October comes with burnished sights and smells that bespeak the glory of death and, in contrast, with the hideous Halloween ornaments that bespeak the fear of death. This popularly eerie time of year is our culture’s broken remnant of acknowledging, to some extent, the reality of death, but the garish ghoulishness of it all is not very encouraging, to say the least. In fact, it is downright discouraging and disturbing. The current Halloween focus on the mere physical aspect of our nature and its destruction or mutilation is devoid of that mystical mystery that ultimately makes a jest of our “muddy vesture of decay,” as Shakespeare coined it.
October 10th marks the feast day for a saint who had an experience that is curiously connected to the death-steeped paraphernalia of Halloween. It’s a story that shows what the believer’s reaction to death’s horrors should be, for, when St. Francis Borgia (1510-1572) recoilingly cracked open the coffin of a queen, he heard, like twin blasts from the gates of heaven and hell, the call to immortal life and heeded them.
The story of St. Francis Borgia
The seventeen-year-old son of the Duke of Gandia was traveling to join the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, where a brilliant future awaited him. As the young noble passed through Alcalá de Henares, he saw Inquisition guards conducting a prisoner whose eyes flashed like swords. Francis Borgia did not know Ignatius of Loyola, and never suspected how linked he would become in later years with that man in doing the work of Jesus Christ. But, in the meantime, Francis was warmly received by Charles V and his charm, gallantry, and skill in music won him many graces and a Portuguese noblewoman as his wife.
When the Empress Isabella died, Francis was charged with the grim task of escorting her remains to Granada for interment. Arriving where the queen had died and where her remains awaited him to take possession, Francis demanded to view the royal corpse. But when he looked upon the body of Isabella, he quailed at the face of death. He could not recognize the once-beautiful face now disfigured by decomposition, leaving Francis shaken to the core. On his grave journey, the vanities of life impressed themselves upon Francis’s mind, affixing his thoughts on the afterlife.
Francis’s earthly ambitions were underway, however, and he soon became the Viceroy of Catalonia, and carried out his duties with justice and diligence. Upon becoming Duke of Gandia, Francis was tasked by the Emperor to manage the affairs of his son and heir, Philip of Spain, who was betrothed to the princess of Portugal. Though this guaranteed a position for Francis in Philip’s reign, heaven intervened, even as the face of the dead queen lingered in his memory. Portugal rejected the match and Francis was held responsible and in disgrace by the court.
When his wife passed away, Francis was increasingly drawn towards the work of the Jesuits. At last, he relinquished his title and estates and made his solemn vows of Holy Orders before Ignatius of Loyola. Then, he who had been a consort of kings, a man of importance, power, and dignity, assumed his place with the Jesuits in the kitchen. Fr. Francis swept, cut wood, cooked, and knelt before his brother priests to beg forgiveness for his clumsiness.
But he was anything but clumsy in the pulpit. Francis’s sermons and teachings spread far and wide and were praised as reviving the faith of the country. People flocked to the hermitage where he prayed and preached. When an emissary came from Pope Julius III inviting him to be a papal counsellor, Francis sought Ignatius’s assistance in excusing himself from such an elevation and was spared of the honor he feared, which was reluctantly respected by both Pius IV and Pius V in later years.
But even Ignatius could not keep Francis from a position of importance, making him commissary-general in Spain and giving him charge over all the Society’s missions. After Ignatius died and could no longer protect his friend from honor, Francis Borgia became the third Father General of the Jesuits. As the order grew beneath his careful administration, Francis founded a university, counseled kings and bishops, deployed missionaries, and was regarded as a saint during his life. But even with this veneration, Francis Borgia remained humble to the end, when he received his ultimate and eternal honor for ushering in a renaissance of Catholicism—a victory that began when he looked death in the face.
Looking death in the face today
The trajectory of St. Francis Borgia’s life was drawn by his encounter with death, a trajectory that arced to eternal life. Sometimes it takes a touch of death to get in touch with life, for after all, death is when life truly begins.
But death is not really a part of life anymore—not as it should be. We have lost the idea of death somewhere between death-care industries and death-metal goths. Death is either an unmentionable in need of euphemisms and platitudes; or else it is a tyrant of screaming, secular horror. As such, death is held in one of two cultural attitudes: denial or domination. Both extremes have something in common, though: fear. While Death should not be fearfully ignored or fearfully exalted, we must encounter the reality of death if we are to live forever.
As St. Francis’ reaction over the queen’s casket can attest for the ages, it is good to know what death is so that we might think on it with John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” or Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph, or G. K. Chesterton’s poem “the Skeleton” where the skeleton laughs that “Death was but the good King’s jest.” Death is stripped of his sting and therefore all souls are called to die a good death and to prepare for it—even look forward to it, as the exuberant, colorful traditions of Mexico’s el Dia de los Muertos proclaim.
To a godless people, however, death is devastating in and of itself and an unbearable condemnation of the façades of irreligious society. This devastation, however, fails to extend to the recognition of the reality of death—only to the soul’s struggle for some impossible, imagined compromise, some warm and fuzzy “in-a-better-place” hope that is more like a fear.
As they stand, though, death observances can be something like denials of the final fact. Everyone knows that they will die, but many would rather not face it. The sometimes-bizarre American funeral industry oftentimes seemingly attempts to negate or soften the reality of death with embalmed corpses, luxury coffins, and off-point sentimentality. But increased contact and tactile truth are far more efficacious assuagers and healers, even if they be hard teachers.
Despite its prevalent mitigation, death is, at the same time, widely hailed and paradoxically “hallowed” in a way that makes it terrible instead of tranquil. Death imagery prevails in movies, video games, tattoos, and edgy street fashion. Of course, it runs deeper than pop imagery: abortion, euthanasia, suicide, drug overdose, mass shootings. This has been called the “culture of death” for profound reason, and in these death-swamped times, a growing trend promotes a perverse and eerie “celebration” of death as an object of dark and even oppressive fixation.
Without the Church, people are reverting back to the shadows of pre-Christian eras, giving death renewed sway. As the masses crawl further from Christ, the One Source of life, so they become more out of tune with truth and more permeated with the powers that Christ overthrew—namely, death. Halloween, as it is currently observed, is one of the harbingers of this corruption, offering an exaltation of death rather than a derision of it. This is a reason for its alarming concentration on slashers, the undead, torture, and mutilation: the visceral fascinations of fallen nature.
Somewhere in the middle of death-denial and death-domination lies St. Francis Borgia’s example of the acknowledgement of what death must be and what it must bring. And it is this median experience that the extremes miss by a mile. If that middle ground is ever recovered, folks would inter their dead with spades again instead of leaving the task to impersonal backhoes. Do we truly bury the dead, as the corporal work of mercy commands? It is a good question, and one that is worth asking in a society segregated from the rites and realities of death, even as they struggle with the wages of sin, as though in mute denial or raging submission of some unthinkable, untouchable fact.
No matter how self-destructive the world is, people still want to live forever as the ancients did, and as Francis Borgia did. That desire is the basis of all philosophy and theology, and death must, when all is said and done, play the right part in that desire for eternal life if it is to be fulfilled.
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