Self-isolation – lessons from Charles de Foucauld

Self-isolation – lessons from Charles de Foucauld

Hilary Pearson writes:

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) was a French aristocrat.  He became a cavalry officer, living the typical life of a wealthy young man of the time, drinking and playing practical jokes.  He served in Algeria, then a French colony, and was involved in putting down an insurrection.   He became fascinated with North Africa, and in 1882 he resigned his commission to explore Morocco, disguised as a Jewish rabbi.  In 1886 he published a book about that country and his adventures, which made him famous.

His experience of the desert, and his contact with Islam as a lived faith, seems to have affected him deeply and he had a religious conversion, back to the Catholic faith of his childhood.  He soon began to feel that he needed to dedicate himself completely to God.  After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he spent time investigating the religious life in several different monasteries before joining the Trappists.  He asked to be sent to their monastery in Syria.  However, he found even the strict Trappist regime too secure a life and he ended up spending three years working as a gardener and handyman for a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth, living in the tool shed.  He then returned to France and was ordained a priest. 

He decided not to return to the Holy Land, and instead went to Algeria where he lived in a small hermitage in an oasis among the Tuareg tribespeople, where he spent the rest of his life.  He had hoped to start a religious community, but the only person to join him found the life too hard and left.   Charles was murdered by a Tuareg on 1 December 1916.  After his death, his life and writings inspired others to start communities working among the very poor, called the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus.

His initial attraction to the physical desert later became the theme of his spiritual life.  He wrote to a Trappist monk, who was about to be ordained:

‘One must cross the desert and dwell in it to receive the grace of God.  It is here one drives out everything that is not God.’

Some of his writings which have been published are meditations on the Gospels, dating from his time in the Middle East.  Many of these relate to prayer.  His thoughts on Matthew 26:36 may be relevant to all us in times of difficulty:

‘What is Our Lord doing in this last hour before his arrest, before his Passion begins?  He goes away alone to pray.  So we, when we have a severe trial to undergo, or some danger or some suffering to face, let us go aside to pray in solitude, and so pass the last hours that separate us from our trial.  Let us do this in every serious event in our lives.  Let us prepare for it, gather strength, light, grace, to behave well, by praying and praying alone during the last hours before our trial.

Charles de Foucauld’s life is perhaps best summed up in what he wrote in a letter to a friend, written a few hours before his murder:

‘When one can suffer and love at the same time, one can do much, it is the utmost one can do in this world; one feels that one suffers, one does not feel that one loves, and that is an added suffering, but one knows that one wishes to love, and to wish to love is loving.’