Womanizer and desert monk

First womanizer, soldier and geographer, in the end desert monk. When Charles de Foucauld was shot by looters in the oasis of Tamanrasset in 1916, he had a long and winding road behind him: from France to Algeria, Morocco, the Holy Land, Syria and finally the Algerian Sahara. The inner path runs from a devout childhood through religious deadening to the rediscovery of faith, which leads to a hermit existence. 150 years ago, on 15. September 1858, Blessed Charles de Foucauld was born.

In his youth he was anything but a saint. He arrives in Paris, is hounded by the Jesuit high school and, at 17, plunges into sexual adventures and raucous parties. In the elitist officer school of Saint-Cyr he is regarded as a fat, lazy and wealthy bon vivant. When he is transferred to Algeria in 1880, Charles smuggles his mistress Mimi from France with him and passes her off as his wife. For this he is expelled from the army. Months later, the military takes him back and he returns to Africa before his career as a soldier is finally over. But North Africa has taken a fancy to him. Charles de Foucauld learns Arabic and reads the Koran. He secretly travels through the region, which is largely forbidden to Christians. He hides his French origins, disguises himself as a Russian-Jewish itinerant rabbi and visits the Sultanate of Morocco in 1883 and 1884 on behalf of the Societe de Geographie. 1885 he crosses the southern Algerian desert. In France he becomes famous for his research reports and mapping and receives the gold medal of the French Geographical Society. Islamic piety moves him and reawakens in him the question of God. In Paris, de Foucauld befriends Abbe Huvelin, who converts him. In 1890, at the age of 32, he enters the Syrian Trappist monastery of Akbes after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But despite the austere, deprived life, he finds the ideal of poverty too little realized. He considers the life of the inhabitants of the surrounding villages to be more miserable. After seven years, de Foucauld leaves the order, continues to seek his path. At the Poor Clares in Nazareth he does menial work as a servant and discovers his vocation as a priest. In 1901, he was ordained in Viviers, France. And again he is drawn to North Africa, first to the oasis of Beni Abbes on the Algerian border with Morocco, where he cares for French soldiers and fights against slavery. His childhood friend Henri Laperrine, a soldier, suggests him to settle in the Hoggar mountains – in the middle of the Tuareg. Charles de Foucauld agrees. In Tamanrasset, from 1905 until his death, he lives eleven years in a hut of mud and reeds, far from any civilization in total isolation. The rocky desert becomes for him a place of truth, not a place of escapism: "I cannot look at this sea of peaks and jagged rocks without worshipping God," he writes. De Foucauld explores and speaks the language of the Tuareg, earns their trust. The fact that a Christian convinces by his example is more important to him than the attempt to proclaim the faith by words. His ideal is a church that proclaims the Gospel to the poor with poor means. Although he wrote several draft rules for spiritual communities, he only found followers long after his death: in 1933 the community of the Little Brothers of Jesus was founded in the Sahara, and in 1939 the community of the Little Sisters of Jesus. Today, about 20 religious communities refer to his spiritual heritage.

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Christina Cherry
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