Fraternity on the Periphery

A dear friend of mine who has spent the past two years living in Nazareth introduced me to the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Somehow I had never heard his story before or, at least, it hadn’t caught my attention.

The Vatican’s very short summary of him is this:

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.

This sounds like a biography worth knowing. I look forward to reading both some biographies and some of his own spiritual writings in the new year.

The other day, a different friend of mine questioned me about what I get out of leaving. What do I get out of leaving Canada to live in Poland, Israel, and Italy? She also asked whether I “got what I was looking for.”

These questions come back to me as I reflect on the story of Charles de Foucauld and how his travels forged his identity, his vocation, and his spiritual life. He did not know how his travels would change him. What he got out of leaving France for places like Morocco, Nazareth, and Algeria were hardly lessons or experiences that he could have foreseen.

Charles de Foucauld reflected, “Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and neighbours. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives.”

And yes, it’s a paradox: Nazareth could be any place, but he learned that because of the years he lived in Nazareth.

Pope Francis ends his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” with reference to Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s meditation on fraternity that he learned also because of where and how he lived:

Blessed Charles directed his ideal of total surrender to God towards an identification with the poor, abandoned in the depths of the African desert. In that setting, he expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being, and asked a friend to “pray to God that I truly be the brother of all”. He wanted to be, in the end, “the universal brother”. Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen.

I do not believe that travel is always acquisitive. It is not so much about getting what I am looking for as it is about being found available to be transformed by new surroundings and encounters.

Charles de Foucauld got seemingly contradictory things out of his travels (and his life): deepened conviction about human fraternity and martyrdom by those who are, in some mysterious way, also brothers.

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