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.
Today is the Anglican commemoration of George Herbert, the great English cleric and metaphysical poet of the 17th century. He died on March 1st, 1633. In honor of this bard of the spirit, I offer to my readers one of my favorite Herbert poems. Every time I return to it, I find new edification.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.
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.
O Wisdom, be enthroned in my heart, O Adonai, inflame my heart, O Root of Jesse, bloom in my heart, O Key of David, unlock my heart, O Dayspring, shine in my heart, O King of Nations, reign in my heart, O Emmanuel, abide in my heart, Now and forevermore.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit, As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
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.
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.
The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here.
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.
Advent is an apocalyptic season, in which we look forward to Our Lord’s “coming in the clouds on high.” For precisely this reason, it is also a deeply prophetic season. The Church’s selections from the prophets in her Advent liturgies are rich and bear much meditation. As a visual complement to this holy of the Church’s life, I give my readers a collection of images of the prophets.
These paintings are by the great academic artist, Frank O. Salisbury (1874-1962), a man whose career has largely been forgotten but whose work is no less resplendent for that. Salisbury made enemies in the art world for this unrelenting attacks on modern art. His own oeuvre represents the acme of post-Sargent portraiture. It is hard to find a better master of the form. A devout Methodist, Salisbury also produced several religious paintings, usually centered on the human form.
In 1954, he executed a major series depicting the various prophets of the Bible. These refulgent images are, I must admit, a little tainted by the Cecil B. DeMille style of orientalism. But what purity of expression he captures! And in such vivid hues! Each is a gem worth pondering at great length.
I show them here for the delight and edification of my readers.
And just as an added bonus, here’s his lovely Nativity, painted for and donated to St. Nicholas Church, Harpenden. You can read more about it here.
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.
‘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