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Today is the first day of Advent. It’s also December 1st, which is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Br. Charles chose to live among the Muslims of the Sahara desert at Tamanrasset, Algeria. There, Charles sought to be a living example of the Gospel through his poverty, prayer, and imitation of the life of Jesus. Charles’ imitation of Christ was completed when those whom he had loved and lived among for many years turned on him and shot him on December 1, 1916. Eighty years later, Br. Charles’ story was repeated when seven other Trappist monks were killed in Algeria. Their 1996 martyrdoms were recently made famous by the award-winning film Of Gods and Men. Now a new book from Paraclete Press, called The Last Monk of Tibhirinenow provides even more of the details of their story and, in so doing, sheds light on the enduring legacy of Br. Charles.

German journalist Freddy Derwahl wrote The Last Monk of Tibhirine after he traveled to Morocco to visit Br. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the one monk from the Tibhirine monastery who survived the 1996 attack. In the book, Derwahl tells the story of Jean-Pierre’s whole life, from his childhood, to his entry into monastic life, to his years with the men from Tibhirine who were killed. In one of the book’s many references to Foucauld, Derwahl notes that Jean-Pierre was fascinated by Foucauld’s calling to “proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops, not through words but through the life you live” (p. 47). This humble retelling of Jean-Pierre’s life and the events leading up to the Tibhirine martyrdoms is evidence that Jean Pierre took Br. Charles’ words to heart.

The book also sheds more light on Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery, who remained persistent in his efforts to build bridges with the Muslims around him, even when his life was endangered. Ever the intellectual, Christian took part in both inter-religious dialogue and times prayer where Christians and Muslims came together to show one another different aspects of their spirituality. Here Br. Charles’ influence is even more clear. Christian once took a two-month retreat to Foucauld’s hermitage at Assekrem during a crisis in his own ministry. He returned with an intensely renewed love for and commitment to his Muslim neighbors. Christian’s later writings display a yearning for total surrender to God, similar to that in Br. Charles own writings: “I have only this short day to give to the One Who calls me every day; however, how could I say yes to Him forever, if I did not give this day to Him” (p. 68).

Amid this retelling of Jean-Pierre’s story, and thus the story of Tibhirine, Derwahl tells his own story through a daily journal of his time at Monastere Notre-Dame de L’Atlas, the Moroccan monastery where Jean-Pierre now lives. The addition of this journal has the effect of inviting the reader deeper into the story by illustrating both how Derwahl learns from Jean-Pierre and how he processes the holiness he seems to encounter. Thus the reader begins to feel like a fellow pilgrim, bearing the desert heat alongside Jean-Pierre and his brothers. One finishes the book with the sense that Derwahl’s fascination with these desert monks will bear more fruit in him in the years to come. The attentive reader will find his or her own way into the story, as well, perhaps wondering what such bold devotion to Christ might look like in their own context today. As this happens, successive generations will be inspired to join this spiritual family bold witnesses and follow Br. Charles’ example of imitation of Christ.

 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing a review copy of The Last Monk of Tibhirine with me.

https://christopherbrown.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/charles_de_foucauld.jpg?w=545Today 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.

Later this morning, I’ll be speaking to a group of students at Pittsburgh Seminary, sharing the story of Upper Room as a case study in a class for their new Church-Planting M.Div. Specifically, I’ve been asked to share about vibrant faith in God, a characteristic which the course’s instructor identifies in his book as an essential trait for successful church-planters.  Most of what I’ll say will focus on prayer.  I’m taking the advice of St. Mark the Ascetic from the Philokalia: “If you want with few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer . . .” But after I wrote out my notes for the talk – filling it with illustrations about the importance of prayer in the life of Upper Room, the way we use the Jesus Prayer, the way Mike and I pray together –  I realized there was something missing: How do we maintain a vibrant faith and an active prayer life? It’s one thing to say to someone “pray more” and expect them to do it.  It’s a much bigger question to ask: What actually makes us want to pray more? What motivates us to stay active in our spiritual lives?

I think part of the answer is thankfulness.  Not long after my revelation earlier this summer that I needed to be more thankful, I read these words from my missionary hero, the monk Charles de Foucauld:

O beloved Bridegroom, what have you not done for me? What do you want from me? What do you expect from me, that you have so overwhelmed me? O God, give yourself thanks through me, create remembrance, gratitude, fidelity, and love in me; I am overcome, I fail, O God; create my thoughts, words, and deeds, so that they may all give you thanks and glorify you in me. Amen. Amen. Amen.

As I read this passage again this morning, I was overwhelmed. Brother Charles had such a deep sense of God’s blessing and presence in his life that he knew he could not thank God enough, and he believed this even in the midst of living a very ascetic and lonely life.  I can’t help but think that this very sense of thankfulness was part of what allowed Charles to be so bold in mission to the Tuareg people group of the Sahara. Thankful for the grace bestowed upon him, Charles responded both by expressing deeper love and affection for God and by eagerly seeking to share that blessing with others.  May the Lord grant us such thankfulness.

We’re ten days into 2012.  That’s plenty of time for plenty of New Year’s resolutions to have been made and to have already been broken.    I find this sad because resolutions actually do have power to yield dramatic fruit in our lives, if we’re willing to stick to them for the long-haul.

Yesterday I read a post by John Stahl-Wert called “Resolved.” which describes the lifelong resolutions made by three great figures from American history. These resolutions were not weak, shallow, or trite. They were resolutions which required deep development of character, resolutions to seek justice, live obediently, and fulfill one’s duties.  As Stahl-Wert points out, these men “believed that their impact in the world would spring from their character; that their character would spring from their investments in character, and that character investment is a life-long pursuit.”

Another man whose investment in his character left a lasting impression upon the world is Charles de Foucauld.  Since I first read his writings last August, I’ve found his passion for prayer, his imitation of Christ, and his heart for evangelism inspiring.   Now I’m reading his Spiritual Autobiography, and (with providential timing) this week I came across the set of bold, life-defining resolutions he made while living in Nazareth and seeking to imitate the life of Christ:

I resolve: To ask for martyrdom, long for it, and if it please God, suffer it in order to love Jesus with a greater love; To have zeal for souls, a burning love for the salvation of souls – which have all been ransomed at so unique a price; To despise no one, but to desire the greatest good for everyone because everyone is covered by the blood of Jesus;  . . . To be perfect, to be holy myself, for Jesus held me so dear that he gave his love for me; . . . To have an infinite horror of sin and the imperfection that leads to it, because it has already cost Jesus so dear;  . . . To have absolute trust in the love of God, an inextinguishable faith in his love, because he has proved it to me by being wiling to suffer such pains for me; To be humble at the thought of all he has done for me, and the little I have done for him; To long for sufferings to give him love for love, and imitate him, and not be crowned with roses whereas he was crowned with thorns . . .  (The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld, Jean-Francois Six, ed. [Ijamsville, Md: Word Among Us Press 2003] pp. 93-94)

Strengthened by Christ to fulfill his calling, Foucauld lived into all of resolutions he made.  He left Nazareth to live a simple and prayerful live the Sahara desert, bearing witness to Christ by his example and holiness among the nomadic Tuareg people group.  Having asked for martyrdom, he received it, being murdered there in 1916.

The power of Foucauld’s resolutions lies in the fact that they were all ways of “taking up his cross”.  Foucauld resolved to seek holiness, to take up his cross and follow the Jesus who said “he who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38).  That resolution, and the cruciform life Foucauld thus led, left an impact on the world.  Today there are thousands of people following Foucauld’s example officially in religious and lay communities around the globe.  I imagine thousands more are unofficial followers of him, individuals like myself who have simply been inspired by him to seek a deeper life with Christ.

When Jesus becomes Lord of our lives, he doesn’t wait for an arbitrary starting date like January 1st to ask us to resolve to seek his Kingdom.  He asks today: Are we willing to resolve to seek his Kingdom, his holiness, even his cross?

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.