Charles de Foucauld: Not Your Typical Saint

Saint Charles de Foucauld,
Wikimedia Commons

On December 1, the Church remembers Saint Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Charles was such an obvious candidate for canonization that it’s surprising that he was not beatified until 2005 and canonized until 2022.

After all, he was respected even by his Muslim neighbors when he died as a hermit in the African desert, and his writings have inspired many Catholics since his death. But Charles’ life was full of many twists and turns.

Charles Eugène, vicomte de Foucauld, was born in Strasbourg, France, and seemed to have all the advantages of life at the time of his birth. His family was wealthy, noble, and could trace its ancestry back to the Middle Ages. But his mother and father both died when he was only six years old, along with one of his grandmothers, and Charles and his younger sister were raised by their maternal grandparents. He was befriended by an older cousin, Marie Moitessier, when he was ten years old and remained close to her for the rest of his life. Marie was a devout young woman, and she recognized that Charles’ behavior as a child—his tendency to hide, frequent tantrums, and laziness in his studies—was merely a cover for his grief over the loss of his parents.

Although his grandparents meant well and raised Charles and his sister in the Catholic faith, they indulged the children as well. With little supervision or almost no discipline in his life, Charles lost his faith when he was an adolescent. Explanations for the Christian faith seemed to have no meaning to him, particularly after he had been exposed to secular philosophy through his voracious reading.

Entranced by the ongoing political struggle between France and Germany at the time, young Charles patriotically decided to pursue a military career. Although he had been expelled from one boarding school for laziness, he somehow managed to be admitted to a military academy. Since his grandfather had just died and left him his entire estate, Charles had plenty of money to spend on food and parties while he was at the academy. He did manage to graduate, but only as 333rd out of a class of 386.

A few years later, he was sent to Algeria. Charles fell in love with the desert and with the native people. However, he was also overweight, chronically tardy and lazy, and engaged in a very public affair with a Parisian dancer. He was dismissed and sent back to France, only to return to service soon afterward in Tunisia. He had discovered a love of geography, and, after returning to France again, he planned an expedition to Morocco, an area which was considered off-limits and dangerous to westerners at the time. Charles’ journey through the Sahara, with the aid of a Muslim guide, earned him the reputation of a great explorer, and his written account won him an award from the Geographical Society of Paris.

After his famous trip, Charles returned to Paris. He was twenty-eight years old, and his family had already placed legal restrictions on his inheritance to prevent him from continuing to spend all his money on his pleasures. They probably expected him to resume his dissipated life with even more wine, women, and song.

But the Hound of Heaven finally caught up with the passionate, intelligent young man. Charles’ adventures and mishaps had opened his mind to the truth and his heart to something other than his latest obsession. In characteristic fashion, Charles raced from the extreme of libertinism to a decision to become a Trappist monk. Few religious orders can come close to the asceticism practiced by the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.

Charles loved to pray, and he loved the Trappist life of poverty. But it wasn’t enough. He felt called to live more closely to the poor. He moved to Nazareth to serve a community of Poor Clares as a gardener and porter for several years. With the help of a French priest—who had been patiently directing the impulsive Charles for years—Charles was ordained a priest. Finally Charles believed he was ready for the vocation to which God was calling him: living as a hermit.

Taking the name of Charles of Jesus, he settled first in Beni Abbès, Algeria, and later in Tamanrasset, an oasis city in the mountains of Algeria. He set up his hermitage near the Tuareg people, an native ethnic group of Muslims. He learned their language and wrote a dictionary and book of grammar. He established friendships with his nomadic neighbors. He shared food and supplies with the needy who constantly came to his door. He became known and respected as a marabout, or holy guide, to the people of the region.

And he brought Jesus. When he established his hermitage, he knew that his tabernacle contained the only Presence of Jesus Christ in the Algerian desert. He spent hours each day adoring his Lord, interrupted only by his writing and his frequent visitors. The man who had been teased about being fat now ate so little that he lost his teeth and suffered the results of dietary deficiencies. And he waited for years, hoping for conversions from the native peoples which, sadly, did not come.

On December 1, 1916, tribal raiders broke into Charles’ hermitage and attempted to kidnap him for ransom. Soldiers arrived, however, whom the raiders shot and killed. Charles was accidentally shot as well. His Tuareg friends buried his body.

Since his death, Charles’ writings have inspired many to try to love as he loved. His witness has given birth to thirteen religious communities, five lay associations, two secular institutes, and one society of apostolic life. Through his writings and the story of his life, he continues to inspire Catholics all over the world.

While many Catholics have undergone profound conversions from a life of vice to a life of virtue—such as the famous Saint Augustine of Hippo—and later become saints, Charles is far from typical. Even after he abandoned a life devoted to pleasure, he struggled with obedience to his superiors. He was often carried away by his grand dreams. He seemed to fail in his goal to bring the Tuaregs to Christ. But Charles de Foucauld died to himself and to his own desires in order to let Christ live in him, and, in that, he was a perfectly typical saint.

Posted in Saints.