Holiness from the Heart of Jesus: St. Charles De Foucauld

“More Brilliant than the Sun," a weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

The series so far:
PART 1: The Plan of the Heart of Jesus to Drive Back the World's Darkness
PART 2:  What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?
PART 3:  Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and its Roots in Holy Scripture
PART 4: The Heart of the Savior in the New Testament
PART 5: 
 The Heart of Jesus Manifest in His Tender Affections and Compassionate Love
PART 6: 
 The Heart of Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross
PART 7:  From Easter Onward: The Heart of Jesus Lives in His Church
PART 8:  The Flowering of Love for the Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages
PART 9:  Saint Gertrude the Great on Bringing Comfort and Joy to the Heavenly Christ
PART 10:  Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and Reparation to the Sacred Heart
PART 11:  On Consoling the Heart of Jesus
PART 12:  Saints and Servants of Consoling Reparation to the Heart of Jesus
PART 13:  The Twelve Promises — and the Great Promise — of the Sacred Heart 

PART 14: Holiness from the Heart of Jesus: St. Charles De Foucauld

In the aftermath of our Lord’s special revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, and for the better part of two and a half centuries (that is, roughly from the 1670s until the early decades of the 20th century) “holiness” among the saints began to take on new dimensions. A much more intimate relationship with Jesus in the Gospels and in the Blessed Sacrament became characteristic of the saints in this period, as well as a special focus on reparation to the Heart of Jesus, and consoling His Heart.

All this was in full accord with the plan of the Sacred Heart revealed to St. Margaret Mary (as we saw earlier in this web series). A renewed commitment to spreading the Catholic faith throughout the world, and caring for the sick and the suffering also flowed from this devotion. In short, the whole life in Christ of the saints in this era often centred on the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of their Savior, radiating outward in a multitude of works of missionary zeal and service to those in need.

Adult conversion
Consider, for example, the missionary and martyr St. Charles de Foucauld (1868-1916). Born in Strasbourg and brought up in a pious Catholic family, Charles lost his faith while he was a college student. For five years, he served as a soldier in the French colonies in Algeria and Morocco: a time of adventure, but also of great profligacy and debauchery. At the age of 28, however, Charles underwent an adult conversion to Christ — and given the extremity of his former life of dissipation, he sought out the most extreme life of penance to undo its effects. First, he spent seven years as a Trappist monk, but when that way of life seemed too comfortable to him, and he longed to imitate more closely the poverty and hiddenness of the life that our Lord lived in Nazareth, Br. Charles travelled to Nazareth itself and lived there three years as a hermit, and as a gardener for a convent of religious sisters.

Ordained a priest in 1901, he then gave 15 years of solitary Christian witness and priestly service deep in the Moroccan Sahara before he was murdered there by Bedouin soldiers in 1916.

Charles had lived under the shadow of the threat of death ever since he began his mission to the largely Muslim villages of the Sahara. He knew that even his silent Christian witness of prayer and service among them might very well cost him his life. He wrote (cited in Jean Francois Six, ed., The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles De Foucauld. Dimension books, 1964, p. 147):

The less of everything we have, the more like the crucified Jesus we are. I should have nothing more or better than Jesus of Nazareth had it. … I should live today as though faced with the prospect of dying this evening as a martyr. “One thing is necessary”: to do at all times what is most pleasing to Jesus, to be continually ready for martyrdom and accept it without a shadow of defence, as did the divine Lamb, doing so in Jesus through Jesus and for Jesus.

In fact, Br. Charles’ scriptural meditations, notes, and letters were collected after his death, edited and published in France, and served as the inspiration for the founding of the Catholic religious community called “The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus,” whose members vow to live in accord with his teachings and example.

Focal point
In the writings of St. Charles de Foucauld, we find a soul deeply in love with the Eucharistic presence of our Lord. This became the focal point of his life of adoration and service:

My God, here I am at your feet in my cell. It is night, everything is quiet, everything is sleeping. At this moment I am perhaps the only one in this town at your feet. What have I done to deserve such graces? Now I thank you, and how happy I am! I adore you from the depth of my heart, my God. I adore you with all my soul, and love you with all the strength that is in my heart. I am yours, yours alone. My whole being is yours (Six, ed., Spiritual Autobiography, p. 87).

Lord Jesus, you are in the Holy Eucharist. You are there, a yard away in the tabernacle. Your body, your soul, your human nature, your divinity, your whole being is there, in its twofold nature. How close you are, my God, my Saviour, my Jesus, my Brother, my Spouse, my Beloved! (Spiritual Autobiography, p. 98).

Some of St. Charles’ meditations on the Agony in the Garden breathe the very spirit of St. Margaret Mary, and her desire to bring consolation to Jesus in the tabernacle. For example, concerning the words of Christ in Matthew 26:38, 40 (“Stay here and watch with me ... What? could you not watch one hour with me?”), Br. Charles wrote the following meditation (Spiritual Autobiography, p. 94; italics mine):

Was our Lord saying these words only to his apostles? No, he was speaking to us all, all those he loves, all those he was thinking about during his agony — all of us whose loyal and loving company was consolation to him in these painful moments. Let us then be loyal to the practice of “watching” with him every Thursday evening, keeping him company, supporting him, consoling him, being with him wholeheartedly in his agony. The Thursday evening vigil with our Lord in agony should be one of the practices to which we are faithful throughout our lives. For love of our Lord’s Heart, we should never fail to be there. He is asking it of us formally in these words addressed to his apostles. Can we fail him?

Joy and solace
In addition to his great desire to keep the Holy Hour, and to console Jesus in the tabernacle (thereby consoling Him retroactively in His Agony in the Garden), Br. Charles also grew to understand that our Lord receives joy and solace from more than just our acts of Eucharistic piety. Above all, it is the sanctification of souls that Jesus loves so much that brings joy and consolation to His divine Heart:

At every moment of the journey, our Lord saw not only his Mother and St. Joseph, and the angels worshipping him, but also this present time and the future, every moment in the life of every human being. What is more, at the prospect of the sins, ingratitude and damnation of so many souls, his Sacred Heart was already experiencing the terrible pain that was to be its lot through his life on earth. Yet he also tasted, as well as the great consolation afforded him by the holiness of his Mother, a lesser, but still real, consolation at the prospect of all the souls of the saints, all the souls that loved him and who would one day love him, all the hearts that would join with Mary’s in beating for him alone. Shall we be among them, dear Father? Shall we be consolation or pain to our blessed Saviour? (Spiritual Autobiography, p. 31; italics mine)

You give [the soul] life, the life of grace, the seed of the life in glory, in growing abundance. ... The purpose of every man — like that of the Church, and your own, my Lord Jesus — is to give glory to God (that is, to manifest his glory outwardly) and bring sanctification to men.

You love us. The more perfect we become, the greater will be your consolation. We should long to give you all possible consolation, for your commandment is that we should love you with all our strength. We should want to be as perfect as possible — so make our thoughts, words, and actions like your own. Live in us, rule in us, so that it may be no longer we who live, but you in us, my God (Spiritual Autobiography, p.100-101; italics mine).

From this inner wellspring of love in the heart of St. Charles — love especially for the Heart of Jesus, present in the Eucharist — there flowed also an ever deepening love for his Muslim neighbours, for Jesus’ sake. John Wijngaard sums up for us this aspect of Br. Charles’ apostolate, this outward flow of love (Experiencing Jesus. Ave Maria Press, 1981, p. 99-100):

He learned the Tuareg [Bedouin] language. Both at Beni-Abbès and Tamanrasset Charles lived among the ordinary people in a small house, sharing in their everyday joys and sorrows. As their “universal brother,” he looked after their sick, cooking food for them and cleaning their wounds. When no rain fell for 17 months in 1907-1908, Charles helped as much as he could to fight general starvation. He distributed so much of his own stores to needy families that he himself fell ill with exhaustion and undernourishment. For long periods he travelled around as a nomad, living in a tent, constantly moving from place to place. Wherever he was, he tried to be friendly and accessible.  ...

He was convinced that the message of Christ would only penetrate the Muslim world if many more like himself were prepared to live a simple gospel witness among Muslims. That’s why he worked hard at establishing a congregation of followers; why he insisted — with great farsightedness — that lay people would play a greater role in the mission of the future; why he dreamed of having a book published that would appeal to idealistic young Christian volunteers.

Unfortunately, no one offered to join his religious congregation during his lifetime. He lived and died alone. But soon after his death, the publication of his writings lit a flame in the hearts of many, a flame of love which has not been extinguished to this day.

Heart of the Saint
In short, the spirituality of St. Charles was in many ways characteristic of devotion to the Sacred Heart in the period we are considering — and yet, as with each and every one of the saints, there was something unique about it as well. Perhaps our Lord summed it up best in this dialogue He had with Br. Charles, in the depths of the heart of the saint, and that Br. Charles recorded in his Spiritual Autobiography (p. 82-83):

[Jesus said] “it is possible to do good to men — great good, infinite good, divine good — without using words, without preaching, without fuss, but by silence and by giving them a good example.”

“What kind of example, Lord?”

“The example of devotion, of duty towards God lovingly fulfilled, and goodness towards all men, loving kindness to those about one and domestic duties fulfilled in holiness. The example of poverty, lowliness, recollection, withdrawal, the obscurity of a life hidden in God, a life of prayer, penance, and withdrawal, completely lost in God, buried deep in him.”

This series continues next week with Part 15: "Holiness from the Heart of Jesus: Bl. Dina Belanger."
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