Immediately upon the outbreak of the Great War, Charles de Foucauld wished to return to France from the Sahara desert. He desired to rejoin the French army as a military chaplain. The bishop under whose authority he lived instructed him to stay where he was at Tamanrasset, a small village in modern-day Algeria.
De Foucauld obeyed what was later to prove a death sentence.
France’s empire in 1914 extended to large parts of North Africa – and that empire was now under attack. The Ottoman Empire, fighting alongside Prussia, called for the expulsion of all infidels from the lands of Islam and a restoration of the Caliphate. Some Saharan tribes responded to this call for jihad encouraged in so doing by the Muslim religious order known as the Senussi. De Foucauld lived far from French military aid in a makeshift hermitage. In the early hours of Dec. 1, 1916, an armed gang of fanatical Senussi set out to find the Christian hermit.
De Foucauld was indeed a long way from home. He was born at Strasbourg on Sept. 15,1858 into a wealthy French aristocratic family. An unhappy childhood followed. By the time he was 6 years old he was an orphan. Subsequently, at school he learned little. He did become an agnostic, however. Eventually, his family enlisted him in the military, in the hope of disciplining the unruly youth; but this hope proved futile. The endless hours of barrack life only appeared to make matters worse: his attention now focused solely on pleasure. To his family, he was fast becoming an embarrassment; to the military he was a liability.
Eventually, de Foucauld was dismissed in disgrace from the army: when at last the call came for his regiment to leave France for Algeria, he insisted on taking along his latest mistress. There was a limit to what even the French military could tolerate.
Cast back into civilian life, surprisingly he found his former pleasures now bored him. And, for all his nonchalance, the shame of his being cashiered from the army burned within him. Soon he found himself in Algeria volunteering for a dangerous mission as a spy for the French. Dressed in the costume of a North African Jew, and with a desire to make amends to his family and to his country, de Foucauld ventured forth into the then unmapped territories of Morocco to make detailed records of the land and its peoples.
Two years later, in 1884, de Foucauld returned to France a hero. Eventually publishing a memoir of his adventures, he was to become the toast of Paris, honored for his services to his country with a gold medal conferred on him by the Geographical Society of Paris. But he had also returned from Africa strangely changed. Days spent living in an alien culture, and nights spent under the vastness of the desert sky had left their mark. He had watched as Muslims dropped to the ground five times a day prostrated in prayer, and, impressed, wondered if their religion was the truth. He returned to France seeking answers.
Initially, his inner restlessness seemed only to increase. He studied Islam, but decided that the truth was not there. He paced the streets of Paris at all hours, thinking, wondering. By the end of October 1886, he was on those streets again as day was breaking when he spied a church open. He entered. He noticed a confessional with a priest inside. He approached and asked if he could speak with the priest. A voice, as firm as it was to prove wise, decreed otherwise, and, instead, ordered him to kneel and confess. He knelt down and confessed all. On that morning having heard Mass and received Holy Communion, de Foucauld was reborn.
From that day on, he had but one ideal, and it would burn as fiercely as his former lusts, only this Fire was one of Divine Love. In the magnificent canopy of the desert night skies, and in the religious devotion of foreigners, de Foucauld had glimpsed hints of transcendence; now he finally encountered Truth itself in the Catholic faith of his ancestors, of his family, of his country. He had come home in more ways than one.
After time spent in a Cistercian monastery in the Alps, and in another monastery in Syria, still unsure of his calling, he walked to the Holy Land. Eventually he came to the Poor Clares’ monastery in Jerusalem. He worked as their doorman for a time, and living in a shack against the convent wall, and doing manual work, he became absorbed in prayer. It was here in the Holy Land that his vocation was revealed to him. He came to realize that, from now on, he was to seek the hidden life of Nazareth with all its many vicissitudes.
Ordained in 1901, he headed back to North Africa, settling in southern Algeria, eventually at Tamanrasset, living amongst the region’s poorest tribe: the Tuareg. He dreamed of starting a religious community there based upon his ideals of seeking the lowest place. Yet no one understood these ideals, and no one joined him. Until his death, he was to labor for souls among the Muslim Tuareg but none were converted to the Christian faith.
In his little oratory, miles from another Christian, de Foucauld spent long vigils before the Blessed Sacrament praying for the conversion of the lands through which he had traveled and for the peoples among whom he now lived. He wrote:
Sacred Heart of Jesus, thank you for this, the first tabernacle in the lands of the Tuareg! May it be the first of many, and proclaim salvation to many souls! Radiate out from this tabernacle on all those round about, people who surround you yet do not know you.
He remained still before the Blessed Sacrament; his restlessness stilled by an inner Fire that continued to burn as brightly as when he had first encountered it so long ago on that decisive October morning in the confessional of a Parisian church. Now in the furnace of the desert heat, his faith was to be refined still further. Having sought to be hidden and unknown, at Tamanrasset he was granted his wish—for a while, at least. In the eyes of the world he was now of no account.
But the gaze of the world would shift with war, and as it did so, eyes filled with hatred fell upon the hermit, and, thereafter, there were those who decreed that both the man and his mission were to be destroyed.
On the morning of Dec. 1, 1916 there was an eyewitness to the distant riders who came out of the desert arriving at the hermitage at Tamanrasset.
The same witness saw the priest being dragged from his refuge, silent and without resistance, with what appeared to be a profound sense of peace. He saw him being forced to kneel as his captors offered him the chance to renounce his Savior—to confess the Shahada. The priest declined to do so and, subsequently, was shot in the head. His body, still in a kneeling position with his hands tied behind his back, was left in the sand while his murderers then ransacked his home and oratory, later getting drunk on altar wine. Next day, when they had left, those Tuareg living nearby came and buried the man they had come to regard as their friend.
Three weeks later, a French military patrol passed though Tamanrasset. Local people showed the commanding officer the makeshift grave. The soldiers solemnly erected a simple wooden cross over the site.
The subsequent military report stated the following:
Father de Foucauld, since his conversion, never for one day stopped thinking of that hour after which there are no others, and which is the supreme opportunity offered for our repentance and acquisition of merit. He died on the first Friday of December, the day consecrated to the Sacred Heart, and in the manner that he wished, having always desired a violent death dealt in hatred of the Christian name, accepted with love for the salvation of the infidels of his land of election—Africa.
Before the army left that day, the officer made one final inspection of what was left of the hermitage. As he did so, he came across a monstrance, thrown down in the sand by the priest’s killers. What they had not understood, and what this French Catholic immediately perceived, was that it still contained the Sacred Species.
When the military patrol gathered to depart, their commanding officer came forth solemnly holding the monstrance wrapped respectfully in a linen cloth. Then, to a single drumbeat, the soldiers proceeded to march back into the desert wastes from whence they had come. But this time at their head rode the officer still holding upon his saddle the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament exposed.
And, as this unique Eucharistic Procession progressed beneath a blistering sun, the sands of the desert, blown by the scorching winds of the Sahara, slowly began to cover the grave of Charles de Foucauld.
…Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies….
This article originally appeared Sept. 29, 2019, at the Register.