Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Charles de Foucauld, Islam, and the Dialog of Presence

Johan Bonny writes,

Charles de Foucauld was born in France in 1858; at the age of six he became an orphan. At the age of sixteen, he lost his Christian faith and started a life of intellectual confusion and material enjoyment. He joined the French army and became a sub-lieutenant. After being discharged from his functions for misbehaviour and disobedience, he joined his regiment anew when they went to Northern Africa for a military camp. This stay in Africa changed his life. The hard conditions he experienced in the desert purified his heart and mind. The affinity he felt with faithful Muslims of the region also led him to inner reflection. As a result of these experiences, he felt a deep religious unrest and an inner spiritual conflict. Finally he rediscovered his Christian faith and decided to devote his whole life to Christ. He entered a Trappist abbey in France, but left it very soon to go and live in a poorer and more isolated abbey in Akbes (Syria). But even there he couldn't remain for a long period. Inspired by a deep desire to imitate the humble and hidden life of Jesus, he moved to Nazareth. He lived there from 1897 to 1900, almost as a hermit, in the garden of a religious convent.

To the Sahara

Ordained as a priest (1901), he decided to return to Northern Africa, to Morocco. With the consent of his superiors, he later moved to the Sahara and settled in Beni-Abbes. Knowing the spiritual need of so many tribes and Bedouins in that region, he set out to live there and to proclaim the Gospel 'not by words, but by the presence of the Holy Eucharist, the offering of tile divine sacrifice, prayer, penitence, the practice of the evangelic virtues, charity, a fraternal and universal charity, sharing his bread till the last bite with every poor person, each guest, receiving every unknown human being as his beloved brother'. He named his small and poor hermitage a 'Fraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus'. There he realised his vocation, as he summarised it himself : 'I would like to witness the Gospel with all my life. I am the universal Brother'.

He finally left Beni-Abbes and moved to the higher Hoggar Mountains, a territory that had been this far closed to Christianity. He settled in Tamanrassat, once again in a small and poor-hermitage. He lived there, in the most modest and humble way, as a 'universal brother'. He spent many hours a day in his small chapel, celebrating the Eucharist, meditating the Sacred Scriptures, adoring Christ in his Eucharistic presence. He studied the local Touareg language, taking a very great quantity of notes in view of future publications. His hermitage was always open to visitors at any time. He didn't travel throughout the desert to visit people, as most missionaries do, but offered hospitality to any guest. In doing so, he gained the trust and esteem of both the French military authorities and the local Touareg population. He put his friendship and his wisdom at the disposal of both. His hermitage was a simple and modest place; it wasn't perceived as a threat by anybody. It was an austere and humble oasis of prayer, hospitality and friendship, in the middle of the desert.

Nevertheless, the life of Brother Charles ended in a drammatic way. On 1 December 1916 he was assassinated in his hermitage by a young guard, confused by the sudden arrival of a group of raiders.

The dialog of presence

In his many spiritual writings, Charles de Foucauld described the character and the purpose of his presence in the desert, living among a non-Christian majority.

'My evangelization must be an evangelization of goodness. Seeing me, they should say: "since this man is so good, his religion must be good"'. If they ask why I am tender and good, I should say: Because I am the servant of someone much better than me. If only you knew how good my Master Jesus is! I would like to be so good that they would say "If that is the servant, how is the Master then?" (1909, p. 383)

And elsewhere: "In fact; we do not contribute to the glorification of God, to the work of our Lord, to the salvation of the people by oral predication of the Gospel, we contribute- efficiently to this by bringing to the nations Jesus, who is present in the Eucharist, Jesus offered in the Holy Sacrifice, the evangelical virtues and the charity of the Heart of Jesus that we try to practice. Since we didn't receive from God the vocation of preaching, we sanctify and preach to the nations in silence, as the Blessed Virgin sanctified and preached in silence to the house of St John, by bearing there Our Lord and by practicing there his virtues' (1899; p.447)---Johan Bonny, Christian Witness and Ecumenism in a Society with a Muslim Majority, Focus, Vol. 31, n. 3, 2001