Born in Strasbourg on September 15, 1858, Charles de Foucauld came into a family of old French nobility. Orphaned at a young age, he and sister Marie were entrusted to their grandfather’s care. A bright child, though with an anxious disposition, he lost his childhood faith during his high school years. “Around 15 or 16 years of age, no trace of faith remained in me. I doubted everything.” At 18 he embarked on a military career, though he had no real convictions about it. Life in the barracks bored him and it was only during active duty that he proved himself a real soldier and a good officer. Difficulty seemed to bring out the best in him. Leaving the army, he decided to undertake a risky exploration of Morocco (1883-1884). He was enchanted by the landscape, but it was the inhabitants’ faith that would leave a lasting mark. “The sight of these people living in the continual presence of God gave me a glimpse into something greater and truer than earthly occupations.” Back in France to publish a book about his explorations, he found peace only while sitting at the back of churches repeating, “My God, if you exist, grant that I might come to know you.” When he was 28, his wish would be granted. Under his cousin Marie de Bondy’s discreet guidance, he was directed to Fr. Huvelin. Rather than offering him religious instructions, the latter invited him to conversion. God wasn’t a notion he needed to grasp but a person he could know only by an encounter. “He made me get on my knees and make my confession.” And Charles, who had never submitted to another’s will, got down and confessed his sins and an indescribable joy took hold of him. Love had not only welcomed him but searched for him.
Even though he would later declare that “From the moment I knew that God existed, I was aware that I could not do otherwise than to live for God alone,” he would in fact take a long time to find his vocation. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land made him discover Jesus of Nazareth, “the one who took the last place so utterly that no one was ever able to wrest it from him.” That would be a shock and a calling. He entered the Trappists (1890-1896) but after 7 years had to admit that he could not find the life of Nazareth he was searching for. “The rich see us as being poor, but we’re not as poor as Our Lord was.” He left the monastery and returned to Nazareth, where he lived for 3 years as a hermit/servant of the Poor Clare Sisters. But long hours spent in meditation and before the Blessed Sacrament would again spur him on. The same mouth that had said “This is my body” had said, “Whatsoever you do to one of the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.” The memory of faces met during his exploration of Morocco came to him. His dream would be to return there bringing Jesus in the Eucharist, a bit like Mary had carried Jesus invisibly present within her into Elisabeth’s house. But in order to do that he would need to be a priest. He had always regarded priesthood as contrary to his calling since it involved moving “upwards” socially. But Mother Elisabeth would convince him otherwise. Ordained by the Bishop of Viviers in 1901, he was given permission to settle in Algeria. He chose Beni Abbes, a big oasis on the Moroccan border. He wished to live there as a little brother, witnessing to God’s love not by his words but by his whole life. But living fraternity would not prove easy on the front lines of a colonial empire. The wish to be a universal brother meant being brother to occupied and occupier, in a context where the occupier allowed slavery to continue. Having redeemed a few slave children, he lived with them at the “fraternity”. “The local people are starting to call my house the fraternity and that gives me joy.”
Three years later he received an invitation to take part in a convoy destined for the south Sahara with the intention of fostering good relations with the Tuareg tribes. Meeting them eventually led to his settling among them in a village called Tamanrasset (1905-1916). He immediately began studying their language, visiting campsites where he listened and transcribed and translated songs, poems and proverbs. These would be the basis for work on a dictionary that would occupy the rest of his life.
During a prolonged drought in 1907 he fell sick with scurvy. This time he was the needy one. “The Tuareg searched for goats within a 4 km radius to get me a bit of milk.” This moment of weakness helped him discover a new dimension of living Nazareth. It wasn’t just to be on the giving end, but to be one who also receives.
Even if Brother Charles came among the Tuareg with the ardent desire of bringing them Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament, he would have to live a time without the Eucharist due to the absence of another Christian. The only Eucharist his “Muslim parishoners” would know would be the offering of his own life.
Bitterly disappointed at the exploitational turn being taken by the French occupation of Algeria, he made 3 trips to France to establish a confraternity that would awaken his compatriots to the spiritual and material destitution of those in their colonies. But World War I would put a halt to his plans.
He was killed on the evening of Dec 1, 1916 during an ambush. A few days later the Blessed Sacrament would be found in the sand, not far from the place where the villagers buried him. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it yields much fruit.” “Beatified” Nov 13, 2005 and “canonized” May 15, 2022 he remains above all, a “brother”.