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Seeking Christ in the Desert – The Conversion of Charles de Foucauld

The story of the conversion of Charles de Foucauld.

Jesus showed humanity how to be fully human. Yet Christians of modern Western culture are far removed from the Eastern world He lived in. By modern standards, His society was poor, simple, almost primitive. His early followers lived with few possessions and comforts. They were humble, common folk of the Near East. The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church developed out of this simple Eastern way of life in radical fidelity to Christ. Like Paul and Augustine, Francis of Assisi followed Christ’s path to an austere yet joyful spirituality. Modern Christians who are unhappily caught up in a pursuit of temporary pleasures have a more recent model of fidelity to Jesus’ human path.

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) took the difficult journey into Eastern culture in search of Christ. The confusing allures of modern life tempted him before he began his quest for faith. Living among the poor, though, led him to break free of materialism and to abandon himself to the will of God. Eventually, his Christian witness in an Eastern culture opened a new view of mission, especially among Muslims.

As a boy, Charles rejected the religious values of his wealthy family and drifted through military education. He indulged in carefree and dissolute luxury. As a young man he squandered a huge inheritance by seeking happiness in wanton consumption, passing fashion, and frivolous company. In time, his scandalous lack of discipline was too much even for the French military, which discharged him in 1881.

When conflicts arose in the French colonies in the Sahara, though, he returned to military service. He surprised everyone with distinguished leadership during the campaigns. Suddenly, he seemed to want to direct his passions away from luxury, even if he lost his life in the effort. Surviving the campaigns, though, he was a changed man. He withdrew from the expected routine of military discipline to chart his own, more austere course.

In his experiences in North Africa, Charles developed a curiosity for the Sahara, its people, and their languages and customs. He threw himself into studying them with characteristic intensity by living among the native population. Disguised as the Jewish servant of a rabbi, he traveled among the Muslims of the Sahara for two years. He reported on his findings in Reconnaissance au Maroc, 1883-1884 (1888), which was well received by the Geographical Society of Paris.

Charles’ sojourn in the Sahara made another unexpected turn in his life. His masquerade had required the unfamiliar demeanor of humility. Behind the Jewish mask, he experienced for the first time real poverty and isolation from the hectic pace and shifting values of French culture. He found himself liberated by his solitude and poverty.

In his awakening awareness to the daily struggles of the poor, Charles also found the human spirit which dignifies it. He came to know the native Muslims of the Sahara, who always welcomed this curious figure with hospitality. The poor, devout, and compassionate desert people of Islam gave him reason to consider the place of faith in his own life. They especially challenged him through their constant submission to the will of God.

Though raised in a Christian family and country, Charles had little time for the serious consideration of religion until these travels. In his disguise and in the people he met, he had unintentionally found faith by living among poor non-Christians. Their humble devotion and sincere generosity taught him respect for poverty, which he made his teacher. His walk in an Eastern culture – living according to its modest values and slow rhythm – awakened a sense of spirituality he never imagined himself to possess in the affluence of his native culture.

Charles returned to France to recover his faith through his own culture and to bring it to maturity. In the process he faced the conflict between his Western background and his Eastern experience. Only after years of strenuous effort to internalize Eastern asceticism could he evade the snares of his passions. Finding the reconciliation at the core of Christ’s message made him ready to return to the Sahara as a missionary witness to Christianity.

In his effort to draw nearer to Christ, Charles traveled to the Holy Land to find a model for imitating Him. After seeing the simple dignity of the poor Palestinians in Nazareth, he joined the Trappists in the Monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges in 1890. Striving for greater humility, though, he constantly sought out greater poverty. His intense search soon led him to the austerity of Akbes in Syria for six years, and then to even greater asceticism in the Abbey of Staoueli in Algeria. Still, he had difficulties with the relative comfort of communal discipline.

Years after his first trip there, Charles returned to the Holy Land in 1897 in the cloak of abject poverty. Intending to do manual labor at a convent in Nazareth, he practically became a hermit while he put himself through rigorous ascetic discipline and the close study of Scripture. Gradually, his efforts transformed his spirituality.

It was as if Charles had to painstakingly purge himself of the inclinations to Western materialism before he could faithfully follow Christ. Walking the path of Eastern spirituality, he followed the guidance of the Eastern Fathers of the early Church, who had warned of the traps he had fallen into in his youth: avarice, self-esteem, and sensual pleasure. As he let go of his own passions, he abandoned himself completely to God’s will.

Leaving the village of Jesus’ “hidden life” in 1900, Charles was ordained the following year. Returning to the Sahara, he brought Christianity among the Muslim tribes by establishing a hermitage on the Morocco-Algiers frontier. Rather than preach to them, he lived as a simple Christian and let his actions speak.

Charles’ journey of faith, recorded in his journals and letters, was a lifelong response to God’s call. His asceticism was a way to open himself to God’s love. He learned how to answer from other faith traditions. His submission to the will of God, for instance, followed the basic tenet of Islam. On his journey, he rejected colonialist attitudes as incompatible with Christ’s message. His vision pointed out horizons which the Second Vatican Council would later recognize as the path for carrying the Gospel to all nations.

Charles de Foucauld’s life, in its conversion and mission, offers a model of fidelity for Christians of the modern world. To imitate Christ is to live out His prayer to His Father, “Thy will be done.” In giving themselves to this transformation, the faithful reveal their “good news” to others. In this way of living, they open themselves to become fully human by sharing in the witness Jesus Himself gave to the world.

Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.

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