Of yon dense millions trampled to the strand,
Or 'neath some cross forgotten lays his head
Where dark seas whiten on a lonely land:
He left his work, what all his life had planned,
A waning flame to flicker and to fall,
Mid the huge myths his toil could scarce withstand,
And the light died in temple and in hall,
And the old twilight sank and settled over all.”—Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “St. Francis Xavier” (1892)
Four hundred and sixty years ago tomorrow, the Jesuit Francis Xavier died of a fever in China, still awaiting passage to China, thousands of miles from his native Basque region of Spain and unable to fulfill his ambition to preach his faith to one more land in the Orient. That fate strikes me as terribly lonely.
That same sense informs the above passage from a larger poem about the missionary saint by Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). The verses won a prize for the future essayist-novelist, then an 18-year-old at St. Paul’s School, an English academic institution that had earlier produced John Milton and Samuel Pepys.
In a sense, the turn in the poem, almost despite its author’s intention, reflects the later evolution of his own religious thinking. Certain anti-Catholic references (“Yon dim Enchantress with her mystic claim” and “monkish myths”) may very well have appealed to the authorities at his school.
Remarkably, however, even after proclaiming Xavier’s “Eastern Church a dream, his toil a vanity,” Chesterton couldn’t help but admire the indefatigable fortitude and zeal of the Jesuit, and even went so far as to suggest that the surface disappointment of the saint’s last days did not end his story: “God only knows, man failing in his choice,/ How far apparent failure may succeed.” Even amid what was still apprentice poetry, Chesterton is already exhibiting his lively, lifelong interest in paradox.
In spite of himself, Chesterton had come to feel a certain admiration for the greatest Christian missionary since St. Paul, a man who, in only 15 years between his ordination and death, had traveled to India, Ceylon, Japan, Borneo, and the Moluccas. In time, Chesterton would embrace the Roman Catholicism he had scorned in his youth, proclaiming its value, in an increasingly secular world, with the same zeal as the prototypical Jesuit missionary.
(This painting of St. Francis Xavier is held in the Kobe City Museum.)