SAINT CHARLES DE FOUCAULD
Preface: Call of Silence
FATHER de Foucauld must have been unknown to me in 1938. I search my memory, but can find no previous trace of him ; not that this means much because the event that was to come would blot out everything else in its dazzling light. It was in the boarding school’s recreation room one winter’s Sunday afternoon. The day boys were there, and Bishop Norbert Rousseaux of Le Puy, was honouring this exceptional cinema show with his presence. It began with Léon Poirier making a little speech, which was unusual. The early part of the film seemed to drag a little : Strasbourg, the birth of Charles, the death of his father and of his mother, his grandfather Morlet at Nancy. I have very few memories of this part of the film, which does not testify to any keen interest on my part. I remember snatches : the whims of a big boy spoilt by his grandfather, an unauthorised leave that ended badly, life at Pont-à-Mousson where the young lieutenant placed a string of pearls round the neck of a young dancer from Paris, the grand air of La Calomnie being played on the piano in the drawing room where, from an adjoining room, Foucauld heard a group of ladies gossiping about his scandalous escapades.
I learnt later that the Bishop had left the room at the point where the dancer appeared, judging it to be improper. I have no memory of anything offensive, and yet I could not bear the risqué scenes of other films. I used to shut my eyes. It was not excess of virtue on my part ; I simply could not tolerate any public display of amorous behaviour on the cinema screen or anywhere else. On that point my adult reasoning has confirmed my adolescent reflex. That poor bishop must have been a little too rigorous – a sign of times past. We were to go from one extreme to the other. The other would come soon enough, making us miss the times past.
I have a better memory of the scandal provoked by the frivolous and false Viscountess de Foucauld disembarking at Sétif, with all the amusing misunderstandings that followed. I lost patience with the confrontation between the young aristocratic rake and his colonel. They were both pig-headed : a narrow, mean-minded chief exchanging words with this young blood, to the point of caricature. We knew, however, that the next part of the film would show the Army and present our hero under a different light. From there on, I remember everything down to the very last detail. The scene at Évian on the steps outside the hotel. Foucauld tells his garrulous young lady friend that Bou Amana is stirring in Southern Oranais, rousing the rebellious tribesmen that he and his friends, the regiment, are fighting, and that he must go and join them. This scene, though still psychologically superficial, is where the real Charles de Foucauld begins to show himself. He is bored, and she is trivial. Sic transit luxuria mundi. He takes leave of the false life. It is the Army that led him in his first conversion. All caricature disappeared, and the theatrical style of this period film was forgotten. My heart was seized. There were battle scenes in the Atlas Mountains... we saw Foucauld listening to the curator of Algiers museum, MacCarthy, telling of his dreams to explore the desert. MacCarthy was never to go, but Foucauld was caught by this exploration fever and heard the call of unknown lands, of the forbidden back of beyond. There followed wonderful exploration scenes in Morocco where Arabs and Berbers, especially the great Berbers of the desert, were waiting for the French. They guessed that this “ Rabbi Joseph ” was a French officer on reconnaissance and that his presence among them heralded the colonisation that would deliver them, together with the Berbers of Algeria, from the yoke of the Sultans and from anarchy... Yes, that time was to come, and was to go again. At that moment, however, I could not have imagined it.
There followed an interlude in Paris. The salons were all agog over every new invention. The cinema had been invented in 1886 ! The vanity of all these mundane people contrasted sharply with the silence of the desert and the solitude of the disguised explorer. I identified myself with him and overflowed with fervour. Is not that the distinctive character of the theatre, its hold and often its great danger ? In this instance it was turned to good. I merged with this character, who came away from all the parties held in his honour, feeling weary and uneasy, avid for the light he did not have. When his aunt Moitessier and his cousins treat him with such discreet, intelligent and gentle care, I am filled with admiration and long to see their care lead to its proper conclusion. I love them, especially Marie who, until the end, will be the soul best loved. Now we are at the scene where he makes his confession unexpectedly followed by Communion at Saint Augustine’s, with no concessions to cinematographic art. It is the same confessional and the same antiquated prie-dieu. Father Huvelin with the same head of white hair and his holy, gentle, penetrating and resolute priestly face. Such was conversion in the nineteenth century : a turning back with all one’s being – very Augustinian. The soul painfully seeks and gropes for God, and God tries him so as to fill him and console him with a sudden burst of light and love.
I think that is the moment when my friend began to weep – in the darkness of that recreation room where he too was to identify himself with the one who would become his only model in life. The strictly ecclesiastical aspect of the conversion did not put him off at all. He was too intelligent and too sincere to let that deter him. He knew that conversion meant finding God in a confessional and at the Communion rail. He did not thrill, however, at the call of the Army, poor boy ! For him, the exploration of Morocco was very fine, but what really overwhelmed him, as I later learned, was the sight of this bored looking man with his lady friend, that profoundly sad, wistful look, the long search and these heart-rending words : “ My God, if You exist, make me know it. ” Recognizing himself in this sad man, it was Charles de Foucauld who led him to a deserted Saint Augustine’s and who, with a firm hand, led him to the confessional.
The sentimental heart felt a pang, both his and mine without either of us knowing the other’s emotion, at the sight of the hero bidding farewell to all that was dearest to him. For the love of JESUS, he loosened the sweet, profound and perfectly chaste affection that held him attached to Madame de Bondy. The tragic grandeur of this renunciation moved the heart of a thirteen year old. Will he not love in the same way, magnificently detaching himself and then sacrificing all that is dearest to him ? For my friend, it was perhaps an actual renunciation. I do not know. The film carried us forward with a rhythm of its own, which is not that of life. Our Lady of the Snows, Akbes in Syria, then Nazareth where the Viscount de Foucauld worked as the gardener for the Poor Clares, happy to live in the very place where JÉSUS lived and contemplated during the long nights and the warm daylight hours, and where He suffered much humiliation. It was an entire spiritual itinerary that was being unfolded in that darkened room at the all too accelerated speed of a film that one would like to stop or prolong. Between us, we would return to that itinerary over and over again in our imagination, longing to relive it.
When Brother Charles de Jesus returned to the Sahara as a priest, we were completely conquered, burning with desire to follow the hermit in the white Trappist cowl with its red heart surmounted by a cross, a big rosary hanging from his belt and that unforgettable smile of goodness. I have found my vocation, I could have said with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus had I known those wonderful words at the time... I shall be a monk-missionary, a hermit in the depth of the desert, an adorer of Jesus the Host, a living and silent presence of divine Charity for the poor pagans of the Sahara. Unknown to me, my friend was saying the same thing to himself. He was more mature and more romantic than I was : he thrilled at the love of JÉSUS alone Who, for the most passionate of human hearts, takes the place of the creature and Who demands the sacrifice of every other affection and calls for the silence of solitude to enjoy His presence alone. I, on the other hand, was too much enamoured of the French flag not to be equally enthusiastic for those scenes showing French colonisation stretching far into the depths of the desert, following in the footsteps of our soldiers. One grandiose, slow and moving image is still vivid in my memory : that of two Meharist companies advancing to meet one another, scarcely visible at first on the distant horizon and then gradually getting larger until the moment when Laperrine, the soldier, jumps to the ground and fraternally embraces Brother Charles de Jesus, the desert monk. My mind was uplifted at this exalted scene, in solemn, sombre images, of the future salvation of the world. Had not Papa found his vocation through reading an old account of the Marist fathers in Oceania – an article entitled Sailors and Missionaries ? For want of being a priest, he had exclaimed, I shall be a sailor to help the Marists convert the poor South Sea islanders and to defend their missions against the danger of cannibals !
I thought, without knowing how far the work of the Sahara missionaries had progressed, that there could be no finer thing in the world, that nothing that could exalt my heart and my mind more, than to follow in the footsteps of Brother Charles de Jesus, the universal brother, whose desire was to preach the Gospel with his whole life. Was it to be no more than a mirage ? No. Sooner or later we would see other films, such as the Escadron blanc, full of sand dunes, desert palms, fatal ambushes around some well or fortress, dramatic reversals, resounding bugle calls and the flapping of the flag in the high desert wind. It was not just folklore ; it was the powerful life of our modern centurions. The only impression left on me by such a film, however, was that of a cigarette case, the souvenir of some pretty Parisienne, ground into the sand by the boot of some hot-tempered Meharist, there to be forgotten. To choose this way one must necessarily sacrifice the other. No, we were not stirred by a sense of the exotic. The years passed, and for one of us the dream receded, and so did the vocation. The idea of service still remained, taking the form of a career as a governor in the colonial administration. That career, however, was no more than the empty and disappointing wrapping of the first call, which was that of Christ and his Charity.
Beni-Abbès, a striking replica of the Galilean idyll of evangelical poverty and sweetness, soon gave way to Tamanrasset, the austerity and harshness of the Judean wilderness and the beginning of perils. I remember the fascinating views of Asekrem where the dry stone walls of the hermitage looked out in giddy solitude over a landscape of extinct volcanoes – one of the world’s most tortured landscapes. It was the Hoggar where Brother Charles lived alone with God, with JESUS, alone with Love incarnate in the Host for the salvation of all. My heart, soul and memory were filled with every scene of this film, which was passing all too quickly. Since that time, I have learned nothing of this venerable Father that I had not already perceived then. Everything was converging, like the swift chapters of the Gospel, towards the Cross, towards his martyrdom, which was reconstructed in every detail. First of all, we saw the fort he had built for himself. It was exactly like a mediaeval citadel. For a moment I hesitated : was this reality, or was this stage decor ? It looked too perfect and too feudal. It was reality. Yes, he had built a fortress just like those seen in the Holy Land, built by the Crusaders. He had built it with the same intention too. Could the history of the Crusades, the chivalrous ideal, the dream of the soldier monks, still live on in this colonial era ? – a work for Christ Who loves the Franks, a work for the Empire that a king would one day consecrate to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ? It was splendid, and with my whole heart I wanted to join that order. As for my friend, he retained only the essential : Jesus the Master of the impossible, the Unum necessarium, the Monstrance in the little room where Brother Charles was writing a letter by the light of a little lamp – a letter that was to be his last, written to his cousin whom he loved with a sacred love. He retained the Brother Charles who had grown wrinkled, dried up and weakened before time, to be plucked by the Senussist marauder as though he were a forgotten olive left on a solitary branch. El Madani, his Judas, approached and knocked on the door. A hand stretched out ; another grasped it... and the fort was taken through betrayal and pillage amid the shouts of those demons in the swirling sand. Suddenly, there was a rifle shot, and then another ; there was a panic and the young Targui shot his brother Charles de Foucauld de Jesus, who slowly sank to the ground.
To see all that on the cinema screen, more real than reality, as though directly witnessing a martyrdom, was a shock and an upheaval. Alas, the film reached its end. Just a few more scenes : that of the poor monstrance half buried in the sand, equally despised and forgotten. It, however, was the real symbol of the grain of wheat buried in the earth, one day to germinate, to grow and to bring forth a rich harvest. Now we were outside in the cold dark night, surrounded by a crowd of friends who, to my amazement, were already talking about other things. And my friend ? His face told me all. There was that fine blue vein beneath his eyelids which only showed after some great emotion. I do not know the words we spoke to each other in exchanging confidences, but they were words that told of our interior upheaval and of our fierce resolution. After that, we could live for nothing else. It was certain ; I had made up my mind : together, we would go to the very end, to death and to martyrdom. Do you remember ? Yes, truly stripped of all, stretched out on the ground, naked, unrecognizable, covered in blood and wounded all over, violently and painfully killed... The boarding school, with its barrack like facade dominated by the great clock, had now become for me the school of the monk-missionary, the school of martyrdom. The two of us had now to advance along this new and exalting path.
Father Georges de Nantes.
Memoirs and Anecdotes in CRC n° 162, February 1981.