Many years ago, I watched a foreign film about a man who experienced a profound conversion from hedonism to Christ and became a hermit in the Sahara desert where he was eventually martyred. He was living amidst a nomadic North African tribe, serving them, and praying in solitude up until his last moments. The movie was called “The Death of the White Marabut,” and it was about Charles de Foucauld, now St. Charles Foucauld. At the time I watched it, I had just experienced my own conversion. I was so inspired by the events of his life that I bought and read a biography of him. Ever since I learned of St. Charles, I have felt a closeness to him. But as usually is the case, it is not we who find and befriend the Saints but it is they who find and befriend us. He wanted me to learn about him, to draw inspiration from him, and to call upon. After his recent canonization, St. Charles seems to have found me once again even though I had somewhat forgotten about him. Today, December 1, the day of his martyrdom, is his feast day so I thought I would share a little about him.
Charles was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1858. Tragically, when he was six years old, his parents died just months apart from each other. He and his sister were left to the care of their devout grandfather. Their grandfather, who had been a military colonel, sent Charles to study at the military Academy. When the colonel died years later, Charles inherited his wealth and began to live a life of worldly dissipation and restless partying. As a soldier in the French army, Charles’ regiment was assigned to Algeria, but when he refused to give up his mistress, Mimi, who he had brought with him, he was dismissed. While he remained in North Africa, he went on expedition to Morocco to explore and map it out. There in Morocco, Charles was inspired by the faith of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants and felt drawn to look into the Christian faith he grew up with. Although he had been fascinated by Catholicism as a youth, he had pushed it aside as a teenager. When he returned to France, he met up with one of his cousins, Marie, who was very devout. She shared her faith with Charles and helped him to grow deeper in his understanding. However, it was when he met with a Catholic priest who heard his confession and gave him Holy Communion that he was convicted that God was real and that everything he was learning about the Catholic faith was all true. Practically at that very moment, Charles knew that he wanted to give his entire life to the service of God, because if God was real why wouldn’t he live his life for him? In many ways, he reminds me of St. Augustine and his conversion. He joined the Trappist monks and later sought a more austere life as a hermit. After leaving the Trappists, he became a gardener, doorkeeper and sweeper for Poor Claire nuns in Nazareth and Jerusalem. Then, sensing a call to the priesthood, he was ordained a priest in France. Eventually, he went back to Morocco and then to Algeria to live among the Tuareg people. Later, when he finally got permission to start an order, which he was inspired to do, he became its first and only member.
St. Charles intended for his future community to show hospitality to the Tuareg and to serve them. For this purpose, he learned the language well and wrote a dictionary. He was welcomed and shown love by the Tuareg people. St. Charles’ spirituality was that of a hidden life, like that of Christ’s in Nazareth. His idea was to live in imitation of Jesus the poor workman of Nazareth, living in obscurity, quietly sanctifying everything around him. Primarily, his was a mission of presence – – bringing Christ into the world by his very presence in it, praying for his neighbors to find faith in the One who changed his life. St. Charles’ life was a life of surrender and acceptance, and he wrote a very beautiful prayer of acceptance of the will of God, which I share below. Something truly amazing about him that I had not known was that he actually prayed for the grace to die as a martyr if God willed it. His reason? Because, just as Jesus demonstrated his love for his friend, he wanted to demonstrate his love for Jesus, his friend. And God granted this prayer of his heart. In 1916, Charles was killed by a band of marauders. He was in the middle of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was only after his martyrdom that the order he founded, the Little Brothers of Jesus, and the subsequent branches like the Little Sisters of Jesus and others, as took off.
What inspires me about St. Charles was his spiritual journey, his surrender to God, his imitative love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and his spiritual outlook. He came to believe in God and his revealed truths after being inspired by the beauty of the practice of religion in Morocco. What he saw laid the groundwork. I had a similar sort of conversion in that I also came to the desire to learn about my faith – – and to find that Christianity was true – – after recognizing the devotion and fervor of Muslims. I also am drawn by his spiritual outlook of hidden sanctity – – to live and work in the present moment, in the presence of God, knowing that he sees me if no one else does. What else matters? St. Charles loved Jesus to the point of loving those he loved: he gave his life for the people he lived with. And then, his example of surrender is so beautiful. As a priest, he became one with the Sacrificial Victim, the Little White Host he held in his hands. Jesus accepted the will of God and became vulnerable, trusting that the Father would never abandon him. It’s challenging for sure, but Saints like St. Charles, little brother Jesus, give us the wonderful witness of a life of acceptance in imitation of Christ, of life of joy ending in unspeakable glory.
St. Charles de Foucauld, pray for us!