Today is the feast day of Charles de Foucauld, the anniversary of his martyrdom in the Sahara Desert in 1916. Br. Charles carried with him for much of his life a notebook which had this written on the first page:
“Live today as though you were going to die a martyr. The more we lack in this world, the more surely we discover the best thing the world has to offer us: the cross. The more firmly we embrace the cross, the more closely we are bound to Jesus, who is made fast to it.” (Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings ed. Robert Ellsberg [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1999] p. 127)
Brother Charles lived every day after his conversion seeking greater intimacy with Jesus, and his martyrdom was the culmination of that pursuit. Specifically, he tried to imitate the “hidden life of Christ,” the first thirty years of Jesus’ life before His public ministry, even to the point of moving to Nazareth and working a humble job so that he could pray and learn humility in obscurity there.
One of the things Brother Charles meditated on during these years was the family life of the child Jesus. He was fascinated by the humility of Jesus, who while being God would submit himself and be obedient even to his earthly parents: “You were subject to them – subject as a son is to his father and mother. Your life was one of submission, familial submission. You were obedient in every way that a good son is obedient.” (p. 49) In these meditations, there is a sense that a deep loved filled the household of the Holy Family. Jesus was humble and obedient, but in truly joyful ways. Foucauld, in his imitation of the hidden life of Jesus, seems also to have longed to be a part of the Holy Family himself, deliberately taking the name Brother Charles of Jesus. The orders which follow his example today are called the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.
Two months ago, I went to a week-long gathering for pastors at the Serra Retreat Center. One afternoon, while looking for some solitude, I went into the chapel. There I was drawn to this icon of the Holy Family which was on the eastern wall of the room. There is a sense of intimacy here between Joseph, Mary, and Jesus which I had never considered before. Not only are they physically close, but they are gazing at each other. Joseph’s eyes are toward Mary. Mary’s eyes are toward Jesus. The child Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Near to each other, with Christ at the center of their embrace, they are filled with joy. They even have the same smiles on their faces that Charles has in the picture above. Brother Charles believed that followers of Jesus today could live with this same joyful sense of the nearness and intimacy with Jesus. He sensed that nearness through practicing humility and taking up his cross, but he also sensed it very powerfully in Eucharist. In one moving meditation written during adoration he wrote:
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. You were not closer to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph in the caves at Bethlehem or the house at Nazareth or during the flight into Egypt, or at any moment of that divine family life than you are to me at this moment and so many others – in the tabernacle. (p. 52)
This life spent meditating upon nearness of Christ sustained Charles during his years in the northern Sahara, where he lived as missionary-by-example among the Tuareg, and gave him the courage to accept martyrdom when his day came. The nearness of his Beloved in communion gave him an irrepressible smile, even when he was suffering greatly. Even in solitude, Charles knew he was never alone, but part of a Holy Family devoted to the life-giving cross of his brother Jesus.