New Jesuit

Review

2010

Vol. 1, # 4



The Prayer of St. Francis Borgia

Download article as pdf

by Fr. John Gavin, S.J.

John Gavin, S.J., is a tertian in the program in Salamanca, Spain.


Who was this singular man? At what point did the Spanish noble, the potentate of this world, end and the saint begin ... if it is true that he really was one? And in the end, when all is said and done, who was he really: a Borgia or a Jesuit? -- Pedro Miguel Lamet, Francisco de Borja: Los Enigmas del Duque Jesuita


For students of history, the name “Borgia” invokes images of unscrupulous Renaissance schemers and tyrants. This exceptionally talented family has been accused of every heinous crime imaginable -- murder, fratricide, and sexual debaucheries galore. Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, tarnished the holiness of his office with his political machinations and illegitimate children. His daughter, Lucrezia, has been the subject of numerous scandalous tales, including the story of her ring that released poison into the drinks of her enemies.  Cesare Borgia, another of Rodrigo’s progeny, rose to the Cardinalate and was rumored to have assassinated his brother Giovanni. The family certainly proved itself adept at maneuvering through the circles of state and ecclesial power, but not without leaving a dark stain in the chronicles of the period.

Yet, despite the bad reputation, the Borgia family did produce one of the greatest of the Jesuits saints: Francis de Borgia, the third general of the Society of Jesus. This year marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary witness to holiness and humility, a man who abandoned his noble rank to enter the new spiritual enterprise founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola and his companions.

Francis was born in the Duchy of Gandia on October 28, 1510. His father, Juan Borgia, the Duke, and his mother, Juana of Aragon, gave Francis an exceptional education that would aptly prepare him to assume the responsibilities as the heir to the Duchy. During extended stays in Saragossa and Tordesillas, Francis benefited from a superb cultural formation, even proving himself to be a talented composer of ecclesiastical music. The young Francis also received a solid grounding in the teachings of the faith, especially through the personal witness of his grandmother and aunt, both of whom had embraced religious life as Poor Clares.

Not surprisingly, the talented heir of Gandia came to the notice of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who brought Francis into the court at the age of seventeen. Among his many duties, Francis received the special privilege of guarding the Empress Isabella during the emperor's absences. In 1529, the Emperor himself arranged the marriage between Francis and Eleanor de Castray, with whom Francis would have eight children, while also raising him to the new rank of the Marquess of Lombay. Truly Francis had a bright future ahead of him.

Yet, his life would change dramatically on the occasion of the death of the Empress on May 1, 1538. According to the legend, during the funeral procession, the wagon bearing the body of Isabella struck an obstacle that caused the casket to fall to the ground and burst open. The site of the putrefying corpse of the once great beauty awakened Francis to the transient nature of the world and moved him to tears. The famous painting of Moreno Carbonero, “The Conversion of the Duke of Gandia”, offers perhaps a more credible depiction of this decisive moment in the future Jesuit’s life. The painting depicts the dead empress, dressed in white, laid out in an open casket. One man covers his face, perhaps to block the stench, while the crowd of mourners looks on in grief. Francis weeps at the center of the scene, his tears washing away his illusions of grandeur and noble power.

There is no doubt that the death of Isabella and the funeral sermon given by Blessed John of Avilla led Francis to a profound conversion. Though he had always been a man of piety, he now returned to his duties with the fervent desire to live “as a perfect Christian”, embracing his Christian vocation as a man seeking sanctity in the world. As the new Viceroy of Catalonia, in 1539, he strove to administer justice, suppress brigands and even reform monasteries. In 1543, upon the death of his father, he became the Duke of Gandia and would have risen still higher, to become the chief administer of the realm, if the rulers in Portugal had not opposed his appointment. Instead, he was content with the just administration of Gandia, until the death of his wife in 1543.

Many contemporaries knew that Francis had been greatly impressed by the works of the nascent Society of Jesus and the stories of its founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Few, however, probably suspected that he would lower himself to become one of them. Yet, in 1548 he would make his religious profession in the Society, renouncing his worldly goods and authority in favor of a life fully given to Christ. At the behest of the Pope, he did not publicly declare his membership to the Society until 1551, when he abdicated in favor of his son and was ordained a priest on May 25th. The Jesuits did not fail to put the talents of the former Duke to good use for the greater glory of God: in 1554 Ignatius appointed Francis commissary-general of the Society in Spain and in 1565 he became the third Father General. As the successor to St. Ignatius, Francis founded what would become the Gregorian University in Rome and extended the Jesuit missions throughout the world. He died on the 30th of September, 1572.

On the occasion of his religious profession in 1548, St. Francis composed a prayer that manifested the depths of his faith and his personal experience of the Spiritual Exercises. It is a spiritual testimony that merits further reflection:

My Lord and my refuge!

What did you find in me so that you took me into account?

What did you see in me so that you wanted me in your company?


I feel myself to be a coward, dependent upon the world that surrounds me, full of self-love.

Lord, what did you find in me?


With good reason the angels praise you with awe.

And I, too, praise you after being disconcerted, discovering how, from such weak foundations, you wish to raise up your works.


How to respond, O Lord, to your tenderness?

How to respond to your love?


I do not possess the capacity to understand nor the words to express  --  indeed, I hear and I see that not only do you pardon my faults, but you also invite me and call me to your Company.


O Lord, what did you find in me?

What did you find?

May you be blessed forever!


Have pity on me! You alone are my hope.

Enlighten my blindness, that by knowing myself I might know you; that by confusing myself I might acclaim you; that by humbling myself I might praise you; and that by dying fully to myself I might live fully for you.


1.That by knowing myself I might know you

The concluding petitions in the prayer reveal the essential aspects of St. Francis’ appropriation of Ignatian spirituality. First, he asks that “by knowing myself, I might know you.” This “self-knowledge” hardly reflects the tendencies of contemporary popular spirituality that encourage solipsistic indulgences. Rather, it reflects a sobering confrontation with the absolute gift of one’s creation and one’s total dependence upon God. Elsewhere, St. Francis explains more fully what this self-knowledge entails and how it leads to a greater knowledge of God:

First of all, consider well what you were before you were created, and you will discover that you were nothing (nihil); thus you were less than dung, pure privation, nothing, without body, without soul, without feelings . . . At the same time consider that God made you out of his eternity, when you were nothing; He sealed you and predestined you that you might be of his house. At his appointed time and when it was right to create you, he gave a soul and a body, and he created things that would serve you ...

Self-knowledge before God should indeed produce a sense of awe and gratitude before the outpouring of divine love in creation. This experience echoes throughout the prayer: “O Lord, what did you find in me? May you be blessed forever!” God knows each person intimately; God creates each person for no other motive, for no other reason, than love. Indeed the very hairs of your head are counted (Luke 12:7). “O Lord, how to respond to your tenderness? How to respond to your love?”

Yet, knowing oneself in God does not nourish individualism or pride; rather it inspires a sense of humility and opens one to the action of grace. In the words of Juan Garcia-Lomas, S.J.: “The knowledge [of self] is both a receptacle of high graces and the manner of preserving them and maintaining their fecundity.” In discovering the gratuity of one’s creation and the absolute dependence on God, one hungers to return the gift and be united with the creator. A spiritual attitude then emerges in the Christian soul in which every hour of existence becomes not a “self-actualization”, but a “divine-actualization”, a transformation in Christ that occurs through abandonment to the power of grace.

St. Francis’ spiritual diary evinces this desire to set his day to a divine rhythm -- he never ceased being a musician! -- that would make his life a symphony to Christ. His awareness of being a creature, body and soul, unfolding amidst the vagaries of temporal existence led him to dedicate each hour to a particular grace or to a particular mystery in the life of Jesus. His journal contains numerous lists to aid him in keeping recollected throughout the day, such as the following:

Ninth hour: Christ, Mary, the Seraphim; Tenth hour: Christ, Mary, the Cherubim; Eleventh hour: Christ, John, the Thrones; Twelfth hour: Christ, Peter, the Dominations; Thirteenth hour: Christ, Paul, the Virtues; Fourteenth hour: Christ, James, the Powers; Fifteenth hour: Christ, Andrew, the Princes; Sixteenth hour: Christ, Philip, the Archangels; Seventeenth hour: Christ, James, the Angels; Eighteenth hour: Christ, Bartholomew, St. Michael; Nineteenth hour: Christ, Simon, Gabriel ...

While a list of this kind may appear obsessive, it in fact offers a glimpse of a saint’s struggle to “pray always” in the manner of St. Paul and to keep his heart ever close to where his true treasure belonged. Francis understood the dangers of a wandering mind that could distract him from his true goal and desired to “renew his unity with God through a rhythm which that unity introduces into the passing hours of the day” (M. R. Jurado, S.J.) The knowledge of his unique creation in God led Francis to focus his life upon Christ and to set his spirit to the tune of the divine mysteries.

*     *     *

2.That by confusing myself I might acclaim you

Francis’ prayer for “confusion” may strike some as rather odd, since confusion would seem an appropriate state for spiritual desolation and not for an encounter with the living God. Yet, the confusion sought in this prayer expresses a state of humility and awe. Francis is “disconcerted” and “confused” by possessing a clear sense of his weakness before God and the extent of God’s love. This represents the fruit of the First Week of the Exercises, in which the exercitant confronts the horror of sin -- the deleterious effects of sin in history and the presence of his own personal contribution to the cosmic wound that mars the beauty of God’s creation -- while also experiencing the overwhelming gift of mercy in Jesus Christ. Thus, when Ignatius proposes the meditation upon the first, second, and third sins (the sin of the angels, Adam and Eve, and that of any particular person in Hell), he tells the exercitant to ask for these gifts:

In the present meditation it will be to ask for shame and confusion about myself, when I see how many people have been damned for committing a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation for my many sins ...

My aim in remembering and reasoning about all these matters is to bring myself to greater shame and confusion (SpEx 48, 50)

The state of spiritual confusion extends beyond the first week. C. De Dalmases, S. J., notes how this state occurs above all in the contemplation on the passion: “That which confounds is the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ in His passion and the [Francis’] turning to himself to see his own lack of suffering. Like a refrain, the Latin exclamation frequently occurs [in Francis’ works]: ... Et ego sine vulnere!” The realization that Jesus, the innocent Son of God, took on the Cross, while we guilty human beings did not receive the punishment we deserve, confounds the logic of the world and disturbs the tranquility of even the most lukewarm soul! One who is in the state of spiritual confusion, therefore, remains humble and open to the transforming action of grace, since he cannot categorize and contain the mystery of Jesus’ gift. In the state of confusion one can only entrust himself fully to the transforming love of Christ.  

*     *     *

3.That by humbling myself I might praise you

St. Francis has always been known for his great humility.  The once great Duke of Gandia and favorite of the emperor himself would abdicate in favor of his son and become one of the simple “reformed priests”. Even before the public revelation of his vocation, while still maintaining his outward noble appearance, he lived a life of mortification and self-abandonment. The words of the Principle and Foundation transformed the very order of his life, allowing him to see that all material things were but a means to a greater end. Humility and freedom from worldly ties were the conditions for pursuing the one true goal in Christ. “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this to save their souls. The other things on the face of the earth are created for the human beings, to help them in the pursuit of the end for which they are created. From this it follows that we ought to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it” (Principle and Foundation).

The Spiritual Diary of St. Francis contains numerous petitions seeking humility and separation from the things of the world. The following series of petitions manifests his hunger to depend solely upon Jesus:

I ask for the abhorrence of what the world loves, and to love that which the world abhors ut dicam mihi mundus crucifixus est et ego mundo. I ask for the grace to separate myself always from that which impedes spiritual good . . . I ask for the grace to guard the doors of the senses because mors intravit per fenestras. I ask that the Lord keep me in true peace and humility of soul ... I ask for the humility to give an advantage to others, holding them as superiors, etc. ... that in this way we may all grow in devotion and praise of the Lord.

St. Francis understood that self-love and dependence upon the world were impediments to his spiritual progress and to his availability for mission. This of course did not mean a hatred of self or depreciation of God’s creation. Rather, as stated clearly in the Principle and Foundation, all things had to be ordered to Christ and for Christ. One must “see creatures in the Lord and, for Him, to forget them all” (Spiritual Diary). To depend on the world is cowardice, since it prevents one from risking all for Jesus; to humble oneself before the Lord is courageous, because it is submission to the Truth and the act of love essential for spiritual growth.

*     *     *

4.And that by dying fully to myself I might live fully for you

Humility, confusion, self-knowledge. Through a growing identity with Jesus, the Duke of Gandia died to the world and chose to march under the banner of Christ in the Society of Jesus. How to respond to your love? With the gift of his entire self by embracing a religious vocation.

One could ask why the Society of Jesus attracted St. Francis after his conversion, and not an older and more established congregation such as the Dominicans or Franciscans. Though the prestige of these older orders and the sanctity of their members would certainly have been attractive to him, Francis found in the Society and the person of St. Ignatius a way of following Jesus that made the best use of his talents and gifts. The Jesuits were “contemplatives in action”, men who lived by the measure of Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. As a man of deep prayer and boundless apostolic zeal, he saw in the Society’s rule and mission a way of both saving his own soul and the souls of others.

On the one hand, in this gift of self, Francis can be called a true mystic. His Spiritual Diary reveals the depth of his prayer and balanced nature of his asceticism. His devotion to Mary and, above all, to the Eucharist, sustained him during his years of weighty apostolic responsibilities. “Seek during the celebration of the Mass the feelings of the Mother of God when she held her Son at his birth, at his circumcision, and at the tomb, as reflected by the three times that I take the host into my hands during the Mass.” He found reason to give thanks for every opportunity that would unite him to the Lord. “I thank you for the crosses of this day and for those of the past . . . I thank God for the mercy of allowing me to take simple vows in the Society.”  He begged Jesus to “renew all the desires that he has given me in order that, by doing penance, I might live only in Him and for Him”.

On the other hand, Francis was truly a Jesuit in his zeal to labor in the Church for the Glory of God in the salvation of souls. As Fr. General he sought to nourish the Society’s apostolic zeal above all in its missions and in its evangelization of peoples. “I receive consolation in offering Masses and prayers for the missions of today and for the missions of the future; likewise, I seek the grace to help ours in confessions and spiritual exhortations...” He hungered to bring the joy of the Gospel message to all the corners of the earth and to bring those who had wandered back to the fold of the Church. While he himself would not receive the opportunity to enter mission territories, he extended his apostolic fervor through his administrative skills and, most of all, through his prayer. In St. Francis we sense “the presence of the interior force of prayer, which becomes active in the Church by receiving the grace of God and by keeping the apostolic activity of its members alive and efficacious” (M. R. Jurado, S.J.).

And when all was said and done, who was he really: a Borgia or a Jesuit? In fact, the two were one. In dying to himself, Francis did not kill the noble and cultivated force of his heart, but allowed Jesus to transform him into a something far greater than a duke: through the grace of Christ he became a saint. Francis took the skills acquired through years of education and service to the realm and placed them at the feet of Jesus through the Society.  Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking of John Paul II, stressed that dying to self in Christ does not mean loss, but new life and transformation. “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? ...  No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation ... When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return.” St. Francis was a Borgia and a Jesuit, a leader and a mystic, a religious model for both lay and religious.

O Lord, what did you find in me?

What did you find?

May you be blessed forever!