Dom Michael-Davide Semeraro, OSB
Superior of Koinonia of the Visitation (Italy)
Charles de Foucauld,
Prophet of our monastic profession
The approaching canonization of Brother Charles gives the opportunity to drink once more from the spiritual
experience of this seeker after God. By his unique way of living out the following of Christ he was the prophet of Vatican II, this moment of renewed understanding of the gospel. At the end of his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis wrote,
I would like to end by recalling another person of deep faith who, thanks to his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation which brought him to feel his brotherhood of all men and women. I mean the Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
Although Brother Charles is described in the Ordo as ‘priest’ it seems to me that he could be said to have remained always a monk and a Cistercian monk. At a time when the experience of Brother Charles was already wholly mature, a letter written from Tamanrasset on 26th March, 1908, to his brother-in-law Raymond de Blic, shows that he was conscious of his evolution and of the challenge it represented for his future choices, ‘I remain a monk – a monk in mission territory – a missionary monk, not only a missionary’.
From this point of view it can be said that there is work to do to understand better how the spirituality of Brother Charles is rooted in the monastic tradition at its purest, understood as a river of living water, the desire to search for God according to the gospel which traverses, sometimes secretly, a long and complex story. Brother Charles had a sharp sense of his personal history, linked not only to the passage of time but also to the places through which he passed. He also notes in his biblical meditations, ‘We should apply this psalm to ourselves; it is the story of our soul. God has withdrawn us from the world by his own hand.’ As Raymond Pannikar remarks, the life of every man and woman in this world is not only biography but also geography. This is particularly clear for Brother Charles, who wrote about himself to a friend in almost the same words as Thérèse of Lisieux in her autobiography, ‘Monk, living not only for God, but in view of him loving souls with all the ardour of my heart.’ The writer Norman Manea recently affirmed that in reality we are all equally the fruit of our bibliography, and this is true also for Brother Charles and for his itinerary as a reader and in his turn also a writer.
When Charles de Foucauld turned to God under the wise guidance of Fr Huvelin he spontaneously felt the need to become a religious, and said so with a stunning clarity in a letter written from La Trappe on 14th August, 1901, to his friend Henri de Castries, ‘As soon as I believed that there was a God I understood that I could not live otherwise than for Him. My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith.’
In the logic of Brother Charles it is clear that he had to seek the most perfect form of religious life and, according to the spiritual sensibility of the age and his temperament which took him to heroism, such an aspiration of radicality and perfection is identified with austerity, ‘I wanted to be religious, to live only for God and do whatever was most perfect.’
A retreat at Solemnes, followed by another at Soligny, finally led him to La Trappe, ‘It seems to me that nothing fits me better than this life at La Trappe.’ His motivation is clear, ‘Search for a life conformed to Yours, in which I can completely share Your abjection, Your poverty, Your humble work, Your burial, Your obscurity’.
In the monastery, first at Our Lady of the Snows, then at Akbes, it seems that Brother Charles learnt to read two texts, first the Scripture – and very specially the Gospel – and then his own heart. At an epoch when, even in monasteries, devotions were much preferred to lectio divina Brother Charles learnt to immerse himself in listening to and interpreting the Scriptures. From this he drew each day, right up to the final evening of his earthly existence, light for his path, by following this fundamental rule taken up by Dei Verbum, ‘The great rule of intepretation of the words of Jesus is his example. He himself is the commentary on his words’.
Many of the fundamental elements of the spirituality of Brother Charles have their roots in the Benedictine monastic tradition and, most especially, in the Cistercian school. The absolute preference for the mysteries of the life of Jesus and the contemplatiion of his incarnation as a means of following him are the fruit of listening to the texts of the Cistercian Fathers read at Vigils and in the refectory. Many of the themes and accents which are often presented as original insights of Brother Charles are in reality part of a tradition which Brother Marie-Alberic breathed with full lungs into La Trappe, later expressed in a wholly personal choice. Thus he writes on 24th April 1897 to Raymond de Blic, ‘I have left La Trappe, having received full dispensation of my vows, to find in another kind of life what I was looking for in La Trappe without finding it. Immediately afterwards Brother Charles testifies, ‘I love and esteem La Trappe.’
It would therefore be very interesting to seek out and gather parallels between the insights of Brother Charles in his meditation on the life of the Lord Jesus – especially in the meditations on the gospels in the ‘written’ form which he imposed on himself – and the commentaries of Cistercian monks like Bernard of Clairvaux, Guerric of Igny, Isac of the Star, William of St-Tierry, Baudouin of Ford. That is a great challenge, for this research could produce a lot of surprises and perhaps lead to a deeper understanding of Brother Charles as a link to a tradition faithful but living, from which he draws the strength, courage and serenity of the innovations which are demanded of monks and nuns of our day.
In a recent declaration the Abbot General of the Trappists declared that for a century certain insights prophetically received by Brother Charles have become commonplace to monks of today: ‘Communities are becoming less institutional, linked to personal rather than formal relationships, as one sees in smaller communities and monasteries’.
In the line of the purest Cistercian tradition the dream of Brother Charles was to find a Christian way in which this intimacy plays a significant part. For its part, this breeds charity and care, which itself culminates in ‘tender indulgence and compassion for sinners, which we need so badly ourselves, but often balance by severity for others.
The ultimate root of this charity nevertheless remains an attitude of prayerful intimacy, passionate desire and love, which in the language of the day is described as pure love.
Brother Charles chose to put himself on the path of others in order to be able to meet them, get to know them and love them, He was, then, looking for a frontier position, long before such terminology was invented. A note from him is very enlightening, ‘Who would dare to say that the contemplative life is more perfect than the active or the opposite, when Jesus led both kinds of life. Only one thing is perfect, to do the will of God’.
It is certainly no chance that Our Lady of the Snows preserves to this day the memory of the blessed Charles de Foucauld as though he had never left it, or had returned to it after a long absence. Did he look for anything other than a life ‘under the guidance of the gospel’ as St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, putting himself to school from others in order to learn the unfathomable depths of love?
 Letter to R. de Blic, 26th March, 1908.
 Méditation sur l’Ancien Testament, Ps. 104.
 Letter to H. de Castries, 14th August 1901.
 Meditation on the Gospel, 199e, Mk 6.7.
 Letter to R. de Blic, 24th April 1897.
 Report of Dom Eamon Fitzgerald to the the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order, 14th September 2014 at Assisi, Collectanea Cisterciensia, 76 (2014) 4, p. 339-348.
 Ch. de Foucauld, Letter to L. Massignon, 15th July, 1915.
 Ch. de Foucauld, Méd. sur l’Évangile, 194e, vocation.