Charles de Foucauld, Modern French Hermit
The 20th-century French hermit Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) is destined to remain a sign of contradiction. Sympathetic observers have placed Foucauld among the saintly whose religious vision grew with intimate knowledge of a different faith. Foucauld's literal practice of moral virtues ultimately placed him among the poor and oppressed as a solitary. Thus he is a precursor to modern inter-religious dialog and understanding, of charity, coexistence, and doctrinal simplicity. Critics have framed Foucauld as an unconscious agent of Western cultural imperialism, one who could not escape or transcend the nefarious role of superior-minded evangelizer and apologist. Between these extremes lies a heroic vision of what constitutes spiritual eremitism in the modern world.
The life of Charles de Foucauld is well-covered by standard sources but must be reviewed in order to appreciate the changes in his life. Foucauld was born of an ancient aristocratic French family. Among his ancestors were Hughes de Foucauld, who renounced his wealth and family for the monastery in 970, Bertrand de Foucauld, slain at the battle of Mansora, Egypt, serving King Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade, Jean de Foucauld, counselor of King Charles VII and defender of Joan of Arc, Gabriel de Foucauld, 16th-century representative of the French crown who secured the marriage of Scotland's Mary Stewart to the son of Henry II and Catherine d'Medici, their child becoming King Francois II, and, finally Armand de Foucauld, slain by revolutionaries in 1792.
Such was the weight of tradition and heredity on young Charles de Foucauld. But Charles was orphaned at 6 years of age, and raised by his 70-year old maternal grandfather who could not guide him. The first disappointment to family, friends, and ecclesiastical and military circles, was young Charles declaring himself an agnostic (whose favorite reading was Rabelais, de Fontaine, and Voltaire). He proved a mediocre student, comporting himself indifferently as a cadet at the Saint-Cyr and Saumur military academies.
Young Foucauld knew that he was destined to inherit a great fortune from his deceased parents and his soon deceased grandfather. This prospect undermined all moral effort. He records that he spent his time gaming and womanizing, spending money freely to gain the liking of his comrades. When he shipped to Morocco as an officer, he was brazen enough to bring his mistress, whom he called Madame de Foucauld. Eventually he was forced to leave her in France, and he did so without much remorse.
But the desert suddenly changed him, as his first biographer Monsignor Rene Bazin of the White Fathers, who knew Charles personally and assembled all of Foucauld's writings, notes:
Charles de Foucauld had been deeply moved, during his sojourn in Algeria and Morocco, by the perpetual invocation of God among those around him. Their calls to prayer, the prostrations five times a day towards the East, the name of Allah unceasingly repeating in conversations or writings, all the religious pomp of Muslim life, led him to say to himself: "And here am I without religion!" For the Jews prayed also, and to the same God as the Arabs or the Moroccans. The vices which had corrupted the mind or heart of these men had not prevented their meditative witness from feeling the grandeur of faith. Again in Algeria, he had even said to a few of his friends: "I am thinking of becoming a Muslim.
Foucauld's fascination with the Sahara Desert, what he called "absolute," was so thorough-going that in 1882 he took leave from the army and immersed himself in preparation for an exploration. Back in Africa, he disguised himself as a rabbi (as was his guide); they traveled hundreds of miles, Charles taking copious notes and making hundreds of pencil drawings. Back in Paris he shut himself away to work on Reconnaissance au Maroc, hailed upon publication as a breakthrough in geography.
But this feat accomplished, the jaded emptiness of his past haunted him, the same vacuous Paris and its glittering circles. Making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, monastery retreats, and surreptitious retreats to churches, Charles reflected on issues of faith, In Paris he heard a sermon by Henri Huvelin, a priest and spiritual advisor of his cousin. He went to the priest for confession and proclaimed his conversion. "A lightning-swift irreversible conversion," writes biographer Jean-Jacques Antier. Charles decided to become a monk, too, pursuing the monastic office as part of his daily schedule. At last he joined the Trappists of Notre Dame des-Nieges.
Making of a hermit
But Charles found the monastery with its communal quarters and lack of self-effacement not rigorous enough. He moved to a poor Trappist monastery in Akbes, Syria. The isolated setting suited him:
Our mountains are entirely wooded with tall parasol pines under which grow oak trees, holm-oaks and wild olives, and amidst which great masses of gray, cavernous rocks rise up in places. They swarm with partridges and deer; in winter, wolves, panthers, bears, and wild boars ...
His behavior and personality elicited superlatives. He had been described at Notre Dame des Neiges as being "as good as a second Francis of Assisi" and and at Akbes it was said he was "like an angel amidst us; he wants [for] nothing but wings." But Charles felt that "the material side of life has not cost me the shadow of sacrifice," and he quietly disagreed with his superior's desire that he study for the priesthood.
Theology is interesting [but] it does not equal experiencing the poverty, abnegation, and mortification that come from doing manual labor. I study through obedience, having resisted as much as I saw fit.
He was already looking to a new life. Wrote Charles:
I relish the charms of solitude more and more, and I am trying to find out how to enter into a deeper and deeper solitude.
Charles proposed living as a hermit just outside the Trappist monastery, but when that was denied him he announced, after Fr. Huvelin's reluctant assent, that he was leaving the Trappists. He had already turned over his wealth to his sister, and now Charles journeyed to Nazareth, without possessions, like a beggar. He became the caretaker of the Poor Clares convent. Antier describes his arrangement there:
He swept, he ran errands ... he stayed in the cramped tool shed, barely seven feet square and lit only by an unshuttered window. ...Two boards to make a writing table. For sleeping, a straw pallet and a blanket." "He enjoyed a solitude he found satisfying. He saw few people and came to the monastery gate like a pauper to receive his food. At noon, a milk soup, four figs, a spoonful of honey. Evenings, a piece of bread. ... He observed the offices, and he slept two hours a night on two boards covered with a mat, a rock for a pillow. His few visitors marveled at his kindness and at the joy emanating from "this man without a house, without a family, without wealth, and without position."
He described himself as happiest the more he gave things up. Charles himself wrote of this period:
I live like a hermit, receiving everything I ask for and working as I wish, when I wish, at light tasks they ever so tactfully provide me so that I can say I am earning my keep.
To embrace humility, poverty, renunciation, abjection, solitude, suffering, as did Jesus in the manger. To care not for human grandeur, or rising in the world, or the esteem of men, but to esteem the very poor as much as the very rich. For me, to seek always the last of the last places, to order my life so as to be the last, the most despised of men.
During this period Charles conceived of founding an order, already calling it Hermits of the Sacred Heart, Franciscan in spirit but of a radical poverty and austerity that startled Fr. Huvelin, who told Charles bluntly that he was not a leader, an administrator, an activist, that he should forget his idea. But Charles persisted, first wearing a "Jesu caritas" device on his garment, then getting money from a friend to buy property in Jerusalem for the envisioned order. The seller was a fraud; the money disappeared.
Charles went back to Europe in 1901, to be ordained a priest as a prerequisite to his order-founding. Now he wanted to start anew -- in the Sahara of Algieria, his old stomping grounds as a soldier. "You must be defended against this movement toward the infinite, which results in restlessness and your never settling in one place," Fr. Huvelin had written to him emphatically. "Such movement is possible only in hears where there is never excess." But soon Charles had secured arrangements for going to Beni Abbes.
At this time, Charles no longer refers to his order as "hermits" but as "brothers." This point is significant. He confessed his "intense need for solitude" as a form of obscurity and abjection, but his evangelization would become witnessing. The desert was the field for adoration, the oasis for charity. His mysticism readings had been Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, John Chrysostom. Now he seemed to adopt, as Bazin suggests, the motto and personality of the soldier-monk Ignatius Loyola, who said of himself: "I prefer to be regarded as a nobody and a madman for Christ." Interestingly, Charles never cites any of the early Christian desert hermits.
At a chaplain at Beni Abbes, Charles writes of his
solitary little house ... quite alone on the border of the little town ... a delightful and perfectly solitary hermitage. ... [And of himself:] an unworthy, poor, ignorant fellow, yet a soul of good will.
His routine at Beni Abbes followed the monastic sequence of hours, paralleling the bivouacked soldiers in routine. Bazin describes Foucauld candidly as holding a vocation similar to the soldier, as "very French and very Christian," holding a "common understanding of the civilizing role of France." He visited wounded soldiers and joined their "pacification tour" against the tribes, at the same time campaigning against slavery and abuse.
In 1905 Charles moved to the extreme outskirts of French presence, to Tamanrasset in the Ahoggar mountain range of southern Algeria, at 5,000 feet elevation a spectacular vista for one who, as a contemporary said, was "tinged, perhaps, with Orientalism [and an] ... extraordinary love for the desert." Charles builds himself a little hermitage of straw and mud, like that of the Tuareg (Berber) and Harratin (mixed black and Berber). The French soldiers withdraw.
Charles was literally alone, and so would remain for many years, though his letters to ecclesiastics often begged for a companion for his "order" (one came a short time, quitting because of the severity of Charles' "rule"). Charles was kind and helpful to the peoples around him, sharing the supplies he regularly requested and received by monthly post, working shoulder to shoulder in their projects of manual labor. Above all, he hoped, through abjection, silence, and example, to influence the Muslim peoples favorably towards Christianity, but always without proselytizing. He ransomed a few from slavery but converted only an old woman.
Gloom and futility were quietly dissipated into abjection and self-effacement. Nor was the political situation regular, for while the nearest peoples were tolerant, Arab rezzous (raiders) menaced them and spread their antagonism toward the French. Charles started to anticipate martyrdom. He wrote to a friend in 1906:
Now that life is almost at an end for us, the light into which we shall enter at our death begins to shine and to show us what are realities and what are not. I love this desert, the solitude; it is so quiet and so wholesome; eternal things seem very real and truth invades one's soul. I am very reluctant to leave my solitude and silence ...
In 1911 and again in 1913, Charles returned to France for several months, unsuccessful in trying to recruit even one companion. Over time he had helped the Tuareg replace reed dwellings with clay brick, raising virtual towns with extended green oases. But with the outbreak of World War I, and the German ally Turkey promoting attacks on French outposts in Africa, tension in Algeria and Morocco grew. Despite bouts of anemia, scurvy, and fevers, Foucauld constructed, with Tuareg help, a fort to protect the surrounding population in the event of attack, the fort also serving the French military as a stockpile of arms and ammunition for their Tuareg ally Musa ag Amastane.
The war elicited patriotism in Charles as evidenced in letters and diary entries which Bazin describes as "very fine in their patriotic tone." He quotes a significant number of passages in full. Some excerpts:
[Re French priests enlisting as combatants] "Shall I not be one of them? If only I might serve! ...
In spirit and prayer I am at at the frontier ...
Fidelity of our colonies ... work to pray for the conversion of our colonial infidels ...
Around me, the native population is calm and faithful; its attitude is excellent ...
In November 1916, Charles writes in his dairy:
Let us hope that when we have won the war our colonies will make fresh progress. What a beautiful mission for our younger sons of France, to go and colonize the African territories of the mother-country, not to get rich, but to make France beloved, to make souls French, and above all to obtain eternal salvation for them. [He envisions native elites attending French military schools, the building of railways in the colonies, and "material progress."] If we have not been able to make these people French, they will drive us out. The only means of making them French is for them to become Christians.
But news of increasingly active Senussi rezzus prompted Charles to premonitions of death. In a letter to the Prioress of the Poor Clares in Nazareth (not knowing that the nuns had already fled Syria for Malta) he wrote that "France, in spite of appearances, is still the France of Charlemagne, St. Louis, and Joan of Arc ..."
When raiders finally reach Tamarasset, they went directly to the French fort and seized Charles with the apparent intention of holding him for ransom. The raiders took all of the arms, ammunition, and stockpiled food. Apparently a nervous youth set to guard Charles shot him to death on December 1. He died at age 58.
Within his religion and its various orders and confraternities, Foucauld has been rehabilitated in part by focusing on the drama of his conversion and personal integrity, and the transformation of missionary work to "witness." Since his death, Foucauld's legacy has been reflected in the emergence of worker priests, the Catholic Worker movement, and, specifically, in the development of the orders he conceived -- Little Brothers of Jesus and Little Sisters of Jesus. Foucauld's life and spirit was thus made fresh and living (he was beatified by the Church in 2005), if transformed to modern sensibilities.
Foucauld's followers are today small fraternities of 3 or 4 within a variety of sites around the world. They live with the poor, not live to help the poor, in the same kind of work as their neighbors, not revealing their own skills, education, cultural tastes, or professional knowledge. They deliberately have neither the desires, resources, nor interventionist ideology to do otherwise, and openly acknowledge their meager earthly fruit. Their intention is to recreate the life of Jesus at Nazareth: the "hidden life" of self-effacement in a small "family" setting. Absent is the atmosphere of nationalism, the civilizing function, the use of armies as tools of conversion, the cultural elements that Foucauld inherited. Nevertheless, the order is worldly-wise.
A Muslim view of Charles Foucauld is articulated by Ali Merad, and addresses the bitter legacy of colonialism as a cultural structure that can be left behind by contemporary religious-minded. Christians and Muslims can find shared values, Merad argues, specifically in someone like Foucauld.
The great lesson that emerges from the solitary, silent life of Charles de Foucauld is his humility, his gentleness, and his charity. ... Humility, charity, the renunciation of the pleasures and good things of this world and devotion to the service of the poor and unfortunate are virtues that have always impressed Muslims ...
Foucauld broadens eremitism with his consciousness of his neighbors, by his activism in laboring side by side with them but remaining outwardly silent and inwardly a solitary. From any worldly view, both Foucauld and his orders readily admit their "failure" and prefer their witness, their incubation at a social and moral level. "Success" is not the goal of hermits. Success comes with communication, conviviality, cooperation, not solitude, silence, and self-effacement. But the eremitic life gives witness to a deeper truth about social, cultural, and psychological change, let alone spiritual change.
Charles de Foucauld is a complex historical figure within Catholicism, history, and eremitism. That is to say, he is uniquely modern, and his life was an unconscious striving to attain an ecumenical eremitism, a universal eremitism.
All living is an expending of self. The worldly -- however they expend their lives -- come to the same end as everyone else. The hermit in the world, the hermit in the city, the village, or the cell, cannot and does not expect worldly or even personal success. That is not the goal. Only an awareness of solitude in the self and in others can be expected of life. In this regard, Charles de Foucauld approximates this unique model of eremitism.
Books about Charles de Foucauld are numerous in French. The most important biographies in English-language translation are the earliest -- Charles de Foucauld, Hermit and Explorer, by Rene Bazin. London: Burnes, Oakes, and Washbourne, 1923 (trans. of 1921 ed.) -- and the latest -- Charles de Foucauld by Jean-Jacques Antier. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999 (trans. of 1997 ed.). Of int3erest is Ali Merad's Christian Hermit In An Islamic World: A Muslim's View of Charles de Foucauld. New York: Paulist Press, 1999 (trans. of 1975 ed.). Among primary sources are collections of letters, spiritual writings, and diary entries, the most important being Charles de Foucauld: Writings, selected and with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, c1999 and Letters From the Desert. London: Burns and Oates, 1977, published in the U.S. as Inner Search: Letters (1889-1916). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979.