Cloth and Silk

It was January 1551, and Francis Xavier was failing miserably. The Jesuit had been in Japan for a year and a half and had little to show for his evangelistic efforts. He had just spent eleven days in the capital city of Miyako, where he had hoped to meet with the emperor. His thinking ran like this: if he could convert the ruler of Japan, then the whole country would be open to the message of Christ. Upon his arrival in Miyako, however, Francis had received an abrupt lesson in Japanese politics. The emperor was powerless—little more than a figurehead and anyone wishing to meet with him was expected to bring lavish gifts. Xavier realized that there was nothing to be gained by an audience with the imperial court and left the capital as quickly as he had come.

Xavier was disappointed, but not daunted. He had bigger problems than an irrelevant head of state and knew that failing to address them would mean the end of the Jesuit mission to Japan.

Francis loved Japan and he loved the Japanese. From the moment he stepped onto their shores, the beauty of the land and the dignity of the people had astonished him. He understood quickly that the culture and people of this land surpassed any that the Europeans had found. Xavier wrote in his letters home that the Japanese people were “the best that have yet been discovered.” Decades later, some Jesuits would even assert that Japanese culture was greater even than anything found in Europe! This is not the picture we have of 16th century Jesuits: the more popular image is of a scheming, hook-nosed priest who conquers new lands for Christ with the help of that greatest of diplomats—gunpowder.

Francis was different. He wanted nothing more than to preach the Gospel to those who had never heard it. Yet he was finding his efforts in Japan hampered in the most unexpected ways. Chief among these was the ridicule Xavier and his companions endured because of the way they were dressed. The standard Jesuit garb was a simple black cloth cassock. The simple garment reflected the Jesuit commitment to poverty and those who wore it were treated with dignity in Europe. In Japan they were laughed at.

At first, the mockery bothered Francis little. After all, he was more than prepared to suffer for Christ. Yet there was something different about the way the Japanese treated them, and at first Xavier was at a loss to explain what it was. Then he realized what had seemed strange: it wasn’t just the rich or powerful who ridiculed the Jesuits, but the poor as well. Peasants spat on them and children threw rocks, all the while mocking them for their destitute appearance! After over a year in the country, Xavier came to understand that rich and poor alike despised a person who did not dress well. In fact, the Japanese took one look at the Jesuits and believed that they were so poor, that they had fled Europe to escape their shame!

Now, faced with those circumstances, it would have been easy to resent the Japanese. The Jesuit cassock was more than just clothing—it represented a Jesuit’s vow of commitment to their Society and their Lord. But Francis Xavier cared about one thing: bringing Christ to Japan. And if his clothing hindered that goal, then he would remove the obstacle from his path. Since the Buddhist monks were respected in Japan—much like the Jesuits were in Europe—Xavier resolved that he and his companions would dress at least as well as they.

So the Jesuits began wearing the orange silk robes of Buddhist priests. Some Jesuits would even shave their heads in the Buddhist manner, all to demonstrate that these European priests were worthy of respect. Xavier was willing to go to almost any length to adapt to Japanese culture: he abstained from eating meat, began learning how to speak graceful Japanese, and even bathed semi-regularly (a practice viewed with suspicion in 16th century Europe). Such a policy of accommodation to Japanese culture was scandalous among many in the Jesuit order who viewed such behavior as corrupt, a compromise with worldly living. After all, what other explanation could one have for wearing silk?

Xavier’s actions did more than solve his own problems; they laid the foundation for decades of missionary work in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese entered the Kingdom, all because one man was willing to trade cloth for silk. His choice was condemned by people who didn’t understand, but I have a hard time judging them too harshly. Because I have the same kind of divides, the same kind of walls: liberal and conservative, secular and sacred, sinner and saint. When the two sides mingle, everyone gets uncomfortable. When one of our own seems to go over to the other side, are they evangelists, or traitors?

It’s easy to keep our walls high, because labels are safe. When I’m a conservative Christian, I know what I’m supposed to think, how I’m supposed to act, and who I’m supposed to hand around. Xavier had his labels too, but he cast them aside when they got in the way.

That’s what I like about Francis: he was willing to do anything to reach the Japanese. In his case, it meant dressing better, even though it technically went against his vows, against his label. His choice was pretty simple, though, because his vows weren’t really to the Father General of the Jesuits—his vows were to God. And his allegiance wasn’t to his home country; it was to the Kingdom of God. That kind of perspective made all the difference to Xavier, and it can make all the difference to us. It allows us to see beyond our labels, beyond our walls, beyond cloth and silk.

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