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St Francis Xavier
Patron of missions (entered heaven in 1552)
You say you have reached a “spiritual plateau.” Don’t bet on it. Just because you can’t see any progress doesn’t mean progress isn’t happening. Plants need to put down roots before they can put out flowers. Even so, you may want to do a little examination on one point that should never be missing from a serious program of spiritual work: self-mastery. Christ himself put it nicely: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The cross: self-denial out of love for Christ; self-conquest; abnegation… It’s never fun in itself, but it’s the only road to spiritual growth. Today’s saint is the perfect example.
St Francis Xavier started out as a young nobleman making his way to worldly glory at the University of Paris. There he fell under the inspired influence of St Ignatius of Loyola, and become one of the seven founders of the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits). He was the first of the Jesuits to be sent on foreign missions – he went with a Portuguese ship to India, where he set about reforming the degenerate faith and morals of the European colonizers and initiating the native Indians into the true faith. For eleven years he kept a dizzying schedule: preaching, celebrating the sacraments, baptizing, catechizing, and traveling non-stop throughout India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Japan. He was St Paul come back to life. So many souls did God touch through his word and example that at times the number of baptisms he performed would temporarily cause him to lose the use of his arms through exhaustion. He died as he waited off the coast of China, trying to convince some Chinese merchants to smuggle him to the mainland, which was closed to foreigners, so he could continue planting the seeds of the gospel. Now that famous arm, which baptized thousands upon thousands into Christ’s Kingdom, is preserved in a silver reliquary in Rome, to remind the rest of us what God will do when you lend him a hand.
How did St Francis redirect his ambition from worldly glory to everlasting glory? It happened in two stages. The first stage involved the prayers and example of St Ignatius of Loyola, his college roommate. Ignatius recognized Francis’s great qualities, but he also saw that the future missionary was too attached to the pleasures of youth: sports, gambling, dancing, and other entertainments occupied his time and his heart to such an extent that they crowded out more substantive activities. So Ignatius began to pray and sacrifice for his roommate. For example: one cold winter night Francis was making his way back to the dorm from some socializing, and as he crossed the bridge over the nearby river, he noticed a man standing chest high in the icy water. It was Ignatius. “What are you doing?” he queried. “Penance for the salvation of your soul,” answered Ignatius. Other times Ignatius would simply quote the famous verse from St Matthew’s Gospel and leave it hanging in the air: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Such tactics eventually won the talented young Francis over to the cause of Christ. But he needed another push to go further up the path of holiness. He needed to break down some ingrained habits of self-indulgence and spiritual laziness. It was a long process, but one milestone will illustrate how it worked. Ignatius and the Jesuit founders spent some time in Venice, waiting for a ride to the Holy Land. While they were there, they tended the sick and served the poor. Francis was especially repulsed by the lesions and wounds of the sick (hygiene was a later invention). So, did he try to avoid hospital duty? Just the opposite: he voluntarily took the most disgusting jobs, and to overcome his abhorrence, in order to conquer himself entirely for the Kingdom, he even voluntarily increased his suffering. He was tending a man who had skin ulcers all over his body. While he was cleaning the man’s back, a wave of repugnance came over him. To resist it, he scraped some of the infected puss from one of the sores with his finger and swallowed it. From then on, he was able to bear all the hardships of a life of service without flinching.
I am sorry to be so graphic, but if you can’t conquer yourself for Christ, how do you expect to conquer others for Christ? So keep working on self-discipline and self-mastery; in the end it will soften up the rich soil of your heart so that God’s garden of grace and virtue can yield a rich harvest for yourself and all those around you.
Your devoted uncle,