CULTURE AND INCARNATION IN CHARLES DE FOUCAULD
“He came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of the ordinary life…” (CdF)
We come to an important dimension of Brother Charles’ vocation, that of Culture. This dimension was present in different stages of his life, but with different aims according to what he lived during those stages.
It is interesting to follow a pattern through which we can read like a common theme: the coherence of God’s project in his life while maintaining the importance of human freedom. My project here is to see how this dimension evolved in the course of his life and became a means for him to becoming incarnate in a people and joining Jesus in Nazareth.
Let us not lose this common thread. That is why we must make a connection between this man of culture, his arduous work on culture and the way he lived his “Nazareth” vocation. He never lost sight of his search for the “cherished final place”! Unable to reach it, he continued to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, trying to become one with his Beloved Brother and Lord Jesus.
1-The experience of Brother Charles.
It is through his existence, his experience, that we pursue this way of understanding the message that Brother Charles leaves us on this dimension of his vocation.
We sometimes forget that he had an excellent scientific formation and a great culture, despite appearing lazy and indolent in his youth. It is important not to reduce him to the image of a man always on his knees in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
He gave much of his life to prayer, notably when he was searching for his vocation, during his monastic period and stay in Nazareth. However, he would devote a lot of work and time to practising the Arabic language in Beni Abbes and then to learning the Tuareg language in Tamanrasset. He did this in the spirit of Nazareth, which was at the same time an experience of prayer, self-emptying and relationship.
Pre-study before his conversion—an explorer’s passion.
Let us understand this thirst for learning from the experience before his conversion. As a child, he was not particularly brilliant in his studies. He could be described as an ordinary pupil. He was already remarked for drawing in primary school: this would serve him well later on! In secondary school, he liked to read both ancient and modern authors with his friend Gabriel Tourdes, as if to nourish his lack of faith in God or even to justify it…
He had to learn a bit of cartography during his formation at St Cyr and the Saumur cavalry school. He loved horse riding… and was a good cavalryman though that did not prevent him from finishing last in his cavalry officers’ class!
So what was going to happen? What would trigger the taste for learning in him and perfect his knowledge? Where would this desire to appropriate the language of others, immerse himself in their culture, become a man among men, and try to blend in with their environment come from? In late January 1882, he had resigned from the army. He was 24 years old.
It was the time of the great explorers, of the great colonial conquests. He felt a taste for adventure during the expedition against Bouamama, an Algerian resistance fighter. He had developed a taste for a simple and spartan life.
What would he do to satisfy this taste for adventure? The map of Morocco was clearly marked with an extensive blank line, and it was a region still unknown to France. He felt the desire to explore it, challenge himself, and do what others had not done. Perhaps to prove to himself that he could succeed and also to restore the reputation of the de Foucauld family, which he had so tarnished by his conduct?
So he prepared himself for this great trip to Morocco. He took 15 months of painstaking work to learn Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish.
We can already measure just how much he invested into this exploration. As lazy and indolent as he was, he learned to make geographical surveys, maps, to draw… He had enough knowledge to launch himself into the adventure. That would be useful to him in his expedition.
I see here the first steps of immersion in the milieu. Of course, it was not for religious reasons; he did it for the taste of adventure and fame. But God uses everything to prepare him for his future vocation!
He wanted to go where no European had gone, just as he wanted to live where no priest had lived. This has to do with the very human desire to achieve something noteworthy, but he already had everything necessary to enter the soul of a people and become incarnate there. Somehow he was already paving the way forward was being. He would not start from scratch. This would be part of the “cultural” dimension of his existence, even if this worry did not really bother him. Later it will take on a different form, that of “Nazareth”. Nazareth will then take on an entirely new hew: becoming like Jesus, incarnate in a people out of love for them and their Lord.
He undertook this exploration from June 83 to May 84, disguised as a Jewish rabbi, with Mordecai as his companion, a connoisseur of the land who served as his guide. He explored the south of Morocco, did cartographic surveys, established relationships with the people, and lived in close contact with Jews and Arabs. He even risked losing his life and was saved thanks to some Moroccans.
In short, he succeeded and returned to Algiers. He became famous. In Paris, in May 1885, he received the gold medal from the French Society of Geography. He was 27 years old. He had become famous. The following year, from May 85 to January 86, he made another trip to southern Algeria and southern Tunisia.
In February, he moved to Paris to work on his book “Reconnaissance au Maroc”. He rented an apartment and slept on a carpet wrapped in a burnous. He lived a simple life. His book was published in 1888, and he converted the same year, in October.
If I have emphasised this investment in another culture”, this desire to enter into the knowledge of the language and customs of a people, it is because he will make use of this experience to later realise this dimension of incarnation by immersing himself in a people, but for other reasons: that of living in the manner of Jesus of Nazareth. We are getting there. We are getting there.
Nazareth: a school built on the study of language and culture.
Now let’s take a big step. Charles dedicated his life to God from the time of his conversion at the age of thirty and opted for religious life. He searched for a long time how he could make it real: a pilgrimage to Nazareth, visits to several monasteries, and finally opting for our Lady of the Snows monastery, where he stayed for a short time. He eventually left for Akbes in Syria for the same reasons we mentioned above – it was a poor monastery far from his family. He stayed there for six long years. He returned to Nazareth, where he sought to live in humility like Jesus. Then, in agreement with Father Huvelin, he decided to become a priest to go to the farthest places where he would live out his Nazareth ideal. This was in 1901.
Knowing well Arabic, once in Beni Abbès, he was able to understand and transcribe in Arabic the passages of the Gospel and also put together a kind of catechism for the use of potential catechumens. The Muslims remained resistant to his efforts at evangelization. He did not insist and would remain in their midst, respecting their customs and religion. He had a small monastery built to welcome the Brothers… who would never come!
Let’s join him on the road from Beni Abbès to Tamanrasset. He already knew Arabic very well. In 1903, at his friend Laperrine’s suggestion, he considered leaving Béni Abbès. You see that his desire for stability is still far away, and indeed he could not go back to Morocco, which he dreamed of. He spoke to Bishop Guérin and Father Huvelin about it. And in January 1904, he began a familiarization tour that would be long and take him to several Saharan oases. His project was indeed to evangelize the Tuaregs. That was still his primary concern. He learned the first rudiments of Tamashek (the language of the Tuaregs) during his long walks. He also began an approximate translation of the Gospel into this language.
In 1905, with the permission of Mgr Guérin and Abbé Huvelin, he participated in a nomadic tour to the Hoggar. His passion for exploration did not leave him. In June of that year, he met Moussa Ag Amastane, the amenokal of the Ahaggar tribe. In August, he arrived in Tamanrasset where he began by living in a reed hut before building himself a small house made of stones and earth, the first one in the village. It was the first sign of his rootedness. Even if he planned to make further incursions into Beni Abbès, he at least showed the desire for stability.
Nevertheless, he had not lost his explorer’s soul… he resumed some trips, but in 1907, he returned to Hoggar, and his installation in Tamanrasset took more and more shape. I will skip over his travels, his absences from Tamanrasset, his three trips to France, but it was well there that he took up residence. He ardently set about learning the Tamashek language.
By 1908, he had already completed a more significant part of the transcription and translation of six thousand Tuareg poems. He would finish the final copy shortly before his death. These poems have nothing mystical about them. They exalt the warriors’ prowess, beautiful eyes of the black-eyed beauty who awaits her lover on his return from battle, the beauty of the country, the beautiful pace of his camel, and so on. Few have religious connotation. This shows the importance he attached to the life of the people of this region, through the discovery and expression of their language.
He had already started working on the composition of a small lexicon to provide military and future missionaries with an instrument to approach the country and its population. The work, later on, would become a “Tuareg dictionary”, meant to enhance the value of this vibrant language, based on Tuareg poems and prose texts collected from the people. It is an immense work which would occupy his last years. He sometimes worked on it for more than 10 hours a day! He would finish it a few days before his tragic death. In fact, he started it with no actual method. A linguist, Motylinski, would spend a few days with him and gave him a methodological approach that allowed him to complete this enormous 4-volume work that is still an authority today. A seminar on his dictionary was held at the University of Tamanrasset on December 1, 2016.
However, he often regretted not completing this project which prevented him from engaging in manual labour:
“The lexicon took me longer than I expected. I won’t be finished for another three or four years: that’s twelve years of work. That’s a lot!” (To Mme de Bondy in 1912)
On December 1, 1916, the day of his death, he wrote to Raymond de Blic:
“I have made significant progress but have not completed my little work on the Tuareg language.
He would only complete this dictionary a few days before his death.
The thwarted desire to work with his hands… like Jesus in Nazareth.*
What he desired above all, to remain in line with the incarnation, was to follow Jesus in the intimacy of Nazareth. He made every effort to work with his hands in line with this inspiration. He often lamented that his linguistic work left him little time for this humble work.
Intellectual work for its own sake was sometimes repugnant to him… because it prevented him from working with his hands as Jesus did in Nazareth! And he did his linguistic work more out of duty than taste! But he did it in the spirit that I tried to communicate to you above. He knew that he was working for future generations. But in fact, this work is especially appreciated today by the Tuaregs themselves!
Charles de Foucauld always believed that he somehow took the time spent studying the language and customs of the people he lived from manual labour. And yet he worked hard, with uncommon zeal. What he did there was a kind of groundwork for future generations while at the same time benefiting from the contacts it could give him.
He craved to be like Jesus in Nazareth, rooted in the lives of the people he came into contact with so that he may radiate Jesus, even if he did not see the fruits. He was a pioneer. His way of witnessing was not by words, and yet God knows he was capable of doing that, but by radiating the charity of Jesus to every human being. His life was about being like that of Jesus of Nazareth.
Charles de Foucauld was not a linguist by vocation. We may ask ourselves what drove him to invest so much in the Tuareg language in this village of about twenty families.
This work is in the spirit of Nazareth and his plan to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. He wasn’t “playing”, he wasn’t pretending, he wasn’t putting on an act by living this hidden existence in this lost corner of Hoggar. He undertook this immense work to incarnate himself and, above all, prepare the way for others. To find himself in conformity with his Master and Lord Jesus, Word made flesh. This is the very meaning of this deep commitment.
Moreover, he wanted his work published under a name other than his own. Again, this desire to remain small and to seek the last place! This effort, this desire touches us as a Church in our concern to be incarnated in the midst of a people, which is why we must attach so much importance to this dimension of his life.
2- Our Church life in the footsteps of Jesus with Brother Charles.
Jesus became incarnate to encounter the men and women of his time.
It was in the synagogue before the people of Nazareth, where he grew up, that he revealed the meaning of his mission:
“The Spirit of God is upon me… He has sent me to bring the Good News to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free” (Lk 4:18).
Since no one is a prophet in his own country, the inhabitants of this village practically chased him away, as they would someone pretentious who interfered with the ancestral customs. Who does this carpenter’s son think he is, without university degrees, and who dares to lecture us?
Perhaps this refusal triggered his decision to go elsewhere since his relatives were deaf and not open to his message.
But let’s not forget that this move towards his people was preceded by thirty years of learning in the great university of life!
For thirty years he learned to be a man. He grew up like the children of his age, he went to learn in the synagogue of his village; he also learned about life, about death, about the suffering of the people of his time. He had a trade, got his hands dirty, sweated to earn his living.
Let us not forget that Jesus lived in a large family. He was often pictured between Mary and Joseph. This is how Charles de Foucauld imagined him. But he lived in the large family of Joseph, to whom God had said in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home, your wife” (Mt 1:20). And they referred to his “brothers and sisters” to show that they knew him well!
I like to think that he discovered in Joseph the ideal image of a father. It had to be so for him to be able to say one day: “When you pray, say ‘Abba, Father'”. Would this have been so if he had a failed relationship with Joseph?
As we meditate on life in Nazareth, let’s think about the beautiful figure of Joseph. He is sometimes presented as a quiet old man. For me, he embodies the eternal youth of God to whom the incarnate Word is entrusted.
In this university of life in Nazareth, he observed the people and listened to them: there is no evidence of any preaching activity during this long period. He learned at length to receive before giving, before speaking: from his parents, from his contemporaries, but also and above all from God his Father, whom he met and discovered in intimacy, behind the closed door of his house or on some mountainside. In Nazareth, Jesus prayed. He learned to pray from his parents and his entourage.
The vocation of Jesus began with a long confrontation with life; through a long heart-to-heart with the Scriptures, He, the Word, the Word of God, committed himself to study. For he studied, on his own, and also undoubtedly under the guidance of some rabbis in the synagogue of his village.
He listened, learned, reflected and prayed before speaking or revealing himself. He became close to others, their daily lives, their worries, and their questioning of the existence he shared with them.
He prepared the simple language of the Parables and “fermented” them in Nazareth. Through them, he would tell us what it is like to grow grain, work in the vineyard, and tend the fig tree. And also the labour of the workers! And it was out of the contemplation of ordinary people that he made the astonishing proclamation of the Beatitudes. His knowledge of Scripture prepared him for his confrontations with the Pharisees.
He prepared himself to be the man of others, for others.
When he left Nazareth and began to walk along the paths of Palestine, it was, first of all, to go and meet his own people and announce the Good News to them: that of the universal love of God. It was first of all to the people of his own nation that he addressed himself. It was towards them that he directed his steps.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
In Jesus, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt in our humanity. He wanted to learn the hard work of living in a specific time and country; he spoke the language and followed people’s customs. He became one with the people, worked with his hands, and became part of the life of the people. We, too, want to participate in the life of the people where we live, just as our Master did. Can you imagine what this means for us, his disciples?
This profoundly links culture with the Incarnation.
It is in this sense that the Council understood culture: “There are many ties between the message of salvation and human culture. For God, revealing Himself to His people to the extent of a full manifestation of Himself in His Incarnate Son, has spoken according to the culture proper to each epoch.” (Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, no. 58).
Incarnation through culture is, first and foremost, a commitment to be present to one another and to welcome each other in our differences. Looking at our diocesan communities in France (like what I experienced in the Sahara), we come from different nations and ethnic groups, different mother tongues, and different mentalities. And we are present in a world marked by difference. The cultural dimension, especially in the outskirts of our big cities, is more and more pronounced. Not to mention the global culture that tends to wipe out the others!
Therefore, our Christian commitment is naturally part of our common vocation: knowledge of the language, customs, religious and cultural traditions, with the greatest respect for those we live with. Entering into the culture of the other is, in the manner of Christ, to become incarnate where we are and to share his humanity.
To incarnate is first and foremost to learn the language, learn to speak and relate with others. In the Maghreb, we do our best to provide this opportunity, especially to newcomers. We all know how much energy Charles de Foucauld devoted in line with his vocation to imitate life in Nazareth, how many hours of hard work and fatigue. The Church also has the task of taking this step, not only to learn the language but also to understand better the culture of the other, to sow better the leaven of the Gospel. Is this effort not to be made in our modern world where so much fear and suspicion hangs over us? Is the world not also ours to approach and save?
This dimension also points in another direction, that of cultural sharing: in a fraternal exchange, to put the other person in a position to better know his own culture and history and open him to different cultures. All the work done in our libraries and the language courses broaden our horizons towards the other. These activities are also “platforms of encounter”, to use an expression of Pierre Claverie, where we open ourselves to our plural humanity. In mutual emulation, we show that it is possible to meet each other despite our cultural differences: it is sharing humanity, a common stimulation for a more human world. To use an expression of Brother Christian de Chergé: our differences then take on the meaning, the direction, of communion.
Charles de Foucault in front of his first chapel in Tamanrasset (Hoggar) 1905