Monday, 8 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 4th Day, 7th March 2010

Yesterday we were in Poland. Today we cross into southern Europe to the western frontier of the Mediterranean. The 4th day of the Novena of Grace allows a glimpse into the life of St Francis Borgia—the 3rd Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Who was he? On his father’s side, the great grandfather was the most notorious of all Popes, Alexander VI. On his mother’s side, his great grandfather was King Ferdinand of Aragon. In iconography, our saint is sometimes portrayed as carrying a skull. That shows us how the grace of God works mysteriously and we will come to this later. With such illustrious ancestry, one can expect Francis to be part of the Hapsburg court. In fact, he became a Duke when he was only thirty-three and he lived a happy, peaceful life with his wife Eleanor and their eight children.

When his beloved wife died, Francis did something that astonished the nobility of Spain; he gave up his Dukedom to his son Charles and became a Jesuit priest. So many people came to his first Mass that they had to set up an altar outdoors, but his Superior tested him by treating him in exactly the opposite way he had been used to all his forty-one years of life. He who had once been a Duke had to help the cook, carrying wood for the fire and sweeping the kitchen. When he served food to the priests and brothers, he had to kneel down in front of them all and beg them to forgive him for being so clumsy! Still he never once complained or grumbled. The only time he became angry was when anyone treated him with respect as if he was still a Duke. Once a doctor who had to take care of a painful wound Francis had gotten said to him: "I am afraid, my Lord, that I have to hurt your grace." The saint answered that he, the doctor, would not hurt him more than he was right then by calling him "my Lord" and "your Grace." It was not too long before the humble priest accomplished wonderful works for God's glory as he preached everywhere and advised many important people. He fostered the spread of the Society of Jesus all over Spain and in Portugal. At the time when he entered the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola was still alive and this meant that the Society of Jesus was still a very young religious order. He was elected Superior General of the Jesuits, succeeding Laynez. Under him, missionaries were sent all over the world and the Jesuits also grew to be of great help to the Church in many lands. Through all success, St. Francis Borgia remained humble. He died unspectacularly in 1572, was beatified in 1624 and canonised by Clement X in 1671. His body was venerated at the Society’s house in Madrid until the revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War destroyed the residence in 1931. His charred remains were collected and transferred to a Jesuit church in another location in Madrid.

How can we connect the life of Francis Borgia to the 3rd Sunday of Lent? Here, I would like to draw a few things together. First, according to our liturgy, we are in Year C and the Gospel draws our attention to the fruitless fig tree. [I will return to this later]. Second, this week also marks the beginning of a process called the Three Scrutinies. The scrutinies are done so that the Elect, together with the baptised, may realise the power sin has over them and us, and through the rituals lead all to deepen their desire for salvation. The readings for the 1st Scrutiny are always taken from Year A and its Gospel is about the woman at the well. Through the experience of natural thirst, Christ was able to awaken the Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst. Spiritual thirst and sin are closely related. The Samaritan woman was trapped in a sinful relationship out from which she did not really see any escape. But, more importantly, she settled for a relationship she thought was the answer to her heart’s deepest longing—her spiritual thirst.

Like her, all of us thirst for something greater than we are—that is spiritual thirst—and sin promises us that it will fulfil that thirst of ours. As mentioned above, spiritual thirst and sin are closely related because sin pretends to be the answer to our search. And the thing about sin is that it does initially fulfil that thirst but its fulfilment is like heroin’s high, in which one is left living from one high to another. A life of sin drives us from one sin to another giving the illusion that the next sin would be the satisfaction denied the present sin. [The closest analogy I can think of is “womanising”—a man who conquers one woman after another, thinking that this last conquest will be the final conquest but it is never enough…] So, in speaking to the Samaritan woman, Christ promised that He alone would quench what her heart had been searching for from man to man. It is only when we turn from sin and turn to Christ that we will find the living water to quench our spiritual thirst. Following Christ satisfies us more than we can imagine.

We now turn to today’s Gospel which is about the fruitless fig tree. The parable of the fig tree and the thirst for the water of life both direct our attention to the need to examine our lives and they urge us to seek what leads to life. St Francis Borgia is a good example of what it means to seek life—as he found his spiritual thirst satisfied.

In 1539, Isabella the Empress of Charles V died unexpectedly. Now this was where the grace of conversion took place, not that Francis was in any way dissolute in his behaviour. He accompanied the cortege of the Empress to Granada to be buried at the Royal Chapel. Francis, together with Bishops and nobles accompanied the body to the southern city. The entourage arrived 15 days later and after Mass had been celebrated and before the placing of the body in the tomb, it had to be opened for the official recognition of the body. Francis saw not the once beautiful face of the 36-year old queen but a face beyond recognition. He exclaimed: “Never again, never again, will I serve a master who can die on me”. He understood the tragic transitoriness of human life and material possessions. This is why he is pictured carrying a skull to remind him that life is more than what we are able to make of here.

Many of us are more like Francis Borgia rather than the Samaritan woman. We are not living dissolute lives. In fact, many of us might be living what we call decent lives. We enjoy life and we like a comfortable life. All these are not bad. And if you really think about it, there is really no “choice” when it comes to good or bad. We always choose the good. But, in our case, when everything seems to be good, choosing means we choose something better.

And this is where we cross path with the Samaritan woman as the rigours of Lent provide us with the chance to look beyond. The fruitless fig tree comes as a reminder to those of us who have been baptised to reflect if our lives have been fruitful or fruitless and that there are consequences beyond this life which we must take into account of. If we are living a dissolute life, it is time to change; it is time to seriously think about the trajectory of our lives and its consequence.

But, if we are not resolute and we are living decent lives, perhaps, decent is not enough. It has to be more so that, like Francis Borgia and the Samaritan woman, we come to acknowledge the source for our completion is to be found in none other than Christ Himself.