Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Meanderings of Francis Xavier

For my friends Garry Demarest and Tom Marshall, travelers and seekers

"Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins where it begins and nothing's over when it's over, and everything needs a preface: a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct....." Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

My friend Garry Demarest was in Goa a few weeks ago, and I suggested that he and his camera seek out the Basilica of Good Jesus, the final resting place of Francis Xavier.

April 7th was the 504th anniversary of Xavier’s birth, and though neither Garry nor I were aware of any celebrations, if he had arrived just a few weeks earlier, he could have seen the mummified body of the saint carried in procession from Bom Jesu to the Cathedral across the street for veneration.

Veneration was also part of my request: I was asking Garry to help me complete a spiritual journey by paying respects to Xavier with his fine eye and camera. My experience of spiritual journeys is that they contain precious few endings, and many beginnings. In fact the journey seems like countless beginnings with a common thread. But I had intended my request, and my desire to complete my following Xavier in much the same spirit as I understand Ignatius’s making his confession to a friend before the Battle of Pamplona when no priest was at hand—the first step of his new life after soldiering.

I wanted to end my tracking of the meandering Xavier, but truthfully, I also wanted to be done with Xavier. His adventurous spirit was heroic—you have to admire that. He traveled to the edges of the known world over treacherous waters in vessels were like leaky rowboats compared with what modern mariners sail, and reportedly the man never acquired a sailor’s belly. On the other hand, he made me uncomfortable. His concern for all men and women, when that seemed fully present, was generous and loving, but reading from his own words, he seemed to trip up on a rigid, dogmatic understanding of the world.

Saints are human beings, and, in my view, some of the men and women whose lives Christians are told to admire and imitate also possessed, or were possessed by, some habits of mind that make the world less bright and friendly. Xavier seemed dogmatic, judgmental, and stubborn, always ready to pick a fight. He was also reckless. If just his own life were in jeopardy, I might be able to attribute it to his quirky behavior. However if you read carefully, he also put others in harm’s way. The ethos aboard a Portuguese man of war certainly encouraged bravado in the face of danger, but it seems to have fed a kind of fanaticism in the man. And although he was a guest in Japan, and didn’t know the language and customs, it is clear that he tried to stir up ill will towards Buddhist monks for what he perceived as sexual abuse of minors. He intention was to topple their authority as well as to present the teaching of Jesus. I make no secret that I would favor that outcome in the current scandal of abuse that has rocked the church. Perhaps Xavier forces me to look into a mirror and see the viscous side of my own attitudes.

The reconstructed map of Xavier’s voyages look like meandering, but they were certainly purpose driven, as was he. Francis left Lisbon in 1541 and for the next 11 years traveled many thousands of miles, from Goa to Japan with stops in Sri Lanka, Malacca, the Moluccans. He established missions that were to be staffed by the many Jesuits who followed him. On December 2, 1552, two years after he left Japan, he died on the Island of Changchuen while waiting to gain entrance into the Celestial Empire. His body was dipped in quick lime and returned to Goa 15 months later.

In spite of my personal aversion to parts of Xavier’s personality, I still admire his courage and dedication. As a small tribute to his explorations, I’ve assembled the following images. I’ve supplemented Garry’s shots with others that I found on the Internet. My only criterion was that I found the images interesting or beautiful. Credits for the photos appear if they were available.

The Beginnings of my own Journey

I began reading about Xavier more than 8 years ago when Tom Marshall gave me the 4th volume of Schurhammer’s Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times. I had wanted to read Xavier’s letters to Ignatius from Japan, especially several in which he describes his meeting with the Zen adept “Ninxit,” his transliteration for Ninjitsu, the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji. This was the first encounter between Zen and Christianity. The year was 1549, soon after Xavier landed at Kagoshima on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan.

I attempted to reconstruct the meeting between Xavier and Ninxit in Buddha S.J. There were some hints that he formed quite a wonderful friendship with Ninjitsu that was not entirely driven by his missionary zeal. Apparently Xavier broke off his relationship when he could not convert Ninjitsu and pushed further north.

Xavier’s letters to Ignatius are the only record of this encounter. Xavier was writing to his friend and mentor, but he narrated with a kind of the formality that I didn’t expect, although my understanding of writing letters conventions 440 years ago is entirely best guesses. Xavier may have taken a very dogmatic tone because intermediaries might read them, or they were what Rome and Portugal wanted to read, or they may have just reflected the rigid side of his personality. He also brought only the most rudimentary linguistic skills to encounter, and seems in no way prepared for the kind of conversation that he tried to have. He was aware of his handicap and, in his letters, recommended thorough linguistic training for the Jesuits who will follow him.

[Signature of St. Francis Xavier taken from a letter to the King John III of Portugal, dated May 16, 1546. The letter itself is in the collection of the 26 Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki, Japan. Go to their catalogue for further inspection. I have not reproduced the entire letter as requested. I am also conscious that the Museum may not be entirely comfortable with my portrayal of Xavier.]

The story with a larger series of images continues at “A saint for the East or the Portuguese expansion into the East?

Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, Vol. 4: Japan and China, 1549-1552
, Georg Schurhammer, Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973
St. Francis Xavier, J. M. Langlois-Berthelot, Jean-Marc Montguerre [pseud.] Trans. Ruth Murdoch, Doubleday, 1963.