It is the 1st of December 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today I want to introduce you to a man just beatified by the Roman Catholic Church this past spring- he was a man you might find remarkable but, in some ways, unremarkable. This is the story of Charles de Foucauld, a man who was killed in the Sahara Desert on this the 1st of December amidst fighting during the first World War in 1916.
Charles was born in 1858 in Strasbourg- his parents died when he was young, and so he and his sister lived with his wealthy grandparents. He rejected both his parents' and grandparents' Catholicism. When his grandfather died, he would receive a sizable inheritance, and like the prodigal of the parable, he lived a profligate lifestyle. He joined the French army but largely to find friends and adventure. He was known for his appetites, and he would be dishonorably discharged when he attempted to take a mistress with him on duty in Algeria.
In 1883 he remained in Africa and attempted to become one of the first Westerners to explore Morocco before it becoming a protectorate divided between France and Spain. He dressed as a Jew (Jews were allowed in the sultanate) and carefully hid the diaries he took as he traveled with various groups of Jews and others wandering the desert landscape.
But he felt empty- in his own words, “I was all egoism, all vanity, all impiety, all desire for evil; it was as if I had gone a little mad.” By 1886 he experienced what he called “a profound malaise, an existential emptiness” and decided to convert to the Catholic faith of his family.
As eager as he was in his old lifestyle, he became for his new life of faith. He decided to join the Trappists- this was a branch of the Cistercians who were slightly less austere and known for the quality of the beer they brewed to supply an income. He transferred to a Trappist monastery in Syria but was still unfulfilled. Seeing this, his superiors allowed him to leave the order, and he went to the Holy Land, where he became a servant to the Poor Clares living there. The Poor Clare’s were a branch of the Franciscans that followed Clare of Assisi- a follower of St. Francis. He served there for two years and then traveled back home to France, where he was ordained in 1901.
He would decide to go back to the Sahara- the land of his younger years, where he believed he could minister to the poor he came across when traveling. He believed he could convert non-Christians there with his service and example. He lived a semi-hermetic lifestyle until he was invited deeper into Algeria, into the Sahara, amongst the Tuareg people of the Tamanrasset. There he made a French/Tuareg dictionary and translated the Gospels and some Psalms into the Tuareg language.
When World War 1 broke out, the French in Algeria, who past through the Tamanrasset, found Charles to be something of an oddity but decided to rally around him as a kind of religious talisman. Charles had a symbol- a cross with a heart that he put on all of his writings. Soldiers would carry copies of this symbol with them into battle.
As the war continued on, the locals and French built him a small fort- both for his protection but also as a storehouse from which he could distribute the goods he collected to the local poor. Amidst the turmoil of the war and, perhaps on account of his French background, he was attacked by a local Bedouin tribe on this the 1st of December in 1916- he was shot in the head and left for dead. His body was found later in a ditch.
It was his example, a simple life of service and an order for a life modeled on the Benedictine and Augustinian Orders, that led to the creation of the Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Gospel across France. Today there are roughly 20 congregations of holy monks and nuns following in his footsteps- the now (as of March 15th, 2022) officially canonized and sainted Charles de Foucauld.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Isaiah 4- a good Advent reading:
2 In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. 3 Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem. 4 The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire. 5 Then the Lord will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over everything the glory will be a canopy. 6 It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of December 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who reminds you that Sahara means “desert”- it’s the “desert desert” He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who reminds you that the world's largest desert is not the Sahara- it’s Antarctica. Deserts can be hot or cold. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.