Thursday, December 1, 2016

From playboy to ascetic

Charles de Foucauld, a wealthy playboy who turned to god and then became a monk living like a hermit among the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert, died a century ago today. According to his biographer, René Bazin, he was killed by Arab raiders, the very people for whom ‘he had toiled so hard with body and mind.’ Bazin’s biography relies heavily on diaries kept by Foucauld, right up the weeks before his death, and includes many verbatim extracts.

Charles de Foucauld was born into an aristocratic family in 1858 in Strasbourg, France. He was orphaned as a child and raised by his maternal grandfather, and was destined to inherit the family wealth. He studied at Saint-Cyr Military Academy and Cavalry School of Saumur before joining, in 1880, the 4th Hussars as Sous-Lieutenant and being posted to Algeria. However, his wealth and position had led him to become an amoral young man, living a riotous life. He was also an indisciplined soldier which led him to being censured by his military superiors.

Foucauld was much affected by his experiences of the Sahara Desert, and, after leaving the army in 1882, he set about exploring Morocco disguised as a rabbi. On returning to Paris, he wrote up his travels, with drawings, and the resulting book, Reconnaissance au Maroc, inspired Societé Française de Géographie to award him a gold medal. Subsequently, he became increasingly interested in religion. He undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and, in 1886, converted to Catholicism. A few years later, he joined the Cistercian Trappist order as a monk, first in France and then at Akbès on the Syrian-Turkish border.

But still Foucauld had not found fulfilment. In 1897, he left the monastery to work as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901, he returned to France, was ordained a priest, and travelled to Béni Abbès, Algeria, near the border with Morocco, intending to found a monastic religious community that offered hospitality to all faiths as well as those with no faith. But he did not manage to attract any adherents, and he came to live a quiet, hermetic life with monastic routines. By the middle of the 1890s, he had moved further away from the French presence, into the mountains in southern Algeria to be with the Tuareg people, in Tamanrasset, where he built a small hermitage. For the next ten years or so he shared the life and hardships of the Tuareg, studying their culture and traditions, and writing a lengthy dictionary of their language (posthumously published in four volumes). He returned to France a couple of times, hoping, but failing, to recruit companions for his hermitage.

With the outbreak of WWI, Germany’s ally Turkey promoted attacks on French outposts in Africa, causing tension in Algeria and Morocco. Foucauld with Tuareg help built a fort to protect the surrounding population; it also served the French military as a stockpile for the arms and ammunition of their local allies. But, in one raid, Foucauld was taken hostage by stranger Arabs, apparently intent on holding him for ransom, but he was shot and died on 1 December 1916. The Hermitary concludes: ‘Charles de Foucauld is a complex historical figure within Catholicism, history, and eremitism. That is to say, he is uniquely modern, and his life was an unconscious striving to attain an ecumenical eremitism, a universal eremitism.’ While, Franciscan Media concludes: ‘The life of Charles de Foucauld was eventually centered on God and was animated by prayer and humble service, which he hoped would draw Muslims to Christ. Those who are inspired by his example, no matter where they live, seek to live their faith humbly yet with deep religious conviction.’ Further information is also available from Wikipedia, Jesus Caritas (biography, video), and Ignatius Insight.

Foucauld’s Reconnaissance au Maroc is largely based on diaries he kept while travelling around the country. This was used much later by Foucault’s friend, René Bazin, along with other diaries, for a biography Foucauld. The biography was subsequently translated into English by Peter Keelan and published as Charles de Foucauld: Hermit and Explorer (Benziger Brothers, 1923). This is freely available at Internet Archive. All the following extracts from Foucauld’s diary are taken from Bazin’s biography; and, after the last extract (16 November 1916) below, I have also included Bazin’s account of Foucauld’s death.

16-17 June 1883
‘In vain do we try to find a way of entering into the Rif: many of the Jews whom we consulted declare that one can only enter by Nemours with the protection of a certain Moroccan sheikh who will perhaps come here in a fortnight or a month, perhaps later; and even this means would be uncertain; they add that it is as difficult in starting from here to cross the Rif as it is easy in setting out from Tetuan, where men of influence can give efficacious recommendations. I do not wish to wait a fortnight or month at Nemours; much better reach Tetuan by sea and begin my journey from there.’

18 June 1883
‘A steamer appears in the roadstead. It is going to Tangier via Gibraltar. I embark on it with Mardochee. Being Jews, we take the lowest class and cross on deck in the company of Israelites and Musulmans. Start at 9 a.m.: pretty bad weather.’

19 June 1883
‘Wake up in the roadstead of Gibraltar. The packet-boat will lie at anchor all day. I land and visit the town; Mardochée remains on board. A young Jew of eighteen who knows Spanish accompanies me; as for me, I know nothing but Arabic. My excursion has a practical aim. On board, the water we are given is filthy; took a large iron pot and brought it back full of water. I walk about for five hours in Gibraltar, pot in hand; I push on to a Spanish village under a mile from the town. Cross the frontier and note the English and Spanish sentinels mount guard only 60 yards apart, the former as well as the latter badly dressed.’

20 June 1883
‘Left Gibraltar at midday; arrived at Tangier at 2.45.’

8 May 1914
‘Began to make a fair copy of the whole Tuareg-French dictionary.’

31 July 1914
‘This evening reached page 385 of the dictionary.’

31 August 1914
‘Reached page 550.’

3 September 1914
‘Express to hand from Fort Motylinski, telling me that Germany has declared war on France, invaded Belgium, attacked Liege. M. de La Roche (commander of the station) starts on the 4th or 5th for Adrar, with all his band. He orders Afegzag to muster a gum, and Musa to come with at least twenty men, into Ahaggar.’

Saw Afegzag; he orders 10 Dag-Rali, 10 Iklam, 10 Aguh-n-Tabli, 10 Ait-Lohen, 10 Kel-Tazulet, to muster immediately; personally, he sets out this evening for Motylinski, where he will be to-morrow morning.’

9 September 1914
‘Received 1,500 cartridges of 1874 for Musa.’

11 September 1914
‘Noon post to hand. Captain de Saint-Léger orders M. de La Roche to remain at Ahaggar with his whole force. I forward the order by express. Bad news; we are retreating all along the frontier, before superior forces. We cannot help Belgium. The Germans occupy Brussels.’

24 September 1914

‘Received news on September 11 from In-Salah and on 3rd from Paris. Always falling back; Government sits at Bordeaux.’

30 September 1914
‘This evening page 700 of the dictionary.’

21 October 1914
‘This is the war for Europe’s independence of Germany. And the way in which the war is carried on shows how necessary it was, how great was Germany’s power, and how it was time to break the yoke before she became still more formidable; it shows by what barbarians Europe was half enslaved, and near becoming completely so, and how necessary it is once for all to deprive of force a nation which uses it so badly and in such an immoral and dangerous way for others. It is Germany and Austria that wanted war, and it is they who deserved to have it made against them, and who, I hope, will receive a blow that will make them unable to do any harm for centuries.’

7 December 1914
‘The Tripoli disturbance has not crossed the frontier. We cannot thank God enough for the numberless favours that He has bestowed on the eldest daughter of His Church; not the least is the fidelity of our colonies. . . .

The confidence of the Tuaregs in me keeps on increasing. The work of the slow preparation for the Gospel is pursued. May the Almighty soon make the hour strike for you to send workers into this part of your field. . . .’

20 February 1915
‘The south of Tripoli is disturbed; Saint-Léger and 200 or 300 soldiers are on the frontier, to prevent bands in revolt against the Italians from breaking into our territory. Only one French adjutant and six or seven native soldiers remain at Fort Motylinski. This adjutant is a capital fellow. We often write to each other, but we rarely see one another; being alone, he cannot leave his post, and I, having a great deal to do, cannot move from here without serious reason. I have not been to Fort Motylinski for two years.’

12 March 1915

‘Like you, I hope that from the great evil of this war will go forth a great blessing to souls - a blessing in France, where the sight of death will inspire serious thoughts, and where the accomplishment of duty in the greatest sacrifices will uplift souls and purify them, bringing them nearer to Him who is the uncreated good, and make them more fit to see the truth and stronger to live in conformity with it; - a blessing to our Allies, who in coming nearer to us come nearer to Catholicism, and whose souls, like ours, are purified by sacrifice - a blessing to our infidel subjects, who, fighting in crowds on our soil, learn to know us and get nearer to us, and whose loyal devotion will stir up the French to work for them more than in the past, and govern them better than in the past.’

15 April 1915
‘Saint-Léger leaves In-Salah, and takes command of another Saharan company, that of Twat. . . . He is replaced by another friend, also very much liked, Captain Duclos, whom I knew there as lieutenant, an officer of great worth and fine character. . . . I constantly see Uksem. Marie asks me if he knits: he knits wonderfully, and all the young people in his encampment and village have begun to knit and crochet under his directions; knitted socks, and crocheted vests and caps. That took a long time, but since his return, thanks to one of his sisters-in-law who set about it with a great deal of good-will, it started, and everybody is beginning it.’

2 August 1915
‘A young negro who knows Ghardaia, the Fathers and Sisters, told me a few days ago: “When the Sisters come here I shall put my wife with them, so that she may learn to weave, and I shall ask to be their gardener.” . . . The time is near when the Sisters will be received by the natives with great gratitude, above all by the settled cultivators. . . . Will God arrange things in such a way as to bring the White Fathers and the White Sisters here?’

7 September 1915
‘To-morrow will be the feast of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin, ten years since my Tamanrasset hermitage was built and I have said Mass in it. I owe much thanksgiving to God for al the graces He has bestowed on me here.’

16 November 1916
‘How good God is to hide the future from us! What a torture life would be were it less unknown to us! and how good He is to make so clearly known to us the heaven thereafter which will follow our earthly time of trial!’

Bazin comments: ‘The writer of these lines had only two weeks to live. He did not know it, but he was ready to receive death any day form the hands of those for whom he had so much prayed, walking so far over the sand and pebbles, suffering o severely from thirst and hear, working so many days and nights, in so much solitude, and for whom, in short, he had toiled so hard with body and mind.’

Further, Bazin sets down the facts about Foucauld’s death from the combined evidence of Paul, a negro servant, and that of another harratin, as they were recorded in two official reports:

‘On December 1, after having served the marabout’s dinner, I went to my zariba, about five hundred yards from there. It was about 7 o’clock, and dark. A short time afterwards, when I had myself finished my meal, two armed Tuaregs sprang into the zariba and said to me: ‘Are you Paul, the marabout’s servant? Why do you hide? Come and see with your own eyes what is happening: follow us! ‘I replied that I was not hiding, and that what was happening was God’s will.

On arriving near the marabout’s house, I perceived the latter seated, his back to the wall, on the right of the door, his hands bound behind his back, looking straight in front of him. We did not exchange a single word. I crouched down as ordered, on the left of the door. Numerous Tuaregs surrounded the marabout; they were speaking and gesticulating, congratulating and blessing the hartani El Madani, who had drawn the marabout into the trap, foretelling a life of delights for him in the other world as a reward for his work. Some other Tuaregs were in the house, going in and coming out, carrying various things found in the interior - rifles, munitions, stores, chegga (cloth), etc. Those who surrounded the marabout pressed him with the following questions: ‘When does the convoy come? Where is it? What is it bringing? Are there any soldiers in the bled? Where are they? Have they set out? Where are the Motylinski soldiers?’ The marabout remained impassible, he did not utter a word. The same questions were then put to me, as well as to another hartani, who was passing in the wady and caught in the meantime.

The whole did not last half an hour. The house was surrounded by sentinels. At this moment one of the sentinels gave the alarm, shouting: ‘Here are the Arabs! Here are the Arabs (the soldiers of Motylinski).’ At these cries, the Tuaregs, with the exception of three, two of whom remained in front of me and the other standing on guard near the marabout, went towards the place whence the cries came. A lively fusillade broke out. The Tuareg who was near the marabout brought the muzzle of his rifle close to the head of the latter and fired. The marabout neither moved nor cried. I did not think he was wounded: it was only a few minutes afterwards that I saw the blood flow, and that the marabout’s body slipped slowly down upon its side. He was dead.’

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