Fr Billy Swan
On 15th May, Blessed Charles de Foucauld will be canonized a saint of the Church by Pope Francis. A former Trappist monk and founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, one of his best know prayers is the ‘Prayer of Abandonment’. Here, I would like to comment of this marvelous prayer and unpack its spiritual power. First, a little about Charles himself.
Charles was born in Strasbourg in 1858 and was orphaned by the age of six. By his late teens, he drifted away from the faith and became agnostic. He attended a Jesuit school from which he was expelled for being lazy and troublesome. He then joined the military – a career which took him to Algeria and Morocco in North Africa. Despite his agnosticism, he felt dissatisfied and was known to pray the honest cry of the heart: ‘O God, if you exist, make yourself known to me’. Following the advice of a spiritual director, Charles made a good confession and received holy communion as an act of faith that would lead him to faith. This might seem strange to us but it is like someone struggling to believe in love but who decides to love despite his or her doubts. Gradually, they come to believe in love because they practice it. This moment marked a turning point in the life of Charles. In a letter he described it this way: “As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could do nothing other than to live for him” (Letter to Henry de Castries, 14 August 1901).
From this conversion, Charles entered a Trappist monastery and from there went to Nazareth in the holy land where he desired to imitate the hidden life of Jesus. In 1901, Charles was ordained a priest and shortly afterwards, he returned to the border area of Morocco and Algeria that he knew as a soldier and where he tried to model a nomadic form of the contemplative life. In the desert he lived in a spirit of simplicity and fraternity among the poor including all Christians and the majority of Muslims in the area. In fact, “Fraternity” was the name he gave to his hermitage that he established in the area, hoping that others would be attracted to this form of community living and join him. He once wrote: “I must be everything to everyone. I must laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry, to lead them all to Jesus”.
The irony is that his dream would not be realized in his lifetime but only after his death. Still, his writings never conveys disappointment that he would not live to see the success of his vision but rather display a confidence that the seeds he sowed would one day bear fruit.
His ecumenical dream of a fraternity that transcended the Christian and Islam faiths was noble but dangerous. On 1st December 1916, Charles was killed by desert bandits. He was beatified on 13th November 2005 and will be canonized as a martyr saint of the Church on 15th May.
What captured Charles’ imagination throughout his whole life was Jesus’ simplicity and poverty as the incarnate God who stooped down to us in love and made himself known in simplicity and poverty. He once wrote: “It is my desire to live in poverty, abjection and suffering, in solitude and neglect so that all my life I may be beside my Master”. Perhaps his best known prayer is his ‘Prayer of Abandonment’ that captures his spirit of simplicity and humble trust in God.
Father, I abandon myself into your hands, do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands, I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart;
For I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself:
To surrender myself into your hands without reserve and with boundless confidence. For you are my Father.’
A few observations of this wonderful prayer. For Charles, God was a loving Father and creator of all. Like St Francis of Assisi, his writings contain a deep devotion of God as Father which formed the foundation of his emphasis on fraternity and the communion among all things and all people. If God is our common Father, then we are all brothers and sisters.
As a loving Father, God is worthy of his complete trust. In this he imitates Jesus himself whose trust in the Father remained steadfast even when faced with torture and death. ‘I abandon myself into your hands’ paraphrases the dying words of Jesus from the cross: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). For Jesus and for Charles, these words not only captured an act of faith at the moment they were spoken but summarized their whole lives. ‘Do with me what you will’ is the spirit of someone who subordinates their own will to the will of the Father, knowing that God’s will for them is always what is best and most loving. It is important here to qualify something in relation to human freedom and God’s will. It isn’t that our own wills don’t matter or cease to exist. Such an act of faith comes from someone who has come to trust that what God wants is what is best, despite how difficult it might be for us to see this.
For this reason, whatever God decides is the best course of his life, Charles is ready to accept and therefore he gives thanks. His submission to God’s will is unconditional and therefore he writes: ‘I am ready for all, I accept all’. Aligning ourselves to God’s will is a fundamental part of the Christian life, not just for Charles but for others too. Conformity to God’s will is a very counter-cultural message today at a time when we are encouraged to ‘do our own thing’, ‘make up our own minds’ and ‘choose for yourselves’. Yet here is the distinctive feature of Christianity that responds to a call from God before rather than being a way of life we choose for ourselves.
Then follows Charles’, commendation to God of his soul. This gift of his innermost self is not given coldly but warmly, affectionately and without a hint of self-interest. It is given ‘with all the love of my heart’. Love is what constitutes the friendship of Charles with the Lord. Here is a man who is deeply in love with God. It is the nature of this love for his Father that compels him to give himself to the beloved in loving union. This is what love does. It declares its love for the beloved and then gives itself away to the one who is loved.
This is what the love of Charles does – it moves him to surrender himself to God and his love ‘without reserve and with boundless confidence’. Charles concludes the prayer with the reason he does this: ‘For you are my Father’. Here he ends the prayer as he began it with a reference to his loving Father. For this holy man about to be declared a saint, God is not a distant or impersonal deity but a loving parent whom he has come to know and trust.
As we welcome and acclaim the Church’s newest saint, we recall that God truly did answer his earlier prayer: ‘Lord. If you really exist, make yourself known to me’. It gives us hope that all who honestly seek God will find him. Finally, in this age of increasing polarization, Charles’ example of Gospel simplicity and fraternity take us back to the Church’s mission to foster loving communion within her family and the wider human family to which we belong. This is the spirit of Blessed Charles invoked by Pope Francis in his encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti…Brothers and Sisters All’ where he writes of Charles: “I would like to conclude by mentioning another person of deep faith who, drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all. I am speaking of Blessed Charles de Foucauld…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” (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 286-287).
May God inspire this ideal in each of us. St Charles de Foucauld, pray for us!