Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.30.6: XAVIER’S TOE, A QUASI-SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE

© 2006, UrbisMedia

© 2006, UrbisMedia

Not long ago, at the café where I feed my caffeine addiction, I met a guy who went to Canisius.   Like me, he went to both high school and college with the Jesuits.   He pronounced Canisius the way I was taught to say it, with that “i”s short, so I knew he was “legit.” [1]   We talked for a couple of hours about the experience, discovering that we even knew some of the same Jesuit priests, and that some of our impressions of Jesuits and experiences under their tutelage were almost identical.   We marveled at the seeming indelibility of it all, and that it had somehow, but not in a way that we could give much definition, marked us Jesuit-educated.   There’s something there, but it’s elusive.   I’ve had a few people tell me that I can be rhetorically “Jesuitical,” but that’s usually if they’re losing and they want to accuse me of tactics that sound occult and sinister.

 

I admit to a Jesuitical tendency in my argumentation, but it has had its most telling effects on the very nexus between faith and reason that Jesuit education was to have putatively forged in me.   I confess, without request for absolution, to not having made my Easter duty for nearly forty years; I reside, rather comfortably, in a land of metaphysical doubt.   I have not carried out the “tradition”; my daughters went to public schools, and I taught at a public university for thirty years.   But something of those years with Jesuits hangs on that can come flooding out from a chance encounter in a San Diego café.   On such occasions I am often reminded of St. Francis Xavier’s toe.

 

I don’t even remember which Jesuit told me the story about the toe.    But it must have made a real impression on me, how the big toe [2] on one of the feet of the mummified body of Xavier that lies in a glass sarcophagus in the Bom Jesus in Goa used to be exposed so that the faithful could kiss it.   One has to be a little theologically edgy to do that macabre stuff, so it was only a matter of time before somebody, a woman it is told, bit off that toe.   The story goes on that the other toes would not be put at risk and the toe-smooching practice was stopped.

 

Readers who are unfamiliar with Xavier should know that he was, along with Ignatius Loyola, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, and he traveled widely in the Far East on missions.   Xavier’s motto, adopted by Jesuit schools, like mine, was the rather incendiaryignem mittere in terram , to send fire to the earth (note the painting above). It was a rather aggressive anthem for a missionary.   I am  already on record in expressing my contempt for missionaries and evangelicals, but I do admire intrepid travelers, especially into territories that require a good deal of personal courage, even if buttressed with an invasive spiritual calling. [3]  But evangelicals, are often selfish self-deceivers more interested in the own souls than those of their would-be converts, or the vanguard for commercial and imperial invasions.   For real courage that I respect give me a troop of Medicines Sans Frontieres doctors any day.   I do, however, excuse Xavier a little from the low regard in which I hold missionaries.   You have to remember that the Portuguese had already established trading ports in the Far East, and one historian writes that Xavier’s “mission” was that because the colonists “had taken little of the spirit of religion with them,” Pope John III’s “desire [was] that missionaries should go out to the Portuguese colonies . . . not so much in the first instance to convert the natives as to make respectable and Christian the lives of the Portuguese settlers.” [4]   Enough digression.

 

I remember conjuring what an embalmed toe tasted like and couldn’t get an imagined, musty-mummy metallic-like taste out of my mouth every time I thought about it. [5]   That taste returned many years later when I was in Bombay and the ship I was taking from there to Hong Kong was scheduled to call at Goa.   At last I would get to see Xavier’s embalmed body and the place where his toe used to be.   I feared a permanency to that imagined metallic taste, but it was worth the risk; this was a chance to see the great Jesuit in his final repose.   It is reported that when he was exhumed from his burial on the island of Sanchuan, about fifty miles from Macao, where he died in 1522, Xavier was in a “remarkable state of preservation.”

 

Thanks to an entirely unrelated “religious” experience it never came off.   A few nights before I was to depart for Goa the extremist Hindu Kar Sevaks had attacked and demolished a mosque in Ayodyah, north of Bombay, and all hell broke loose with the historical antipathy between Hindus and Muslims. There was a lot of killing both ways.   For some reason the ship’s captain felt it was too risky to call at Goa and set out for Columbo, Sri Lanka instead.   It was the beginning of what was to prove the elusiveness of the toe and other mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier.

 

I resolved to come back one day and get visual confirmation on Xavier’s toe.   A few years later I was in Nagasaki, Japan, and Xavier turned up again.   He apparently had helped establish a Jesuit foothold ( toe hold) there according to the Shrine of the Tewnty-Six Martyrs on a hill not far from where the A-bomb detonated.   Back then, the shogun, apparently a guy with a sense of the poetic, had crucified the Jesuits and their converts.   Xavier’s escutcheon in stained glass is in the museum (Loyola’s, too).   It was the closest I had gotten to the old Jebbie.   There, I learned, had once been a relic arm bone of Xavier (so the body in Goa is not complete after all), but it had been sent to a church in Macao, the Church of St. Paul.  

 

But all that’s left of Macao’s St. Paul is the façade.   It stands, majestically, atop a hill that overlooks the city, but the rest of the church is burned out.   It was built by the Jesuits back in 1602, using Japanese convert craftsmen.   The Jebbies were later expelled from here as well.   Now, in a museum beneath the erstwhile nave of the church is supposed to be the arm bone relic of Xavier.   I resolved to see it when I returned to Hong Kong.

 

A couple of years later, on a Fulbright year in Hong Kong, I took a hydrofoil to Macao.   But the bone was gone.   A few calls to tourist authorities established that it was moved in 1978 to a little chapel on the nearby island of Coloane where the Pearl River meets the South China Sea; this is one well-traveled arm bone.   So off I went and, after a delightful exploration of an old village on the island I came to little Macao-baroque Chapel of St. Francis Xavier.   It was open, but deserted, reminding me of many churches I have visited in Italy, where you can walk in and rip a Caravaggio from the wall and walk off with it.   But I just wanted to see Xavier’s arm bone, not acquire it.

 

No matter; it wasn’t there!   It had been returned to St. Paul’s in Macao for some unexplained reason. [6]   So back to Macao I went and climbed up to the old, burned-out church.   After scouring the museum for anything that looked like a reliquary with an arm bone in it I gave up.   There was no one there who could tell me where it might be found.   Later, I learned that the bone had been removed from St. Paul’s Museum and now resides in the St. Joseph Seminary and Sacred Art Museum.  

 

I didn’t have a chance to check out the seminary before leaving Hong Kong, but I’m resolved to track it down one of these days and give some closure to the compulsion I have to view what remains of a wandering 16 th century Jesuit.   As to the lost toe, maybe the closest I’ll ever get to it is that damned mummy-metalic taste in my mouth every time it comes to mind.

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©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.20.2006)

James A. Clapp, a proud alumnus of McQuaid Jesuit High School, and Le Moyne College.

[1] Canisius High and College are in Buffalo, New York; McQuaid Jesuit High is in Rochester, New York.   My college was LeMoyne, in Syracuse, New York.

[2] He did say the “big” toe; but as one can observe in the photo, both big toes remain, and one can clearly see that it was a “pinkie” toe that was bitten off.

[3] Here’s a good place to recommend a favorite film of mine, John Beresford’s Black Robe , named after the soutaine that Jesuits can still be seen wearing.   Talk about putting it all out there ad majorem Dei gloriam , this picture shows that there are tougher Jesuit assignments that freshman homeroom teacher.

[4] Christopher Hollis, The Jesuits, A History (1968), p. 35.   On the Jesuits in the Orient, Jonathan D. Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984) is excellent.   I also recommend, for a history of the Protestant missionaries to China, Austin Coats, Macao ad the British, 1637-1842 , which contains a lengthy section on Robert Morrison, perhaps the most famous Protestant missionary of the Far East.

[5] Mummy-munching isn’t as unusual as one might think.   In Egypt I learned that hundreds of mummies were shipped off to Europe to be ground up into potions that were reputed to extend life and certain male extremities.

[6] I also learned here that, although it was originally destined to be at that shrine in Nagasaki, but never got there because of the persecutions of Christians that resulted in the 26 Martyrs during the 1637 Shimabara rebellion.

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