Thursday, December 1, 2016

One Hundred Years Ago: A Single Shot in the Desert

December 1, 1916 was to all appearances not a particularly eventful day in the history of World War I. On the Western Front, the battle of the Somme was over and England was in the midst of forming a new government in Parliament. The slaughter at Verdun was nearly exhausted at last. On the Eastern Front, the Russians and the Germans fought on, while the Habsburg Federation was less than two weeks into the reign of Karl I, last of the Emperors and the only ruler in Europe actively dedicated to seeking peace.

The desert sands of what was then called "French West Africa" were mostly quiet. French troops were needed elsewhere, and had moved back from the more remote outposts of the Sahara, which were left for a time at the mercy of tribal militias, partisans, and bandits. At a ramshackle fort in Tamanrasset in Algeria, the only Frenchman remaining was an old half-crazy hermit.

His name was Charles de Foucauld.

On this strange day, one hundred years ago, bandits raided the fort where Charles was watching over the food supply of the Taureg people and their black African slaves. The bandits tried to capture the defenseless Frenchman, but in the course of their own confusion one of them decided simply to shoot him in the head.

There was scarcely a place in the European-dominated "world" more remote than Tamanrasset, more seemingly insignificant for the emerging era with its turmoil and its new kinds of power that were destined to be the engines of genocidal wars, totalitarian police states, and unimaginable riches.

But in fact, in the blood-soaked sand of this forgotten place, the man who called himself the "universal brother" fell into the earth like a grain of wheat on December 1, 1916.

His ten years among the Taureg came to an end: ten years of unconditional love and service to people on the margins of the world, with no program other than sharing their lives and being their little brother. It was enough that they were human, and that Jesus had identified Himself with them. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

A hundred years later, this way of loving, this brotherhood of service and solidarity, remains the great hope for the peaceful and constructive use of the unprecedented power that has connected and woven together the entire planet and the whole human race. But this love is possible only if it opens itself to the One who is greater than all our power, who gives us a reason to want to live and work together as brothers and sisters, in peace.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld is sometimes viewed as a pioneer of interreligious dialogue and coexistence between peoples. This description alone falls short, however, of expressing the heart of his mission and charism. For Charles the heart of dialogue and coexistence is love, and the heart of love is Jesus: Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the fullness of His self-emptying gift, and Jesus in every person.