David Pinault on Charles de Foucauld
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future
There is an old saying in Catholicism, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. If there is anyone in the history of the Catholic Church who highlights this, and there are many, Charles de Foucault is one.
Ignatius Press recently released the second edition of Charles de Foucault by Jean Jacques Antier. David Pinault author of Providence Blue, also from Ignatius, wrote the introduction. I had a chance to speak with David for the radio show I host and for my work on Medium, Substack and Authory.
David Pinault is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Santa Clara University. According to his biography on the university website, he did his fieldwork in various countries with a strong Muslim presence and spent much time, obviously, around the Muslim population. There, he also found this helped him define well his own Catholic faith, not far from the experience of Charles de Foucauld.
In this article, David’s words are italicized
You know, some of the best and a few of the worst experiences of my life have been spent in Muslim countries. And the overwhelming majority of Muslims that I have dealt with have been wonderful people and I’ve received tremendous amounts of hospitality and friendship there.
As with many of the saints, Foucault’s road of holiness began with walking away from the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. Born in 1858, he grew up in a time when France’s secular society challenged the faith. David Pinault explains:
He grows up at a time when Darwinism was challenging the faith. A lot of people, especially in Europe, he encountered in his education were in currents relating to Darwinist materialism, secularism and so-called scientific atheism. All of these challenged both the authority and the doctrines of the Church.
Later in his life, he reflected saying: “I just wish that I had had teachers who knew how to defend the faith in a way that was both rational and engaged and he lacked that.” ”
His parents died when he was six and so, as David explains, the young Foucault had little direction in life.
“He winds up, growing up as someone I would say who lost his faith and lost focus. In his teens, he goes to the French military academy, Sainte Cyr — the equivalent of West Point. But at the Academy, he did not distinguish himself. He was very much a kind of champagne guzzling playboy. Essentially, he is what I would call a bon, bon, connoisseur. He graduates the bottom of his class.”
Alfred Mira one of the regular guests on my radio show/podcast explained to me off-air that the young Foucault would buy a complete and filled wine cellar. He would then invite his friends over and they would all party, drinking every bottle of wine.
David explains the beginning of his reversion to the Catholic faith changed soon after graduation. Algeria was a colony of France and a charismatic Muslim leader called a jihad against France.
His regiment was sent abroad; sent out to the area for combat duty. For Charles Foucault that was really in a sense, the beginning of his path to adulthood. He had responsibility for troops under his command, and he goes to that challenge and the structure, and the discipline that’s having to lead desert patrols and so forth. This helps to steady him.
And then, in addition, he wrote later that he was very impressed with what I would call the devotional discipline, shown by the traditionally minded Muslims that he encountered in French North Africa — the call to prayer, the discipline. That’s a lot of ritual prayer — five times a day etc.
This leads him to look again at his Catholic Heritage. Granted his parents died when Charles was young but they had been a devout Catholic family.
He makes his confession, begins receiving the sacraments again and what that leads them to ultimately is to his ordination as a priest. He chooses to return to North Africa to French Algeria but this time as a military chaplain. He could have accepted a relatively pushy and comfortable assignment in a parish in Algiers in the capital located right on the Mediterranean in French Algeria. Instead, he volunteers to serve to minister to French Foreign Legion outposts in the Algerian Sahara. And not only that but he would accompany what are called pacification tours. Basically, roving patrols would go out wherever needed to confront local populations because you know, there would be there all these rebellions and so forth. Plus there was resentment against the French because the French had outlawed the slave trade.
Algeria, still under French colonial rule outlawed slave trading throughout the empire. Many of the slave traders still lived in Algeria and were greatly resentful of the French for this, David explains.
They wanted to continue. The Muslim slave traders wanted to continue preying on the Black African population, in southern Algeria. The French outlawed it. Now, the only thing is that you know, Algeria is an enormous country and very, very hard to police. And so the government was not always able to enforce the anti-slavery legislation. What Father Foucault did was because he was moving around a lot, he would minister to the most vulnerable populations, not only to the soldiers of the foreign legion. He spent a lot of time in southern Algeria. Ultimately establishing his own hermitage monastery there. He would minister to the slaves and, help to purchase their freedom, sometimes from the slave traders and then, get employment for them sort of, helping him at the monastery and so forth. So he really stood up for the slaves and freedmen among the black population.
David explains that because of Foucauld’s work with the French Government many are against his canonization.
I was thrilled when I found out that Father Foucault was up for canonization, as well. I was distressed to see that various, I guess you could call them progressive-minded, woke historians and so forth saying ‘No, no, no. No, what we should be doing is dismantling colonialist figures instead of venerating them.’ Because Father, Foucault is what one critic called, and, they say he had deep nationalistic feelings. This is someone who was part of the French colonial project, and so, when you say words, like, colonial and nationalist today, you know what we’re looking at. Basically, I would say, is I hate to say it, but this is like cancel culture at work.
The people listening in [on my radio broadcast/podcast] would know that so often the case when ideologies become rigid, if someone thinks that you’re off by one millimeter, then there’s nothing good about you. Chuck him into the dustbin of history.
As David Pinault explained, what is lost to history is his work to end slavery in the French Empire against the resistance to it by those in Algeria. It was a territory that the French could not manage well.
Foucauld grew in his Catholic faith and became a hermit living in the deserts of Algeria.
What Foucauld really wanted was simply to spend his time in private adoration. One of his favorite activities on a daily basis was worshipping before the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
He had a small Chapel really I guess sort of a hut like where he would spend the night in prayer before the monstrance, before the consecrated host and he would often sleep there curled up before the altar on the ground. Basically, he described himself as rolled up like a dog. He says a dog for Christ, a dog for Christ,
His living as a hermit also allowed him to be available to whoever came by regardless of their religious background or loyalties.
What we could call the indigenous population: anyone, Christian non-Christian Muslim, whatever were welcome, to come to find them, ask for help, whether it was for, basic medical needs or spiritual or just conversation. And so that availability to others with something that was not easy for him, you know?
What enabled him to do this was what he learned from his early days as a soldier in Algiers. The discipline of the Moslem routine taught him to discipline himself as a Catholic.
The more that I studied his life, the more I realized that what you see is a discipline. And I think the first step in that kind of practice can involve just asking ourselves: What kind of use am I making of my time? Am I letting myself be distracted? Infinitely.
He gradually freed himself of distractions. And of course, the more empty-handed you become that way, the less burdened you are by distractions, like that the freer that you are. The more energy you have to devote yourself to what’s truly important. And he knew what was truly important was the focus on Christ. In doing that, at the same time, you know, he realized: ‘Okay. I have this intense love for God, especially for God’s Son. How do I manifest that? I manifest it the same way that Christ himself did, you know, service to others.’
That’s really where the patriotism comes in, you know, he loved his country France And the way that he wanted to show that was by making himself available to the inhabitants of the French Empire and he saw himself as imitating Christ in doing that.
Father Charles De Foucauld continues his hermit lifestyle in prayer and service. He even helped in creating written forms of the Tuareg language. However, some did not appreciate his work.
He suffered martyrdom at the hand of Muslim warriors in 1916. We could look at this as similar to what Isis is doing today.
One of Germany’s allies was the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. In World War I and so Germany. encouraged the Turks to basically preach jihad — Holy war against the Western allies and their colonies. And so, there are various militant groups . . . they’re basically the jihadists, you know, coming across the border from places like Libya and so forth. So they would make raids in French Algeria and he was killed in one such raid.
In the biography for which I wrote the foreword, Jean-Jacques Antier, the author of this biography published by Ignatius mentions that according to eyewitnesses, when jihadists captured Foucault and tied him up and held a rifle to his head, they, told him to declare the Muslim creed of faith and give up his Christian faith. Of course, he did not do that. He remained steadfast in his faith, and he was killed on the spot.
Foucauld, according to David Pinault teaches us to see life with intensity, not longevity.
What made him ready, you know with the impressive amount of serenity to give up his life is that he recognized that we should not measure our lives by longevity.
Today in our culture. we put an awful lot of emphasis on living as long as possible. In itself, of course, that’s not a bad thing. For Him what he focused on was the notion time is a gift from God. Make the best use of it, but don’t grasp onto life. Rather. What counts is the intensity with which we follow the path laid out for us by Christ.
David Pinault explains this further in his latest book Providence Blue also published by Ignatius. I will interview him on this book at a later date.
Fr. Charles Foucauld will be canonized on May 15 by Pope Francis.
Charles de Foucauld Second Edition by Jean Jacques Antier is available via Ignatius Press and other online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.