Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent Week 1: The Waiting of Francis Xavier

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, one of the 10 men who helped formed the Jesuits in the 16th century, and the one who in many ways inspired the Society's missionary activity with his decades of work in Asia.

If you ever go to the Gesu Church in Rome, and you happen to wander back into the sacristy, which sometimes functions as a daily mass chapel, you can find this painting:

It's Francis Xavier on his death bed on an island, just 14 kilometers off the coast of China. It had long been a dream of Francis' to do missionary work in China.  But when he finally got the chance, he only got as far as this island. He was to meet a boatman to take him to the mainland, but the man stalled, and Xavier fell ill from the cold and a lack of proper nourishment.

He actually died close enough that he could see China.  From the painting I can imagine him looking out on that distant shore, as his life gave out, the dream he had sought never to be achieved.

It wasn't the first moment of powerlessness in Xavier's life.  At age 10, he watched his father get pushed out of his job as President of the Royal College of Navarre by none other than Ignatius of Loyola's future employer The Duke of Najera, who was systematically replacing all the Navaresse in his operation with Castillians.  Supposedly, Xavier Sr. died of heartbreak.

At age 12, the year before Ignatius arrived in Navarre, Xavier watched his castle home bulldozed by Najera to make way for a fortress to protect the Castillians against the French and other foes (aka the Navaresse).  The very beams of the Xavier castle were used in the construction of the fortress.

Xavier's brothers fought in 2 rebellions against Najera and the Castillians, including the rebellion that would lead to Ignatius' cannonball wound (and conversion).  The brothers were imprisoned at various times, threatened with death.  Xavier's mother would sign her letters to him, "Dona Maria, the sorrowful." (Best signature ever.)

Xavier consequently went to school in Paris with much to prove. When he decides to do Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises (a decision that took him quite some time), as a mortification he bound his limbs so tight he cut off the circulation, and almost got gangrene.  As a Jesuit he accepted the call to leave Europe and go to India within days of receiving it.  He worked in difficult situations in Asia, in the midst of conflicts, and yet he never stopped pushing, moving, looking forward.  And yet there he was at the end of his life, alone on an island, the thing he wanted most of all just out of reach.

As Christians we often hear ourselves called in the Scripture to build the Kingdom, to be restless in the best sense, never satisfied, always seeking to do more.

But the Kingdom is also God's project, ultimately. It involves a surrender to a big, broader concept of time and success. I always thought the Xavier painting involved Xavier looking out at the coast of China.  But if you look close you discover he's looking not out but up toward God. He's given up the hunt and placed this dream, his whole life in God's hands.

As we enter into Advent, we talk about waiting in hope. When I hear such readings it usually triggers some concrete sense of waiting, that is a waiting for something -- a better world (or a better me).

But waiting can also mean a surrender to that bigger sense of time, to a God who is mysterious as well as loving, and to a sense of self as being small, weak, not in control. Which might sound awful. But if you've ever gazed up into a nighttime sky full of stars, you also know the sense of wonder and dare I say relief that comes with realizing our place in the scheme of things.   We are small, and yet we are also a part of the gorgeous, mysterious whole of creation.

And to wait is to let yourself be taught how to become at home in that mystery.

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