It is a great joy for soldiers to know that Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)—a graduate of France’s premier military academy, Saint Cyr, who served in the cavalry with the 4th Hussars in Algeria and then with the 4th African Chasseurs during an external operation in the South of France—will soon be canonized by Pope Francis.
For the French Army, this will be the first canonized soldier and a saint to call on at home, in military school and housing, during exercises and, especially, while overseas, where this future saint was able to discover the attraction of the desert and to explore the existence of God.
A life of several conversions
Foucault’s life was filled with challenges. After the loss of his parents when he was six, he was lovingly raised by his maternal grandfather. The young Foucauld was later drawn towards the army, admitted to Saint-Cyr Military Academy and then joined a school for the calvary where he lived a life of vice funded by an inheritance after his grandfather’s death. After being assigned to a regiment, he resigned at 23 to explore Morocco. Little by little, he learned to give thanks and to discover the One who would soothe his heart.
Bl. Charleshad a thirst for the absolute and he did everything to satisfy it. His conversion happened over the years that followed his military life. While he could have married and lived in style in a castle like his ancestors, he chose the desert landscapes of Algeria to live with the Tuaregs as a hermit. As soon as he believed that there was a God, he understood that he could not do otherwise than to live only for Him.
It was in the desert during Foucault’s deployment that his conversion began. During that mission he revealed himself as an excellent platoon leader and comrade. He wrote at that time: “I like camp life as much as I dislike garrison life …”
During a campaign in the South Oranese, General Laperrine, who was on the expedition and could judge his comrade wrote: “In the midst of the dangers and privations of expeditionary columns, this literate partygoer proved to be a soldier and a leader; cheerfully enduring the hardest trials, constantly paying his own way, devotedly caring for his men, he was the admiration of the old Mexicans of the regiment, connoisseurs!”
“We must go through the desert.”
Lieutenant Charles de Foucauld loved military life, which allowed him to awaken his intelligence and his faith. He would later say in his writings after long years in the desert: “We must go through the desert and to stay there to receive the grace of God; it is there that one empties oneself, that one drives out of oneself all that is not God and that one empties completely this little house of one’s soul in order to leave all the space to God alone […]” (Letter to Father Jérôme, May 19, 1898).
It is striking to note even today, a century later, not far from Tamanrasset, in the Sahel, that French soldiers can live the same experience as Foucault. Being confronted with the heat, the harshness and the silence of the desert during operations or during guard duty alone, Foucault discovered another world, a reality that made him seek answers. This gave him a unique experience, a depth of being.
Military life and the life of a hermit are different, but in both cases they require self-denial, humility, and forgetting oneself in order to go to the end of the mission and accept that one does not master everything.
How many times have I heard military personnel from every branch speak with me sharing beautiful discussions about the experience of their deserts, whether they are external or internal. The search for the absolute attracts or repels us, but no one can remain insensitive to it! Going to the desert is a unique experience that opens up horizons!
Étienne de Montéty writes, “Foucauld became a master of humility and self-denial, the work of a lifetime.” Through his sense of self-sacrifice, his goodness, his thirst for the absolute, and his desire to imitate Christ, he paved the way for us and will remain an example for all French soldiers. He was a fighter who knew how to overcome his failures by abandoning himself into the hands of our Lord and by being good to all.
At the occasion of his upcoming canonization, let us ask Foucault for the graces we need and rejoice in the good news that will allow many to overcome their fear and trust in God through all the deserts of their lives. And, may the Blessed and future Saint Charles de Foucauld bless and guard all our military personnel who serve France with honor and fidelity.