Over the last day or two, my thoughts have wandered to Bl. Charles de Foucauld, a man whose life has served as a constant source of inspiration for my own, not because I could ever approximate his holiness, but because he is truly a saint for our times.
For those not aware of Fr. de Foucauld, he was a desert hermit, who lived among the Tuareg people in the Sahara during the French occupation of Algeria. Eventually, he was murdered by bandits, enduring martyrdom for his desire to live among the poor and marginalized. Even in this short summary, I think we can find three essential aspects of proper Christian living suited to our own time and place.
First, note above my saying that he was a “hermit” and that he “lived among the Tuareg” in the same sentence. What does it mean to be alone, to self-consciously remove oneself from the world, yet to dwell among outsiders? Fr. de Foucauld’s hermitage became known as “the Fraternity” for its hospitality. He even developed a French-Tuareg dictionary over the course of decade, a testament to his desire to know even the most forgotten of humanity.
Those of us living in the 21st-century might not live in literal deserts, but, as Sherry Turkle contends in her book Alone Together, the Digital Age finds us increasingly connected, yet unendingly lonely. Fr. de Foucauld practiced the opposite: life apart, lived for the Other, as opposed to life together for the Self. What stands more squarely in the face of our culture than to live a life wherein wires, gadgets, and other mediations are set aside, opening our lives to all other people?
Second, Fr. de Foucauld took his mission to a hostile place. While not at the height of violence during his lifetime, French Algeria was far from a land of easy relations and peace. This martyr refused comfort of any sort from his location to his mode of living, eventually even dying for his faith. The vast openness of the Sahara marked his very life, a terrain dizzyingly unchanging, yet wholly different from his homeland in France. In our world, we emphasize comfort, fear going too far from home, and can’t even begin to praise financial instability. Yet, Fr. de Foucauld went beyond tithing and volunteering, he committed his very life to discomfort, to a constant sort of crucifixion.
Lastly, he lived among Muslims. It nearly goes without saying that religious tension, especially between certain forms of Christianity and certain forms of Islam, is on the rise. Yet, Fr. de Foucauld refused to see his mission in terms of the religion of those whom he served: “I want all the people here, Christians, Muslims, Jews, non-believers, to look on me as their brother, the universal brother. They begin to call my house ‘the fraternity’ and this makes me happy.” Killed by Muslims, I cannot imagine Fr. de Foucauld uttering anything other than “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.”
His death was witnessed by two people: a former slave, whom he had liberated and the local sacristan (his servant and helper). Dying alone, his life offers a welcome reflection on how to live in our complicated times. It’s very easy to acclimate to the culture around us; it’s a different question, a tougher and more rewarding move, to carry the cross along with Fr. de Foucauld.