Friday, July 03, 2009

In the footsteps of a saint

Castillo de Javier, Navarra, Spain

Almost by chance, as I was browsing around the ancient bookshelves that clearly don't belong in a modern, brightly furnished study in this residence, I found a decent book titled "Set All Afire". Only the author's surname, De Wohl, attracted my attention since I have heard good recommendation about another book also written by him.

There being only a limited collection of English books here, I took it out and started reading. It was about St Francis Xavier, who by chance was born in Navarra, whose 500th anniversary of his birth was just celebrated, who by chance was thinking of becoming canon of Pamplona, and who by chance, is the patron saint of Navarra. Enough chances. I figure out that since I am very much surrounded by circumstances that led me to this book, I might as well read it well.

To my surprise, I soon found myself praying with this book. Well, at least, the first few chapters of it. While it is a fictionalized account of his conversion and initiation into the CompaƱia de Jesus (Society of Jesus), it moved me profoundly.

The zeal of St Ignatius (whom they called "Father") was palpable, and his love of God -- and with that, confidence in God -- can be summarized in one sentence, which often gave me consolation: "If everything I planned failed, all my wishes were thwarted and all my fighting were in vain -- a quarter of an hour in prayer would reconcile me and leave me as cheerful as I was before." The book is about St Francis Xavier, though one gets more than a good glimpse of St Ignatius of Loyola, his 'spiritual father'.

Well-educated men they were, these pioneers of the Societas Jesu, and it is exemplified by De Wohl's portrayal of St Francis walking up to an Indian temple full of Brahmans, very much reminiscent of St Paul at the Areopagus. Using reason, with fire - both figuratively and literally - when it is needed, or a gentle word when it is needed, he brought many souls to the true faith, a hallmark of all saints.

What I found extremely interesting were these two passages from the book, again fictionalized, but those which capture different ways of dealing with diversity of beliefs:

First was a lively discussion between St Francis and two Muslim clerics in an island off Mozambique, in the east coast of Africa, on the subject of declining numbers - something that we know very well in today's Churches.

Seventeen mosques there were in Malindi, but no more than three of them had worshipers and these were few in number. He could not understand it. How could it be? Why was there such a hardening of the hearts, such negligence and indifference? Surely it must be because of some great sin they had committed...

"The sin that was committed," Francis said sternly, "is that God's revelation brought to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ was not accepted by you."

"Isa ben Marryam," said the old man, "is to us a prophet - a great prophet - though not as great as Mohammed."

"There is your sin, old man," said Francis, "... . You are not like the poor heathen who have never heard of Our Lord and thus have had no chance to accept him in their hearts. You heard and you rejected him, you give a mere man preference over him. No wonder then, that God does not abide with you and takes no pleasure in your prayers."

"Allah is merciful, it cannot be that."


(After Francis reluctantly left these two Muslims to catch a boat to India, the imam reluctantly defended Francis' position to his fellow Muslim -- all highlights are mine)

The Imam gave a bitter laugh. "How right he is and how wrong you are, O Ali ben Mottaleb!"

"Allah!" The old man stared at him, aghast. "You, a Moslem can say such a thing?"

"I can say it because it is the truth. When we were children, O Ali ben Mottaleb, we learned that two and two is four. Not seven. Not even four and a half. Just four. And when the teacher asked us how much two and two made and we gave any other answer but the answer four, he would punish us, because we were wrong. Now if this is right and true in an everyday matter, how much more so must it be so in the things of Allah? Either we are right and the Nazarenes are wrong, or the Nazarenes are right and we are wrong. Of course, we may both be wrong. But one thing is certain: we cannot both be right! It is not possible that at the same time Mohammed is greater than Isa ben Marryam and Isa ben Marryam greater than Mohammed."

"That is true, but..."

"And it so happens that that Nazarene believes he is right, O Ali ben Mottaleb! So he must declare us to be wrong. It is true that his eyes are those of a prophet -- because his soul speaks through them with conviction. He feels sure that he has got the true answer. So how can he make any concession? By the beard of the Prophet, it is impossible! Don't you see what is wrong with us? It is that we no longer have real faith. If we had, we would not ask him questions. We would try to win him over to Mohammed and kill him if he resisted our attempt."

There are many things packed in this short conversation that could teach us about tolerance and truth! 'Religious' conflicts that happened (and still happen) in many places are, in my opinion, a little too unavoidable. The reasons are plainly obvious, as stated by the imaginary cleric in the imaginary conversation with St Francis. When two religions 'dialog', each must be aware that a compromise in each other's positions, or tenets of faith and liturgical practices, should never be only a part of the objective. To win the other party over - is always the objective, no matter how politically incorrect it sounds. Like De Wohl put it, "[with them - Christians] it is always everything or nothing."

I think it is futile to enter into a dialog when neither party believes that what he believes is sacred. It is also futile to enter into a dialog when both parties believe they are both right but not willing to declare the other to be wrong for politeness' sake. It is even more futile to desire peaceful coexistence without each party, or one, having to re-examine its own relationship to the Truth.

I wonder what St Francis would have said and done about syncretism and inter-religious "dialog" of today... something that many modern day institutions inherited by his fellow 'IƱiguists' seem to gain infamy for.

In the second passage, St Francis was talking to the first Brahman he encountered in India, who gave him presents of fruits, meat and pearls -- as a kind of 'bribe' for not inciting more unrest in a village of Sudras - one of the lower castes - who had been converting to Christianity in droves, depriving the priestly caste of tributes:

"Please accept in kindness these little tokens," said the Brahman, "tokens of our admiration and respect and the sign of the respect we servants of the gods have for each other."

"There is only one God", said Francis stiffly.

The Brahman smiled. "To the servant of Siva there is only Siva," he said. "To the servant of Ganesha there is only Ganesha. That is as it shold be and as the wisdom of the gods has decreed it. But confusion would result if we were to teach the lower castes that they must listen to us alone and not anyone else. We are resolved not to contradict your teachings, wise man from the West, and all that we ask of you is that you will not interfere with pious men and women rendering their tribute to the gods in our temple."

(Whereupon St Francis flatly refused to accept the bribe and said: )

"Truth makes no bargain with error. ... I shall not rest till all Paravas have become the servants of the one, true God."

Indeed. Truth makes no bargain with error.

The other 'mystery' I encountered in this book, is martyrdom and the mysterious way the Communion of Saints work. In one of the southern islands of India, as well as in many other places, hundreds of villagers were massacred because they would not renounce their Christian faith, they who had learned the Creed and believed in it for a very short while. A most powerful communion of saints strengthen and support the earthly journey of every Christian, never more strongly encountered than in those who have paid the sweet price of faith with their blood.

Another thread that is most apparent, is his use of intellect ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Like many Jesuits I know, Francis did not disdain human recourses, used strategy and never shied from using arms to the advantage. And coming from a military background, he knows the importance of discipline in an army, especially the army of God. This book also tried to explain the only possible reason why Francis wanted to set up a kind of Inquisition in Goa. The entry on him in Wikipedia implied that the Inquisition was directly due to Francis.

The other journeys of St Francis were described most poignantly. I was most touched reading the chapters of his arrival at Malacca, and afterwards, to the Moluccas islands, beyond the city of Amboina (now called Ambon), to the cannibalistic parts of those islands. To think that a saint had learned to speak my language... to think that a saint had set foot in my country to spread the Faith, and to think that today, the Moluccas Islands remain one of the most staunchly Christian part of Indonesia. Both India, Indonesia, China and Japan, countries St Francis visited, are still mission territories today.

Few of us are perhaps called to 'evangelize' the way St Francis did, to spread the faith with fire, but for the rest of us, our Jerusalem is "wherever work was to be done for the glory of God, in Siena or Calabria, in Ireland or in Parma, in Lisbon or in India. Even at this old desk in this old room..."


Jerome said...

Hi Rina,

I am glad you are finding Jesuit history interesting.

Here's an interesting note:
A few years before St. Francis Xavier was thinking of becoming canon of Pamplona, St. Ignatius of Loyola's conversion was precipitated by a cannonball that injured him at Pamplona!

Anyway, Father General will be visiting us this weekend. Please continue pray for us Jesuits.

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