The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld (2003)

Love consists not in feeling that we love, but in wanting to love. We love above all things what we want to love above all things. If it comes about that we do succumb to a temptation, it is because our love is too weak, not because it does not exist. Like St. Peter, we should weep, like him we should say three times: “I love you. I love you. You know that despite my weakness and sins, I love you.”

I just finished reading The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld—a result of a bit of bibliographic providence. I found out about Foucauld while reading Nouwen’s Genesee Diary; I ordered it during that read; and when it arrived in my hands I had forgotten that I had ordered it. But I was excited to see it. It made the trip down to Florida with me.

The book itself follows Foucauld’s life journey after his conversion. Growing up as a Christian, he turned away from his faith as a young man. Later, he found himself in a confessional and there he found Christ again and started living for him daily. Though discernment with his spiritual adviser, Foucauld made his way to Nazareth to act as a worker for a community of Poor Clares. There he lived “the hidden life” of Jesus, that is, the life that would have been led by Jesus in Nazareth prior to the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels—so Jesus’ life until around the age of 30. After spending many years there, he returns to France and while on retreat, he decides he wants to minister to the nomadic peoples of the Sahara. So he the Algiers and Morocco. While there he deepens in a desire to start a community himself, but that never fully develops in his lifetime. (Historically, he is the spiritual father of The Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus.) On December 1, 1916, Foucauld was martyred.

The book gives little details, so it is unclear why or by whom he was martyred. The book, instead of being a classical autobiography, is indeed a spiritual one, demonstrating the development of his thoughts and the ways in which his desires changed (for example, in Nazareth, he wanted solitude, while in Africa, he wanted to show others the life of Jesus).

Throughout the book, the editor focuses on three themes and how they were lived out by Foucauld: the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth, Eucharistic adoration, and caring for the “least of these” while showing them the life of Jesus.

My reflections on these are as follows:

  • Eucharistic Adoration: I’m only beginning to understand Eucharist Adoration; however, Foucauld’s engagement with this practice challenges me to want to adore Jesus in thought, word, and deed. Such adoration is what is really important. Moreover, growing in one’s desire for concrete adoration of Jesus through thought, word, and deed is one of the deeply profound things I took away from reading this book.
  • Caring for “the Least of These”: Taking the charge of Matthew 25 seriously, Foucauld left the cloister, went to the Holy Lands, and labored for a community of Poor Clares. Caring for the widow, orphan, captive, and outcast, as Foucauld demonstrates, is the heart of the gospel, which we should all take to heart and practice deeply. The desire to care for the marginalized arose out of Foucauld’s desire to lead the hidden life of Jesus.
  • The Hidden Life of Jesus: For me, this notion was the most interesting aspect of the book. I have never previously heard of “the hidden life” of Jesus, but it is, as I understand it from my reading of Foucauld, a way of describing the life that Jesus led from his nativity until the beginning of his ministry. It’s the years we don’t have any knowledge of through scripture. Thus, hidden.

However, through meditation and reflection, some things can be gleaned about the hidden life.

First of all, the hidden life of Jesus involved manual labor; he was, of course, the son of a carpenter. Here, the though of manual labor being less praiseworthy is put to shame. For if a humble life of quiet labor was good enough for our Lord, surely it should be good enough for us. The challenge is to ignore the voices who would have us be successful. I found Foucauld’s comments here especially helpful in light of my recent change in career path.

Second, the hidden life of Jesus revolved around poverty. For Jesus, poverty was a part of life during his time in Nazareth. Again Foucauld, who reminds us that we cannot serve two masters, begs his readers to imitate Christ in every way. For Foucauld, poverty as part of imitating the hidden life of Jesus demanded that he go to Nazareth and live as a laborer. To my mind, such direct imitation cannot be the call of the gospel, but, nevertheless, poverty is called for.

Turning briefly to the Sermon on the Mount’s notion of “poverty of spirit,” I assert that the call for poverty of spirit becomes fundamental for understanding lived poverty. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not merely talking about economic poverty—the witness of Jesus’ life assumes economic poverty is indeed involved and therefore called for—but, more comprehensively, poverty of spirit means relinquishing the desire for power, for controlling outcomes. We are to meet the world through the self-emptying love that led Jesus to the cross. So, while not necessitating a radical relocation of life to the Holy Lands, having a poverty of spirit is no less scandalous.

It is important to note that Foucauld lived a life of poverty of spirit. He was poor, wanted nothing, and tried to manipulate nothing (except for his desires later in life to start a community and to act as missionary to the people of the Sahara). I think that this lifestyle is what should be emulated as the example of poverty from Foucauld’s life more than his self-abnegating move to Nazareth. The “least of these” are everywhere for us to serve in humble poverty of spirit.

I did have problems with parts of the book, mainly the sections where he describes the Taureg people of the Sahara. Due to their lifestyle, Foucauld considers the Taureg to be a bit “backwards” and practitioners of a lesser religion. For me, the editor could have left out the more inflammatory statements about the state of the Taureg. A book that could be a spiritual classic otherwise is sullied by their inclusion. On the other hand, however, I know that a work of history (spiritual or otherwise) cannot eliminate the unsavory bits. They’re part of Foucauld and need to be disclosed. Still, the editor could have framed it better in his introductory notes to the letters, or the editor could have mentioned Foucauld’s opinion of the indigenous people in Northern Africa and left the relevant letters (of which there were only one or two) out all together. I found them most unhelpful, and they have left me hesitant to recommend it to others.

I also find Foucauld’s often disdainful remarks about life itself troubling. I suspect that he is wanting to express the notion of detachment, but it seems to me that all detachment must be oriented away from life and towards God and then from God back to life. So detachment means that life should be loved and that it should be loved through love of God. I think Foucauld needed to further nuance his opinion of life in order to be spiritually nourishing in his meditations on life.

And there we are. Foucauld was a very insightful man of God. He has important things to teach us about the importance of manual labor and of poverty. Indeed, his life of wrestling with the notion of Jesus’ hidden life should be contemplated deeply by all. But there are four or five paragraphs that are deeply unhelpful for the spiritual life, paragraphs that should have never been included in the book. Alas.

I would, in final analysis, recommend the book to you, dear reader. It is full of things to study and contemplate. Just know going in, that are lots of wonderful things and a few problematic things contained therein. May we focus on, be attentive to, and mold our life towards the good. May we learn from the mistakes of our predecessors, welcoming strangers into our lives instead of judging them.

In short and in the words of a fine old hymn, may we “shun the wrong and do the right.”

[Updated: 12 April 2014]

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One response to “The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld (2003)

  1. Pingback: My Life with the Saints (2006) | Three New, One Old·

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