As part of my Lenten Spirituality Series, here is Dame Julian of Norwich’s meditation on the thirst of Christ, Chapter XVII of Revelations of Divine Love:
“How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, and all my bliss, and all my joy suffer?
And in this dying was brought to my mind the words
of Christ: I thirst.
For I saw in Christ a double thirst: one bodily; another spiritual…
For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. For the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried alone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and of the sweet feet, by the greatness, hardness, and grievousness of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body sagged, for weight by long time hanging. And [therewith was] piercing and pressing of the head, and binding of the Crown all baked with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging, and the dry flesh, to the thorns, and the thorns to the flesh drying; and in the beginning while the flesh was fresh and bleeding, the continual sitting of the thorns made the wounds wide. And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone, with the thorns where-through it were rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging, as if it would hastily have fallen off, for heaviness and looseness, while it had natural moisture. And that was great sorrow and dread to me: for methought I would not for my life have seen it fall. How it was done I saw not; but understood it was with the sharp thorns and the violent and grievous setting on of the Garland of Thorns, unsparingly and without pity. This continued awhile, and soon it began to change, and I beheld and marvelled how it might be. And then I saw it was because it began to dry, and stint a part of the weight, and set about the Garland. And thus it encircled all about, as it were garland upon garland. The Garland of the Thorns was dyed with the blood, and that other garland [of Blood] and the head, all was one colour, as clotted blood when it is dry. The skin of the flesh that shewed (of the face and of the body), was small-rimpled  with a tanned colour, like a dry board when it is aged; and the face more brown than the body.
I saw four manner of dryings: the first was bloodlessness;
the second was pain following after; the third,
hanging up in the air, as men hang a cloth to dry; the
fourth, that the bodily Kind asked liquid and there was
no manner of comfort ministered to Him in all His woe
and distress. Ah! hard and grievous was his pain, but
much more hard and grievous it was when the moisture
failed and began to dry thus, shrivelling.
These were the pains that shewed in the blessed head:
the first wrought to the dying, while it had moisture;
and that other, slow, with shrinking drying, [and] with
blowing of the wind from without, that dried and pained
Him with cold more than mine heart can think.
And other pains—for which pains I saw that all is
too little that I can say: for it may not be told.
The which Shewing of Christ’s pains filled me full of
pain. For I wist well He suffered but once, but [this
was as if] He would shew it me and fill me with mind
as I had afore desired. And in all this time of Christ’s
pains I felt no pain but for Christ’s pains. Then thought-me:
I knew but little what pain it was that I asked; and,
as a wretch, repented me, thinking: If I had wist what
it had been, loth me had been to have prayed it. For methought
it passed bodily death, my pains.
I thought: Is any pain like this? And I was answered in my reason: Hell is another pain: for there is despair. But of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer? Here felt I soothfastly  that I loved Christ so much above myself that there was no pain that might be suffered like to that sorrow that I had to [see] Him in pain.
On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.
We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,
This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.
We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.
For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.
Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.
We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.
That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.
The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.
St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.
SHOULD it happen sometimes, my daughter, that you have no taste for or consolation in your meditation, I entreat you not to be troubled, but seek relief in vocal prayer, bemoan yourself to our Lord, confess your unworthiness, implore His Aid, kiss His Image, if it be beside you, and say in the words of Jacob, “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me;” or with the Canaanitish woman, “Yes, Lord, I am as a dog before Thee, but the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
Or you can take a book, and read attentively till such time as your mind is calmed and quickened; or sometimes you may find help from external actions, such as prostrating yourself folding your hands upon your breast, kissing your Crucifix,—that is, supposing you are alone. But if, after all this, you are still unrelieved, do not be disturbed at your dryness, however great it be, but continue striving after a devout attitude in God’s Sight. What numbers of courtiers appear a hundred times at court without any hope of a word from their king, but merely to pay their homage and be seen of him. Just so, my daughter, we ought to enter upon mental prayer purely to fulfil our duty and testify our loyalty. If it pleases God’s Divine Majesty to speak to us, and discourse in our hearts by His Holy Inspirations and inward consolations, it is doubtless a great honour, and very sweet to our soul; but if He does not vouchsafe such favours, but makes as though He saw us not,—as though we were not in His Presence,—nevertheless we must not quit it, but on the contrary we must remain calmly and devoutly before Him, and He is certain to accept our patient waiting, and give heed to our assiduity and perseverance; so that another time He will impart to us His consolations, and let us taste all the sweetness of holy meditation. But even were it not so, let us, my child, be satisfied with the privilege of being in His Presence and seen of Him.
I have just been made aware of a very exciting new social media apostlate, Consoling Thoughts From Fr. Faber. This Facebook page posts various pious meditations and, as the title would suggest, consoling passages from Fr. Faber. Those who share my devotion to the Apostle of London will no doubt find this page a serious and salutary addition to their diet of spiritual content. It has my full endorsement.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.
Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.
First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.
The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.
Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.
What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?
For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:
“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”
-Ven. Seraphina di Dio
Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:
Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.
-St. John of Karpathos
One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,
“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”
-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153
When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.
So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?
The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.
We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*
In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.
I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.
These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.
It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.
*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.
I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.
1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer
This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.
2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus
This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.
Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?
If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.
In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.
All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!
4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”
This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.
I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.
An edifying read, for sure.
5. The Book of Revelation
If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.
It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.
So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.
Earlier this year, I discovered a new friend in heaven – the Blessed Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos (1711-1735), a Jesuit mystic of the Sacred Heart. Today is his feast. I like Blessed Bernardo for a lot of reasons. I admit, it’s hard to get a great sense of his life story, as so many of the materials about him (or by him) are untranslated from their original Spanish. Nevertheless, a few things are clear.
We share a devotion to the Heart of Jesus. Blessed Bernardo received private revelations of Jesus in which he was shown the Sacred Heart, culminating in a monumental mystical union. While strange phenomena are by no means unheard-of in the lives of the saints, Bernardo’s story is unusual insofar as many of his experiences were more typical of female mystics. The Sacred Heart devotion itself was often seen (and ridiculed by Jansenists) as an effeminate innovation that oozed sentimentalism. It’s hard to square that view with the very real rigor of Blessed Bernardo’s Jesuit life. As usual, simple narratives tend to fail when placed against a far more interesting reality.
The Spanish priest died when he was only 24. I will be 24 in a little over a month. It’s hard to imagine coming to the same heights of sanctity and intimacy with Jesus in such a short time. I look at my own spiritual life – scattered with sins and shortcomings, easily worn out, so often caught in a kind of lax scrupulosity – and I wonder how Bernardo did it.
Of course, it does rather help if you enter a Jesuit novitiate at the age of 14, as Bernardo did. That’s a good ten years of arduous ascetic labor and practice at prayer. All the same, lots of men entered religious life as youths in the early modern era. Not all of them achieved mystical marriage, one of the highest states of the interior life. And that even with many decades in the habit.
It occurs to me that, at the recent Vatican Youth Synod, stories like the Blessed Bernardo’s were mostly absent. The challenge of sanctity – indeed, its romance and adventure – were tepidly drawn at best. The tone of the discussions and of the later summary document may have been interpreted by some as a compassionate, realistic, and open-minded approach to the realities of life in the 21st century. But surely there was more than a touch of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor about the whole thing. You know the style. Holiness really is too hard, so we should make things easier – allow them to reach some other goal, some lesser goodness that isn’t holiness at all.
The experience of all the saints, but especially mystics like Father Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos, runs counter to this maudlin spirituality.
The truth is much more dangerous, and much more exhilarating. Holiness demands heroic virtue. We are called to be heroes. But true heroism looks very different than what this world – or what a worldly hierarchy – thinks it is. It is a life of risk and sacrifice and no small discomfort. But the rewards it gives are beyond all telling.
Blessed Bernardo knew that. He knew that the only true recompense that the Christian will receive is Christ Himself. And so he went unflaggingly forward to the work he was given as a missionary of the Sacred Heart. His entire life was a brief, bright blaze of love for Jesus. In this, he rather resembles that other great devotionalist, Fr. Faber, who died at the age of 49, a full 27 years before Cardinal Newman. Souls like these are gifts to the whole Church. They kindle the love of God in their fellows and light the path to His holy mount.
But they also present us with a challenge. By incarnating the charity of God in such a visible way, they invite us to the same labors of love. All of us are called to gaze upon the Sacred Heart. Holiness is not an adventure closed to any of us, no matter how young (or old) we may be. If there is anything we can take from the story of Blessed Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos, priest, missionary, and mystic, it is this salutary truth.
Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”
One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.
CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.
DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.
I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.
So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.
Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.
Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.
To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.
Bethink you, then—
1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.
2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?
3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.
4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?
5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.
A portrait of Mother Mectilde de Bar adoring the Blessed Sacrament. (Source)
Sometimes readers ask me about more information on Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), the saintly foundress of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I would of course direct those who read French or Italian to any of the several biographical studies about Mother Mectilde that have come out in those languages. However, I would perhaps more eagerly urge my readers to a series of recent posts at Vultus Christi presenting what is, I believe, the first English translations of some of Mother Mectilde’s spiritual letters. Here they are with the titles the translator has given them at VC.
And on top of all that, there’s a letter from the lay mystic Jean de Bernières to Mother Mectilde. Bernières is a good example of someone who, though posthumously condemned as a “Quietist,” is now being recovered as a source of valuable mystical insight. We have seen the same happen to Benet Canfield before, and it may yet occur to someone like Pietro Matteo Petrucci. More work needs to be done in this area. At any rate, translation of these early modern mystical works is badly needed.
Both as a practicing Catholic and as an historian of early modern Catholicism, I am encouraged that these works are being put into English for the first time. The English-speaking world is now getting a much better sense of the importance of this unique tradition within the Benedictine family. More translations, we are told, are coming. I eagerly await their publication.
Earlier this week, I went to the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Bl. John Henry Newman. Fr. Ignatius Harrison, the Provost, was kind enough to open up the Oratory house to me. I must offer him my tremendous thanks for his hospitable willingness to let me see such an incredible (and, it must be said, holy) place. Likewise, I thank Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory for taking time out of his busy schedule to give me what was an extraordinarily memorable tour. I went away from the experience with a rekindled devotion to Cardinal Newman.
Your humble servant in Cardinal Newman’s own library. Photo taken by Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory. You can see Cardinal Newman’s violin case on the lower shelf of his standing desk at right.
There were many striking and beautiful sights at the Oratory – not the least of which was the Pontifical High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, celebrated by His Excellency, Bishop Robert Byrne. Even from so short an experience, I can tell that the Birmingham Oratory is one of the places where Catholicism is done well, where the Beauty of Holiness is made manifest for the edification of all the faithful. I walked away from that Mass feeling drawn upwards into something supernal, something far beyond my ken. This place that so palpably breathes the essence of Cardinal Newman is, as it were, an island of grace and recollection amidst a world—and, sadly, a Church—so often inimical to things of the spirit.
The Birmingham Oratory with the relics of the Blessed Cardinal displayed for veneration by the faithful. This photo was taken by the author shortly before Mass.
Yet amidst all this splendor, I found myself peculiarly drawn to one very quiet, very easy-to-miss relic. It lies in the little chapel to St. Philip Neri to the left of the altar; in this placement, one can see the influence of the Chiesa Nuova on Newman and his sons, who modeled their house’s customs on Roman models. And so it is only appropriate to find relics of St. Philip there in that small and holy place, so evocative of the great father’s final resting place.
The altar of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by the author.
The collection of relics in the chapel are mostly second-class. These are not pieces of the body, but materials that touched St. Philip either in his life or after his death. One of these small items spoke to me in an especially strong way.
The little grey pouch you see to the left is St. Philip’s spectacle case. There is nothing terribly remarkable about it. It may not even be entirely intact, for all I know. A visible layer of dust covers the case, and a hard-to-read, handwritten label is all that identifies its use and provenance. No one comes to the Birmingham Oratory to see what once held St. Philip’s glasses. But of all the glorious relics I saw that day —some encrusted in gold, some taken from rare and holy men, some evoking the perilous lives of saints who lived in a more heroic age—it was this humble artifact that most fired my imagination.
A spectacle case is no great thing. It does not shift the balance of empires or change the course of history. But humility and nobility are close cousins all the same. Here we come upon St. Philip in his quotidian life. A saint so marvelously strange, so crammed with the supernatural, so flame-like in darting from one miracle to another, nevertheless bent his fingers to the perfectly ordinary task of opening this case and taking out his spectacles so that he might see just a little better. It is a true maxim that grace builds upon nature. We have been told of St. Philip’s many graces. Here we find him in his nature; frail and imperfect and in need of just a little aid, so like our own.
The supernatural never erases the natural, and God is never more glorified than in our weakness. The hands that took up this case and opened it and drew forth its contents, perhaps a little fumblingly from time to time, are the very same thaumaturgic hands that lifted a prince out of death and Hell so that he might make his final confession. We know the story of the miracle. How rarely do we ponder the everyday conditions of its operation! How rarely do we consider those hands in their ordinary life.
There is a tendency with St. Philip—as with many saints, and with Our Lord Himself—to reduce his life to one or two features. Some would make him an avuncular chap, always happy to laugh and thoroughly pleasant to be around, a jokester, a picture of joy and friend to all. On the other hand, we can get lost in the extraordinarily colorful miracles that mark St. Philip’s life, losing him in a fog of pious pictures and pablum. Neither captures his essence. The true middle way is to maintain a healthy sense of the bizarre—an approach that recognizes the extraordinary in-breaking of the supernatural precisely because it appreciates the ordinary material of St. Philip’s day-to-day existence. It was this view that Fr. Ignatius himself recommended, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on the “weird,” in his homily delivered last St. Philip’s day.
I was reminded of this double reality when I saw St. Philip’s spectacle case. Prosaic relics carry this two-fold life within them more vividly than those upon which our ancestors’ piety has elaborated in glass and gold. Even Cardinal Newman’s violin case is not so markedly dual in this way; after all, every instrument belongs to that human portion of the supernatural we call “art.” Music, paintings, and other aesthetic forms all lift the human soul out of itself and into another world. In some ways, they are cousins both to Our Lady and to the Sacraments, God’s masterpieces of the sensible creation. Yet a spectacle case—how utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violin—the sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newman—but a spectacle case? Drab as this one is, its beauty comes only from the story it tells, from the life it once served, from the little help it gave its owner in his acquisition of beatitude.
Too often we wish to be God’s violins. In our quest for holiness, we wish to be admired, to cast our voice abroad, to give and seek beauty. These are not necessarily unworthy goals. But they are not the most important thing. Too infrequently do we turn our mind to the spectacle case. All too rarely do we seek our holiness in the gentle, quiet, everyday task of being useful, unnoticed, and present to God precisely when He needs us.
St. Philip knew how to be both, when he needed to be. May we learn to be like him in this as in so many respects.
The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.
‘Catholicity, Antiquity, and consent of the Fathers, is the proper evidence of the fidelity or Apostolicity of a professed Tradition’ J.H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, 1837, p. 51