The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”
The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.
One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.
In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.
We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.
The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.
But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.
Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,
“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem Source.
I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.
Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.
O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.
On this feast of St. Anthony the Abbot, I am reminded of a peculiar episode in the life of the saint that St. Jerome records. In full, it reads:
But to return to the point at which I digressed. The blessed Paul had already lived on earth the life of heaven for a hundred and thirteen years, and Antony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude (as he himself was wont to declare), when the thought occurred to the latter, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him. So then at break of day the venerable old man, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose he knew not. Scorching noontide came, with a broiling sun overhead, but still he did not allow himself to be turned from the journey he had begun. Said he, I believe in my God: some time or other He will show me the fellow-servant whom He promised me. He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living? The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.
Antony was amazed, and thinking over what he had seen went on his way. Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer to him the fruit of the palm-trees to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this: I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’ As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fullness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said, Woe to you, Alexandria, who instead of God worships monsters! Woe to you, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters. He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away. Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shown as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.
Let it never be said that the lives of the saints are boring. Artists, like Demonologists, have throughout the centuries returned to these scenes again and again. The Centaur shows up a lot, probably because it’s a subject that permits the artist to show off his own talents at depicting both human and equine anatomy. Yet we can also detect here a certain visual sensibility that can only be described as picturesque delight and fascination.