Charles de Foucauld: Work, Eucharist, and Witness

I think I’ve found a new spiritual role model.  I just finished reading Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings in Orbis Books “Modern Spiritual Masters” series.  Brother Charles (b. 1858) was a French man who converted to Roman Catholicism after serving in the French military and exploring the deserts of northern Africa.  Following his conversion, he became a Trappist monk at a monastery in Syria, but even this life was not rigorous enough for Charles in its discipline or asceticism. Inspired by God to imitate what he called “the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth”, Charles moved to Nazareth and took a position as a servant at a women’s monastery there. There he sought to live a simple life of poverty, prayer, and service, just as he imagined Jesus had during the first 30 years of His life.  Eventually, Charles felt led to pursue even greater degrees of solitude, so he moved to the deserts of Algeria and Morocco to pursue a life of poverty, prayer, service and quiet witness amongst the region’s Arab Muslims and the nomadic Tuaregs.  In 1916, he was martyred there.

I found may things about Charles inspiring, but I want to highlight three in particular here.  These were his approaches to work, Eucharist, and witness.

Work: Foucauld believed that a life in imitation of Christ was a life of ordinary work, often doing the lowliest and most humble tasks available, but working to support oneself in ministry.  (In this sense his ministry is both inspiring and challenging for those of us in tentmaking and bi-vocational ministries.)  But work wasn’t about money for Charles.  Instead it was about learning humility and obedience.   He journalled Christ’s voice speaking to him about Christ’s hidden life in Nazareth: “How clearly I preached humility at Nazareth, by spending thirty years in obscure labors, and obscurity by remaining so completely unknown for thirty years – I who am the light of the world – and obedience, in that I, who am God, made myself subject for thirty years to parents who, although unquestionably holy, were human beings nonetheless” (p. 48).  Humble and obscure work for Charles equalled intimate imitation of Christ.

Thus it makes sense that for Foucauld work went hand-in-hand with simplicity of life.  He journalled in the voice of Jesus speaking to him, “Work hard enough to earn your daily bread, but less than ordinary workers.  They work to earn as much as possible.  You and I work only so as to earn a very frugal diet and the poorest of clothing and lodgings, together with enough to give small sums in alms” (p. 57).   In the Rule he wrote for the monastic order he hoped to found, he said the brothers would be forbidden to receive any gifts.  Instead, “We will live solely by the work of our hands. . . . On Saturday, when the weekly pay is received, all money that is left over from the week before will be given to the poor.” They would earn their living doing ordinary labor and give away (rather than save) that which exceeded their simple needs.  Surely this example raises serious questions for the state of Christianity in America today.  Too many pastors and church workers understand their careers in terms more similar to climbing corporate ladders than to this example of simplicity.  How much more could ordinary church members give to mission if they simplified their lives in such a way?  Would not joy replace much of the stress in our lives if making money were not the goal of work?

Eucharist: Brother Charles was so in love with Jesus that he spent hours upon hours meditating upon Christ’s presence in the sacraments. “You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion,” he wrote (p. 52).  This sense of sacramental intimacy with Jesus was like Foucauld’s approach to work: all he did was for the sake of drawing closer to Christ.  But this also translated into the fruit of witness and mission in Foucauld’s life.  Writing about his vision for a monastic community following his pattern of life in the Moroccan desert, he said that the men would live in adoration of the Holy Sacrament, because the practice both bore witness to the real presence of Christ with them in the desert and inspired hospitality and love toward every human being they came into contact with.  Meditating on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist led him even more deeply to sense Christ’s presence in “the least of these” (Matthew 25).  Personally and pastorally, I rejoice that many people are saying the sacramental piece of our church’s life is a place where they meet Christ. I pray that it will inspire mission as the Eucharist did for Foucauld and his followers.

Witness: One does not normally think of a hermetic monk in the African desert as an example of mission or evangelism. But Foucauld believed he was called to “cry the Gospel” with his life, just as every follower of Jesus is called to do. He wrote, “the salvation of one’s neighbor is as important as the salvation of one’s self.  Every Christian must be an apostle. That is not advice; it is a command – the command of charity” (pp. 80-81). By living in imitation of Jesus in the deserts of northern Africa, Foucault believed he was participating in apostolic presence among unreached peoples.  And what was his method of sharing gospel amongst non-Christian people groups? Prayer. Intimacy with Jesus. And presence.  The prayerful person who lets Christ’s presence shine through him or her becomes a conduit through which others are drawn closer to Christ. Hence he writes, “By entering into friendly relationships with people totally opposed to religion we can, by our goodness and virtue, destroy their prejudices and bring them completely to God” (p. 83).  I find this personally inspiring because it’s what I pray could happen through my presence working as a barista at a local cafe.   Indeed, Foucault has much to teach those of us who are engaged in mission in the post-Christian west. He realized a hundred years ago that the West was becoming as much of a mission field as the rest of the world: “One has to be as much a missionary in France as in a country of unbelievers, and being so is the duty of us all, priests and lay people, men and women” (p. 83).  He wrote that in 1914, decades before talk of the “missional church” became a trendy topic in our context.  Now, as the Church in the West is awakening to the reality that it lives in a mission field, I think we need to recover much of the spirituality of people like Foucault.  Simply put, a culture that likes Jesus but not the Church needs to see Jesus. A culture that’s spiritual-but-not-religious needs to see true spirituality in action. Witness in our context will not succeed unless it boldly displays Christ-likeness and intimacy with Jesus.


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