Your Mercies Cover Me: St Charles de Foucauld
In view of St Charles’ recent canonization, we share with you an excerpt from Home Again by Fr. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. St. Charles de Foucauld was canonized on May 15, 2022 by Pope Francis.
“Every Christian must be an apostle, this is not a counsel, it is a commandment. My apostolate must be an apostolate of goodness. On seeing me people should say to themselves, since this man is so good, his religion must be good. And if I am asked why I am so gentle and good I must reply, because I am the servant of the One whose goodness is still greater. If only you knew how good my Master Jesus is!” – St. Charles de Foucauld
Saint Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916) lost both of his parents by the age of six, and then lost his faith in later youth. A number of years of dissolute living followed, eventually resulting in his dismissal from the army for conduct unbecoming. After conversion, he pursued a monastic and uniquely eremitical vocation, ending up a missionary priest in the Sahara, where he lived and died in the greatest humility and poverty, respected by Christians and non-Christians alike. The Tuareg people in whose midst he served were represented at St. Peter’s Basilica when Benedict XVI beatified him in 2005.
Foucauld’s autobiographical writings reveal a man totally overwhelmed by the mercies of God, as though he had been pursued by them from eternity:
How many are your mercies, O God—mercies yesterday and today, and at every moment of my life, from before my birth, from before time itself began! I am plunged deep in mercies—I drown in them: they cover me, wrapping me round on every side.
O God, we should all hymn the praises of your mercies—we, who were all created for everlasting glory and redeemed by the blood of Jesus….1
Yet it is only by contrasting this exalted hymn of praise with the depths of ennui and dissipation from which he had been rescued that we fully grasp the mercy of which he sings.
You made me experience a melancholic emptiness, a sadness that I never felt at other times. It would come back to me every evening when I was alone in my rooms; it kept me silent and depressed during our so-called celebrations: I would organize them, but when time came, I went through them in silence, disgust and infinite boredom. You gave me the ill-defined unrest that marks an unquiet conscience which, though it may be wholly asleep, is not completely dead. I never felt that sadness, that distress, that restlessness apart from those times. It was undoubtedly a gift from you, O God.2
His very contemporary-sounding words reveal a height of insight attained only in retrospect, in the light of grace. God had been involved all along, teasing a hunger and thirst for higher things from out of his emptiness.
Perhaps it all sounds very unlikely: God’s gift in the form of a troubled conscience, dissatisfaction, and boredom. But it shows us how the saints reread their lives in the light of faith: mercy, grace, gift of God; it is all one. “We know that in everything,” says St. Paul, “God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Knowing this in theory is one thing, but experiencing it in one’s life prompts praise like nothing else.
It is ordinarily harder to judge our own experience as a string of mercies than that of others. It is difficult seeing outside of our own experience. From the inside, all we see are knots and contradictions. When a friend consoles another in sorrow, it is often the outsider who sees the grace and mercy at work in the trial. Sometimes it takes another to tell us our own story, or at least to interpret it. If God is both outside and inside human experience, experiencing in Christ what is human more humanly than anyone, then we should listen carefully to what he says about it. And those who drink closest to the source of mercy, the saints, are the surest interpreters in helping us translate Providence into mercy.
From Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith
Chapter One: “The Story of Your Life”
1 Charles de Foucauld, The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld (Ijamsville, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 2003), p. 10.
2 de Foucauld, pp. 11–12.
Image: Charles de Foucauld, Vatican News