On 1 December 1916, Blessed Charles de Foucauld was shot dead at his small fort in the Sahara. Was he a martyr? If so, it was of charity, not directly for the faith, for though he was shot because of his presence to others (however difficultly entwined that was with his own country’s policies and the details of a world war), it was not because of any article of the faith, nor because of any direct animosity towards a group of human beings as such.
But what he was, was a model for the kind of life this blog promotes. Of course, he was human, with weaknesses, limitations, feelings, and even faults. But he was a model. He loved the Eucharist. He loved his neighbours. He had no formal apostolate, except perhaps one of translation, scholarly work, and “presence” to others (if these things can count as activities of a formal apostolate).
To a degree, his model of spirituality was in the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross – even before they were declared Doctors of the Universal Church. Over and over he read them. He knew with them that it is when we are most annihilated that we pray best and that it is love which makes prayer best.
His spirituality is known for its Trinitarian emphasis: on Jesus in others and in the pages of the Gospel, on the Father to whom his most famous prayer is addressed, on the Spirit known in the Veni Creator.
He believed in the value of silence and thought that earth was preparation for heaven, not only by what we do but by the time we spend, seemingly uselessly, with God. After all, the spirit was not made for noise but for taking things in; and if we want to give God to others, we must live in him ourselves; a spring can only give what it already has. He described the purification brought about by silence as a “desert” experience.
Above all, this man went on a journey of discovering what it means to see Jesus in others and to live a life of “Nazareth,” a quiet life that passes under the radar with and among people who may never have even heard the Gospel in its entirety (like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Nazareth). This involved standing up to injustices and taking clear positions on social justice. But it also involved a mere “being with” and a “togetherness,” a legitimate love and appreciation of the other. It was a spirituality of presence, even when the effects of presence seem fleeting. Such a “Nazareth” spirituality is accompanied by a respect, a great respect and preference, for the poor and abandoned. It involves poverty and humility of means; for Jesus did not use much or write large when he evangelized by his presence in Nazareth. It involves a recognition that the majority of people live their lives in Nazareth, not in the greatest acts of apostolate or at the highest heights of the world.
There is a general theme of how one can be a contemplative in the midst of action, though not hanging all one’s contemplation on the accomplishment of activity. It is a strange message to modern ears, but it is much needed. And it is one that, though he was himself a priest, Charles felt was relevant to laypeople.
Counting today (23 November) and 1 December itself, there are nine days left in the centennial year of the blessed’s death. For my part, I think this is a great time to get to know, and to love, Brother Charles better. At the very least and even if we do not focus our attention and thoughts on Charles, we could spend our time as he recommends:
To pray means to think lovingly about Jesus. Prayer is the soul’s attention that is concentrated on Jesus. The more you love Jesus, the better you pray.