In days to come, / the mountain of the Lord’s house / shall be established as the highest mountain / and raised above the hills. / All nations shall stream toward it; / many peoples shall come and say: / “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, / to the house of the God of Jacob, /That he may instruct us in his ways, / and we may walk in his paths.”
Isaiah 2: 2-3
“The name of this insatiable laborer for souls will indicate with one word what is intended for the congregation.” — Theodore James Ryken (Brother Francis Xavier)
Just one day into the new Church year, we celebrate the feast of St. Francis Xavier. As we do so, we read the vision of Isaiah that a time will come when all nations and peoples will be one in their desire to be instructed in the ways of the Lord and to walk in the Lord’s paths, in accordance with God’s ways. Perhaps there are aspects of the ways Francis Xavier was almost driven to bring people to God that seem somewhat benighted to us. For us, there is a bit of magical thinking, perhaps, involved in the baptizing of thousands of children before they would otherwise be condemned by God to hell. If might seem that the understanding of Xavier and others of his time tended to conflate the paths of God with European culture. Yet, we too, no less than he, are called to serve the realization of the dream of Isaiah. Peace and justice will come only as the mountain of the Lord’s house becomes the object of our desire, as peoples and nations together turn their gaze from their own self-interest to the house of God and learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.
While there is truth that a kind of evangelization that privileges one culture’s experience and way of living over another is a problem, it is a profound truth that human persons can only realize their destiny in being instructed by God and doing God’s will in their lives. There is only peace, harmony, and justice as we are not obsessed by our own interests but rather working together to accomplish the will of God for us and for the world. In this sense, Francis Xavier will always be a model for us. As Brother Ryken said, we know what we are called to be when we ponder the life of “this insatiable laborer for souls.”
Søren Kierkegaard said that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” For Xavier, that one thing was a constant attempt to say yes to his constantly repeated mantra: “Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do?” There are two aspects to this basic teaching of Xavier: the first is presence/awareness and the second is willingness.
In a letter to St. Ignatius, quoted below, Xavier says how he wishes that more of us could work as hard at spiritually awakening as we do at our other agenda. Just this morning, a reflection of Eknath Easwaran, that I receive daily, quotes from William James:
Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.
Francis Xavier was well aware, from his own experience, of our capacity as human persons to receive form for our lives from God and to know the joy of giving form to the world as we are uniquely called to do. We are not mere physical needs or functional ambitions. We are caught up in the Divine life and creation, a small but unique part in God’s work. As spirit, we are a capacity to “take in” reality as a whole. Much of our lives, however, we rather live the constricted existence that James describes. We reduce our spiritual awareness and consciousness to obsessing over, reacting to and then trying to fix the petty problem of the moment. Meanwhile, there is what Rilke calls “the great work” going on within and around us, and we are ignoring it.
This greater consciousness is what Xavier means when he speaks of meditating on spiritual realities and listening actively to what God is saying to us. This meditating and listening was for him, as it can be for us, the presence to and awareness of the insistent summons of God to do the work that was uniquely his. This presence to God led to an increasing awareness of the unique meaning for him of the words of Jesus: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8: 36). Spiritual awareness and consciousness is a “dimming down” of the multiple entities that crowd our minds and instead learning to dwell on “the one thing necessary.”
Adrian van Kaam says that our hearts are both sensible and responsible. This spiritual consciousness, as a matter of the heart, is the sensing, the coming to realize the one thing that is necessary for us. It will always involve our doing the work we have been given to do. The great joy and satisfaction in life, one beyond all others, is to be engaged, to give ourselves away to the call that is uniquely ours. This is what we sometimes call “mission.” We must never forget that etymologically mission involves “being sent.” It is giving all our heart and our life to the one thing that is asked of us, the one thing that is ours to do. Having become aware of that mission in himself, Xavier spared himself nothing and was willing to go to the ends of the earth.
The second aspect of Xavier’s life and teaching, then, is willingness. It is to will in action the one thing that God asks of us. So dominant is this call in our consciousness that, he says, persons will “forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and God’s choice.” The sensible heart cries out “Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do?” And the responsible heart, having heard the answer says “Send me anywhere you like-even to India!”
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that many of us will be called to India. Yet, to hear and heed the call and to respond will inevitably upset our lives, our own desires and human affairs. It will affect our deepest relationships and overturn some lesser values that have motivated us. It will always counter our desire for satisfaction and comfort. At least for me, I am most of the time trying to “fit” the mission, the call, into my own desires and plans for my life. I want to be a believer and to serve God, but it has its limits. The difficult truth is that the work to which I have been called is always challenging my sense of my need for others and for certain ways of living. A good part of why I keep my spiritual consciousness so dulled is so that I can, in truth, prefer other things and persons to God. I don’t let my heart be fully sensible because I fear what that will ask of my responsibility. I am willing, but to a degree.
This is precisely the challenge of Francis Xavier and why Brother Ryken said that Xavier and his life would “indicate with one word what is intended for the congregation,” which means its members. In the story of Martha and Mary, that was so central a gospel passage for Ryken, Jesus says to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10: 41-2). There is only one thing necessary. It is, having become aware of God’s call to us, to willingly cry out with all our heart ”Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do?”
I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them.
This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: “Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do?” Send me anywhere you like—even to India!
St. Francis Xavier, from Letters to Saint Ignatius