The campaign is over, Charles says goodbye to the army. No question of enduring garrison life and this damn doze that prevents him from breathing. “I find the arms trade boring in peacetime”, he writes to Gabriel. Africa made him realize that his calling is not to be a soldier, but an explorer to survey a world map that is still filled with incognitae land.
It was “the beautiful era of fairy tales,” according to the historian Sylvain Venayre’s expression: not a young Frenchman who did not dream of conquering the world and pushing the boundaries of the unknown, as Jules Verne’s heroes. Charles succumbed to this fashion, to the great displeasure of his family, who put him under curatorship, for fear that this heathen would waste his fortune there.
The experience of poverty
To show his freedom, he set his sights on Morocco, a country that is still “undamped” and banned from Europeans. For a year he met scholars, studied maps, learned Arabic, Berber, and Hebrew rudiments. To go unnoticed, he dresses up as a rabbi, is called Joseph Aleman, wears a white hood, a cap, black slippers. Flanked by another rabbi and two donkeys carrying the sextant, the compass, the theodolite, the camera lucida, he thus travels 3,000 km.
Every night, in secret, he takes notes, records readings, draws sketches. On his return, the daring is celebrated as a hero. His exploration journey is a personal achievement and a scientific conquest. Recognition in Morocco, the story he pulls out of it gives him a burst of praise. The Geographical Society even awarded him its prestigious gold medal. Had it not been for his conversion, Foucauld would have become one of the great ethnologists of his time, Lévi-Strauss of Belle Époque, yet another Durkheim or Marcel Mauss.
In a picture taken at his return we can see a new intensity in his gaze. A young woman who fell in love with him during this period painted the portrait of a wise aristocrat, equipped with a real inner dress: “He had a good air, spoke well, always possessed himself, without driving, with deep reflection.”
The paths of Morocco have transformed the viscount. He experienced poverty there. He discovered Muslim piety, which overwhelmed him. “The sight of these souls living in the constant presence of God gave me a glimpse of something greater and truer than worldly occupations.” He won a victory over himself, proving his worth to his people.
In his apartment in rue de Miromesnil in Paris, the former enjoys now living as an ascetic, drinking only water, sleeping on the ground, the hard way. He meditates on the moralists of antiquity. Chastity, he says, has become a “sweetness” for him. He dreams of himself as a stoic hero leading a life of great virtue, but of pagan virtue without God.
He often visits his cousin Marie de Bondy, whom he loves as a surrogate mother. She lives with her parents in the mansion at 41 rue d’Anjou, the new smart district near the newly built Saint-Augustin church. Mary fascinates him. She is a believer, and at the same time very intelligent and cultured.
She’s not a bigot. She does not seek to repent of him, but the radiance of her silent goodness challenges him: where does this quality of being come from? And if this religion, which makes her live, was true? Charles the tormented begins to haunt the churches to see the prayer of this defiance there: “God, if you exist, let me know.”
This long crisis of soul is resolved one morning in October 1886, the year of grace, when Claudel also repents in front of a pillar in Notre-Dame and Thérèse of Lisieux. On Mary’s advice, Charles went to meet Abbé Huvelin, the priest of Saint-Augustin.
We do not know the content of their speech. We know quite simply that Charles went to confession, then took the sacrament, and that his heart was touched. On this sober frame, Sulpician’s hagiography has embroidered a colorful story: Foucauld must have been this vicious man who takes a coup d’etat when receiving a blow from a club …
But the turning of his heart was not a flash of an excess, but the culmination of a long search. Between his youthful wanderings and that October morning, when he joined the cohort of “Belle Époque converts” (Maritain, Péguy, Alain-Fournier, Jammes, Huysmans, Psichari …), there was asceticism in his exploration of the time many years of philosophical research, the search for the truth …
Radical gift to God
Repentance is a life’s work, a daily task. This first conversion, which he did not remember the exact day, should not be overestimated. In his itinerary, 1886 is only a kick-off, a starting point. Especially since he remains trapped by an absolutist, stoic, deistic approach to religion that he will take 15 years to separate from. It is the “very great God” of Islam seen in Morocco that attracts him, a God of inaccessible sacred height, of strict transcendence, beyond the reach of man. “Allah Akbar, God is greater than all the things we can mention; he alone deserves our thoughts and words after all.” writes the one who intertwines passages from the Qur’an with his prayers.
In his autocracy, he does not think of his life other than in the form of a radical donation to God. He will not “live only for him”. In this spirit it sounds western monks de Montalembert, The Lives of the Fathers of the Desert, visits Solesmes, Fontgombault, where the sight of a torn lay brother arouses his desires for humiliation. Father Huvelin, his spiritual father, warned him of the danger of exaltation, the temptation of spiritual heroism, spoke to him about the less strict Franciscans, made him dangle a married layman’s life.
Then sends him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the hope that the discovery of Jesus’ humanity will dampen his zeal. Nazareth produces the opposite effect. As he walks through the muddy streets of this dull city, Charles fantasizes about the years of hidden life, imagining Jesus as “a poor craftsman”, bound in disgust, distress, extreme misery. He returns from his journey with this crazy image and the desire to literally adapt to it.
Entrance to the hatch
Around the stern and charming buildings, forests of hundred-year-old spruce trees impose a cathedral-like contemplation. On the border between the Ardèche and Lozère, the Abbey of the Snow is an oasis of silence. It was there that Charles at the age of 32 became a novice under the name Brother Marie-Albéric, to “keep company with the Lord in his sorrows”. Outside the fence, a small museum traces his route. There are the few effects he left on the deposit when he entered – a bag with his initials, an umbrella, a tie pin, the telescope he used in Morocco, and a medallion with a lock of hair from his mother, who died when he was 5 years old.
The renunciation of this pendant is overwhelming. It gives an idea of the victim it represented for the young man to go into the trap. With his characteristic autocracy, Charles aimed for the strictest order. At the time, the trapdoor was a tomb, one entered it to prepare to die. Still trapped by a doloristic spirituality that overestimates penance, sacrifice, ascetic skill, he wants to submit.
Foucauld liked the company of the Trappists, mostly peasants from the surrounding area, simple souls, among whom he found an admirable elevation of emotion. But life there still seems to him to have too many events. He liquidated what was left of his fortune and sent himself to a monastery near Akbés on the border of Syria and Armenia, where he sowed beans, sawed wood – ah! his “dear logs” ! – rubs himself with dogmatic theology.
But his chronic dissatisfaction is not long in coming back. Living in wooden barracks is still too comfortable for this ash holiday! Especially since the order has just approved the use “of butter and oil as a spice” during meals! This is not the existence he imagined. He wants more poverty. He describes his ideal in a frightening radical first rule, which the wise Huvelin considers “impractical”. “The little saint often builds up, sometimes scares”, writes his Trappist superior, who talks about ” mental illness “.
Huvelin, who knew his Foucauld, wrote to him: For mortification you will never find it sufficient. In your soul you will always say to yourself: what is it? And then after? You must defend against this movement to infinity, which leads to anxiety and never leaves a firm place. »
Solitaires dedicated to the worship of the Holy Sacrament
But Foucauld no longer wants to compromise. The internal pressure is too strong. It must be followed, even if it commits it to one “path not track”, as the mystic Hadewijch from Antwerp used to say. He asks to be released from his monastic vows. It is marinated for two years, in Algeria and then in Rome. Long months of waiting, very trying. His future is a cloud. It was during this period of uncertainty that he composed the famous Prayer for abandonment, whose little brother to Jesus Antoine Chatelard showed how poorly it reflected the spirituality of joyful relaxation that Charles would live later.
In 1897 he was a hermit of the poor Clares of Nazareth. Returning to the layman’s state, he tries to invent life as a “valet,” of an “Cinderella,” in this “last place,” which he has been hoping for for so long. “I really enjoy being poor”, writes the one who now calls himself “Brother Charles.” He lives in a cottage made of planks, works as a handyman, gardener – poor thing, if we are to believe Laperrine: “Vegetable water at the wrong time was shaken by the sun” …
It was during this period that he wrote his spiritual writings, knots in the devout style of the time. He still dreams of gathering a community of lonely people dedicated to the worship of the sacred sacrament around him. The rule of the Hermits in the Holy Heart, which he signed in 1899, is unspiritual. It organizes a real stronghold. The fence is impassable. None of this lower world is allowed to filter into the monastery. Profane investigations are prohibited. It is forbidden to receive newspapers. Everything is regulated in millimeters, down to the way the spices are seasoned: “We do not put fat, butter or oil in the food. » For once, Father Huvelin, who usually respects the freedom of others, comes out of his hinges: “I’m afraid of your plans. It’s not an idea to be successful.”
Also read: [Le mystère Foucauld 1/4] a childhood dressed in black
[Le mystère Foucauld 3/4] from holy to holy
[Le mystère Foucauld 4/4] the evangelical pioneer
Charles Wright lives in the Ardèche, near a monastery, where he leads a spiritual quest that he shares through his writings. His latest book, the summer grass path (Flammarion) received the award for inner freedom. For this unpublished portrait, he relied mainly on the writings of Charles de Foucauld, especially his Correspondences, his diaries of Béni Abbès and Tamanrasset, his scientific works. He also consulted the writings of major cinemas (Pierre Sourisseau, Jean-François Six, Antoine Chatelard, Maurice Serpette, etc.), mission historians (Claude Prudhomme, etc.), spiritual theology (Dominique Salin, Maria Letizia Cravetto…), from Tuareg worlds (Dominique Casajus, Paul Pandolfi, Lionel Galand).
Charles Wright will give live commentary on Charles de Foucauld’s canonization mass on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in France at 2 p.m. 10:30.