The Word Among Us

February 2023 Issue

The Universal Brother

The Humble Witness of St. Charles de Foucauld

By: Ann Bottenhorn

The Universal Brother: The Humble Witness of St. Charles de Foucauld by Ann Bottenhorn

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)

Read that passage again. It says that God loved us so much that he abandoned the riches of heaven and came to live as our brother. He chose to live in an out-of-the-way place as a poor man in a poor village, and he spent his earthly life working to seek and save the lost.

In the late nineteenth century, a French nobleman named Charles de Foucauld experienced that brotherly love deeply. After years of living a life of self-indulgence, he was moved to embrace the lowliness and humility of Christ. Like Jesus, he chose a remote region of the earth where he could be a brother to the lost and forsaken people who lived there. As he put it, he wanted “to reproduce as fully as possible the life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

Charles de Foucauld’s “Nazareth life” referred to the thirty or so years Jesus spent living and working in Nazareth—years spent in obscurity, poverty, and submission to his parents. They were hidden years, when he resided as acquaintance and neighbor, friend and brother to fellow villagers. While acknowledging that “we can live the life of Nazareth anywhere,” Charles discovered that God had called him to live that life among the people who made their homes in the sand and wind and solitude of the Sahara Desert.

The Universal Brother. Calling himself “Brother Charles of Jesus,” he built a hermitage in Béni Abbès, near the Moroccan border in northwestern Algeria. There, he welcomed desert nomads of all backgrounds and treated them as brothers and sisters. “I want to accustom all the inhabitants, Christians, Muslims, Jews, nonbelievers, to look upon me as their brother, the universal brother, . . . a safe friend to trust.” During his time there, Brother Charles received as many as one hundred people a day at his hermitage. When he could, he provided them with food, medicine, or a bed for the night. His intention was an “apostolate . . . of goodness,” he wrote, adding, “When people see me, they should say, ‘If this man is good, his religion must be good.’ . . . I want to be good enough that people will say, ‘If this is what the servant is like, what must the master be?’”

Eventually his desire to bring Jesus “to the places where he is least known, and search . . . with him for his most lost and abandoned sheep” led Brother Charles to the Tuareg nomads in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. The love of God that he sought to bring them was not in pious preaching or rules nor in conquering their unbelief. He sought to lead them to Jesus, gently and gradually, by practicing the patient and gracious love he himself had experienced from God.

Brother Charles approached the Tuareg people by being “human, charitable, and always joyful.” “Always laugh,” he wrote, because it “draws people closer together, allows them to understand each other better, [and] sometimes brightens up a gloomy character; it is a charity.”

Roué to Soldier. But how did a member of the French nobility end up living among Muslims in the Sahara Desert?

Charles, born on September 15, 1858, was orphaned at age six. His maternal grandfather raised him to continue the family tradition of military service, but according to author Robert Ellsberg, who compiled selected texts from Foucauld’s many writings, Charles was more interested in food and women and “frivolous diversions.” He attended a military academy, where he distinguished himself “only by the frequency of his official reprimands.” At cavalry school, official reports described him as “a remarkable person . . . with no thought for anything except entertainment.” Still, Charles eventually went into battle against Arab rebels in North Africa, displaying a courage and determination that brought honor to the family name.

But the region and people of the Sahara Desert enchanted him, so he resigned his military commission and set out to survey Morocco, which had not yet been explored by Westerners. For almost a year, Charles traveled and meticulously plotted Morocco’s geography. He returned to France with enough information for a book that received the gold medal from the French Geographical Society in 1885.

Soldier to Believer. Charles returned, though, with more than maps. He had seen in Muslims a devotion to prayer that pierced his rationalistic, atheistic self. In the Sahara, he grasped that there is something greater and more real than worldly pleasures. The desert solitude had also given him time to reflect and to grapple with questions raised by the emptiness and loneliness he felt as one without family, faith, or love.

Back in France, he renewed ties with his extended family, and the faith of a cousin stirred something in him. As he began to share his questions with her, she suggested he talk to a priest.

At the same time, as an antidote to the noise and bustle of daily life in Paris, Charles found in empty churches the quiet and rest he had relished in the desert. He began to pray frequently, “My God, if you exist, let me know of your existence.” He requested “private religious lessons” from the priest that his cousin had recommended, but the priest refused. Instead, he invited Charles to make a good confession. Charles did, and the experience of God’s complete and total forgiveness for all his past decadence brought about a radical conversion in his heart.

“I Could Not Do Otherwise.” Vocation came in on the flood tide of belief. “As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live only for him: my religious vocation dates from the same hour I began to live by faith,” he explained. The year was 1886. Though faith had filled him swiftly, discerning how to live out his vocation took more than ten years. Three of those years he spent in Nazareth, praying about his calling. The next seven he spent as a novice in a Trappist abbey.

On the cusp of making final vows there, he wrote to his cousin, “I am longing to lead . . . the life . . . I glimpsed . . . as I was walking the streets of Nazareth where the feet of Our Lord had trod.” He left the Trappists and returned to Nazareth, where he worked as a porter and servant at a Poor Clares convent. “I didn’t feel I was made for preaching like Jesus in his public life,” he said, “so I needed to imitate him in his hidden life.” He believed that God hadn’t merely shown humility through his incarnation; he had emptied himself so that he could be close to people.

Eventually, Brother Charles’ spiritual advisor suggested ordination to the priesthood, so he returned to the Trappists. On June 9, 1901, forty-three-year-old Charles de Foucauld was ordained and then returned to Algeria. In Béni Abbès, he began what he called the “ministry of presence.” It meant seeking the lowest place, seeking to share, through prayer and the Eucharist and Adoration, the unconditional love of God that he had experienced. He saw his ministry as a “contemplative life . . . deepened through daily contact with human reality.”

From Béni Abbès, his path led to the Tuareg nomads in Tamanrasset. For a dozen years, Brother Charles lived among them as their brother, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, living in the same kind of huts. Besides writing down their lore, he taught them to make bricks and to knit. “All of these things are spiritually useful, because everything goes together,” he wrote. Slowly, friendship blossomed. The Tuareg people even nursed Brother Charles through a serious illness.

Always, though, there was an undercurrent of violence and danger. Brother Charles was aware of it and seemed to sense that his time there would be short. The clock in his hermitage was inscribed, “It is time to love God.”

Life Flowing from the Desert. In the end, strife between tribes and anger and resentment toward the French colonization of Algeria boiled over. On December 1, 1916, a raiding nomadic tribe forced their way into Brother Charles’ Tamanrasset hermitage in search of weapons and provisions. He was held at gunpoint while the premises were ransacked. When soldiers from a nearby French garrison arrived to rescue Brother Charles, one of the raiders panicked and shot him in the head. “Charles the [hermit] has died,” the Tuareg high chief wrote to Charles’ cousin. “May God have mercy on him, and may we meet him in paradise!”

The high chief mourned the death of his friend and brother: “I shed many tears. . . . His death is a great grief to me.”

Brother Charles wrote prolifically throughout his life. A project dear to his heart was the establishment of a congregation dedicated to living the “Nazareth life.” At his death, only forty-eight persons in the world, lay and ordained, had joined what he called the “Association of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” But he had shared his ideas in letters, journals, and pamphlets. Those ideas first began to attract others in the 1930s. Today twenty-one congregations inspired by Brother Charles exist. Thousands of people in those congregations seek to imitate his “Nazareth life.” Whether living together in community or living individually in the world, they proclaim the gospel, not just in words, but in lives of humble, brotherly love. They stand as proof that the love that Brother Charles extended to forgotten nomads in an isolated corner of the Sahara Desert has produced life around the world.

Charles de Foucauld was canonized on May 15, 2022.

Ann Bottenhorn is a regular contributor to The Word Among Us.