Aug 8, 2010

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Louis Massignon and the Gay connection

(This posting, and more especially the one immediately following it,  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.)

p.s. Originally, this posting including quite a number of photographs, but for some reason they are no longer viewable. 

Charles de Foucauld, the saintly hermit of the Sahara,  lived for many years among the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara. Among his many accomplishments, he compiled the first French/Targui dictionary. His personal sense of vocation called him to live in poverty in imitation of his Master among the Islamic desert peoples of the world, giving an example of charity with no thought to conversion. He died without having made a single convert or without having a single follower. His example, however, has inspired numerous  religious communities of men and women who live among the modern deserts of the world, working and living among the poor in the inner cities, befriending them, with no intention of conversion. The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus live among the poor in apartments in slum areas, even in Romany/Gypsy caravans, working in ordinary menial jobs, and giving adoration to the Blessed Eucharist which is reserved in their small apartments. One Little Sister of Jesus is even a tight rope walker in a traveling Gypsy Circus.

Blessed Charles was killed in 1916 by a 15 year old Tuareg boy named Semi ag Thora, who (we are told) had been assigned to guard him by a band of brigands and who, in a moment of panic,  accidentally pulled the trigger. This is the conventional story. Sometime ago, however,  I received a personal communication via a White Father with many years experience in North Africa, (who is normally very defensive about the church and unwilling to relate negative comments about saintly figures) that Foucauld's  death was caused in part as revenge for his practice of entertaining handsome young Tuareg men in his hermitage in the evenings. Rumors also suggest that the 15 year old boy was something other than a guard. This source did not affirm any improprieties  on Blessed Charles' part, (and I for one, would not believe them, if they did - note to any visitors from Bishop - I wrote this statement before I knew of the interest generated by the Bishop Gumbleton posting above. I would certainly listen to any credible evidence in this area regarding any saintly figure, but in the case of Charles de Foucauld, who's personal sanctity is too much in evidence,  it does seem too preposterous to credit), but they do suggest a predilection for beautiful young males. The rumors, like swirls of dust in the desert, are difficult to credit because of Charles' own dissolute early life and female lovers, but then, who knows? Read below of his very close connection to  the great Islamic scholar, Louis Massignon, who underwent a great psychological crisis because of his own homosexuality, and who partly attributed his conversion to Christianity to Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Charles  would later  name Massignon the executor of his will and Massignon was responsible for publishing Charles' Rule for the Little Brothers of Jesus.

Blessed Charles' hermitage and  tomb

Massignon is a remarkable and saintly figure in his own right, one of the great pioneers of Muslim/Christian relations in our times, who later became a priest in the Greek Catholic rite. Though Massignon was married (to his cousin, as a matter of convenience), there is a little known gay dimension to his life, which this following account  of his conversion  alludes to only indirectly (below the break). However, if one reads with discernment, the connection becomes only too clear. The great human love of Massignon's life was the young Spanish aristocrat, Luis de Quadra, who told Massignon  that because of his homosexuality,  he had "quit Christianity for Islam so as to continue adoring God without remorse for his life, in the manner of Omar Khayyam." The two had met in 1906 on a boat sailing from Marseilles to Morocco when Massignon was barely twenty and an agnostic.

Unfortunately, the author of this article (below) feels compelled to gloss over the obvious homoerotic connection, as well as the five years of gay experience of Massignon, with only this veiled reference, 

 "The two formed a bond that would last until Quadra's suicide in 1921. By then, the friendship had long become the practice of compassion in which Massignon offered himself (pledged his life) as a 'voluntary hostage' for the saving of his friend's soul. In its early stages, however, his relationship with Quadra (and others) threw him into a profound moral crisis." 

This is a heartbreaking revelation, since clearly Massignon, after his conversion to Christianity,  had accepted the conventional Christian understanding of homosexual relations as inherently sinful and disordered, (though in those days it would have been described as a 'diabolical abomination'). One can't help but wonder if Massignon's well intentioned and saintly sacrifice for the sake of his friend led ultimately to Quadra's suicide.

At the peak of Massignon's despair ("after four years of amorality"), he was visited by a Heavenly Stranger and the impact of this 'encounter' would turn his life around and lead him to Christ, the Divine Beloved within. In a reference that clearly alludes  to his young Spanish friend,  Luis de Quadra, Massignon says,

"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's (author of article below)

Whether consummated or not (and it seems only too obvious that it was), the love between Massignon and Luis de Quadra is one of the most moving and heartrending gay love stories of modern times. This makes the connection with Blessed Charles de Foucauld all the more intriguing.

As with so much of our gay history, this dimension to Massignon's life is frequently glossed over or repressed, for example in the 1999 biography of Massignon by Boutros Boutros-ghali. 

Taken from Sacred Hospitality, by Christopher Bamford

Ordained in June 1901, Foucauld determined to live his vision—and form his community—among the Moroccans, who had first taught him about God. He would create a center of hospitality, a place where God and bread were equally present and he could pray for and welcome strangers as brothers. He went to Béni Abbès and built a chapel consisting of four palm trunks supporting a roof of woven twigs and branches. A board served as an altar. He slept on the floor, ate dates and barley cakes. His only icon was a large drawing of the Sacred Heart "holding out its arms to embrace, hold, and call humans and giving itself to them by offering its Heart." His neighbors called his place the khaoua, or brotherhood. He became "Brother Charles." "I want to accustom everyone—Christian, Muslim, Jew, or pagan—to look on me as a brother, a universal brother."

Massignon wrote:

Foucauld was not constituted to evangelize vocally by propagandistic sermons. … He came to share the humble life of the most humble, earning his daily bread with them by the "holy work of his hands," before revealing to them, by his silent example, the real spiritual bread of hospitality that these humble people themselves had offered him: the Word of Truth, the bread of angels, in the sacrament of the present moment. Beneath the tissue of empirical facts he would have them divine the transcendent act. Already his contemplation saw the temporal torn aside by the invasion of the eternal.

He stayed on in Beni Abbés for several years, serving the poor. He turned no guest away. War broke out around him. He felt called to go south, to the Tuaregs, where there were no priests. He wished to serve them, learn their language, and translate the Gospels. He set out, living the life of Nazareth, treating the sick in each village he passed though. Finally, he came to Tamanrasset, "twenty poor huts scattered over two miles," "the heart of the strongest nomadic tribe in the country." There he stayed, alone, working and serving, forever hoping that others would join him in establishing a little order to take this poorest of lives into the poorest of places.

He died on December 1, 1916, consecrated to his Moslem brothers and sisters, without a struggle, an innocent victim of routine violence in a meaningless conflict between local tribes. Before he had died, he had founded an association, a Union, of those who believed as he did. He had met and corresponded with Louis Massignon and hoped Massignon would continue his work. Massignon wrote: "Foucauld was given to me like an older brother . . . He helped me find my brothers in all other human beings, starting with the most abandoned . . ."

Massignon now takes up the story. In October 1906, barely twenty, agnostic, already a scholar, he sailed from Marseilles for Morocco. On board, he met a young Spanish aristocrat, Luis de Quadra, returning to Cairo. De Quadra, a homosexual, told how him he "had quit Christianity for Islam so as to continue adoring God without remorse for his life, in the manner of Omar Khayyam." The two formed a bond that would last until Quadra's suicide in 1921. By then the friendship had long become a practice of compassion in which Massignon offered himself (pledged his life) as a "voluntary hostage" for the saving of his friend's soul. In its early stages, however, his relationship with Quadra (and others) threw him into a profound moral crisis.

Embracing Arab life, dress, and customs, Massignon pursued his studies with ferocious brilliance, while suffering anguish at his private life. The only light in the darkness came from Sufi mystics whose texts he was discovering and reading with new eyes. One day in Cairo, in March 1907, de Quadra pointed out a verse by the tenth century mystic, Al-Hallaj: "Two moments of adoration suffice in love, but the preliminary ablution must be made in blood." This was the Al-Hallaj (later the subject of Massignon's magnum opus) who was crucified in Baghdad in 922 for asserting "Ana'l Haqq. I am the truth" (or "My "I" is God.") Massignon wrote: "The meaning of sin was given back to me, and then the piercing desire for purity read on the threshold of a cruel Egyptian spring." Al-Hallaj was the hook that would turn his life around.

On December 19, 1907, seeking his life's meaning, Massignon reached Baghdad. He was introduced to the elite. He made friends with a leading Muslim family, the Alussy's, who had access to a rich library of manuscripts. They rented a house for him in a neighborhood where no Westerner lived and cared for him spiritually and morally with exquisite grace. Speaking of Hajj 'Ali Alussy, Massignon wrote: "I was his guest. He took me as I was and tried to make me reach my destiny."

Living as an Arab among Arabs, Massignon drew suspicion. Was he a spy? What was he doing? To dispel any doubts, he decided to continue his explorations outside the city. On March 22, 1908, disguised as a licensed Turkish offer, he left Baghdad with a small caravan. Before he left, the Alussy's persuaded him to let them engrave his name on a small crystal seal above the word abduhu, "his servant."

It was an exciting venture. He was attacked by Bedouins, but remained undeterred. Then things began to come apart. On April 28, he had an argument with a servant, who had been spreading rumors about his "effeminate manners." Massignon responded angrily. The servant ran off with the purse. Undaunted, Massignon pressed charges. Meanwhile, doubts had arisen about his identity and his mental stability. He decided to turn back. "Brokenhearted," he boarded a Turkish steamer to take him up the Tigris to Baghdad, the only European on board. He felt suspect, isolated. For the first time in his life, he was moved to pray. "It was in Arabic that I made my first prayer to him. 'Allah, Allah, as 'ad du'fi' (God, God! Help my weakness!)"

He surrendered his revolver to the captain, who had grown concerned with his passenger's increasingly erratic behavior. It grew worse. Massignon broke into the captain's cabin, seized his revolver, and pointed it at the captain. He placed Massignon under observation. Physically constrained, Massignon despaired:

I began to suffer from myself. Examination of conscience: look at how I was ending up after four and a half years of amorality, justly wiped out for the greediness of my science and my pleasure. Dying in a terrible situation; my family would be happy to forget me . . .I decided to put an end to myself.

With a small knife, he struck at his heart, making a superficial wound.

Bandaged, he became more agitated, even delirious. He ripped off the dressing, shredding his shirt. He threw himself about. His face grew red. He cried out, "I want to die." Again, he was forcibly restrained. In this condition, between continuing bouts of agitation, the Stranger visited him. "Shortly after the knife thrust, I submitted to another stroke: interior, extraordinary, torturing, supernatural, ineffable. As if the very center of my heart were burning and my thoughts wrenched apart . . ."

The Stranger is the God of Abraham, of Mohammed, and of Mary's Fiat. He is the welcoming God whom we welcome, the great Yes that unites two in one. "God at once guest, host, and home." His approach is announced "by an internal break in our habits" or "by the acknowledgement of sin."

Responding to a questionnaire, Massignon replied, "the discovery ante-cedes the theory, commotion precedes denomination." "Before the Lord who has struck the blow, the soul becomes a woman, she is silent, she consents . . . She starts only to commemorate in secret the Annunciation, viaticum of hope, that she has conceived in order to give birth to the immortal." Like the Virgin, the soul does not ask why or how but only says Yes. "The frail guest that she carries in her womb determines thereafter all her conduct. It is not a made-up idea that she develops as she pleases according to her nature, but a mysterious Stranger whom she adores and who guides her."

The Stranger who visited me one evening in May before the Taq, cauterizing my despair that He lanced, came like the phosphorescence of a fish rising from the bottom of the deepest sea; my inner features revealed Him to me, behind the mask of my own features . . .The Stranger who took me as I was, on the day of His wrath, inert in His hand like the gecko of the sands, little by little overturned all my acquired reflexes, my precautions, and my deference to public opinion. By a reversal of values, He transformed my relative ease as a propertied man into the misery of a pauper . . .

The transformation continued. A second peak occurred (May 8) in Baghdad, in hospital.

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 name" was de Quadra's, but there were others. "I felt with certainty a pure, ineffable creative Presence suspending my sentence through the prayers of invisible persons, visitors to my prison, whose names disturbed my thought. The first name was my mother's (she was at the time praying in Lourdes), the fifth was the name of Charles de Foucauld . . ." The second would be de Quadra, the third, hazarding a guess, Al-Hallaj, the fourth perhaps Huysmans.

Greater things would follow, but not before a third supernatural event: "A harrowing sensation, suddenly the presence of God, no longer as a judge, but as a father inundating the prodigal child. I quietly locked the door of my room and [prostrated myself on the tiles, finally weeping my prayer all night long, after five years of a dried up heart." Over the next sixty years of incomparable scholarship and service, under the sign of Al-Hallaj, to whom he attributed his saving, Massignon's faith would deepen and ripen, gradually finding its true form under the continuing intercession of Charles de Foucauld, Al-Hallaj, and J.K. Huysmans. To these would be added St. Francis of Assisi.

Wikipedia has a very moving and inspiring article devoted to Massignon, a man far ahead of his time in terms of openness to other religions. 

Wikipedia: Louis Massignon

Massignon's faith can be characterized by the basic concepts of sacred hospitality and mystical substitution (Arabic: badaliya‎).

Sacred hospitality

Sacred hospitality, a concept that was inspired by the Islamic commandment of hospitality, demands, in Massignon's eyes to accept anyone and even serve him without wanting to change him or wishing him to be different. It is also rooted in the life of Jesus Christ, "who asked for hospitality and died on a cross" (Gude, xii), thereby accepting even the violence of his executors.

This concept also forms the basis for his strong belief in peaceful coexistence among different ethnicities, which made him speak out against the displacement of the Arabs from Palestine, as well as (at least initially) the decolonization of Algeria that implied the emigration of the French Algerians and Algerian Jews, the Pieds noirs, and the end of a multi-religious Algeria.

Substitution and intercession


The concept of mystical substitution was first suggested to Massignon by Huysmans' biography of Saint Lydwine of Schiedam, "whose life exemplified the writer's belief that one could atone for the sins of others by offering up one's suffering on their behalf." This is also, ultimately, a concept inspired by Jesus Christ, whose suffering on the Cross, according to Saint Paul, redeemed mankind from sin.
He also believed in the power of intercession, i.e. of praying for others, and had felt this power himself, especially during his conversion to Christianity.

Following this idea, Massignon wanted to dedicate his whole life as a substitute for the Muslims, not necessarily so that they would be converted (not putting up with their difference for religion would have been against his idea of sacred hospitality) but that God's will would be fulfilled through them. He also saw his becoming a priest later in life as a way of offering up his life for others.


Anonymous said...

Face Book Blessed Charles de Foucauld

I wish I could speak with you more about thid post. It is really excellent. Do you know the book by Dorothy Buck?
I have studied the life of Foucauld for 40 years, and is my companion and happy to read he is your mentor.

Crooner62 said...

Thank you for a fascinating exploration of Charles de Foucauld and Louis Massignon (and the other lives touched by them). I read the Wikipedia article about Louis and was sad that there is zero mention of his personal life, his homosexuality and relationship with Quadre. Would you venture to add that information to the Wikipedia page? It is (as you say in your writing) so difficult to explore our gay history because of the many cloaks, veils and outright omissions. I think the editors would consider your submission if you provide sound notations and sources.
Regardless, thank you for what I learned by reading this article.

Unknown said...

Foucauld groups in the USA