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The Hidden Life of St. Charles of Jesus

By Mac Stewart

At the end of his October 2020 Encyclical on “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis referred to a figure (besides St. Francis) who had inspired the preceding pages by his intense aspiration to become a brother to all people. Charles de Foucauld, Pope Francis said, “directed his ideal of total surrender to God towards an identification with the poor, abandoned in the depths of the African desert. In that setting, he expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being,” to be, in the end, “the universal brother” (Fratelli tutti, no. 287). Blessed Charles has since been made Saint Charles by the Holy Father (in May of this year), and his witness is not only to the generous fraternity of which the world is always in desperate need, but also to the hidden life of work and prayer that is the ordinary path to sanctification.

Foucauld’s life resembles a fairly typical path of the large-hearted saints of Christian history — insofar as there is any such “type.” Born in France in 1858, he was a passionate, strong-willed, and talented man from his youth, who never did things by halves, pouring himself completely into something or not at all. He was a lavish spendthrift who came from a wealthy family and lived the good, refined life of luxury. His natural talent and hospitable gregariousness made him many friends in his early military service, even as his boredom with his duties led him into countless disobediences which eventually resulted in his expulsion from the army. But, upon learning that his old regiment had been sent into dangerously hostile circumstances in Algeria, he was immediately moved by the thought of not fighting side by side with his comrades, and begged to re-enlist. He proved to be a capable, savvy, and courageous leader in battle, and was meanwhile so impressed by North Africa that several years later he would return as an adventurer-explorer, penetrating under the disguise of a wandering rabbi into parts of Morocco barely ever seen by Europeans.

Charles gave himself fully to the world, but didn’t find in it anything big enough for the infinity of his desire, and after over a decade away from the Catholic faith in which his family reared him, found himself in a confessional asking the priest for instruction in religion. He did not believe, he told the priest, but wanted to learn more. The way to faith was obstructed for him, he said, by the mysteries, dogmas, and miracles. “You are mistaken, my son. What is missing now, in order for you to believe, is a pure heart. Go down on your knees, make your confession to God, and you will believe.” “But I have not come for that!” “That does not matter. Go down on your knees and say the Confiteor.”[1] Charles did as he was told, and after unburdening himself of a decade’s worth of profligacy, he arose with an indescribable peace that filled his soul to its core. The priest asked if Charles had eaten anything, and when Charles said he had not, the priest sent him immediately to receive communion.

He later described this moment when faith began to be rekindled in his heart: “As soon as I came to believe there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than live only for him.”[2] After a few years under the guidance of this same priest, who would remain his spiritual director for years, Foucauld joined the Trappists, first in France, then in Syria. He quickly found himself yearning for a deeper identification with the total poverty of Christ than even the Trappists lived, and with the blessing of his superiors, left the order before his final vows to serve as a humble janitor for some Poor Clares in Nazareth. The home of our Lord in his childhood and youth held, for Brother Charles, the whole mystery of his vocation: to pray and to work in poverty and obscurity in union with the hidden life of Jesus, prior to his public ministry, when, for 30 years, he united himself with the daily struggles and labors of peasants and paupers the world over.

Charles did not remain in Nazareth. After long resistance, due both to his desire for obscurity and to his sense of unworthiness for the office, he accepted the urgings of various spiritual superiors — including the Mother-Superior of the Poor Clares whom he had served — and received ordination to the priesthood back in France. It became clear to him, meanwhile, that the Lord had long been preparing him to return to North Africa. He wanted to meet again and to serve the kinds of people in the desolate regions of the Sahara who had treated him with such kindness and hospitality in his youthful adventure as an explorer – hospitality which had often saved him from robbery or death. Above all, he wanted to bring them Christ — not, however, as a preacher, but as a humble laborer living the hidden life of Nazareth. He would provide the sacraments for Catholics in the area — mostly French soldiers — and his primary work of evangelization would simply be to pray, to work with his own hands, and to offer the fruits of his labor in generous hospitality to the many poor who would live around his humble hermitage in the Algerian desert. He would not, as when he had explored Morocco, make any secret of his identity. His garb would be exactly that of the people of the desert, but with two clear distinctives: rosary beads hanging from his belt, and a red cross crowning a red heart — the Sacred Heart of Jesus — emblazoned on the front of his shirt.

Some of Charles’s most beautiful writings come from his time in Nazareth, in which he articulated in his letters and journals the spirituality that would define his life. In one meditation on the hidden life of Jesus — that is, the 30 years of obscurity he spent prior to his public ministry — Charles writes in the voice of Christ,

What was the meaning of that part of my life? I led it for your instruction. I instructed you continually for thirty years, not in words, but by my silence and example. What was it I was teaching you? I was teaching you primarily that it is possible to do good to men – great good, infinite good, divine good – without using words, without preaching, without fuss, but by silence and by giving them a good example. What kind of example? The example of devotion, of duty towards God lovingly fulfilled, and goodness towards all men, loving kindness to those about one and domestic duties fulfilled in holiness. The example of poverty, lowliness, recollection, withdrawal: the obscurity of a life hidden in God, a life of prayer, penance and withdrawal, completely lost in God, buried deep in him. I was teaching you to live by the labor of your own hands, so as to be a burden on no one and to have something to give to the poor. And I was giving this way of life an incomparable beauty – the beauty of being a copy of mine.[3]

Charles lived this life as fully as it is possible to live it, precisely by emptying himself of all self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-absorption, and allowing the God who is all and in all to take total possession of his entire soul. The soul manifest in his writings resembles that of all the mystics who have abandoned themselves fully to the infinite love of God, his sure and certain promises, and his marvelous if mysterious providence. Charles of Jesus showed that total abandonment above all in the way he died. Despite the immense reverence and affection his neighbors in the Algerian desert had developed for him over his decade and a half in their midst, he found himself in the crossfire of war, and became the object of an assassination plot. On December 1, 1916, several soldiers pulled him out of his hut, tied him up, and after his assailants left him in silence for a time as they attended to a potentially hostile interruption, his guard panicked, and shot him in the head. He died immediately. It is not hard to imagine, though, what was passing through Saint Charles’s mind and heart in those last moments of silence when he knew he was going to die, a lamb led to the slaughter like the Master to whom he had conformed his whole existence. Nearly two decades earlier, while still in Nazareth, he had written the following meditation on the words of Jesus from the cross, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”:

This was the last prayer of our Master, our Beloved. May it also be ours. And may it be not only that of our last moment, but also of our every moment. ‘Father, I put myself in your hands; Father, I abandon myself to you, I entrust myself to you. Father, do with me as it pleases you. Whatever you do with me, I will thank you for it. Giving thanks for anything, I am ready for anything, I accept anything, give thanks for anything. As long as your will, my God, is done in me, as long as your will is done in all your creatures, in all your children, in all those your heart loves, I ask for nothing else, O God. I put my soul into your hands. I give it to you, O God, with all the love of my heart, because I love you, and because my love requires me to give myself. I put myself unreservedly in your hands. I put myself in your hands with infinite confidence, because you are my Father.[4]

Not many of us will live or die in such a dramatically Christian way as Saint Charles of Jesus. But all of us have our daily duties, our daily labors, the work that is hidden and obscure, done with no audience and no fanfare. St. Charles will pray for us to offer up that work in the spirit of Nazareth, commending our labors and their fruits to the honor and praise of our Maker, done with such love and devotion as though he, our Lover and our Beloved, were the only one looking. Because, in the end, the gaze of our Bridegroom upon us is the only gaze that really matters, to whom — no matter how hidden or obscure our lives may seem — “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”

[1] This account is found in several of the biographies, taken from Charles’s own letters where he recounts the event years later. See, e.g., Jean-Jacques Antier, Charles de Foucauld, trans. Julia Shirek Smith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 100.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld, ed. Jean-François Six, trans. J. Holland Smith (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1964), 82-83.

[4] Ibid., 95-96.



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