Charles de Foucauld spent his life searching for a way to be a brother to people of all religions – especially Muslims, Jews and Christians. He wanted to found a brotherhood dedicated to this, but is was only in 1933 that the Little Brothers of Jesus were set up on the edge of the Sahara. John Murray PP tells his story.
It is a shabby building. Outside broken bottles cover the ground. On the seventh floor, inside a modest apartment, is Tom who shares the place with two other men. It seems a typical ‘bachelor pad’ except for one thing: within the little space that they have there is a chapel and on an altar a small monstrance with the Sacred Host. Here is ‘the heart for their journey’. ‘What attracted you to the Little Brothers of Jesus?’ one asks. ‘I read something about Charles de Foucauld.’
Charles de Foucauld – born in 1858 in Strasbourg – might have been surprised at the response to his life some decades after his death. The young adult would not have given many indications of future sanctity. His childhood was marked by the tragedy of both parents’ early deaths, where after maternal grandparents took custody of Charles and his sister.
In time Charles entered the military academy but he passed out low on the list of graduates because of his slovenliness and casual attitude. The substantial fortune that the grandfather had left to Charles proved his undoing as he wasted the money on an extravagant lifestyle. Soon the academy dismissed him.
Charles then travelled to north Africa and used his exceptional linguistic skills to learn both Arabic and Hebrew. His journey through Morocco resulted in the publication of a book, Reconnaissance de Maroc, which received the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris.
By now Charles realized that Africa had changed him not just physically – he had lost the weight of earlier years but also spiritually. In Africa he had lived alongside two of the great monotheistic faiths and had admired their observance of regular prayer and the ethics of both the Torah and the Koran.
However it was his exposure to the faith of his childhood as he saw it in the lives of people he met which moved him. Charles began to visit churches in France voicing his agnostic prayer: ‘My God, if you exist, make your existence known to me.’
Soon he was to meet Abbé Huvelin, a priest who lived a simple life instructing the many people who came to him. One of these was Charles and soon he had made his confession and returned to the faith he had abandoned twelve years before. Huvelin persuaded Charles to visit the Holy Land in 1888.
He was overwhelmed by the sight of the places where Jesus had lived and preached. He would later write, ‘I have lost my heart to this Jesus of Nazareth, crucified 1900 years ago and I spend my life trying to imitate him’.
Through the counsel of Abbé Huvelin, he entered a Trappist monastery in the Ardeche region of France on 15 January 1890 and he received the habit on the Feast of Candlemas 1891. Yet Charles wanted even more of the austerity for which the Trappists were renowned and he asked to move to a remote monastery in Syria.
There among the mountains he wrote, ‘It moves you to compassion, for the poor, for workmen. You understand the cost of a piece of bread when you see the effort that goes to produce it’.
And yet nothing seemed to satisfy his spirit. He continued to lay his thoughts before Huvelin and by now these included the idea of founding his own religious order. During the winter of 1896/7 he was released from his vows and began to live the hidden life for which he yearned.
Charles returned to Nazareth and attached himself to a community of Poor Clares, working in the garden and doing basic tasks for them. By this time he had even allowed hirpself to study for the priesthood and he was ordained on 9 June 1901. Still there was the idea within to form a group of men who would live a simple life but spend much time before the Blessed Sacrament.
A couple of years later, Charles received an invitation from an old military friend to go and work among the Tuareg people. Huvelin endorsed this plan and in January 1904 he moved to this Saharan area. Charles wrote, ‘I don’t think there is any saying in the Gospel which has had a greater effect on me than this one, ‘whatever you do to one of these little ones you do to me’.
The linguistic versality which Charles had already shown again came to the fore and he embarked on a translation of the gospels into the Tuareg language, an ancient language spoken even in Augustine’s.time, Charles settled in Tamanrasset, a village of about twenty families and it was there he proposed to live his hidden life.
A mud hut was in time replaced with a stone one and Chades was at peace. Soon the nomads came to trust this spiritual ‘nomad’ and came to him for any medicines and food he had to spare. ‘I want everybody – Christians, Muslims, Jews – to get used to seeing me as their brother. They are already beginning to call my house “the fraternity” and I like that.’
Three times Charles returned to France – 1908, 1911 and 1913 – each time hoping to persuade a companion to return with him. Each time he returned alone. By now his day was well regulated and organized as he divided it
between work, sleep and prayer. He was beginning to write a rule for his new association whose members would live by the gospel, showing their friendship and vocation to love and respect members of other faiths.
The First World war began in 1914 and Charles could not escape it even in his isolation. The conflict between the European nations spilled over into the Saharan desert and touched the lives of the different tribes. Charles moved into a larger and better protected dwelling.
One night – 1 December 1916 he heard a voice outside and went to investigate. Immediately he was seized by a group of Senoussite tribesmen who proceeded to pillage his dwelling.
A young boy with a rifle was left to guard Charles as all this happened. However when two men appeared on camels, Charles tried to warn them and the boy panicked. His gun went off and a bullet went straight through Charles’ head. He died instantly. A Muslim friend wrote to his sister: ‘When I heard of the death of our friend, your brother Charles, my eyes closed. There was darkness all about me. I wept.’
The hidden life could not remain hidden for long, and a biography by René Bazin in 1921 inspired some young men to follow him. The first fraternity of the Little Brothers of Jesus was setup in 1933 on the edge of the Sahara, but it was not until after the Second World War that numbers began to flourish.
The brothers work alongside the poorest in the world, ‘taking the lowest place’, as Charles had done. Living in groups of two or three, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is their centre. Soon women too espoused the vocation and the Little Sisters of Jesus were formed in the same spirit. On 13 November 2005 Charles was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.