The God Who Loves to Be Unknown

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Christmas at the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

We come at last to the feast of the Incarnation, the brilliant night of the Godhead’s triumphal entry into creation. But the mysteries here are too vast and too bright for our untrained eyes. Let us therefore ascend to higher things by way of lower ones.

A phrase that St. Philip Neri was always repeating to his disciples was Amare Nesciri—”to love to be to unknown.” This injunction lies at the heart of St. Philip’s idiosyncratic sense of mortification. The chief thing was not to punish the body through long fasts and arduous ascesis. Far better was the mortification of the “razionale,” that proud and self-commanding reason common to us all. How often would St. Philip say to his penitents, “The sanctity of a man lies in the breadth of three fingers,” and pointedly lay those fingers on his forehead.

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The Madonna Appearing to St. Philip Neri, Sebastiano Conca, 1740. It is no accident that the vast majority of St. Philip’s iconography shows him in an ecstasy, venerating the Virgin and Christ Child. (Source)

The outlandish practical jokes, the daily confessions, the severe and thankless workload he imposed on his sons; everything tended to mortify the intellect and cultivate humility. Like T.S. Eliot, St. Philip knew that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (East Coker II). And for St. Philip, humility found its greatest expression in “loving to be unknown.” 

In a certain sense, this fact hardly strikes us as noteworthy. All the greatest saints were humble and taught humility to other, lesser souls. But how marvelously unique is St. Philip’s via humilitatis! To better grasp his singular path of perfection, it would behoove us to turn briefly to other saints first.

St. Benedict makes perfection in humility a physical, and even visible, matter. The monk who has achieved the Twelfth Degree of humility goes about with his head and eyes ever downcast, pondering his guilt and preparing himself for Judgment (Regula VII). In this state, the monk is spiritually united to Christ on the cross. As one eminent and trustworthy commentator has it, “The bowed head of the crucified Jesus, and of the monk in whom the Holy Ghost reproduces the image of His death, signifies a total adhesion to the will of the Father.” The monk’s humility is cruciform, stained by the Precious Blood as it flows freely from the holy wound in Christ’s side.

St. Ignatius stands apart as well. Ever spurring his sons on with a single battle cry Magis! Magis!“Greater! Greater!”he demands a humility that can only grow in the self-effacing pursuit of excellence for God. Jesuits must act. Like Christ in His ministry, they have no place to lay their heads (Luke 9:58). But Christ was not always going to and fro. His active life was marked by a profound interiority. He was often withdrawing for times of recollection and prayer. And thus the Jesuit humbles himself like Christ through his Examen, a conscious effort at humbling one’s self before God in an honest review of the day. The Jesuit’s proper humility thus bears a striking resemblance to that of Our Lord during those three momentous years.

We could find similar likenesses all through the glorious garden of the Church. Consider the contemplative humility of Carmel, drawn doubly from Christ on Tabor and Christ in Nazareth. Or ponder the humility of St. Dominic, by which we disappear entirely in the singular and all-absorbing Truth of the Word. How like Christ the preacher is the Dominican in his humility! And need we point to the way in which Franciscans draw their model of humility from the unremitting poverty of Our Lord? Thus, the Holy Ghost has showered the Church with various views of Christ’s one inexhaustible humility.

What, then, is left to St. Philip? How may his peculiar spirit and sense of humility draw us closer to Christ’s own humility? In what way can we find the God of the Universe in the simple words, Amare Nesciri?

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Nativity, Federico Barocci, 1597. Now in the Prado, Madrid. Barocci was St. Philip’s favorite artist. (Source)

St. Philip would have us love to be unknown. And so he leads us to the God who loves to be unknown, the God who willingly entered into human obscurity, who put off His glory, who was content to sleep under the watch of peasants and shepherds and beasts of burden. St. Philip brings us, gently but firmly, to gaze upon the face of the Infant Christ, true icon of humility. In the newborn Deity of Bethlehem, there are no clear signs of divinityonly the ineffable sweetness that seems to mark His features, a sweetness He will impart to the hearts of all His saints.

St. Philip is eminently the saint of the Divine Arrival. His whole life was marked by Pentecost, and his devotion to the Eucharist was legendary. So, too, is he invisibly bound to the conception and birth of the God-Man. His own deeply domestic spirituality drew its core of humble charity from the life of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. See the characters laid out before us: silent St. Joseph, the all-meek Virgin, the wakeful and overawed shepherds. At the heart of it all lies the sleeping babe, “Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word” as Lancelot Andrewes puts it. What a picture of humility! Here is a delightful paradox. God has entered the world in darkness and obscurity, that He might commune more profoundly with those few quiet souls. Here we have no mere abasement, but a stripping away of everything extraneous so that a deeper knowledge might follow. The God who is self-diffusive Goodness nevertheless hides and loves to be unknown, that He might savor the intimacy which only true humility can find.

Let Angel choirs sound their celestial praises; let powers and principalities quake with awe; let even the sky hail a new champion among the sidereal host; yet “let all mortal flesh keep silence,” for here lies the newborn God asleep. Above, music. Below, silence. Christmas is not just about the joyful manifestation of God. It is just as much about the astounding paradox at the heart of our faith, the way that the Infinite and Omnipotent God deepened the mystery of all things by robing himself in lowly humanity. Neither Jew nor pagan could have conceived of such a scandalous humility.

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The Mystical Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501. National Gallery, London. (Source)

And that is the humility that St. Philip Neri taught. We love to be unknown so that we might reach a deeper communion with God and with each other, free of pretense or distraction. That is why Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur, breathes of a peculiarly Oratorian spirit. Heart truly can speak to heart when both are freed by humility. The remarkable life of St. Philip Neri is testament to that truth.

But where did St. Philip learn to emulate the humility of the Infant Christ? I think we can infer two chief sources.

It is the distinctive mark of the Oratory to discourse daily upon the Word of God in a free and familiar manner. Indeed, the very first exercises of the Oratory at San Girolamo always took the reading and discussion of Scripture as their central object. It stands to reason that St. Philip’s profound engagement with the Gospels would have shaped his sense of Christ’s own humility.

But perhaps a more important source can be glimpsed in St. Philip’s intensely Eucharistic life. Surely St. Philip would have entered into the mystery of Christ’s birth precisely as he encountered Him in the Mass. The Eucharistic silence of the Host is but an echo of the silence Christ kept that first Christmas night. God’s hiddenness upon the altar comes from the obscurity in which He enmantled himself on that first night of His human life.

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Icon of The Inexhaustible Chalice. (Source)

Christmas is here, reminding us of God’s wondrous love. But that love calls us to contemplation as well as jubilation. Amidst the lessons and carols, amidst the bells and laughter, amidst the exuberance of family conversations, let us recall the silence of the Holy Infant. He was willing to cloak his Godhead for us. That love of being unknown seems utterly foreign to us, proud and vain as we are. So let this Christmastide see our entry into the mystery of God’s humility. Perhaps St. Philip Neri can help us find what we have missed.

 

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