The 17th Century Frenchman Who Went From Sinner To Saint

For most people, religious history is about as riveting as a train spotter’s notebook; personally, I find it fascinating. I love the way ideas about God(s) and the big cosmic dance we are all part of have evolved over time, and the impact those ideas have had on the human psyche, daily life and world events. To be sure, I’m not too keen on the intolerance, oppression, inequality, murder, hatred and incitement to war that religion tends to engender, and I loathe hypocrisy, but I absolutely love the individual men and women, throughout history, who lived extraordinary lives of deep religious conviction. People who took their prophets and holy books at their word, threw off worldly concerns and sought unification with the divine and obedience to divine mandate – in accordance with their particular religious flavour. The kind of people I speak of generally had three things in common:

  1. They were profoundly sincere
  2. They were crackers – at least by modern psychological standards
  3. They were an irritation and embarrassment to the religions to which they belonged – at least during their life-time; posthumously, of course, they were often considered great religious figures.

One of my favourite such people was Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) – once indolent and dissolute (aka a bone-idle lush); later, a man of God, with a spirit so sweet it blessed all those who drew near.

Born in Strasbourg, France in 1858, Charles became an orphan at the tender age of six when both his parents died in the same year – his mother during childbirth and his father from tuberculous. His Grandmother, who had taken in the parent-less Charles and his 3-year-old sister, also died that year, after suffering a massive heart attack when startled by a stampeding herd of cows, while out walking with the children. The triple tragedy had a huge impact on Charles, both marring his childhood and tempering his soul in such a way as to instill in him an enormous capacity for compassion that would emerge later in life.

Having lost his faith as a child, Charles entered adolescence a self-confessed agnostic, preferring the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau to those espoused by the Church. Although intelligent, he was lazy and didn’t do well at school, so he left early and joined the French Army (as an Officer, due to his family connections). Two years into his service, he was stationed in North Africa; he loved the locale, but detested the rigours of army life.

The vegetation is superb: palm trees, laurel bushes, orange trees. It is a beautiful country! For my part, I was enthralled…[but]…I hate garrison life…I much prefer to take advantage of being young in order to travel. At least in that way I will be able to learn something and not waste my time.

He managed to stick it out for 2 years, but, eventually, the call of his inner wanderlust proved implacable, so he quit the army and became an explorer. His dream was to travel to Morocco, which, at the time, was closed to Europeans… ‘closed’ meaning…,Europeans were killed if they went there. Charles went anyway and, to remedy the problematic consequence of being a Frenchman in Morocco, dressed-up as a traveling Jew, called himself Rabbi Joseph from Algiers, and hired fellow traveler, Rabbi Mordechai Aby Serour (himself a fascinating man, worthy of his own article), to be his guide.

Rabbi Mordechai Aby Serour - c.1870.
Rabbi Mordechai Aby Serour – c.1870.

Charles survived his trip, with the help of Rabbi Mordy, and even wrote a book about it while on the road – which he did in secret, lest he be taken for a spy and dispatched heavenward.

As I walked along, I always had a notebook…I jotted down anything noteworthy along the road…Nobody ever noticed this, even in the biggest caravans. I was careful to walk in front or behind my companions, so that with the help of the wide span of my clothes, they hardly saw the light movement of my hands. Thus the description and survey of my itinerary filled a good number of small notebooks.

On his return to France, he complied his ‘small notebooks’ into a travel guide, for which he received both acclaim and a gold medal from the French Geographical Society.

Morocco Book

After his Moroccan adventure, at the age of 28, Charles moved back to Paris to be near his family. Hanging-up his traveling boots, for time being, he proceeded to spend his time (and sizable (inherited) fortune) entertaining himself. The kudos of his book afforded a place among fancy Parisians, and he lapped it up, being, as he was by his own account, a hit with the ladies. Then, to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he converted to Catholicism. The initial impetus behind his conversion was a soulful young woman with a sweet nature and a pretty face; however, as with many who find religion in adulthood, his faith soon became penetrating and intense. Indeed, 4 years after his conversion, he gave away what was left of his fortune and became a Trappist Monk.

His intelligence soon shone through, and he was sent to Rome to study Theology. He found Theology interesting, even beautiful, but mostly he thought it was pretentious and unnecessary; so, after 3 months, he hightailed it back to the monastery and settled into a life of Trappist austerity. In his day, the Trappists were most noted for their high-level of asceticism (well, that and making beer) – a form of religious devotion, wherein one denies the physical in order to heighten the spiritual. Within the realms of bodily deprivation, Charles found his métier; indeed, so much so, he considered the Trappist lifestyle – which consisted of scant food, no talking, itchy clothes and a stone bed – too luxurious. He continually asked his superiors to increase his privations – so he might better serve God – but the answer, each time, was a big fat NO! So, after 7 years, he left.

Free once again to follow the call of his wandering heart, Charles moseyed the Holy Land for a bit, eventually settling in Nazareth, where he lived like a bag-lady. In doing so, he fulfilled his ardent desire to live in extreme poverty and physical hardship, for the love of God. But his journey did not end there. At the age of 43 he was ordained as a Priest and went to North Africa to live as a Hermit. He tried a couple of spots, finally settling in among the Tuareg people; while there, he wrote a comprehensive dictionary of their language, which is still highly regarded today.

It was as a hermit, the middle of nowhere, that Charles truly came into his own. He appears to have loved this part of his life and was never more at home:

I find the desert life profoundly, deeply sweet. It is so pleasant and so healthy to set oneself down in solitude, face to face with eternal things; one feels oneself penetrated by the truth.

Hermitage of Charles Foucauld, built in 1911, on the Assekrem. (Photo - Patrick Gruban)
Hermitage of Charles de Foucauld, built in 1911, on the Assekrem. (Photo – Patrick Gruban)

He wrote prolifically throughout his life, mostly letters and versions of his Rule – that is, details of the Monastic Order he desperately wanted to set up. It was to be a simple affair, filled with solitude and adoration. The Church vetoed all his attempts to get things going; on the basis that he and his Rule were too extreme. To be fair, they did have a point; for example, when on the lookout for a helper at his Hermitage, he demanded the following attributes:

They must be good, religious and above all obedient.

They must be prepared joyfully to die of hunger and lack of everything.

They must be prepared to joyfully have their heads cut off for Jesus.

Despite the promise of joviality, it is little wonder no one applied.

In 1916, a group of bandits came upon the Hermitage and Charles was accidentally shot (well, as accidentally as you can be when a loaded gun is pointed at your head). Charles died instantly from his wounds, but his legend survived. In 2005 he was Beatified and later Canonised; as such, the once dissolute layabout is known to posterity as Saint Charles de Foucauld. While a hefty accolade in his circles, I’m pretty sure he would loathe being venerated, preferring instead to be emulated.

During the latter part of his life, Charles sought nothing the world had to offer; content as he was with the hidden treasures of the human heart. He was a simple man living a simple truth: devotion to God and compassion for all people. He did not believe in preaching (admitting that, during his lifetime, he did not convert a single soul); rather, he simply believed in loving. As a result of actually living this truth, Charles was endowed with an auric beauty that touched all who came in contact with him. The following describes a young man’s encounter with Charles, and the impression he left:

“The glow of his eyes and especially that very humble smile had taken over his whole person…A blessing was on him in the room, and there still floated around me something sweet and infinitely peaceful…For the duration of that visit I had seen Charles surrounded by radiance, neither luminous nor visible, but perceivable to some sense that we have not yet come to identify. So much faith, hope, and charity placed around him that nimbus which painters, who can appeal only to the eye, depict as rays of gold. Silent music, beneficial waves, bringing beatitude and dreams. Thus, the minute with Charles is engraved in me, eternal.

A man to emulate indeed!


Antier, Jean-Jacques (1999) Charles de Foucauld, Ignatius Press

Quotes: Biography of Charles de Foucauld

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