeminded brothers. “Once again Charles turned to the counsel of Huvelin, who expressed his opinion in blunt terms: ‘You are not made, not made at all, to lead others.’ Nevertheless he helped arrange for Charles to return to France to undergo seminary training.”22
After his ordination (in 1901), Charles returned to North Africa. He had come to realize that it wasn’t necessary for him “to live in the actual town of Nazareth. ‘Nazareth’ might be any place. And so he returned to Algeria [then a French colony], to the oasis of Béni-Abbès on the border of Morocco. His goal was to develop a new model of contemplative religious life, a community of “Little Brothers,” who would live among the poor in a spirit of service and solidarity. In the constitutions he devised for his planned order he wrote, ‘The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives should cry the Gospel from the rooftops … not by our words but by our lives.’ He was now forty-two, ready at last to begin his true mission.”23
“A hovel, that hermitage! His chapel, a miserable corridor on columns covered with rushes. A board for the altar; for decoration, a piece of calico with a picture of Christ; tin candlesticks; a flattened sardine tin with two bottles, that once held mouthwash, for cruets and tray! Our feet on the sand. Well, I’ve never heard Mass said as Father de Foucauld said it. It was one of the greatest impressions of my life.”24 – General Lyautey, describing Mass at Béni Abbès
Charles was the only priest within 400 kilometres, and he spent a great deal of time saying Mass and hearing the confessions of soldiers who were stationed at the French garrison at Béni Abbès. “But his heart was with the mass of his Arab neighbors to whom Christ was as yet unknown. He dressed like one of them in a coarse, white robe, with a leather belt around his waist. His only distinguishing marks were the rosary tucked in his belt and an emblem of his own design – a red heart with a cross – sewn over his breast. His aim was not to convert the Arabs, but rather to offer a Christian presence in their midst.
“Ultimately Charles regarded himself as simply the advance agent for a community of Little Brothers. But no followers ever came. There were not many at the time who could even comprehend his novel approach to mission; fewer still who could endure the extreme, nearly impossible, standards of asceticism that Charles embraced. He had traveled far from the days when he had lounged on a sofa, feasting on oysters and pâté. Now he worked hard by day, spent half the night in prayer, slept on the bare ground, and subsisted on a diet of dates and boiled barley. His former abbot, one of those to whom he frequently appealed for helpers, was realistic to observe, ‘I fear he would drive a disciple mad by excessive mental concentration before killing him by excessive austerities.’”25
Because Béni Abbès was very congested, Charles was on the lookout for a remote setting. In 1905, his old friend and classmate at Saint-Cyr (the military academy), Colonel Henri Laperrine, invited Charles to accompany him on an expedition into the interior of the Sahara Desert. “Thus Charles discovered the rugged Hoggar region – a barren plateau surrounded by dramatic volcanic mountains, deep in the heart of the desert. Charles was enchanted by the complete isolation of the region and by its mysterious inhabitants, the Tuaregs. They were a semi-nomadic people, famous for their ardor in battle, easily recognized by their peculiar complexion, their skin dyed blue from the color of their distinctive veils. If he were to live here he would be the only priest within sixty days of desert travel. The attraction was irresistible. He decided at once to move his hermitage here to the village of Tamanrasset. Laperrine, for his part, had hoped for such an outcome; it pleased him to imagine that through this priest a bridge might be formed to the remote tribal peoples of the Saharan interior. Who was better equipped for such a mission than Piggy?”26
Tamanrasset was located halfway up a mountain at an elevation of 4600 feet and was home to only twenty families. The temperature reached 45 degrees Celsius by day, but by night it could drop as low as 4. “Choosing a spot just out of sight of his neighbors, he built himself a house of stones and reeds. It consisted of two rooms, each about six by nine feet and a little over six feet high. Ever hopeful regarding the arrival of fresh recruits, Charles eventually constructed a ‘refectory’ and ‘parlor’ and a series of additional cells, each of the same claustrophobic dimensions. At the center of it all, when he was finished, was a burning lamp, indicating the presence of the Eucharist – to the eyes of faith, the very presence of Christ himself, here among the most abandoned and neglected.”27
A Useless Life
“My only regret is that I am still alone. … Try to send me some brothers. … I would so love to have a companion who would be my successor.” – Blessed Charles de Foucauld
As the years passed, the man who had once been known as ‘Piggy’ became “a gaunt figure of middle age, bearded, almost bald, his skin darkened by the sun. His smile revealed missing teeth, while his eyes burned with a passionate intensity.”28 Those who admired Foucauld thought of him as a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi. “To skeptics – and there were many – he was an impractical, if well-meaning fanatic.”29
Charles had little to offer his neighbours apart from “his friendship, his care, and occasional medicines.”30 They weren’t interested in his religion, and in the end, his desire was simply that all the people who lived there – Christians, Muslims, Jews, or non-believers – would come to think of him as their brother. He struggled hard to master the Tuareg language and recorded what he learned in a massive dictionary that he completed shortly before he died.
Colonel Laperrine was determined to avenge his friend’s death, and he returned to the Sahara, carrying with him a list of 103 names of the raiding party who had attacked Charles. He “vow[ed] to hunt them down and cross off the names as he did. … [He] managed to locate and kill seven raiders in a surprise attack on their camp; some of Foucauld’s few meager possessions were found with them. But it was not until 1922 [after Laperrine’s death] that the Tuareg who had actually fired the fatal shot into Foucault was hunted down and executed.”31
Union of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
During a retreat that he made in September 1907, Charles had been inspired to “found a confraternity in France that would be animated by the same spirit that he lived: imitation of Jesus, adoration of his presence in the Eucharist and work for the evangelisation of non-Christians. Confraternities were very popular at the time. Br Charles himself belonged to a few of them. But he didn’t see a single one for the evangelisation of the indigenous peoples of the French colonies.”32 He set about writing the rules (the Directory) for what he wanted to call the Union of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
When Charles died, “there were 49 people, including himself, on the list of members;”33 he needed 50 to get Rome’s approval for the Association. Everyone expected the group would disappear after his death, but Louis Massignon (1882-1962), a specialist in Islamology, was determined to keep the association alive. He had met de Foucauld in 1909 and kept in touch with him until the time of his death. Massignon published the Directory, launched the Charles de Foucauld Association, and commissioned René Bazin to write a biography of Brother Charles. The book, Charles de Foucauld, explorer in Morocco, hermit in the Sahara, was published in 1921. Today, his spirituality lives on in ten religious congregations and nine associations of spiritual life that have been inspired to continue his mission.34
Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer of Abandonment of Blessed Charles de Foucauld
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,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.
1 Robert Ellsberg, Introduction to Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 14.
2 Ibid., 9.
3 The highest French noblemen (in descending order) are duke, marquis, earl, count (comte), viscount (vicomte), and baron.
4 Ellsberg, Introduction to Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings, 14-15.
5 Blessed Armand de Foucauld, along with 115 other ‘refractory’ priests – that is, priests who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the state before all foreign influences, such as the pope – was massacred by revolutionaries in the prison at the Convent of the Carmelites on September 2, 1792.
6 Ellsberg, Introduction to Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings, 15.
9 Ibid., 15-16.
10 Ibid., 16.
14 Ibid., 17.
15 Ibid., 17-18.
16 Ibid., 18.
19 Ibid., 19.
21 Ibid., 20.
24 “Charles de Foucauld in 1904-1905,” Jesus Caritas [News and archive of the Spiritual Family of Charles de Foucauld]; available from http://www.jesuscaritas.info/jcd/fr/4498/charles-de-foucauld-1904-1905?page=0%2C2; Internet; accessed 19 November 2018.
25 Ellsberg, Introduction to Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings, 21.
26 Ibid., 22.
27 Ibid., 22-23.
28 Ibid., 23.
29 John W. Osborn, Jr., “Officer Henri Laperrine (Sept. 14, 2016),” Warfare History Network; available from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/officer-henri-laperrine/; Internet; accessed 15 November 2018.
30 Ellsberg, Introduction to Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings, 24.
31 Osborn, “Officer Henri Laperrine,” Warfare History Network. After the French fort at Djanet had fallen in April 1916, Charles built a small fortress with walls a meter thick; he finished it on November 15, only a few weeks before the attack. He had maintained friendly relations with the army throughout his life – many were lifelong friends – and visiting officers impressed with the structure asked his permission to store supplies and weapons inside. The rebels who attacked and killed Blessed Charles de Foucauld were men led by El Madani ag Soba and associated with the Senussi Bedouin. When the Senoussi broke into his fort, they found six cases of ammunition, thirty carbines, and supplies of food.
32 “Br. Charles V – Saviour with Jesus,” available from http://digitalforcemediagroup.com/charlesdefoucauld/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Bio-5-Saviour-with-Jesus-2.pdf; Internet; accessed 19 November 2018.
33 “The Spiritual Family of Brother Charles,” Charles de Foucauld: North American Jesus Caritas Communities; available from http://www.brothercharles.org/wordpress/literature/2-the-spiritual-family-of-charles-de-foucauld/; Internet; accessed 16 November 2018.
34 Cf. Ibid. The mission of the Little Brothers of Jesus is described on their webpage: “Born in the vast Saharan desert, the brothers retain a sense of the value of living with a minimum of human supports in the simple presence of the living God. Their mission is to be “among people” (in the ‘heart of the masses’), but like Jesus they retire periodically to the ‘desert’, to be more free to seek God, and to learn dependence on God alone. The desert is a place where one is ‘stripped down’ to basic essentials, a key experience on the road to contemplation.” René Bazin’s book, Charles de Foucauld, Hermit and Explorer is available online at http://digitalforcemediagroup.com/charlesdefoucauld/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/CHARLES-DE-FOUCAULD-.pdf.
*By Gruban / Patrick Gruban from Munich, Germany – originally posted to Flickr as Algerien_1_0040, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4423994.
** By Trabelsiismail – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11231562.
***Arnaud Delas / adoc-photos / AT; available from
****AFP Photo Archives/AFP Photo; available from https://www.la-croix.com/Religion/France/Lheritage-multiples-facettes-Charles-Foucauld-2016-12-01-1200807338