A canonized saint by definition is someone who practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace. Coming from all walks of life, they show us how any situation can be transformed by the light of the Gospel.
To honor the saints, we place them on a pedestal or enshrine them in stained glass, complete with a halo. We look up to them, and without realizing it, we often assume they must have been angels when they walked the earth. Did St. Francis of Assisi ever complain about dinner? Did Mother Teresa ever get irritated by having to wait for someone? It’s hard to think that they did.
In contrast, each one of us is aware of our daily struggles and faults. So often, it seems, we fall short of the mark so easily. The saints must have been different.
Or maybe not.
They were human beings like us, and if we look closely at their lives there is ample evidence to prove that.
Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) hasn’t been canonized yet, but he was beatified in 2005 (a step along the way). His life and spirituality are important to us at the Joseph House (you can read more about him here on our website).
On January 16, 1898, he wrote a long letter to his spiritual director, Father Huvelin. At the time, Charles was in the Holy Land, living as a simple laborer for a convent of nuns. His life had the appearance of contented peace.
Charles begins his letter by describing how he occupies his time. Everything seems ideal:
“My life goes on with great calm; in the daytime I work as long as there is light; in the morning and in the evening and during part of the night, I read and pray.”
But then Charles starts to get honest. He takes a hard look at his life, and he tells Fr. Huvelin how the outside – what people see – is not the whole story. His list of failings is precise (emphasis his).
“The essence of my confessions is this:
tepidity (badly made prayers, badly said Office, miserably poor attendance at Mass, presence of God badly kept during the day, etc);
slackness (laziness in rising…sometimes I lie down again instead of getting up at the first awakening);
greediness, gluttony (eating too much);
lack of charity (not praying enough and with sufficient fervor for my neighbor…not having sufficiently the habit of seeing Our Lord, of seeing the Christ-Child in everyone…thoughts contrary to charity, memories accompanied by severe judgments on certain persons I used to know);
pride, not a sufficiently low opinion of myself, not enough mistrust of myself; thoughts, budding aspirations of betterment;
not enough repentance for my past and present sins.
Not enough gratitude to God nor to men, these are the main points, but above all tepidity and slackness.”
Hmmm…maybe his letter is more like a mirror for the reader today. Very relatable indeed. Br. Charles was just as human as all of us.
The lesson of his confession, and of all the saints, is to put our trust in God, the One who can do everything we cannot.
And another definition of a saint is someone who never gave up.
The source of the letter is Soldier of the Spirit by Michel Carrouges (published in English in 1956, it is out of print). The illustration in the header is by René Follet and is from The Wonderful Life of Charles de Foucauld (1963), also out of print. Bottom photo by Rabanus Flavus / public domain.
Charles de Foucauld composed this prayer as he meditated on the death of Jesus on the Cross:
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:
I abandon myself into Your hands; do with me what You will. Whatever You may do, I thank You: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only Your will be done in me, and in all Your creatures— I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into Your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to You with all the love of my heart, for I love You Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into Your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for You are my Father.
Our founder, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, made this prayer central to our spirituality:
The first prayer we say every day is the Abandonment Prayer of Brother Charles, which is a very beautiful prayer in which we give ourselves totally to God.
Abandonment simply means that you give yourself completely to God in such a way that you trust Him with everything that He has in mind for you, and that each morning you just give yourself to Him completely, and you’re at ease and at rest because you know that He is going to take care of you. Maybe He’s not going to do it your way, but He’s going to do it His way, which is a lot better.
Sometimes you’re a little afraid of what is He going to want to do. You don’t always feel like you’re ready for it, but that’s what takes faith. It just takes faith. We like to make our own plans….
I can assure you there were many times when I thought that I could not go on with some of the things that I had to bear. It’s just trust. And if you can trust, God will certainly take care of this matter, but give yourself to Him. That’s what we mean by abandonment. It’s when you don’t believe, believe anyhow.
Our founder used to say, “A community is not so much a group of people living together to love Christ as it is a group of people loving Christ together.”
Being together physically to form a community is not always possible. Distance can keep people apart, not to mention their commitments and circumstances.
Now, thanks to the Internet, there is a new online community called the Companions of Jesus of Nazareth. It hopes to fill a need for those who desire a community in order to “love Christ together.”
This community is open to people from all walks of life – men and women, married, single, lay, ordained, and a variety of faith traditions. What unites them is a desire to become more like Jesus through an understanding of the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld, who is an inspiration for the ministry of the Joseph House.
The Companions of Jesus is under the leadership of Rev. Leonard Tighe, an authority on the life of Br. Charles and a long-time friend of the Little Sisters.
The website has more information. Check it out – this may be something you’ve been looking for:
It is ironic that in our age of instant electronic communication many people feel isolated. The Companions of Jesus is using that technology to bring people together, all the while each person is living his or her own “Nazareth,” the particular place where God has planted them.
A sense of belonging is such a help to our spiritual growth. Jean Vanier, a pioneer in the healing power of communities, said it well:
We have been drawn together by God to be a sign of the Resurrection and a sign of unity in this world where there is so much division and inner and outer death. We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life. That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible: changing death to life inside of each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.
Our founder Sr. Mary Elizabeth was inspired by Br. Charles de Foucauld, who wrote: Let us preach the Gospel in silence and with words….
It is the responsibility of all to preach in silence.
As for preaching with words, some should do it more than others,
but there are very few who should not do it at all.
This is according to each one’s vocation.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling made preaching the Gospel her life’s work.
What made it natural for her was that she let the Gospel shape every aspect of her life. She could not not preach the Gospel by the way she lived. Anything she might possibly call her own she gave back to God. He had access to everything.
Sister exemplified the observation of St. Vincent de Paul: “If God is the center of your life, no words are necessary. Your mere presence will touch hearts.”
She had a few big moments in her life, but like everyone else her days were filled with little ones. She did the same things, with the same people, day in and day out. She “preached” a lot in those moments, giving witness to the love and mercy of God by being loving and merciful herself. Br. Charles said his goal was to have people look at him and say, “If that is the servant, imagine what the Master must be like!” Sister took that approach, too.
For personal reflection: What am I preaching by the way I live my life? I might be the only sermon someone else hears today.
During a retreat he made in 1902, Charles de Foucauld wrote down his resolutions for more closely imitating Jesus. He understood that we are what we do. The desires of the heart can become just fantasy if they are not grounded in the reality of our behavior.
Charles was driven to imitate the humility of Jesus with great zeal. His example inspires our ministry at the Joseph House, but it is just as important for our day-to-day living. Each day, each one of us will find opportunities to love others as Jesus loves them. Through gentle acts of service our love becomes manifest.
The “Fraternity” that Charles refers to in the excerpt below was his name for his hermitage in Beni Abbes, a village in the desert region of western Algeria. He welcomed everyone to his abode as a “universal brother.”
In the “Fraternity” I must always be humble, gentle and ready to serve as were Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the holy house at Nazareth. To serve others, I need gentleness, humility, abjection and charity.
I must wash the linen of the poor (especially on Maundy Thursday) and regularly clean their rooms, doing as much as possible myself. As far as possible, I myself and no one else must do the lowest work of the house, keeping the parts occupied by the native population clean, taking every service on myself, to be like Jesus who lived among his apostles as “one who serves.”
We must be very gentle towards the poor and everyone else, for this too is humility. When I can do so, I must cook for the poor, and carry food and drink to them, not leaving that service to others.
In every sick person I should see, not a human being, but Jesus, and so should show him respect, love, compassion, joy and gratitude at being able to serve him – zeal and gentleness. I should serve the sick as I do the poor, making myself do the lowliest services for them all, as Jesus washed the apostles’ feet.
During his years spent in the Sahara Desert, Charles de Foucuald (1858-1916) was a solitary European and Christian presence among the indigenous Tuaregs of the region. Wanting to know them better, Charles learned their stories and poetry and worked on a French-Tuareg dictionary. He drew detailed pictures of everyday Tuareg life, from musical instruments to hair braids. He wanted to know the soul of the people. He wanted to be their brother.
Rene Voillaume, founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, said that Charles joined “his total dedication to the welfare of the Tuaregs [with] an attentive, realistic charity and a very strong sense of justice.” Loving the Tuaregs was Charles’ school for loving God.
The Tuaregs, these nomadic tribes with their distinctive blue robes, remain a mystery to many people today. Below is an interview with a modern day Tuareg living in France. Moussa Ag Assarid was born in northern Mali around 1975. The desire for additional education led him to France in 1999. He has worked as a journalist, actor, tour guide, and writer. Moussa wrote an autobiographical account of his journeys in a book, There are No Traffic Jams in the Desert: Chronicles of a Tuareg in France.
Moussa was interviewed in 2011 by Victor M. Amelain for ARIEL Magazine (the link to the original article is below). This candid conversation gives insight into the world-view of a people who were important in the life of Charles, the spiritual father of the Joseph House and the Little Sisters.
An interview with Moussa Ag Assarid:
I don’t know my age. I was born in the Sahara desert, with no papers! I was born in a nomadic camp of Tuaregs, between Timbuktu and Gao, in the north of Mali. I have been a shepherd of camels, goats, sheep and cows for my father. Today I study Management in the University of Montpellier. I am a bachelor. I serve as an advocate for the Tuareg shepherds.
What a beautiful headdress!
It is a fine cotton fabric: it allows me to cover my face in the desert when the wind blows sand, and allows me to continue to see and to breathe through it.
It is a beautiful blue color.
We Tuaregs have long been called “the blue men” because of this color. Interestingly the fabric loses the color and transfers some of the blue ink onto our skin.
How do you get this intense blue?
From a plant called indigo, mixed with other natural pigments. The blue, for the Tuaregs, is the color of the world.
It’s the dominant color, of the sky, the roof of our home
Who are the Tuareg?
Tuareg means ‘abandoned’, because we are an old nomadic tribe of the desert. We are lonely and proud: masters of the desert, they call us. Our ethnic group is Amazigh (or Berber), and our alphabet is the Tifinagh.
How many are there of you?
Approximately three million, the majority still are nomadic. But the population is decreasing. A wise man said it is necessary for a tribe to disappear to realize they existed. I am working to preserve this tribe.
What do they do for a living?
We shepherd camels, goats, sheep, cows and donkeys in an infinite kingdom of silence.
Is the desert really so silent?
If you are on your own in that silence you hear your heart beat. There is no better place to meet yourself.
What memories do you have of your childhood in the desert?
I wake up with the sun. The goats of my father are there. They give us milk and meat, and we take them were there is water and grass. My great-grandfather did it, and my grandfather, and my father, and me. There was nothing else in the world than that, and I was very happy!
Really? It doesn’t sound very exciting.
It is. At the age of seven you can go alone away from the compound, and for this you are taught the important things—to smell the air, to listen, to see, to orient with the sun and the stars…and to be guided by the camel if you get lost. He will take you where there is water.
This sounds like valuable knowledge, no doubt.
Everything is simple and profound there. There are very few things, and each one has enormous value.
So that world and this one are very different.
There, every little thing gives happiness. Every touch is valuable. We feel great joy just by touching each other, being together. There, nobody dreams of becoming, because everybody already is.
What shocked you most on your first trip to Europe?
I saw people running in the airport. In the desert you only run if a sandstorm is approaching! It scared me, of course.
They were going after their baggage.
Yes, that was it. I also saw signs with naked women. Why this lack of respect for the woman? I wondered. Then at the hotel I saw the first faucet of my life: I saw the water run and wanted to cry.
Because of the waste, the abundance?
Every day of my life had been involved in seeking water. When I see the ornamental fountains here and there, I still feel an intense pain.
In the early 90s there was a big drought, animals died, and we became sick. I was about twelve years old and my mother died. She was everything to me! She used to tell me stories and taught me to tell stories. She taught me to be myself.
What happened to your family?
I persuaded my father to let me go to school. Every day I walked fifteen kilometers, until one teacher gave me a bed to sleep in and a woman gave me food when I walked by her house. I then understood what was happening; my mother was helping me.
Where did you get interested in school?
A few years before the Paris-Dakar motor rally came through the compound and a journalist dropped a book from her backpack. I picked it up and gave it to her. She gave it to me and talked to me about that book: “The Little Prince.” I promised myself that I would be able to read it one day.
And you did.
Yes, and because of that I won a scholarship to study in France.
A Tuareg going to college!
Ah, what I most miss here is the camel milk. And the wood fires. And walking barefoot on the warm sand. And the stars. We watched them every night, every star is different, just as every goat is different. Here, in the evenings, you watch TV.
That is true. What do you dislike the most here?
You have everything, and it is still not enough for you. You complain. In France people complain all the time! You chain yourself to a bank; everyone is anxious to have things, to have possessions. Everyone is in a rush. In the desert there are no traffic jams, and do you know why? Because there nobody is interested in getting ahead of other people.
Tell me about a moment of deep happiness for you in the desert.
It happens every day, two hours before sunset. The heat decreases, there is still no cold air, and men and animals slowly return to the compound, and their profiles are painted against a sky that is pink, blue, red, yellow, green.
That sounds fascinating.
It’s a magical moment. We all get into the tents and we boil tea. Sitting in silence we listen to the sound of the boiling water. We are immersed in calmness, with our the heart beating to the rhythm of the boiling water, potta potta potta……
Yes…here you have watches; there, we have time.
By Timm Guenther (Timm Busshaus) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
BR. CHARLES AND OUKSEM AG CHIKKAT
Archives of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary
By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles de Foucauld, the French priest of the Sahara Desert, spent his last day within the walls of his fortified hermitage in Tamanrasset, 4,600 feet above sea level in the Hoggar Mountains of southern Algeria.
Toward evening he heard three knocks on the door. Charles opened it expecting a delivery of mail, but instead bandits roughly dragged him outside. They tied his hands behind his back and forced him to kneel. His home, his sanctuary of prayer, was ransacked.
The approach of two Arab soldiers on camelback interrupted the thievery. The young man who was guarding Charles panicked. He pulled the trigger of his rifle and shot Charles in the head. Charles made no sound. He slowly crumpled to the sandy earth and died. The date was December 1, 1916.
Although he is not widely known, the life of Charles de Foucauld has influenced people around the world, including Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, the founder of the Joseph House and the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
Preparations to mark the 100th anniversary of his death have already begun. A series of events are planned for the coming year, the first of which, the official opening of the centenary year, already took place on October 31 in Nazareth. Organizers picked this day because Charles’ conversion occurred in late October of 1886.
Journalist Giorgio Bernadelli, who writes about Church affairs for the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, explains the significance of Nazareth:
The choice of Nazareth as the hub for the centenary celebrations is obviously not coincidental: it was here that de Foucauld experienced a fundamental turning point in his spiritual journey, living as a hermit in the Poor Clares convent from 1897 to 1900. He developed his ideal of following Jesus in his ‘hidden life’ too, fraternally sharing the life of those who lived in what today we would call the peripheries of the world, as the little village of Galilee – which became the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation – must have been two thousand years ago.
And so, in Nazareth this evening, there will be music and a series of readings from the diary of Charles de Foucauld, with accounts of the three years he spent in the city of the Annunciation. The Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, Mgr. Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo will be present at this evening’s event being held in the Holy Family School operated by the Don Guanella religious institute. (1)
Msgr. Marcuzzo offered his reflections on the spiritual activities that opened the centenary year:
This evening we prayed for peace, reconciliation and brotherhood in Nazareth. We prayed in our villages and in our cities; and we asked God to help us practice more the teachings from the Bible as well as the writings of Charles de Foucauld: we want to experience universal brotherhood for a better life, because we are all brothers, sons of God.
Let’s then pray and ask for his intercession in order to obtain healing, especially healing from indifference to men or indifference to miracles. We are weak in the practice of our faith and of the Gospel. We must take the Gospel more seriously, just as the Blessed Charles de Foucauld used to say, and we have to live the word of God in the most profound way. (2)
This year of the commemoration of the death of Charles de Foucauld presents an opportunity to study his life and devise ways to bring its fruitfulness into the world today. “It encourages us to make a renewed effort to change our life in order to follow Jesus more faithfully in living the Gospel and to ‘turn religion into love’ in very concrete ways, each in our own Nazareth and according to our circumstances.” (3)
Charles abandoned his life into the hands of God. He sought the lowest place, and gave humble, loving service to the poor and marginalized. His home in the desert became known as a place of brotherhood, a “fraternity,” where everyone – whether rich or poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist – was welcome.
His witness has only become more relevant as time goes on.
Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is celebrated on the Friday following the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ), which is the second Sunday after Pentecost. Both of these feast days are solemnities (celebrations of the highest degree).
Article 478 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the meaning of the Sacred Heart in this way:
Jesus knew and loved us each and all during His life, His agony, and His Passion and gave Himself up for each one of us: “The Son of God… loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) He has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, (Cf. Jn 19:34) “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that… love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception. (Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, 1956)
Brother Charles had great devotion for the Sacred Heart. After arriving in Béni Abbès, Algeria in 1901, he built a hermitage and chapel. Behind the altar he placed an image of the Sacred Heart, an image he painted himself. It is pictured above.
A few years prior to this, while living in Nazareth, Brother Charles wrote several spiritual meditations in his journal. He composed this act of confidence in the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
When I think of the infinite graces You have heaped on me and the unworthiness of my present life, You forbid me to say to myself, “I have gone too far in misusing my graces; I ought to be a saint, but I am a sinner; I cannot correct myself, it is too difficult; I am nothing but wretchedness and pride; after everything God has done, there is still no good in me; I shall never go to heaven.”
In spite of everything, You want me to hope, to hope always that I shall receive enough grace to be converted and attain glory.
What is there in common between heaven and me — between its perfection and my wretchedness? There is Your Heart, O Lord Jesus. It forms a link between these two so dissimilar things.
There is the love of the Father who so loved the world He gave His only Son. I must always hope, because You have commanded me to, and because I must always believe both in Your love, the love You have so firmly promised, and in Your power.
Yes indeed, remembering what You have done for me, I must always have such confidence in Your love that, however ungrateful and unworthy I may seem to myself to be, I can still have hope in it, still count on it, still remain convinced that You are ready to accept me as the father accepted the prodigal son — and even more ready — and still remain convinced too that You will not stop calling me to Your feet, inviting me to come to them and giving me the means to do so.
Br. Charles desired to imitate the hidden life of Jesus, the life of Jesus at Nazareth. In a journal entry dated May 17, 1906, he listed 14 resolutions that reveal his understanding of this life:
1. I must remember to what kind of life it is I have been called: the imitation of Jesus at Nazareth; the adoration of the sacred Host exposed; the silent sanctification of unbelieving peoples by carrying Jesus among them; adoring Him and imitating His hidden life.
2. I must remember always to imitate Jesus in His life at Nazareth.
3. I must remember penance, the narrow way, Jesus’ cross at Nazareth.
4. I must remember Jesus’ poverty at Nazareth.
5. I must remember the lowliness and humble manual labor of Jesus at Nazareth.
6. I must remember the withdrawal, the silence of Jesus at Nazareth.
7. I must remember Jesus’ distance from the world and the things of the world at Nazareth.
8. I must remember Jesus’ life of spiritual communion, adoration, interior prayer, petition and vigils at Nazareth.
9. I must remember to have a zeal for souls, seeking to bring them together around the Sacred Victim in these lands of unbelievers, to build up a small family in imitation of Jesus’ life at Nazareth.
10. I must remember to show zeal for souls in charity, goodness and well-doing towards all human beings, like Jesus at Nazareth.
11. I must remember to show zeal for souls by gentleness, humility and forgiveness of injuries, the quiet acceptance of ill-treatment, like Jesus at Nazareth.
12. I must remember to show zeal for souls by giving a good example, like Jesus at Nazareth.
13. I must remember to show zeal for souls by prayer, penance and personal sanctification, like Jesus at Nazareth.
14. I must remember to let the Heart of Jesus live in my heart, so that it may be no longer I who live, but the Heart of Jesus living in me, as it lived in Nazareth.
The image is from a bas-relief located in a chapel in honor of Br. Charles at the Abbey Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows). In 1890, Br. Charles entered this Cistercian monastery in France and was a monk for several years. The chapel was built in 2006 and houses his relics.
Msgr. Thomas Craven, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was known to some of us at the Joseph House. When he died in 2004, he was buried in a handmade wooden casket. As per his wishes, a Latin phrased was inscribed on the casket lid: Ave Crux Spes Unica. In translation, “Hail the Cross, our only hope.”
How can we begin to make sense of this phrase?
Charles de Foucauld meditated frequently on the cross. In a letter to his sister, he wrote:
“Through the cross we are united to Him, who was nailed on it, our heavenly spouse. Every instant of our lives must be accepted as a favor, with all that it brings of happiness and suffering. But we must accept the cross with more gratitude than anything else. Our crosses detach us from earth and therefore draw us closer to God.”
The cross has meaning only in its relationship to Jesus. It is a mystery of faith, but to share in the cross is to share in the love of Jesus, who is our hope — for this life and the one to come.
Holy Week is a special time to consider the cross, the one that Jesus carried and the one fashioned for each one of us.