For St. Bernard’s Parish in Newton, MA, which is in the middle of making the Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier. Hence the lengthy references to St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier in the interpretation of today’s parable (and the extra couple hundred words in my homily).
Among the many things that Jesus, St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier shared in common is the following: they preferred to talk about three kinds of persons. This might not seem obvious at first since Jesus draws the sharpest division between the “wise man” “foolish man” in today’s Gospel. The wise man is the one who listens to Jesus’ words and acts upon them. He has a foundation of rock. The foolish man—the one who listens but does not act—has a foundation of sand. But, if we notice, there are actually two kinds of foolish men. There are those who do nothing at all: the ones who simply call out ‘Lord, Lord.’ But there are also those who put a lot of energy into “deeds”–but deeds of their own choosing. These are the ones who meet Jesus on “that day” and point to the “mighty deeds” they performed and the demons they drove out in Jesus’ name. As we can see from the Gospels, however, Jesus is not impressed unless these are also the deeds that His Father desires.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recasts today’s parable. He has you imagine three different men, each of whom comes into 10,000 ducats (just imagine you won $50 million in the lottery). But a few days after the excitement wears off, each realizes that this money is also a tremendous responsibility. Each must decide how to spend it and knows that he’ll be accountable before God for that money.
Ignatius then outlines three kinds of responses to God’s will, each typified by one of persons. The first kind is the least desirable—“a lot of talk, but no action.” This guy knows that he should seek God’s will regarding his money, but, somehow, he arrives at the hour of his death without having taken any concrete steps to discover it. This Ignatius’ version of the man who calls out “Lord, Lord.”
The third kind is the most desirable. As soon as he gets the lotto money he leaves God in total freedom to do with it as He pleases. If that means giving it all away, that’s fine. If that means keeping it all, fine too. He only wants the money to the degree that it will bring him closer to God. This is the man who builds his house upon the rock.
The second kind is the most interesting, because it’s where many good people find themselves. These persons try to persuade God to “come to what they desire, and they do not give up the sum of money in order to go to God, though this would have been better for them” [Sp. Ex. 153]. These people are “bargainers.” They might be willing to give God something to ease their conscience, but only as much as they can give without upsetting their own attachments and plans. These are the people who do “mighty deeds” of their own choosing.
St. Francis Xavier probably belonged to this second class for most of his youth. He grew up in a pious family that ended up on the wrong side of a war and was reduced to poverty. Francis’ family probably had great hopes that he would restore the family fortune. So, when Francis chose a career, he decided on a theology degree at the University of Paris. I know, this might not sound like the path to fame and fortune; but, in those days at least, it opened the doors for advancement in the Church. Bishops were typically both wealthy and powerful. So, you see, St. Francis Xavier had in mind “mighty deeds” of his own choosing. He could have said, “Lord, Lord … I became a Bishop for you; I confirmed children; I ordained priests.” He wanted God in the picture, but only if didn’t threaten his own ambitions or the social expectations of his day. He wanted God to come to what he desired.
Francis was deeply attached to his plans and his honor. He happened to be assigned as university dorm with St. Ignatius, who was fresh off his own big conversion experience. According to legend, Ignatius would ask Francis every so often, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Francis’ promptly asked for room change (Brodrick 41). The words, however, haunted Francis. And, a couple years later of restlessness and doubt, Francis agreed to make the month-long silent retreat program that Ignatius had written—the Spiritual Exercises.
There a real interior battle was met. And two things happened to Francis. He had the true condition of his soul held up to him like a mirror. In the silence, he could not longer avoid the conclusion that he was–at best–the second kind of man. But, more importantly, Francis fell in love with Christ. He spent hours every day meditating on Christ’s words and deeds; he became so captivated by the greatness of Christ’s person and the grandeur of His mission that his own plans seemed petty and shabby in comparison.
The rest is history. Once Francis allowed the spark of divine love to enter his life, it consumed him. His zeal for God’s glory led him to India, to Japan, and finally to the coast of China. It was because Francis gave God a free hand, because he built his house upon a rock, that his example and his intercession are so powerful for us today.
As Lent approaches, then, we might consider the extent to which the foundations of our lives are built on rock of God’s will, and where they’re still built on the sand of our fears and attachments. And if we find an area with a sandy floor, we would do well to take some steps to discover God’s will about it. We might attend Mass more regularly, confess our sins more often, schedule a silent retreat, gaze upon Jesus in the Gospels, or make this Novena of Grace for the intention of deeper conversion. God wants so deeply to be the rock of our lives, we need only give him permission—as St. Francis Xavier did.