Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Excised from the public record: Charles de Foucauld, Louis Massignon and the 'Gay Connection:


 (The following posting is not meant to cast aspersions upon the reputation of the great and saintly Charles de Foucauld, who is one of my mentors and the model for my own contemplative, heremitic lifestyle. It is pure speculation and is offered only by way of interest in a blog devoted (among other things) to the history of gay experience in the church and the difficulty of rescuing the history of gay persons from deliberate obfuscation. Personally I don't credit the rumors described. The case of Louis Massignon, however, is an entirely different matter.)

What is the elusive truth behind the rumors surrounding the death of Blessed Charles de Foucauld? This is a complement to the previous posting which suggested a possible gay connection with the circumstances of his death. It is part of the public record that many Arab soldiers under French command frequently visited the saintly hermit and were given hospitality overnight. In fact, hospitality was one of the cornerstone virtues of his eremetical life. It is also a matter of public record that the Senoussi Brotherhood, "a fundamentalist-political-religious organization created to oppose European penetration," were deeply resentful of this hospitality and generally convinced that the former French soldier, Foucauld, was a spy for the French in the Sahara and thereby a threat to their own interests who must be eliminated.  The brigands who invaded his hermitage on December 1, 1916, had been sent by the Senoussi and charged with the task of apprehending the famous Christian marabout. Has the fact of his hospitality to Arab soldiers been distorted by prejudice and resentment to suggest an unsavory sexual component, a slur on the saintly hermit's reputation, a slanderous suggestion of hidden motives behind his simple charity. It would seem so, though I do trust the integrity and intelligence of my source, who is not given to spreading salacious rumors about saintly figures. What is the elusive truth behind the mystery of his death? If there is anything to the rumors? It is unlikely we will ever know.

But these reflections led me to return to the most comprehensive biography of Charles de Foucauld available in English, by French author Jean-Jacques Antier. While I found nothing particularly illuminating about his standard account of the hermit's death - a robbery gone terribly wrong - I did come across this account of the conversion of the deeply spiritual Louis Massignon, which completely excises any mention of his love for the gay Spanish nobleman Luis de Quadra. This is not such a terrible omission, given the pious nature of the biography and it's principal focus on Charles de Foucauld. But it does highlight how difficult it is to discover evidence of gay experience on the part of notable figures throughout Christian history. It is more discrete to pass over such evidence in silence:

Who can measure the efficacy of prayer? In 1907 Massignon was in Cairo working on a dissertation on the tenth-century Sufi mystic Al Hallaj, crucified in Baghdad for his nonconformist approach to loving God. Like Jesus, he had dared to say: "The Father and I, we are one." The following year, doing archaeological work in the Baghdad area, Massignon had been kidnapped by Turkish fanatics, who thinking he was a spy, had threatened to kill him. Still an unbeliever, he was thinking of suicide to escape torture, when suddenly he was overwhelmed by "an ecstasy of fire and light, the certainly of the existence of God and Love". According to his own account: "Try at suicide out of incredible self-loathing; eyes closed and a sudden feeling of reverence before an inner fire judging me and consuming my heart, the certainty of a pure ineffable, creative Presence suspending my sentence at the prayers of beings, invisible visitors to my prison, whose names suddenly burst upon me: Al Hallaj, Huysmans, Foucauld."

What Jean-Jacques Antier  omits from this account, however, is any mention of the fourth name, Massignon's former lover, Luis de Quadra, and this heartfelt insight given by Massignon, which I quoted in the previous posting. It's simply not included in Antier's account:

Taken up for the second time into the supernatural, I felt myself warned I was going to die: a burgeoning spiritual dawn, a serene clarity inciting me to renounce everything. I clung to a beloved name, repeating it to myself, declaring to myself: “If he has betrayed me, I want to be sincere for two and carry his name with me always.” The serene clarity increased in my soul: what is a name in the memory? Does not God possess this creature infinitely more than I? I abandon him to God.
The Beloved's name was Quadra.

That is quite an omission, because it is the heart of the whole experience. In this way, we see just how difficult it is to transmit an authentic, reliable history of gay experience on the part of Catholic figures throughout history, particularly noteworthy, saintly figures of the caliber of Louis Massignon. This 'unpalatable' dimension is simply ignored.


I suppose we should be thankful for small favors, however, because in light of Massignon's own crisis over his homosexuality, a case could be made  that Massignon was simply given the grace to turn away from his own disordered homosexual nature and directed by the Spirit to turn to the only truly authentic Catholic option for gay persons: abstinence. He could be presented as a model of authentic gay holiness: He recognized the call to give up all homosexual relations, which had led him into a life of amorality (as if that is the only possible outcome if one expresses one's gay sexual orientation), embrace  the love of Christ and become a celibate - or marry one's cousin.  It goes without saying that in 2010, this is not the most intelligent or compassionate interpretation. Massignon's cry, "Try at suicide out of incredible self-loathing,' simply expresses the agonies of a conflicted, self hating gay man who sees no viable option other than total renunciation. And I would surmise that this renunciation extended to his marriage to his cousin. Because of his deep, mystical immersion in Islam as well as Catholicism,  Massignon went on to become one of the most noteworthy examples of "multiple religious belonging," long before this phrase became trendy in our own day. It is a poignant element of his life, however, that he never found a way to authenticate his own gay sexual identity.

Antier quotes an exchange between Charles and Massignon over the latter's remorse for his sins of the flesh:


He advised Massignon: "Do not cast blame on yourself. The miseries of our souls are as mire in which we must humiliate ourselves often,  but it is not necessary to have our gaze fixed on these miseries at all times."


Easy to say, thought Massignon, still devoured by desires of the flesh and other fantasies. Under the circumstances, how could he consider priestly celibacy, a monastic life in the wilderness? He cried out in despair: "There's nothing left but to bury myself in marriage."

Again, no mention whatsoever of what any scholar of Massignon's life could not fail to see - the gay connection. It's simply passed over, leaving the reader with the impression that Massignon's temptations of the flesh were of the conventional heterosexual kind. Later, when Charles receives the news from Massignon of his upcoming marriage to his cousin, Antier comments:


It was over. They would not see each other again...the family had won.

What a pregnant phrase. One can't help but wonder if family pressure to marry had been brought to bear upon the sensitive Massignon  precisely in order to 'overcome' his "effeminate tendencies," those tendencies which had caused him to be laughed at by Arabs during his first excursion in Northern Africa.

One thing seems fairly certain from this story. If there is any substance to the rumors of a 'gay dimension' to the circumstances surrounding the death of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, they have long been buried under the sands of the Sahara.



Blessed Charles' famous prayer of abandonment:

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.

Charles de Foucald

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you look hard enough and with enough unrestrained imagination, you can come up with anything you want. Given the anti-colonial struggle and the resistance to the French and other colonial powers, I think the death of Blessed Charles de Foucauld can be most believably understood within this context.
Blessed Charles has been a great intercessor for me and he is a wonderful friend. I think this posting you have made is libelous; at first glance it would appear that you have some evidence; as I read what you have posted, I can't even call your "evidence" flimsy; there is no evidence whatsoever.
Blessed Charles pray for us; Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. Amen.

Jayden Cameron said...

am truly sorry to have offended you. I frequently forget how easy it is for innocent visitors to wander into this blog on the basis of a simple google search.

My main focus was really upon Louis Massignon, who clearly seems to have been a divided gay soul, and whose biography, like so many gay figures before him in Church history, has been so carefully edited and whitewashed. Take a look at what has just recently happened with Blessed John Henry Newman, with every attempt made to rationalize his decision to be buried in the same grave with his life time companion, Ambrose St. John. It is assumed to be enough to demonstrate that Blessed John had no overtly expressed sexual desires for Ambrose St. John to prove that he was not 'gay," the term gay or homosexual then very conveniently defined exclusively in terms of sexual desire or lust, rather than in orientation. It is a very clever slight of hand but a dishonest one. Newman's case is very close to that of Louis Massignon. Charles de Foucauld is in a very different category, and I must confess to being genuinely shocked when I first heard the suggestions I mentioned in the posting.

The 'rumors' surrounding Blessed Charles, a great saint if ever there was one, have come to me from more than one African source, however, and bear consideration - even if they prove to be no more substantial than the desert sands. You are correct, however, in that unsubstantiated insinuations about a saintly figure can cause scandal unless qualified. My error there in not making certain facts clear.

Blessed Charles has been my mentor and guide for over forty years, since I first encountered his story in the Jesuit novitiate. He is also the model for my own contemplative, hermetical lifestyle. Like you, I consider him a friend, and his photo figures prominently on my own altar. I would not credit any rumors of sexual impropriety on his part, simply because he gives evidence of having transcended the passions in his spiritual evolution. This is not to say that he had become inhuman, with no inclinations whatsoever, only that they had been so profoundly sublimated and integrated into his spiritual being as to make 'temptation' a thing of the past. With Blessed Charles, peace reigned throughout the whole house of his interior being. This would not have deprived him, however, of his appreciation for human beauty, and we would assume from his past that he would be more inclined towards the feminine than the masculine. Were that not the case (which I really don't believe), he would not be the first 'gay' figure in church history to have engaged in frequent heterosexual affairs, and to have any contrary incidents of a same sex nature carefully airbrushed out of the picture. My African sources are suggesting just such a scenario, that there seemed to be a visible history of entertaining handsome young men - which in itself proves nothing. Would we expect him to be entertaining handsome young women? They also suggest that the conventional story with it's anti-colonial subtext provided a convenient cover for a more problematic explanation. Is it worthwhile to disseminate such unsubstantiated rumors, is it even ethical, given the scandal that might be caused by casting aspersions on the reputation of holy man? Only in a personal bog that is dedicated to the exploration of gay themes throughout church history and the difficulty of rescuing such gay history from centuries of deliberate obfuscation and denial.

"When one can suffer and love, one can do almost anything. Even things in this world which seem impossible."