Charles de Foucauld: Monk-Missionary Part 1
In the run-up to the forthcoming canonisation of Charles de Foucauld on May 15th I was asked to write an article on his influence on missionary thinking, spirituality and practice for the Dutch language periodical Tijdschrift voor Geestelijk Leven. What follows is a two part translation into English. F.E.
Charles de Foucauld – Monk-Missionary
In the footsteps.
On the last day of our six-day walk in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld some ten years ago, we celebrated the Eucharist together in Tamanrasset, in the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart – one of more than a dozen congregations inspired by Charles de Foucauld. It was Saturday and All Saints’ Day. The gospel passage of the day—the Eight Beatitudes—came across to me as particularly appropriate to what we had been through that past week. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the peacemakers.” Mgr Claude Rault, bishop of the diocese of Laghouat or the Sahara in Algeria, was the celebrant. His diocese is one of extremes: an area of 2 million km², with a minimal number of Christians (100) in the midst of 3.5 million Muslims. In his homily, he took us on an exploration of the Eight Beatitudes to see how they can inspire us to form ties with like-minded people across the boundaries of religion and culture. So did Charles de Foucauld. He wanted to be a “universal brother.”
We had a long journey behind us. The fourteen of us, mainly French, had spent a week traveling through the southern Algerian desert on foot, about 75 kilometers from Tamarasset to Assekrem with a group of Tuareg as guides and a caravan of seventeen camels for transport! Charles de Foucauld was the inspiration. Fired by his spirituality and often also by encounters with members of congregations who are inspired by his ideas and striking personality, Little Brothers or Little Sisters, we wanted to explore the places and experience the desert where he had lived for years – from 1905 – 1916 – and worked.
Many people consider him one of the most influential spiritual personalities of the 20th century. This man of fire, consumed by an immeasurable desire for the Absolute, continues to intrigue and invite people to follow. His influence on the lives and thinking of many missionaries – directly or subcutaneously – remains considerable, even in our time. Didn’t he set himself the goal in the last years of his life in Tamanrasset to prepare for the proclamation of the gospel in the Sahara, although he did not see that happening for a few centuries? Pope Francis is clearly inspired by this “universal brother” when he speaks of mission, encounter, dialogue and brotherhood in his exhortations: The Joy of the Gospel and Fratelli Tutti.
Charles de Foucauld – monk-missionary.
The life and thought of Charles de Foucauld has taken many surprising turns, in keeping with his restless nature. His ideal of a completely hidden praying presence, as he lived it during his years as a handyman for the Poor Clares in Nazareth, took on a different meaning when, once ordained as a priest, he continued on his way in Algeria. If absolute anonymity and seclusion were central in Palestine, his ever-present ideal of (universal) brotherhood, his desire for it – in combination with a secluded hidden life – came out more clearly in the Algerian desert. The high point of his evolution in this experience was undoubtedly his ‘second conversion’ at Tamanrasset. During a long period of great drought and severe famine, he found himself seriously ill and helpless. The local Tuareg population, with whom he had little contact for years, cared so much about his fate that from afar all the emaciated goats that could still produce a little milk were gathered together to give him the little goat’s milk that he needed to save his life. Charles thus experienced, in a dramatic role change – from giver, however modest, he had become receiver – that real encounter and a relationship based on equality only became possible when he himself, vulnerable and helpless could receive from the other. Relationship requires mutuality.
He consistently rejected the designation ‘missionary’. In his view, that epithet was reserved for the White Fathers who also worked in Algeria. Towards the end of his life he described his specific mission and vocation as that of a ‘monk-missionary’, with a unique personal interpretation.
“I remain a monk, monk in a mission country, monk-missionary, but not a missionary” (letter 28 March 1908)
“God has given me the calling of a hidden life in silence, and not as a man of words.” (Letter 1903)
The main idea was a contemplative praying presence in the midst of a believers of another faith – Islam. The ideal of a hidden invisible life remained a constant throughout his life and doings. He will insist that his monumental study of Tamahaq, the language of the Tuareg in Tamanrasset, be published under the name of a deceased ethnologist-linguist friend.
Influence on missionary life and thinking.
The imminent canonization of this ardent “seeker of the Absolute” who described himself as a missionary monk invites a personal reflection on the wider influence of his radical spirituality and largely hidden missionary presence. Its heritage is echoed in the missionary thinking and practice of many missionaries for whom a servant presence, interfaith dialogue and a prayerful involvement form the core of a life among a population of other faiths, as is the case in large parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s not what you do or say that matters, but who you are.” (Abbé Huvelin, spiritual director of Charles de Foucauld).
“I am not here to convert the Tuareg, but to try to understand them […] You (Dr Dautheville) are a Protestant, Teissère is an unbeliever, the Tuareg are Muslims, I am convinced that God will receive us all if we deserve it’. (Charles de Foucauld).
On the bank of the Ganges.
The experience of a fellow missionary in Varanasi, the Hindu holy city on the banks of the Ganges, India, illustrates this ‘Foucauldian’ resonance like no other. A few years ago I had the privilege of immersing myself for a while in his missionary world and way of thinking, which has many parallels with those of Charles de Foucauld.
Frans Baartmans MHM came to Varanasi in 1979 just when India was beginning to close its doors to foreign missionaries. The General Council of the Mill Hill Missionaries considered withdrawing missionaries working in India at the time. But Frans had other ideas about this: “This is not the time to retreat. Hinduism and Buddhism are now coming to Europe. The Second Vatican Council is committed to dialogue. We need not less but more contact. I want to go to India right now and stay there for a long time. I really want to immerse myself in all that India has to offer.”
And so it was that he ended up on the banks of the Ganges. He made a thorough study of the Hindu Vedas, philosophy, spirituality and culture at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). His highly regarded doctoral thesis ‘The Sacred Waters’ is in second printing. And he went to live among the Dalits (outcastes) in the Nagwa district with a view to making a determined effort to improve the lot of this totally marginalized population.
His own spartan accommodation was no different from the surrounding stone houses that he was able to build with help from the Netherlands. The only luxury he allowed himself was a battery lamp. There was no question of any furniture. He slept on a mat on the floor. To get around, he used a simple bicycle or climbed a ‘tuktuk’ (motorized rickshaw) for longer distances. Dressed in a traditional Indian ‘pajama kurta’ (loose pants and shirt) with worn sandals on his bare feet, he blended effortlessly into the local surroundings. Unruly gray locks framed his balding upper skull and gave him the appearance of a sadhu (Hindu monk).
“I live the gospel ‘sec’”, without frills”, he told me when I asked him about what motivated and kept him going, his personal spirituality. “I try to live and put into practice what I consider to be the core of the Christian message. That is the story of the Good Samaritan.” He was a compassionate presence in this Hindu environment, in penetrating dialogue with his environment, invisible as leaven.
His loving eye and warm attention to the marginalized Dalits grew out of this vision. He would always listen patiently to anyone who asked for his attention or needed help. “If I’m cycling into town and someone stops me, I always get off and listen, even though I know in advance that the answer will be ‘no’. “Sometimes that happens fifteen or twenty times in that one and a half kilometres,” he said.
Towards the end of my visit, we celebrated the Eucharist together in his shabby home in Nagwa. When I got there, the door was still closed. I suspected he was inside in silent meditation. When he opened the door, everything appeared to be ready for the celebration. He had gone into town early in the morning to buy marigold wreaths, traditionally used in Hindu temples. This gave the place where we were going to celebrate a festive appearance. I sat down next to Frans on the mat, in a traditional prayer position. We followed a simplified Indian rite of the Eucharist. Frans began with a song of praise to the Most High sung in Hindi referring to the “hollow of the heart.”
In the hollow of the heart of every human being grows a lotus blossom. Little by little, very slowly, that blossom opens according to the degree of enlightenment of the person, until finally it is in full bloom and the person, fully enlightened, merges into the Divine.
We read the Gospel text of the Annunciation to Mary, Lk 1:26-38.
After a short break for quiet reflection and prayer, Frans shared a personal experience.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta came to Varanasi several times. I met her once. In our conversation the question came to me: “how can a man be pregnant”? She replied: “You have been pregnant for a long time with hundreds of children in the area where you live”. But I continued: “how does the Spirit come to me, how do I meet the divine”? Then she said this, “It happens to you a few times a year. Someone is sent to you, or you meet someone who puts you with both feet on the ground, with your toes in the mud, completely immersed in the misery and the turbulent reality of everyday life. Then you instinctively feel: I have to drop everything now to give this person my full attention. That is a divine visit.”
“Yes”, responded Frans, “that happens to me sometimes”. And then with a mischievous smile to Mother Teresa, “Is it happening to you too”?
We dwelt in silence for a while to let these words sink in. Then Frans sang the offering prayer and placed a wreath of flowers around the dish with a piece of chapati (pancake bread) and a cup of wine. He recited a Eucharistic prayer and, before we shared communion, spoke of how Christ was the center of his life and how everything he did came from that source. We shared the sacred gifts. And after the Lord’s Prayer, we prayed for the needs of the world.
Finally, after the celebration, Frans went out with a box of local sweets that he had placed on the mat during the Eucharist. He now handed this out to the neighbours. It is the Hindu custom of “prasad.” Hindus do this after visiting the temple where they have come face to face with the deity. It is a way of allowing those who were not present to share in the experience of meeting – a form of communion.
This personally intimate acquaintance with a missionary life in the spirit of Charles de Foucauld – a hidden inspired presence in an environment of other faiths – made a great impression on me. I never heard Frans mention a word about conversion. He was clearly a trailblazer, preparing the way.
Fons Eppink mhm