Prosaic Relics

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.

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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 worldand, sadly, a Churchso often inimical to things of the spirit.

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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.

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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.

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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 ageit 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. Philipas with many saints, and with Our Lord Himselfto 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 bizarrean 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 casehow utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violinthe sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newmanbut 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.

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The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.

 

“Love is His Bond”

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St. Philip, pray for us. (Source)

The Mass of St. Philip Neri is a little lesson in joy. The propers again and again stress a common theme: namely, the great saint’s joy, built upon his constant and fiery communion with the Holy Ghost. Holy Mother Church lifts her voice and sings in the Introit, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me praise His holy name.” At the Collect, we pray to God to “mercifully grant that we, who rejoice in his solemnity, may be profited by the example of his virtues.” When, in the third reading, we hear of the saint’s overpowering love of “the spirit of wisdom,” we learn as well that “All good things together came to me with her…and I rejoiced in them all” (from Wisdom 7). The Offertory likewise proclaims with the Psalmist, “I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou hast set my heart at liberty” (Ps. 118). Everywhere we turn, we find the joy and freedom that alone springs from communion with the Holy Ghost.

And then we come to a remarkable moment. In the Secret, the priest prays over the offerings,

We beseech Thee, O Lord, favorably to regard these present sacrifices: and grant that the Holy Spirit may inflame us with that fire, wherewith he wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.

The Church has here enshrined a stunning and highly instructive truth. Yet it is easy to miss.

The very heart of St. Philip – that organ claimed so powerfully by the Holy Ghost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, ever converting those sinners with the happy fortune of touching Philip’s breast, inflaming the saint with the deathless ardor of love, bearing such close likeness to those sacred hearts of Christ, Our Lady, and St. Joseph, beloved by generations upon generations – that heart is set up for us here in parallel to the Eucharist. For just as it is the Spirit who will so shortly transform bread into the most holy and eternal heart of Jesus, so it is that same Spirit who made of St. Philip’s heart a “hostia pura, hostia sancta, hostia immaculata.” Christ gives himself entirely to us by the Holy Ghost in the Liturgy, and St. Philip Neri became entirely Christ’s by the arrival of the Holy Ghost in those dark catacombs. To possess the heart is to possess the whole man.

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A plate illustrating the life of St. Philip from a rare 1699 Vita, kindly shown to me and since publicly shared by the Cardiff Oratorians. (Source)

This mutual possession of God and man animates everything for the Christian. The more we are given over to it, the more God allows us to partake of His own life. The more we are His, the more He becomes ours. This spiritual truth was well understood by St. Philip, who enshrined it as the principal of unvowed community life in the Oratory. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter.” This line, written of St. Philip, could apply just as well to Our Savior, Jesus Christ. For it is by His indwelling love that we come to love Him. It is by love that we can join our hearts to His in the Eucharist. It is truly by love that we share “that fire, wherewith [the Holy Spirit] wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.”

The 83rd Psalm comes to the Church’s lips at the Communion. She sings, “My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” These are not only St. Philip’s words, but those of every soul who gives herself over to the indwelling love of God. And at the Postcommunion, the Church prays,

O Lord, who hast fulfilled us with Thy heavenly delights: we beseech Thee, that by the merits of blessed Philip Thy Confessor, and by following him, we may ever earnestly seek after those things whereby we truly live.

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St Philip lived a preeminently liturgical life. (Source)

What are “those things whereby we truly live?” The Holy Ghost, the Eucharist, and prayer – those things, if it be not too blasphemous to speak of them as “things,” which were ever St. Philip’s “heavenly delights.” Or, more properly, that mystic unity of the three in the Liturgy. In his own words, “A man without prayer is like an animal without the use of reason.” And it is surely the grand and orderly and perfect prayer of Christ the Priest and Victim that St. Philip means when he speaks of our super-sensual reason.

What, then, does it mean to “truly live?” If I may be permitted to tie together a few of St. Philip’s maxims, we can discern his own answer to this question:

In the spiritual life there are three degrees: the first may be called the animal life; this is the life of those who run after sensible devotion, which God generally gives to beginners, to allure them onwards by that sweetness to the spiritual life, just as an animal is drawn on by a sensible object. The second degree may be called the human life; this is the life of those who do not experience any sensible sweetness, but by the help of virtue combat their own passions. The third degree may be called the angelic life; this is the life which they come to, who, having been exercised for a long time in the taming of their own passions, receive from God a quiet, tranquil, and almost angelic life, even in this world, feeling no trouble or repugnance in anything. Of these three degrees it is well to persevere in the second, because the Lord will grant the third in His own good time.

A departure from the passions and a cleaving to virtue; mortification mixed with convivial, holy companionship; and above all, an overriding joy.  These are the manifestations of the indwelling love of God. These constitute a life “truly lived.” These are the fragrant flowers accompanying the fruits of the Holy Ghost. “Thou hast set my heart at liberty;” the saint embodies the song of the Offertory.

St. Philip’s life was marked in every way by such a communion with the Holy Ghost, first in a singular and miraculous way in the catacombs, and then again at every Mass. The love of God made him the most perfect model of the very “angelic life” he described to his sons and companions. Those of us privileged enough to count him among our heavenly friends may, by his merciful intercession, hope to share that one Divine Joy he knew so well. May he so pray for us on this, his feast.

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Aparición de la Virgen a San Felipe Neri, Mexico, detail. (Source)