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Inspiration from a hidden ‘Nazareth’ ministry

13 November 2015

Angela Ashwin considers Charles de Foucauld, on the tenth anniversary of his beatification

Before his time: Charles de Foucauld when he was ministering in the desert in Morocco, about 1907

Before his time: Charles de Foucauld when he was ministering in the desert in Morocco, about 1907

BLESSED Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) could hardly have imagined that his story would become a source of inspiration for so many people, 100 years after his death. On the surface, his life could seem remote from ours: his fierce monastic austerity culminated in a ministry among the Tuareg people in the harsh Moroccan desert.

Yet his generosity of spirit, his freedom from worldly ambition, and his total self-surrender and trust in God can still speak to us today. Today is the tenth anniversary of his beatification, and the date is being taken as the beginning of a year marking the centenary of his death on 1 December 1916.

Born in 1858 into an aristocratic Strasbourg family, de Foucauld’s early years were wild and extravagant, and his reckless behaviour as a soldier led him into trouble with the army authorities. Determined to reform, he later re-enlisted and proved a talented and courageous officer with the French troops in Algeria.

He then spent some years in restless wandering, seeking adventure, but also becoming aware of a profound inner emptiness. He was increasingly drawn towards conversations with people of faith, both Christian and Muslim, and eventually, at the age of 28, he confessed his sins to Abbé Huvelin, and had an overwhelming experience of God’s infinite, loving mercy. From this moment onwards, his all-consuming passion was to live for God alone.

It took de Foucauld a while to discover what, in practice, his new-found love of God would mean. We may find this helpful, because it is one thing to know that we want to serve God, but quite another to work out where this will lead. We may, like de Foucauld, need to try different things in the discernment process.

He began in a Trappist monastery in southern France, but soon asked to be transferred to somewhere poorer and tougher. So he was sent to a Trappist foundation in remotest Syria, but, even there, his desire for self-emptying and total detachment from the world was not satisfied.

He was attracted by Jesus’s “hidden years” in Nazareth, and longed to go there himself, sharing the work, poverty, and insecurity of the people. He gained permission to live in a small hut in the convent garden of the Poor Clare Sisters in Nazareth, working as a handyman and gardener, and spending hours in prayer. He was deeply happy here, and dreamed of founding fraternities of Brothers to share his vision.

After two years in the Holy Land, de Foucauld’s understanding of “Nazareth” had expanded into a vision of living anywhere in littleness and poverty, in communion with Jesus. He returned to France, and was ordained priest in 1901 — not for the status, but as a way of service. He identified North Africa as a particularly forsaken area where he wanted to share the life of the humblest people, and make Jesus known.

He settled first in Béni Abbès, Algeria, in the Sahara, where he built a small mud “monastery”, and welcomed and befriended unstintingly all travellers and villagers who came. To his disappointment, nobody joined him in the community he had hoped to start; and, in 1905, he moved even further into the desert to Tamanrasset, where he continued his dedication to prayer and the service of the Tuareg people.

The hiddenness of his ministry there (in his own form of “Nazareth”) may encourage any of us Christians who find ourselves living and praying in a largely unbelieving or cynical environment. De Foucauld saw all people as children of God, and recognised God in and among those around him even before they had known the full gospel of Jesus.

He adopted what might be called a “ministry of presence”, seeking to live in such a way that the light and love of Jesus would shine through just by his being there. I would suggest that for us, too, this gentle form of evangelism, inspired by Jesus’s images of the mustard seed and the yeast in the loaf (Matthew 13.31-33), can complement other approaches to mission.

De Foucauld was killed in a raid by nomads in 1916, in a pointless act that could make his life seem a failure. Yet subsequent events would vindicate his boundless confidence in God, and, some years later, Fr René Voillaume and others developed his vision into the communities of Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, which exist worldwide to this day.

De Foucauld is probably best-known for his prayer that begins:


Father, I abandon myself
    Into your hands.
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do,
     I thank you.
I am ready for all; I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me.


At first, these words can seem almost impossible, because of their uncompromising self-giving to God. But this extraordinary outpouring of love is a prayer that we can grow into, as we seek, by God’s grace, to deepen our commitment, trust, and generosity of spirit, no matter what.


For information about the Little Brothers and Sisters, see: www.jesuscaritas.info.

Angela Ashwin lives in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Her books include Faith in the Fool: Risk and delight in the Christian adventure (DLT, 2009).

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