Seeking Christ in the Desert – The Conversion of Charles de Foucauld

by Michael Healy

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Jesus showed humanity how to be fully human. Yet Christians of modern Western culture are far removed from the Eastern world He lived in. By modern standards, His society was poor, simple, almost primitive. His early followers lived with few possessions and comforts. They were humble, common folk of the Near East. The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church developed out of this simple Eastern way of life in radical fidelity to Christ. Like Paul and Augustine, Francis of Assisi followed Christ’s path to an austere yet joyful spirituality. Modern Christians who are unhappily caught up in a pursuit of temporary pleasures have a more recent model of fidelity to Jesus’ human path.

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) took the difficult journey into Eastern culture in search of Christ. The confusing allures of modern life tempted him before he began his quest for faith. Living among the poor, though, led him to break free of materialism and to abandon himself to the will of God. Eventually, his Christian witness in an Eastern culture opened a new view of mission, especially among Muslims.

As a boy, Charles rejected the religious values of his wealthy family and drifted through military education. He indulged in carefree and dissolute luxury. As a young man he squandered a huge inheritance by seeking happiness in wanton consumption, passing fashion, and frivolous company. In time, his scandalous lack of discipline was too much even for the French military, which discharged him in 1881.

When conflicts arose in the French colonies in the Sahara, though, he returned to military service. He surprised everyone with distinguished leadership during the campaigns. Suddenly, he seemed to want to direct his passions away from luxury, even if he lost his life in the effort. Surviving the campaigns, though, he was a changed man. He withdrew from the expected routine of military discipline to chart his own, more austere course.

In his experiences in North Africa, Charles developed a curiosity for the Sahara, its people, and their languages and customs. He threw himself into studying them with characteristic intensity by living among the native population. Disguised as the Jewish servant of a rabbi, he traveled among the Muslims of the Sahara for two years. He reported on his findings in Reconnaissance au Maroc, 1883-1884 (1888), which was well received by the Geographical Society of Paris.

Charles’ sojourn in the Sahara made another unexpected turn in his life. His masquerade had required the unfamiliar demeanor of humility. Behind the Jewish mask, he experienced for the first time real poverty and isolation from the hectic pace and shifting values of French culture. He found himself liberated by his solitude and poverty.

In his awakening awareness to the daily struggles of the poor, Charles also found the human spirit which dignifies it. He came to know the native Muslims of the Sahara, who always welcomed this curious figure with hospitality. The poor, devout, and compassionate desert people of Islam gave him reason to consider the place of faith in his own life. They especially challenged him through their constant submission to the will of God.

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Tags: Christianity Unity Muslim Poor/Poverty Personality profile