August is the Month of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While I was too busy moving and adapting to life in Pennsylvania to write anything for Assumption Day, my good friend Keanu Heydari wrote a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Assumption as well as on Our Lady’s co-redemptive role more generally. I offer it to my readers for their edification and delight as well as for the honor of Our Lady’s Sorrow and Immaculate Heart. Here’s a particularly puissant excerpt:
In this remarkable passage, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen has argued, John’s Jesus invokes the archetypical womanhood of Mary as the New Eve. Mary is the woman. Jesus affirms her role in undoing our devastated humanity in the Garden by affirming her role as the New Eve. Moreover, the Lord makes a startling claim about the dignity of Mary’s personhood and her role in the narrative arc of cosmic salvation as Coredemptrix and Mediatrix. What is true about Christ is also just as true of the Virgin. Only Mary could confess that she, in the purest way, was truly of the flesh of the Son of Man.
Keanu hits upon a fundamental truth of Catholicism, the Marian-Ecclesial analogy with Christ. What is predicated of Christ can be predicated of both the Church, His Bride, and, in a special way, His Mother. This is not to suggest that anyone other than Jesus Christ as a discreet person is the Logos, but to note that all that He is by nature, we can become by Grace – and Mary first of all.
Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.
The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.
If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.
It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.
I have, by the merciful grace of God, passed my M.Phil in Theology at Oxford. I could not have done so without the abundant help of my supervisors and tutors, principally Dr. Sarah Apetrei, as well as the many friends and family who supported me throughout the course of my studies there. Latterly this endeavor has caused me to neglect my blogging, for which I must beg pardon of my readers. Editing, submissions, an examination, travelling, and the arduous business of moving back across the Atlantic has distracted me. So has the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to so many friends, men and women I will miss in the years to come.
I can understand why our soon-to-be-Saint Newman had so much trouble getting Oxford out of his blood. The place is a mirage in silver and stone. To have dwelt in such a dream-city for so long a time, to have been part of its inner life, to have shaped it according to one’s own character and to be shaped by it in turn, to watch the sun and the rain succeed in their seasons over streets imbued everywhere with a boundless sense of eternity…yes, I can see why Newman was always looking for a path back to this northern Eden. A Papal angel kept him from the gate. More prosaic barriers have turned me aside, namely, the prospects of an academic career in America.
But, in some way, the greater grief is leaving the United Kingdom. Shakespeare called Albion a swan’s nest in a stream. Having traveled from London to Birmingham, from Cardiff to York, from Tenby to Bournemouth, from Cambridge to Edinburgh, from Bath to Stratford, from Walsingham to Wakefield, in short, across the whole face of this country, I can start to see what he means. Britain possesses a peculiar beauty in grey-green and gold, something delicate and immortal that only reveals itself to an attentive foreigner. I shall miss it.
More than that, I’ll miss the many friends I made in my two years abroad. Not just English either, though there were plenty of those – but also Canadians, Russians, Australians, Irish (both orange and green), French, Armenians, Italians, Romanians, Scots, Sri Lankans, Welsh, Poles, Chinese, and even some of my fellow countrymen. The story of my time in Oxford would not be complete without them. I will feel the absence of each, some more keenly than others.
I suppose this is as good a time as ever to take stock of some of my travels through life at large. I am 24 years old. I have visited 12 countries beyond the borders of the United States:
The United Kingdom France Ireland Belgium The Netherlands Italy Austria The Czech Republic Hungary Romania Bermuda Vatican City
And 14 if one includes layovers and train connections in Germany and Switzerland. I have stood at the banks of the following rivers:
The Thames in London The Thames in Oxford (Isis) The Thame in Dorchester (before it becomes the Thames) The Cherwell The Liffey The Seine The Amstel The Arno The Rhône The Saône The Tiber The Danube The Lys The Usk The Avon in Bath The Loire The Cam
I have spent quite a lot of time in churches. A few favorites in England include the Oxford Oratory, the York Oratory, the Birmingham Oratory, Magdalen College Chapel, Worcester College Chapel, Oriel College Chapel, Merton College Chapel, St. Stephen’s House Chapel, St. Etheldreda’s, Holborn, and the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. My single favorite church in England remains the Brompton Oratory, as it has been since that first June day I stepped into its vast and holy darkness, four years ago.
I have so far managed to get to the following Cathedrals (and Abbeys) in England, of which the first two are my favourites:
Winchester Cathedral Gloucester Cathedral Norwich Cathedral Oxford Cathedral St. Paul’s Cathedral York Minster Wakefield Cathedral Salisbury Cathedral St. Giles’s, Edinburgh Westminster Cathedral Westminster Abbey Bath Abbey Malmesbury Abbey
Plus some lovely country churches – East Coker, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Binsey, and my very favorite, St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp.
In Ireland, Silverstream Priory remains the most spiritually nourishing place I have ever been; its beauty and its holiness are always palpable.
My travels on the Continent have been full of their own various ecclesiastical delights, so I’ll only mention a few highlights. My favorite cathedral in the world is St. Bavo’s, Ghent, which represents the perfect fusion of Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and 19th Century styles. In France, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the Rue du Bac, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Lyon Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and Saint-Just in Lyon are a few holy places I will not easily forget. Recently, I visited De Krijtberg in Amsterdam, which is the best example of painted Neo-Gothic I have seen beyond the Sainte-Chapelle. Italy is too full of wonderful churches to count, as are the old Hapsburg lands. If I were to choose a favorite in each, I suppose I would have to list the Chiesa Nuova (St. Philip Neri’s home and final resting place) in Italy, as well as Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the Matthias Church in Hungary, and St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech Republic. Though, to be fair, I visited several of these a few years ago rather than on this late sojourn in Europe.
I list these travels not out of any boasting, and, perhaps, not even for my readers. If anything, I do it for myself. I am more interested in remembering these places; writing about them has given me occasion to reminisce, to try and recapture something of the pleasure they gave me once.
I have been very blessed in life. I praise the Good Lord for allowing me the chance to see a bit of the world, to have done useful work, to have read interesting books, to have seen beautiful things, to have drank some good wine, and to have known such wonderful people. What more can one ask for in this brief life?
“Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.” – Revelation 21:3
St. Philip’s feast always falls within that sunny period of the Church’s year when, passing from Easter to Ascensiontide and following on to Pentecost and Corpus Christi, we find our days running over with the majesty of these great mysteries. The days grow longer, and so they seem to grow more golden with the ever-descending light of the Holy Ghost. We are in a season of peculiar glory. The culminating lesson of these mysteries is clear: God has made his dwelling among men, and in the midst of His people shall He reign.
St. Philip knew this truth well. His whole life could well be described as a journey between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, the two feasts that most clearly teach us of God’s enduring presence in His Church. It was on the Vigil of Pentecost, 1544, that St. Philip received the grace that would define his vocation and the character of his sanctity. While praying in the catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Holy Ghost descended into St. Philip’s heart visibly and sensibly in the form of a ball of fire. This experience, which provided as much heat and pain as rapturous joy, marked the true beginning of St. Philip’s active ministry. In St. Philip, the Holy Ghost once again made His dwelling among men.
From then on, St. Philip’s whole life would be marked by a singular union with the Holy Ghost. He became the “tabernacle of the Most High” and a living fountain of graces. His many miracles testify to the indwelling of the Spirit within him. So does his manifest oddity, his clear and salutary estrangement from the ways and works of ordinary men. The prophet writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” So does the Holy Ghost speak from the heart of St. Philip. For this reason, the Church applies the words of St. Paul to the new Apostle of Rome:
The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit of God dwelling within us
Introit for the Feast of St. Philip Neri
St. Philip’s priestly life was marked by the overwhelming presence of God. Everything about him spoke to the present reality of the supernatural. This reality took two chief forms. The most famous were the astounding miracles wrought by St. Philip – most notably the raising of Prince Paolo Massimo from the dead. But there was also St. Philip’s profound adoration of the Eucharist. His popularization of the Forty Hours’ Devotion was but the visible extension of his love of the Blessed Sacrament. So too were the Eucharistic ecstasies to which he was increasingly susceptible as he became older. St. Philip knew no sweeter hours than those that he spent at Mass as an old man, kneeling in darkness before the altar, lost in the rarefied heights of a contemplation we can barely begin to fathom.
In recalling the holiness of Saint Philip, it occurs to me that it was essentially this: he was all priest. He was always and everywhere a priest. His priesthood suffused his very being, making him incandescent with the fire of the Cross and of the altar.
St. Philip’s extraordinary endowment with the Spirit was ordered towards his life as a priest – namely, towards the glory of God in the Eucharist. This is the case with all of us. The Spirit, God in us, is given precisely for us to receive the Eucharist, God with us. Confirmation, like all the other sacraments, exists with the Eucharist as its proper telos.
How fitting, then, that St. Philip should pass into eternal life when he did. May the 25th, 1595, was the feast of Corpus Christi. As Fr. Faber has it,
Day set on Rome! its golden morn Had seen the world’s Creator borne Around St. Peter’s square Trembling and weeping all the way, God’s Vicar with his God that day Made pageant brave and rare!
“St. Philip’s Death,” F.W. Faber
Providence often grants the saints a Christ-like death. It is a sign that, even in suffering and death, God is still dwelling with us. St. Benedict died in choro during a liturgy, just as Christ died in the fulfillment of His high priesthood. Many martyrdoms were accompanied by strange signs and mystical evocations of the Sacrifice of Christ. It should be no surprise that God would take St. Philip in a similarly edifying manner.
In his death, St. Philip reminds us that we are all meant to imitate Christ in His Sacrifice, that is, in the Blessed Sacrament. There is no more perfect pedagogue in the life of the Spirit than the Son, who has presented Himself to us on all the altars of the world. Would that we might take this lesson to heart!
St. Philip died when he did because, by a singular grace of Providence, God was pleased to mark His servant’s passing with the Church’s celebration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Just as St. Philip honored the Eucharistic God in his life, so did the Eucharistic God honor him in his death.
We, too, can honor the saint best by cleaving to the Lord. St. Philip’s words to a spiritual daughter are as true today as they once were:
“Let us concentrate ourselves so completely in the divine love, and enter so far into the living fountain of wisdom, through the wounded Side of our Incarnate God, that we may deny ourselves and our self-love, and so be unable to find our way out of that Wound again.”
St. Philip Neri
God dwells with us just as He once dwelt in the blessed heart of St. Philip. He comes to us just as He came once to the priestly hands of St. Philip. Let us abide in Him, just as St. Philip did once and does forevermore in the heights of Heaven.
In Holy Week, we edge ever closer to the Paschal Mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and does not end until the joy of Easter Morning. Or, more rightly, the joy that never ends. The Paschal Mystery is always present on our altars. Christ deigns to give us all of the glory and drama of those frightful, baffling, sacred days in the course of every single Mass. The reverse is also true. Our meditation on the events of the first Holy Week must be impregnated by a sense of the profound Eucharisticity of it all. Everywhere, be it in the shadowed garden or the iniquitous court or the clamorous street or the desolate mount where Our Lord died, we discover hints of Eucharistic air. We cannot approach these scenes without catching a whiff of incense.
This scent of paradise would seem to waft from the very wounds of Christ as from the most fragrant flowers on earth. For they are the vessels of the new creation, the blooms of the new Eden, and the stars in the new Heaven. If we would have an idea of paradise, we must study the shape and depth and hue and feel and – in the Eucharist – the taste of these wounds. They are our gates to Heaven. They are our safe passage through the sea of tohu-va-bohu, the chaos of this sinful world. Yet, one must not carry the comparison too far. If the Israelites reached the Mountain of God kept dry of the waters of the Red Sea, the Christian must do quite the opposite. He finds God by drowning in that very different red sea, Christ’s Precious Blood. He must die there in that flood, just as His Savior did. But this death brings new life – and that everlasting.
It is thus the peculiar mission of the Christian soul to devote herself to the Holy Wounds. Few devotions are more perfect, for few are so closely bound to the very quick and marrow of our salvation. Indeed, devotion to the Holy Wounds is little more than devotion to Christ precisely as Redeemer of Mankind, and thus as our Prophet, Priest, and King, as Victim and Altar, as the Word Incarnate – in short, to Christ Himself.
It also inevitably means devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. All of the Holy Wounds remind us of the Blessed Sacrament. We find them there, on the altar, and we discover the shadow of the tabernacle falling over each wound in turn.
Anyone who has seen the Medieval materials produced around this devotion (including the flag of the doomed and valorous Pilgrimage of Grace) will know that, typically, there were five Holy Wounds: two feet, two hands, and heart. One could bring this count up to six if the wound in the side were considered separately from the heart. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests there is another wound, rarely depicted, that gave Our Lord exquisite dolors unrecognized by men. Once, in conversation with Jesus, the Mellifluous Doctor asked him about his greatest unrecorded suffering. Jesus answered,
“I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound that was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men. Honor this Wound with thy devotion, and I will grant thee whatsoever thou dost ask through its virtue and merit. And in regard to all those who shall venerate this Wound, I will remit to them all their venial sins and will no longer remember their mortal sins.”
From the Annals of Clairvaux
A prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound, bearing the imprimatur of Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, has circulated on the internet. It reads:
O most loving Jesus, meek lamb of God, I, a miserable sinner, salute and worship the most sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so tore Thy flesh and laid bare Thy bones as to inflict on Thee an anguish greater than any other wound of Thy most blessed body. I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee, and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain, and by the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross, to be merciful to me, a sinner, and to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and to lead me on toward Heaven along the Way of the Cross. Amen.
Prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound
All the wounds of Jesus teach us something of his Eucharistic life. The wounds and the Blessed Sacrament are mutually illuminating. If we would understand the Eucharist, we can look to the wounds; if we desire to penetrate those wounds more deeply, we must adore and receive the Eucharist. This can be seen in each of the typical wounds. The feet remind us of the absolute fixity as well as the global universality of the Blessed Sacrament. The hands remind us of Christ’s priesthood. The Wounds in the side and heart of Jesus speak to the burning charity which motivated the institution of the Sacrament as well as its generative power; along with Baptism, it makes mortal men into Sons of God.
The shoulder wound, however, tells us something different. It points to the veil of the Eucharist. It reminds us of the hiddenness of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is a silent and unseen wound, and it tells us about the silent and unseen God who becomes present for us, silently and invisibly, in the Eucharist. It was this wound, so St. Bernard tells us, that caused Our Lord such terrible pain in His Passion.
Consider the duty of the Christian soul towards this admirable wound. She must make reparation to the Father for this wound on the unblemished Son; she can only do this by uniting her own sorrows to His. She must prayerfully let the Holy Spirit mold her hidden suffering into the very likeness of the shoulder wound. No suffering is too great for this transfiguration, nor any soul too far gone in sin for this empowerment. All that is needed is a penitent heart, a sacramental life, and humble prayer before the Father. The Almighty is merciful, and His mercy comes to us through the Wounds of Jesus Christ. In fact, we find here one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. If we would behold the mercy of the Father, we must look at the wounds of the Son – they are His mercy.
The Christian must burrow into them. We must bury ourselves in the wounds of Christ. We cannot be stingy with this self-offering. Every part of the soul belongs to God. The hidden wound of the shoulder reminds us that, even those parts we wish to keep away from the eyes of the world, those most interior sins, those most private sufferings, those darkest sorrows and temptations – all these unseen afflictions of body and soul – all must be given over to God. Nothing can remain outside His grasp. In the words of the Evangelist, “there is nothing hid which shall not become manifest, nor secret which shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17 DRA). It is fruitless to hide from God, just as it was when our first parents fled from His voice in the Garden. And so, the hidden wound of Christ reminds us that we will be judged, even as it offers us mercy.
These considerations must spur us to a more authentically Eucharistic life. We cannot hope to save ourselves. Christ has died for us, and to take on His dying life, we must cleave to the Blessed Sacrament. Acts of Reparation, Adoration, and frequent reception of communion are all ways to press our souls into the sacrifice of Christ.
In this sacred time of year, let us make a special effort to hallow the Holy Wounds in our heart, to unite our sufferings to those endured by our Savior, and to make reparation for the offenses that sin has wrought. And above all, let us praise God the Father Almighty, the author of these Holy Wounds, for His infinite mercy.
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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.
Frontispiece of the Sacra Exequialia. Note the skeletons at the base of the candelabra and baldachin columns. (Source)
A forgotten Latin text of 1702, the Sacra Exequialia in Funere Jacobi II, provides some wonderful views of early modern Catholic funerary rites. Or at least, as those rites were employed for dead monarchs. The central text is Cardinal Barberini’s funeral oration for the king at Rome. Fun fact: if you Google “Exequialia,” it’s the first and one of the only results. While it may not be a hapax legomenon, it’s the sort of rare word that makes epeolaters and logophiles drool.
At any rate, I’m not writing this post because of Barberini’s text. The book’s more delicious feature is its several illustrations, including the wild Baroque decoration of the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina as well as several emblems.
The decorations of San Lorenzo in Lucina for the occasion. (Source)
Of course, James II died in Paris and buried in the English Benedictine church there. It is a testament to the respect he was held in by the Papal court that a Cardinal of such standing as Carlo Barberini, Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, should preach an oration for him in Rome.
One of the marvellous emblems in the text. Note the Ouroboros. (Source)
An image of London. There are similar views of Paris and Rome. All were at hung at the high altar behind the catafalque and its baldachin. (Source)
Another moral emblem. I’m particularly fond of this one as the harp recalls not only the exile in Babylon (and thus the Jacobite exile) but also the valiant Irish defense of James’s claim to the throne in 1689. These also would have adorned the walls of the church alongside the King’s arms. (Source)
A closer view of the skeletal flambeaux. One can never have too many at a funeral. (Source)
Jacobite emblem accompanying the text of the Oration. (Source)
A closer view of the frontispiece. Note the Pope flying over the catafalque. (Source)
Here you can see the spooky scary skeletons all around the room. (Source)
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