St. Charles de Foucauld’s Spiritual Journey: ‘To Go Beyond’
Book Review: New biography offers insights into new saint.
Charles de Foucauld
By Jean-Jacques Antier
$19.95, 361 pages
Ignatius Press, 2022
This past May 15, Charles de Foucauld entered the canon of saints. For many who have followed his story and partook in the growing devotion to him, including me, it was a great day.
But while I thought I knew his story, truth be told, I knew what turns out to be very little about him except the mere sketches of his life.
Imagine my excitement, then, when I received a full-length biography of the man which promised to reveal all the great, hidden aspects of his life.
And Jean-Jacques Antier’s recounting of St. Charles’ story does just that. It takes the reader from the man’s sad childhood through his growing disaffection for the faith of his youth to his dissolute life as an army office to his conversion and the ever-greater heights he reached in his spiritual life.
All of this is capably told, and the reader learns of the intricacies of de Foucauld’s life.
For instance, Charles, born in 1858, and his young sister lost both their parents within a short time at a very early age. They went to live with their paternal grandmother, who quickly died, and then with their maternal grandparents, who raised them with love and much affection.
But the boy was deeply affected by so much loss of life before the age of 7. Not surprisingly, this led to his asking some fundamental questions: “Quite soon, he began to wonder about the God who had so cruelly affected their lives.”
Later, during his teens, Charles was sent to St. Cyr Military Academy, where he rebelled against both the strict martial regimen and any practice of the faith. He came into some of his inheritance at this time, as well, and began spending his newly found wealth in prodigious ways.
The more colleagues and family tried to rein him in, the worse his behavior grew. After graduating from Saint-Cyr, he even took a mistress. The military went so far as suspending him from all duty unless he gave her up. He refused. It was only when the country went to crush a rebellion in its African holdings that Charles, whose passion for action was so great, willingly gave her up so he could take up arms.
It was de Foucauld's travel in Africa that started the reawakening of his religious sensibilities, along with the relationship he first developed with a beloved cousin and then her pastor. By late 1886, he was back in the arms of the Church and on his way to becoming a saint.
He became in quick order a pilgrim, a novice at one monastery in France, a postulant at another, a gardener at a monastery in the Holy Land, and a seminarian. And he was content in none of them because they would not allow him to be “enough” like Christ.
Charles had an aching desire to live as Jesus — poor, without possessions, and without even a means of supporting himself. It was an impossible vocation to achieve, but he refused to recognize that. This led him to criticize his superiors, his fellow religious, and most especially himself. He could be something of an annoyance and superior with others. Summing up de Foucauld’s attitude in one short passage, Antier writes:
“‘Security,’ that was the least of Charles’ concerns! Acrobat of God, he chose to work without a net.”
He kept pushing himself. Nothing was ever satisfactory, and Antier explains that “his principal temptation was to visualize somewhere else, to go beyond.”
And yet for all his being difficult, he was also the humblest of men, counting himself as nothing and as the worst sinner. Furthermore, rather than alienate his superiors and those around him, his striving to be Christlike earned their dedication and unfailing support.
Finally, Charles was given the chance to go to Algeria and its remote southern desert to live out his vocation of being a missionary. At first, he was posted at an oasis near a French military fort, but that did not satisfy his desire to “go beyond.” Then he was sent to a remote village called Tamanrasset, where he could be as poor and remote and ignored as he wanted. And this is where his vocation finally came into its own and where he spent the rest of his life, until he was martyred on Dec. 1, 1916.
Again, Antier tells this tale quite capably. The problem for the reader is that the author doesn’t seem to much like his subject. He appears frustrated by Charles’ headstrong ways and expresses that frustration in a myriad of ways as the story unfolds. As one of the back-cover testimonials exclaims, “This is no saccharine-coated saint’s life.” Indeed, it is not. All of this makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate de Foucauld as an admirable saint, as other biographies of holy men and women want to do.
The book also sometimes lapses into too much detail, using a finely pointed brush where broad strokes would suffice.
However, all in all, the book does its job of telling us this remarkable man’s life in a way that is compelling and thought-provoking.
As the saint came to learn in his spiritual journey:
“The moment I realized that God existed, I knew that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone. ... Faith strips the mask from the world and reveals God in everything. It makes nothing impossible and renders meaningless such words as anxiety, danger, and fear, so that the believer goes through life calmly and peacefully, with profound joy — like a child, hand in hand with his mother.”