By Simon Scott Plummer
This Sunday the Church will declare Charles de Foucauld blessed. In turn soldier, explorer of Morocco, Trappist monk, odd-job man in the Holy Land and priestly hermit in Algeria, he has long been regarded as one of the outstanding spiritual figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost 90 years after he was shot in the southern Sahara, his heroic virtue has been formally recognised by Rome.
In this extraordinary pilgrimage we see Vicomte Charles-Eugène de Foucauld, the epicurean hussar who had lost his faith, gradually metamorphose into Brother Charles of Jesus, a lonely Christian witness amongst the Muslims of North Africa.
To worldly eyes it is a journey downwards, following him who, in St Paul’s words, “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. Yet, as the life faded from public view, in imitation of Jesus’s hidden years in Nazareth, the apostolic ambition grew. Charles saw himself as a John the Baptist, preparing the ground for missionary activity through which France would endow North Africa with the benefits of Christian civilisation. These he defined as instruction and gentleness.
Today that sounds paternalistic. Charles was a man of his age whose apostolate was aided by the extension of French military power into the interior. At the same time, he stood apart from the empire-builders in his abhorrence of slavery, and in his prescient warning that, if France exploited rather than civilised the people of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, they would turn against it within 50 years; think of the savagery of the Algerian war of independence between 1954 and 1962.
Charles died without religious companions, shot during the First World War by a raiding Senoussi tribesman outside the fort in Tamanrasset which he had had built to protect the local Tuareg population. The grain of wheat has since produced ears of corn in the shape of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, the Secular Fraternities of Charles de Foucauld, the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests and other groups. But Charles’s dreams of North Africa as an extension of France have long faded and relations between the old metropolitan power and the Muslim world remain tense, as the rioting in French cities has demonstrated.
In an age threatened by clashing civilisations, does Brother Charles have anything to teach Christians about relations with people of other faiths? The answer is yes, and it is to be found not so much in his ambitious plans for evangelisation as in his living presence among the Muslims of, first, Beni Abbès, then, Tamanrasset in the Hoggar.
His purpose was to convince them of the truth of Christ’s message by the goodness of his own life. “Apostleship through goodness is the best of all,” he wrote to his sister, Marie de Blic, in 1913. That meant sharing the conditions in which they lived and immersing himself in their civilisation. The first led to tensions between his vocation as a hermit and the demands of friendship from a population which regarded him as a marabout, or holy man. The second impelled him to compile a French-Tuareg dictionary, a Tuareg grammar and a collection of Tuareg poems, proverbs and prose works.
He was also full of practical ideas for the betterment of the Tuareg. Noticing that they failed to exploit the fleeces of their sheep and goats, he suggested that they be shown how to weave. Through a young tribal chief called Ouksem, whom he accompanied to France in 1913, classes were given in knitting and crotcheting. Charles wanted sewingneedles, safety-pins and black hair dye for the women. He welcomed the arrival of the telegraph in Tamanrasset and hoped that a trans-Saharan railway would be built. A visiting French lieutenant in 1914 acknowledged the benefits which the marabout’s involvement had brought to the local economy.
To be a friend, however, is to enter into a mutual relationship. One of the factors in Charles’s return to the faith of his childhood in 1886 was the impression given of the greatness of God by the Muslims of Morocco. In Algeria he was dependent on the good will of the tiny French garrisons and the Tuareg. In Beni Abbès, when he was suffering from a fever, rheumatism and general fatigue, the soldiers brought him goat’s milk, jam and coffee to supplement an ascetic diet which his officer friend Henri Laperrine described as “progressive suicide”. Later in Tamanrasset, after he had been bitten by a horned viper, the Tuareg treated the wound with a red-hot iron and fetched two cows from a distance to supply him with milk.
It is this humble friendship, respectful of the other, happy to receive as well as to give, that provides a model for relationships between people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds today.
Charles’s capacity for friendship, whether with members of his family, French soldiers stationed in the Sahara, fellow religious or his Tuareg neighbours, was great. And the sense of his being a friend reaches across the years to the present generation.
He was the old officer who maintained a keen interest in things military, even asking Laperrine in 1915 whether he could volunteer for the western front to combat the “flood of German paganism”.
He practised a harsh personal asceticism, yet learned to be gentle with others. There is a charming account of a meeting he arranged between the Tuareg and the French at which the fables of La Fontaine were read, provoking much laughter. Cheerfulness and laughter, Charles believed, helped to gain people’s trust.
All through his long pilgrimage, which took him physically further and further from his roots, there runs a touchingly affectionate correspondence with his sister, Marie.
Above all, there is his love for his “elder brother”, Jesus, for whom, through imitation, he wished to be a “living Gospel”.
On Sunday the beatification in St Peter’s of this gallant, ardent, engaging pioneer will be celebrated by his admirers across the world.