Proclaim the Gospel with our Whole Life by Charles De Foucauld
Charles De Foucauld was born into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg in East of France on 15th September 1858. He died on the winter of 1916 as a lone missionary monk in Tamanrasset, right in the mountains at the heart of Hoggar, Morocco. He was there to bring Christ to the people.
The passages below are taken from A group of Little Brothers and Little Sisters’ book “Charles De Foucauld,” published in 1994 by The Bombay Saint Paul Society.
Zeal for souls: the Brothers’ rule is to see in every human being a soul to save, and to pm all their energies into the salvation of souls as did their Beloved, until the name “Saviour” sums up their lives as it expressed His.1
Jesus wanted His name “Saviour” to show the meaning of the work of His life: the salvation of souls. The work of our life must be in imitation of our one and only Model, the salvation of souls.2
These two texts are strikingly similar. The first one comes from the Rule of the Little Brothers which Brother Charles drafted in 1901 and revised the next year. The second one is an extract from the little notebook he started the year of his death. They frame the years of his presence in the Sahara. This thought of being “Saviour with Jesus” comes back to Brother Charles over and over and is one of his key ideas. It is only normal, for his Beloved, the One he had set himself to imitate, is the One who gave His life for the world, and Brother Charles is eager to share His thoughts and desires. So, with the eyes of his faith fixed on Jesus, he writes resolutions like this one:
Be all things to all men with a single desire at heart: to give souls to JESUS.3
And when he examines his conscience he asks; Do I carry all men deep enough in my heart, like Jesus’ Sacred Heart?4
It is normal too that someone who spent so many hours in prayer should have given a large place to intercession:
For quite some time, and more every day, I haven’t been able to get my mind off Morocco with its ten million inhabitants, not one of them a Christian. So many people so totally neglected. Not one priest, not one missionary. In the ports where there are Spanish consulates, there are chaplains, and that’s all. In the interior, in this country the size of France, not one altar, not one priest or religious. Christmas night will go by without a Mass there, without one tongue or one heart pronouncing the name of Jesus. People are right to say, pray for France which is headed for perdition. But however grievous the upheavals in France may be, what are they beside this night of bereavement in Morocco? I think of them day and night and I pray. My prayers before the tabernacle and at Mass go out to them. But not to them only. I don’t forget the others. Still, my special thought, my particular prayer, goes mainly toward them, more and more toward them. This thought doesn’t leave me? 5
Brother Charles’s desire to consecrate his life to the salvation of men is clearly intense. It is time to ask, will he use mostly, or solely, spiritual and interior means like prayer and self-sacrifice, the way Carthusians do or the way St Therése of Lisieux did, which earned her the title of patroness of the missions though she never left her convent? Or does he plan to be directly an agent of evangelization? If so, how? Here are a few more texts, first of all the lines which follow the excerpt from the Rule just quoted. The Little Brothers, he writes:
. . must be “saviours” by the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, by the imitation of Jesus’ virtues, by penance and prayer, by kindness and charity. Charity must shine out from the fraternities as it shines from the Heart of Jesus. They will be zealous in administering the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist within the fraternity, and in getting Christians from outside the fraternity to make retreats there if they ask to. They will make it their concern to procure for the people around them the religious assistance they lack, promoting the establishment of parishes or of houses of religious congregations. They will be sure to keep part of their chapel for the faithful, “I came to light fire on the earth, and what will I, if not that it be kindled?”6
Thus Brother Charles counts among his means a radiant charity, with a certain exchange of services and aid. Later he will call it “the apostolate of goodness”. He also sees a genuine ministry to be exercised toward Christians who would come to the fraternity looking for spiritual support. And he speaks though rather vaguely, of “promoting the establishment of parishes etc.” for the sake of the peoples around.
What he rejects, in the way of means, is clearer, as in this other text of the same Rule:
In truth we do not collaborate in the glorification of God, the work of our Lord or the salvation of souls by oral preaching of the Gospel. Nevertheless, we collaborate efficaciously by bringing among people Jesus as He is present in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus offered in the Holy Sacrifice, the Gospel virtues, and the Charity of Jesus’ Heart which we strive to put into practice. Not having received from God a vocation for the word, we sanctify people and preach to them in silence the way the Blessed Virgin sanctified and preached to John the Baptist and his household when she brought our Lord there and practised His virtues.
Brother Charles loves the Visitation for the very reason that Mary, still absorbed in the words that have been spoken to her and the mystery that is being accomplished in her, carries Jesus to her cousin’s house, going there simply to do her a humble service such as any mother can do for another. In the apostolate Brother Charles wants for his fraternities there is an element, then, of silent but light-giving presence in the midst of people. And he indicates that when he speaks of giving light he is thinking of a radiance from an intense union with God much more than of exterior activities.
One day I would say to My Apostles, “Preach”, and I would give them their mission and trace out its rules. Here in the Visitations, I speak to other souls, I speak to all those who possess Me and live a hidden life. I tell them, sanctify souls by bringing Me among them in silence. I say, “All of you, all of you, work for the sanctification of the world. Work for it as My Mother did, without words, in silence. Go and establish your pious retreats in the midst of those who do not know Me. Bring me among them by setting up an Altar and a Tabernacle there. Bring them the Gospel not by the preaching of the mouth but by the preaching of example, not by proclaiming it but by living it. Bring Me to the world, hidden, silent souls, the way Mary brought Me to John.7
But the texts just quoted were written at the beginning of Brother Charles’s quest when he had thought a lot about his ideal but hadn’t yet had time to put it into practice. His notions are still cloudy about the way he’s going to fulfil his vocation. This much he knows: he is the “old sinner who from the morrow of his conversion has been powerfully attracted by Jesus to lead His hidden life of Nazareth”.8 This much too he knows: if he has come to the Sahara, it is in the name of the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel to the whole world. What he has yet to discover is how he will fit together his life of Nazareth with a sense nevertheless of having a mission. One can remark that he will always be a bit at a loss to identify himself in traditional categories. Is he a missionary? Sometimes he gives himself this title and sometimes he rejects it. “Isolated missionaries like me are becoming fewer and fewer,” he wrote to a French author in 1916, but to his Bishop in 1907 he had said, “I am a monk and not a missionary, made for silence and not for words.” Elsewhere he calls himself by the double title “missionary monk”. The basic problem was that this life of Nazareth of his is something original, and there were no categories that really contained it. When he referred to other distinctions, they too quite traditional ones, he classed himself among contemplatives rather than religious of the active life, though without any overtones of a claim to superiority:
Who would dare say the contemplative life is more perfect than the active life, or the other way around, since Jesus led both kinds of life: One thing only is truly perfect, to do the will of God? 9
In any case he avoided regular preaching. This was a real choice on his part. He didn’t do it primarily because such discretion was particularly well suited to a Moslem country. It was an inner requirement of his vocation. He rejected likewise medical or educational services that would require any but the simplest of means, whereas those would have been the sort of projects he could easily have undertaken in Islamic surroundings. And as we have seen when he went from Beni-Abbes to Tamanrasset, his faithfulness to his own quest impelled him to reduce his activities and his distributions of alms.
On the other hand, he didn’t refuse whatever modest things any neighbour can do for another: favours, little helpful services, bits of advice. It didn’t take him long to understand that cloister had to be a very relative thing in a house of Nazareth, and the monastic wall he had planned to build in Beni-Abbes never got further than a little row of stones. A home like the one at Nazareth had to be welcoming and easy to come to.
Missionary: Brother Charles is one in a sense. As much as any apostle among non-Christians he bears in the depths of his heart a responsibility for the spreading of the message of salvation. He carries it in his prayer, in his work and in his concerns; but since he is a man of the hidden life he realizes that he can use as his means of operation only such things as are fitting to a life of obscurity. More exactly, it is the hidden life itself which is his own way of working, for evangelization—a humble and unobtrusive way, a path of extreme poverty as to its outward means. It is the path of little services rendered, neighbourly help, friendly advice, hospitality (a thing so important to desert dwellers); his evangelization consists in sharing the way of life of those around him, in bearing common hardships and sufferings, in patience and the slow process of getting used to one another, in friendship.
Meditating on the Gospel, Brother Charles sometimes identified three dimensions to the life that Jesus had led and that people were to imitate: the hidden life, the life of solitude in the desert, and the life of spreading the Gospel and public preaching.
The lives of mission or of solitude are for you, as they were for Him, merely the exception. Practise them each time His Will clearly indicates it for you. As soon as it is no longer indicated, go back into the life of Nazareth.10
Gradually things become clearer for him. Except for a few times of retreat, he is not made for complete solitude. Whatever ministry comes his way—for example bringing the sacraments to sick or wounded soldiers—he will accomplish zealously, and do it well, for he knows that the imperatives of charity rank ahead of the requirements of his personal vocation. But as soon as he can, he will get back to his life of Nazareth. He moves like a free man, and has all the more assurance going about acts that are exceptional for him, the surer he becomes as to what his usual life should be like: a daily life of just being among people and as much as he can being like one of them. His normal duty means simply to be available for a multitude of little services, for receiving visitors, for listening and speaking. Conversation with people individually or in little groups belongs to the life of Nazareth. Brother Charles always pays extreme attention to the words he can say to help and enlighten those who come to see him in his hermitage or whom he himself goes to visit:
I should speak more than I do aboutJesus to those around me,…I should devote a certain amount of time each day—a sacred time—to evangelizing the men who do work for me, my permanent guests, and the guests who are passing through…’11
He wrote that at Beni-Abbes just after he got there. Later he became wiser and more realistic about how to go about it, but he kept the same preoccupation.
Stick to natural theology when I speak, but keep in mind the aim of explaining Christian tenets…12
No use to speak to them directly of our Lord. That would drive them away. Win their confidence, make friends with them, do them little services, give them good advice, build up bonds of friendship, encourage them discreetly to follow their natural religious intuitions, prove to them that Christians love them.13
I render service where I can, I try to show that I care. Whenever the time seems right I speak about religious tenets that come naturally, God’s commandments, His love, union to His will, loving one’s neighbour. A few people, only a few, question me seriously about religious matters. When I give advice, I stay within natural religious intuitions, emphasize avoiding sin, praying each evening and examining their consciences, telling God their contrition and their intention of charity.14
Shortly before his death he wrote the same thing to René Bazin, the French author who would one day write his first biography:
You have to get Moslems to accept you, become for them the trustworthy friend they turn to when in doubt or sorrow, whose love and wisdom and justice they count on absolutely. As our fellowship gets deeper established, I speak more about God, always, or nearly always just between the two of us. I speak briefly, giving each one only what he’s ready for: to avoid sin, to tell God he loves Him with his whole heart, to want to be wholly sorry for his sins, the two great commandments of loving God and our neighbour, to examine his conscience, to meditate on preparing for death and judgment, the duty of creatures to be mindful of God, etc. I pay attention to what each one is capable of and move forward slowly and carefully.15
Thus he would help the friends, to whom he couldn’t yet transmit his faith, to direct their hearts toward the One God, speaking to them only of the beliefs they held in common. All that was measured to the one he was talking to. The chief of the Tuaregs was then Moussa ag Arnastane. He and Brother Charles saw each other often, and there was a great trust between them. The notebook where Brother Charles marked down the things he wanted to remember to speak of with Moussa is still preserved; the subject was as well how to love God as how to promote the social evolution of his people, the attitude to have toward courtesans, toward French authorities or toward slaves. His aim with Moussa as with everyone he talked to was to meet each one where he was and encourage him to take the step forward he was capable of.
Naturally, he saw well that the Tuaregs had needs that he, the man of Nazareth, couldn’t answer. Attentive to all aspects of life, he thought of the women and girls of the tribe. Since he had no Little Sisters, he wrote letters to various congregations of nuns asking them to make foundations in the Hoggar. He already investigated the possible places for them to live and consulted the authorities, both Tuareg and French. He pictured the possibilities of getting Christian lay people to come. He also spoke up to the officers, giving them suggestions on better government, and took the defence of Tuaregs whose rights were violated.
He remained very faithful to the spirit of Nazareth, but what he saw of the needs of the Tuaregs and the experience he acquired as he put himself at their service, brought developments to his thought about the congregation he never gave up desiring to found. A letter he wrote in 1911 to a Trappist, Father Antonin, allows us to follow the change. He chose his words with care, for he was writing this letter to be shown to possible candidates for the Little Brothers. Here are a few passages:
You ask me what my life is like. It’s the life of a missionary monk founded on three fundamental ideas; imitating the hidden life of JESUS at Nazareth, adoring the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and settling among the most forsaken of non-Christian people, doing all that can be done for their conversion.
I am alone and have been for six years. If the Lord should give me brothers, seeing the vast expanses of unbelieving territories to be converted, it would be better for the salvation of souls to divide ourselves into small groups of three or four, as many groups as possible, instead of forming bigger monasteries…
The life is a monastic one: fasting and plain food, no wine, great poverty, manual work like the poor and the peasants, but in moderation.
…According to the aptitudes of the Brothers, the needs, and what he believes to be God’s will, the Superior of each little group of three or four will assign each of his Brothers either to full-time manual work or else to some manual work and some apostolic work. Apostolic work as I’ve done it up until now and as I conceive of it consists in individual conversations with non-Christians (and on occasion with Christians)…
I see these outposts, these hermitages of three or four missionary monks, as a vanguard meant to prepare the way for other religious organized more like secular clergy, and to yield the place to them when the ground has been cleared.
. . .We mustn’t think of bringing in European foods here. That would be a costly luxury. We must live on what the people of the country live on: wheat, dates, and milk products. For our clothes and our quarters, you find nothing resembling the tidy garments or houses of France. But they are very like what must have been the clothes and the poor dwelling of Jesus at Nazareth16.
We must also mention the considerable linguistic work Brother Charles achieved to get a grasp on the Tamashaq language the Tuaregs spoke. He thought of himself, of course, as working for the future, laying the groundwork for those who would succeed him in bringing the Gospel. But he also knew that he could not enter into deep relationship with the people unless he knew thoroughly their language and their culture. You can sense that for him it was a matter of respect for this people. Admittedly Brother Charles was fairly gifted for such a task. He compiled dictionaries, complete and abridged, collected poems and, naturally, translated the Gospel. Hadn’t he, when he was young, achieved for mere scientific purposes and for his own personal success a remarkable hold on the culture of another people when he was exploring Morocco? He must have done it well enough to have managed to live nearly a year among this people without his nationality being detected. Now his desire to be the messenger of Jesus among the Tuaregs could hardly allow him to do less.
In the end Brother Charles appears as a man completely given, someone who no longer belongs to himself, but rather to the people of the Hoggar, and who wills to give his life for their redemption.
I cannot say I desire death. I used to wish for it. Now I see so much good to do, so many souls without a shepherd, that
I mainly want to do a little good and work a little for the redemption of these, poor souls. But God loves them more than I do, and He has no need of me. His will be done.17
All that, one may judge very good and generous but not exceptional. How many missionaries have done such things, and done still more. One can even find it most surprising that Brother Charles got such small results. He observes it himself:
I haven’t made a single conversion to speak of in the seven years I’ve been here. Two baptisms, but God knows what those baptized souls are and what they will become: a baby boy the White Fathers are bringing up, and God knows how he’ll turnout, and a poor old blind woman—what was going on in her poor head and how real is her conversion? As significant conversions, it comes to zero. And I would say something even sadder the farther I go, the more I think it’s not the thing to do to try to make isolated conversions (except in special cases) for the time being.18
And in fact he didn’t make any. The day of his death Brother Charles could have written the same things: no baptisms, no conversions, no churches founded, no fraternities, not a single companion to go on after him, not even any works that were going to last. And yet we claim that his life is in the mainstream of the Church’s missionary vitality. Mission means the call the Church had received to carry to the whole world both the message of salvation in Jesus Christ and that salvation’s reality. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and The Son and the Holy Spirit.”19True enough, this mission is achieved through works, and on that score we have perhaps little to learn from Brother Charles who accomplished so little. But the mission is achieved first and foremost by persons. And maybe it can be said that the Holy Spirit, whose task it is to tell us things again and again throughout the ages, has made certain Gospel qualities stand out vividly in the life of Brother Charles. The Spirit led him to ways of being that the Church has always known about perhaps, but that he revitalized, brought close and made almost tangible for our world of today, so much so that even in the annals of the Church’s mission this devotee of the hidden life has turned out to play a role of great importance. Quite obviously, he never suspected it. All he wanted was to follow Jesus and to be faithful to his personal vocation, but his life is a real message, and this message contains an apostolic dimension. As such it first affects the fraternities born after his death, who have chosen to be his followers. But the scope of the message is much broader still, and will apply to all those who work for the evangelization of the world today.
The message always comes down to Nazareth. But now we can express it in a somewhat different way from before. Brother Charles started by fixing his eyes on Jesus, and was drawn that way into His hidden life. But the more he looked at Jesus, he learned—and showed us too—a new way of looking at people and the situations they live in. This is where the interest for the apostolic worker comes in.
Brother Charles entered into the humble realities of the hidden life and into manual work for the sake of imitating Jesus, He discovered that these realities were great and beautiful and meaningful, and that they made up the life of the vast majority of human beings. In a world dominated by the pursuit of efficacity, organization and maximum production, and yet a world that is beginning to perceive the limits of its system and programmes, Brother Charles proclaims to us the value of humble people and humble things. He helps us remember that when the Word of God became man, He became poor.
To become poor meant for the Son of God much more than adopting a situation of hardships and sacrifice, it meant to be taught by human reality, in the human nature that He took on concretely, the flesh He made His own, Jesus learned by experience what it is to be a man. He learned everything from us: poverty and work, hunger, thirst and weariness, family and solitude, fraternity, friendship and betrayal, obscurity and notice, joy and its exhilarations, heaviness, anguish and death. He learned all there is of our condition, with the exception of sin. That is what the path of the Incarnation meant. It was with respect that the Saviour approached those He was coming to redeem. He began by sharing, making His own and feeling for Himself the same afflictions He was coming to deliver them from.
To save us, God came to us, mingled with us, lived with us in the closest, most familiar of contact, from the Annunciation to the Ascension. For the salvation of souls, He continues to come to us, to mingle with us, to live with us in the closest of contact, every day and at any hour in the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, we must, in order to work for the salvation of souls, go to them, mingle with them, and live with them in close and familiar contact.20
Brother Charles tells the Little Brothers and Little Sisters they must strive to be “Saviours with Jesus”. He is instructing them to follow this same path of the Incarnation, to approach people by being taught by the other, taught by another people and another way of life, striving to make their own the new people’s riches and their poverty, their language, culture and traditions, their conditions of life and sufferings, their struggles perhaps and their hopes most certainly. This adaptation naturally will remain partial, but must be whole-hearted. Before even looking at the needs and afflictions of the other, to heal and relieve, they are to see first the other as a person, someone, to know and share with. This is the kind of attentiveness Brother Charles meant by a silent presence among people.
Brother Charles would never have pretended to say that all should restrict themselves to the hidden life. Jesus Himself left Nazareth, gathered crowds, preached and healed. But perhaps it is worthwhile that there be some in the Church who have this special vocation to recall what Jesus did for so many years at Nazareth, and to recall as well that even in His apostolic life and on the cross, Christ always remained Jesus of Nazareth. Is it not up to every apostle to cultivate the qualities of heart that make him more and more like a man of Nazareth?
This is what Brother Charles’s life has to say to messengers of the Gospel. He himself never elaborated on it, of course, in theological terms. It is an existential message from a life that reminds us of the path by which, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to the cross, Jesus made Himself fully ours to save us. It was wholly realistic when the Word of God took on the features of man, the features of the poor.
To be sure, one could spend a lot of time going over Brother Charles’s apostolic activities and analyzing what he did and didn’t do, his motives, his evolution, etc. There is still work to be done for us to explore what we know of him. But we are convinced the essential of what he had to teach us is no other than what we have said already: he is for all who work to spread the Gospel a living lesson in how to approach their brothers and sisters.
Besides this essential point, for those who study his life, one aspect or another sometimes takes hold of them more powerfully though not exclusively: that deep and silent presence of his, for example, or his will to give a welcome to everyone, his hospitality, or his very simplified way of working to spread the Gospel message. In fact, this is more or less what happened at the foundation of the various congregations born of his spirit. Each congregation has a slightly different approach in its way of bringing people the Gospel. It is legitimate. It is probably inevitable too, for Brother Charles himself never got further than drafting projects. But it is striking that what we have defined as essential remains common to all the groups, the resolute will of Little Brothers and Little Sisters to live in close contact with those who are overlooked, with “the people”, as it is said today, concretely sharing the condition of life of those whom they want to give themselves to.
This too is one of the teachings of Brother Charles’s life that has an appeal wider than the circle of his direct followers. There is no doubt that he has contributed to the renewal in missionary approach that the Church is experiencing today. Long after his death he had certainly helped Christians to hear more clearly the modern world’s call to them.
Perhaps it is time to give the floor back to him:
Our whole life however voiceless it may be—the life of Nazareth or the life of solitude in the desert, just as much as the public life—must preach the Gospel by example. Our whole existence, our whole being, must cry the Gospel from the rooftops. Our whole person must exude Jesus: all our acts and all our life must cry out that we belong to Jesus and be a portrait of Gospel life. All our being must be a living preaching, a reflection of Jesus, a fragrance of Jesus, something that proclaims Jesus, that shows Jesus, that shines like an image of Jesus.21 (105-121)
- Rule. 1901
- Daily Notes. 1916.
- Retreat of 1902.
- Retreat of 1904.
- To Father Huvelin, December 15. 1901.
- Rule of 1901.
- Meditation on Luke 1:39, written at Nazareth.
- April 8, 1905, letter to a priest in France.
- Meditation on Mark 5:18-19.
10. Diary. 1905.
11. Retreat, 1902.
12. Quoted in the biography of Brother Charles by René Bazin.
13. Quoted hi the biography of Brother Charles by Gilbert Ganne.
14. Letter to a priest 1912.
15. To René Bazin. 1916.
16. May 13, 1911.
17. To Mme.de Bondy, July 20, 1914.
18. To a priest in France, June 9, 1908.
19. Matthew 28:19.
20. Directory, 1909.
21. Meditations of the Gospel.