Thursday, December 2, 2021

The "Great Conversion Story" of Charles de Foucauld

Yesterday marked the 105th anniversary of the martyrdom of Blessed (and soon to be Saint) Charles de Foucauld. In my social media posts and blog post yesterday, I quoted and remarked briefly on the unique vocation of this great, great saint.

Today, I thought it would be useful to present here the short account of the beginning of his vocation, and the troubled early life that preceded it. No one would have predicted the future of the worldly agnostic young man who lived a life of indulgence and excess in the France of the Third Republic.

But Charles's encounter with Jesus Christ and his conversion were profound, dramatic, and total in a manner rarely seen in any era. These few paragraphs give only an outline of a magnificent story that will become more familiar to people (let's hope) as the date of his canonization in May 2022 draws near.

The text below appeared in my monthly column in the October 2021 issue of Magnificat.

He called himself the “little brother of Jesus,” and he became a saint by bringing the presence of Christ’s love to the poorest of the poor on the margins of the Sahara Desert.

During his troubled youth, however, it seemed hardly likely that sanctity – or even faith and love – would be associated with the dissipated life of the Viscount Charles Eugène de Foucauld. Losing his childhood faith, Charles spent a dozen wayward years as a profligate, soldier, and explorer-adventurer, but was deeply afflicted by the inadequacy of it all. In this time, he tasted the bitterness of a “godless” life.

Charles was born in 1858 to a distinguished French noble family, and as heir to great material wealth. Tragically, both his parents died when he was six years old, and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, with the intermittent company of other relatives. Still, the absence of his parents affected him deeply, and he became an unruly and notorious adolescent: intellectually gifted but lazy, rendered agnostic by careless reading and his own indifference, undisciplined and apparently resentful of all authority.

In 1878, Charles reluctantly joined the French cavalry to please his grandfather. He soon became famous for his lavish parties, extravagant spending, and improper liaisons, none of which could assuage what he later acknowledged was an overwhelming loneliness. A listless, insubordinate soldier, he was temporarily invigorated by martial zeal when his regiment was called to fight in Algeria. But something more long-lasting also began at that time: Charles’s small “accidental” role in France’s colonial misadventures was the occasion for God to stir up his soul. He watched the Muslims in their fidelity to prayer, and it seemed to open up in him a sense of wonder at the Mystery greater than himself and the whole world. After his military service, Charles determined to pursue this fascination into the desert, spending a whole year exploring Morocco disguised as a Jewish rabbi, and eventually writing an authoritative, award-winning book on this region.

Charles returned to Paris in 1886, with his extended family still much concerned about his erratic behavior. They hardly could imagine that he secretly visited churches, his heart crying out, “O God, if you exist, let me come to know you!” His older cousin, Marie de Bondy, however, had known Charles since his childhood. She intuited the pain and the questions and the troubles of his soul. Rather than argue with him, she offered him love and friendship. Her tenderness and goodness penetrated beyond his perplexity, and led him to seek out her great friend and spiritual guide, Father Henri Huvelin. This learned and holy priest knew well how Christ’s grace opens doors for many restless minds. When Charles made his acquaintance and requested to “discuss” Catholicism, Fr Huvelin knew that what Marie de Bondy’s wandering, weary cousin really needed was Confession.

In October 1886, Charles de Foucauld confessed and received Holy Communion like a child, and his thirsty soul was filled with the certainty of faith and the ardor of a great love. “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.” Thus, also, was his vocation born, which is an even better story than all that led up to it. And these two great friends who led Charles to Christ – Marie de Bondy and Henri Huvelin – remained in communication with him and supported his unique vocational path for the rest of their lives.