A lonely French hermit was shot dead in Southern Algeria in December 1916. His name was Charles de Foucauld. Pope Benedict beatified him on 13 November 2005.
Who was this man? A glance over his story reveals a remarkable person. I first read Anne Fremantle's biography of him in the 1960s and was deeply impressed.
Born in Strasbourg, France, in 1858 Charles was orphaned when six. Relatives brought him up as a pious Catholic but he had lost the faith by the time he was 16, remaining faithless until he was 28.
He entered the military college of Saint-Cyr and trained to become a cavalry officer. Whilst there he lived as a bon vivant, for he was an aristocrat (a viscount), and rich and fat. He narrowly escaped expulsion. Much the same standard was achieved in the Cavalry School. Somehow, he managed to gain a commission and was sent to join military operations in Western Algeria.
This experience changed his life. Rapidly he became a penetrating observer of the landscape of North Africa and of its Muslim inhabitants. In short, he fell in love with both. The vast spaces of desert and semi-desert, contrasts of light and shade, stark mountains, vast starry sky at night. He was enchanted permanently.
As for the Arab and Berber Muslims, he was struck by their consciousness of God and fearless piety. Most of their morals he detested.
He then resigned from active duty with the Army to undertake exploration of Morocco. Disguised as a Moroccan Jew, he travelled 11 months through Morocco, covering 4,200 kilometres and mapping areas precisely. The book he published later was used by the French Army for the next 50 years.
Aged 25, he returned to France where he was soon invited to present accounts of his journey. The Paris Geographical Society awarded him its Gold Medal.
So at 25 he was a distinguished linguist, explorer, and cartographer. He was also a brave man, for France did not then govern Morocco, so he could have been killed as a spy.
Amongst loving and devout relatives, he began to ask himself about his lack of faith. Determined to consult an expert, he visited a renowned Parisian priest, Abbé Huvelin. The priest commanded him to make his confession. Discussion could wait. Charles confessed. His new life began.
Within months he had decided to love and imitate Jesus totally. He became deeply impressed by the Lord's humility and abandonment to the will of the Father, especially as exhibited in Jesus' hidden life at Nazareth. Charles wanted to own nothing, be unimportant, and to maximise his time in prayer.
He entered a Trappist abbey in France in 1890 at the age of 32 and after some years he moved to a monastery in Syria. It was a hard life which he mostly enjoyed. But he craved solitude, so he quit the Trappists in 1897.
Next he went to the Holy Land where he found a convent in Nazareth. Here, in return for his services as a gardener (a useless one), and as general labourer, he was given a tiny shed as habitation and minute quantities of food, as he chose. More valuable, in his view, was access to the chapel where he spent many hours a day in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
Here he was very happy for three years. Was he not in the very Nazareth where his Master had lived for 30 years, hidden, almost unknown, and poor?
Previously Charles had resisted suggestions he be ordained a priest. But Africa was calling. Now he wanted to bring the sacraments to "the most rejected". Besides, he needed Mass in the life of solitude he planned. He was ordained in June, 1901.
He returned to Algeria, settling in the Saharan region in the south. At first he lived near a French military post, so acted as chaplain, as well as making many contacts with local people. His intense devotion to prayer and poverty continued.
Meanwhile the French were subduing the tribes further south. In Charles' view, these people needed him even more. In this remote desert area, thousands of kilometres from the Mediterranean, he built a tiny house in Tamanrasset and settled.
The locals came to him for friendship and assistance with problems, revering him as a marabout (holy man). They were Tuaregs, with their own language, dirt poor, and ignorant. He wrote the first dictionary and grammar of their language, published in four volumes, translated 6,000 verses of their poetry, and turned the four Gospels into Turareg.
He made no effort to instruct them in the Christian faith - which he longed for them to adopt - but hoped to reach them by kindness.
French control dissipated rapidly after her entry into the Great War. The Turaregs became more and more threatening. Charles built a small fort, but this did not save him. He was killed for no apparent reason.
What can one say of him? Saint, monk, priest, soldier, explorer, cartographer, linguist, scholar, grammarian, all within the span of 58 years. Above all, saint, because for the last 30 years of his life he longed intensely for God, sought nothing but God's will, and did it.
Dr Frank Mobbs is a writer and retired lecturer who has been a regular contributor to 'AD2000'. He is author of the recently published 'The Incredible Da Vinci Code'.
The abandonment prayer of Charles de Foucauld is on page 14.