In protestantism we seem to think that there is a blank between Paul’s death and Luther’s reformation. It is deplorable that we should so deliberately waive a good part of our Christian heritage.

We do the same with the saints of Christendom. True, Luther relentlessly fought the thoughtless imitation of holy hermits, when thousands used to leave their families and daily duties and seek the real Christian life in extraordinary experience and far-away places. Also, the Reformers declared that there is nothing in Scripture about praying to the saints, thus making them minor saviours. However, they also state that the saints should be examples for us. With that balance Luther recommended study of their lives.

The later Protestant milieu abandoned the balance, and in the tussles with Roman Catholicism abolished acquaintance with the saints altogether. With this we lost much encouragement and instruction for our own life of discipleship and sanctification. Evangelicals need to recover the example of the great saints of Christendom.

I wish to introduce readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY to a man who truly is a saint for our time: Charles de Foucauld, the French nobleman and priest who, born in 1858, died a violent death in the Sahara desert in 1916.

This man is particularly worth listening to. He consciously returned from secularism to belief. Having lost his faith early on he led a life of license and debauchery (not infrequently the result of human autonomy), so much so that he was dishonorably discharged from service as an officer of the French army. Appalled after some time by the prospect of a life without purpose, he threw himself into geography and became one of the daring first explorers of Morocco, then hostile to foreigners, where for months he traveled under disguise. It was at this time that the devout life of some Muslims shook his skepticism. He began to hunger for spiritual truths. Returning to Paris, he made up his mind to ask for instruction in the Christian faith. The priest whom he approached about lessons, however, with a sudden spiritual insight led him into the confessional, asked him to confess his sins, then invited him to the eucharist. That day de Foucauld became reconciled with God.

De Foucauld found more. As with Peter and Paul, he experienced both salvation and calling together. He wrote: “As soon as I came to believe there was a God I saw I could not do anything except live for him. Faith and the religious vocation came to me at the same hour.”

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After some time with the Trappist and Cistercian orders, he spent a number of years in Nazareth doing a general maintenance job for a poor and insignificant monastery. These are the hidden years, which produced a remarkable series of written meditations witnessing to his deep communion with Christ.

Finally, he moved to the French Sahara. Here, among the nomadic Tuaregs, where he was known as “the follower of Jesus,” he lived a life of prayer and Christian service. He recorded their language, translated the Gospel and read it to them, visited the sick, fed and housed passers-by, became the counselor of the headman, and in a thousand small ways helped these extremely poor people to live. He used money sent from France to make gifts of grain or to buy the freedom of slaves. About slavery he wrote:

“This is what I say to the slaves: far from preaching flight or revolt, I preach patience and acceptance of their present lot, adding that in time God will give them comfort and freedom … that they should set their hearts on the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be given to them as well; at the same time I do not conceal from my French friends that this slavery is an injustice, a monstrous immorality, and that it is their duty to do all in their power to abolish it.” And he cannot but regret that the representatives of Christ find it sufficient to defend this cause of justice and love “into the ear” only and not also “from the rooftop.”

We are to share Christ’s love for all men. But this will only come about as we learn to love him: “The Lord alone deserves to be loved passionately. Blessed ruins (of our life) which throw us earlier and more completely into this truth!”

This perspective makes him painfully aware of the materialism quietly overpowering the Christian West. At a time that very much resembles our own he writes:

“We need to return to the Gospel. If we do not live out of the Gospel, Jesus does not live in us. We must return to Christian simplicity. What impressed me most during the few days I spent in France, having been abroad for nineteen years, is the growing taste for expensive luxury which … becomes a natural habit of all classes of society, especially the middle classes, and even of good Christian families. And with it goes a carelessness and rage for worldly and frivolous amusement that is absolutely out of place in difficult times like ours, in times of persecution, and in no way consistent with the Christian life. The peril is in us and not in our adversaries. Our enemies at best can help us to victories.… Return to the Gospel, that is the cure which we all stand in need of.”

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Finally, Charles de Foucauld is a modern example of the “grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies.” All through the years he planned and prayed for a fellowship of people: clergy, monks, and laymen, who would share his vision of a life of silence, adoration, and simple work, living among the “wretched of the earth.” This did not happen during his lifetime. Only some twenty years later did the “seed of the desert” grow up into the orders of the “Little Brothers” and “Little Sisters of Jesus.” They now live among the poor in the industrial and poor cities of Europe, with the nomads of North Africa, in the slums of Beirut, and among the proletariat of Latin America.

Our time, noisy and affluent, finds it difficult to handle his challenge. But evangelicals need to be set aflame with the fire that burned in Charles de Foucauld, when from the desert he wrote to a friend: “I am infinitely weak. But however I examine myself, I find no other desire in me than this one: Thy Kingdom Come! Hallowed be Thy Name!”

Klaus Bockmühl is professor of theology and ethics, Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.

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