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.
In this year of pestilence, I am reminded that St. Philip Neri began his good works in Rome by, among things, tending to the sick. The hospitals of sixteenth-century Italy were houses of profound mortification and little hope, not much more than palaces of death. They were chronically understaffed and overwhelmed with the indigent and the ill, who rarely recovered. The conditions were extremely unsanitary: the beds were filthy, the air putrid, the din of agony unremitting. Into these seething crowds of the desperate came St. Philip. He assisted the sick as best he could. His first biographer reports that, once he began to gather a following of disciples,
It was Philip’s custom on weekdays to divide his children in Christ into three or four groups and send them to the city hospitals. To begin with, he would himself go after dinner [lunch – RTY] to visit the sick in hospitals, to enkindle by his example in his followers a great desire to do this work; he would speak to the patients, tend them and do all sorts of things for them, which encouraged in his disciples an ardent desire to do the same. One example will serve to show you how devoted they were to the sick. Giovan Battista Salviati, being very dedicated, was in the hospital called the Consolazione, and headed straight for a patient intending to make his bed, asking him politely to get up so that he could do so. The patient thought he was being mocked. “No, my Lord,” he said, “don’t make fun of me, I’m a poor man.” He knew all about Giovan Battista’s licentious way of life, but was unaware of his marvellous change of character, by which he had wholeheartedly turned away from material concerns to the love of heaven. But what next? Giovan Battista urged him most earnestly, and the sick man was struck not only by his air of authority but even more so by his humility, and got out of bed, lost in admiration. Giovan Battista retained that style of life with an unwavering intent until the day of his death, and having once put his hand to the plough, he never looked behind him.
Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri Trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram Cong.Orat.
St. Philip inspired others to help the sick in whatever way the could manage. These works of mercy were the fruit of the genuine conversion he wrought in their hearts by that peculiar influence he possessed. The palpable indwelling of the Holy Ghost in his heart turned him into a living fountain of graces whose streams brought miracles to many souls. Some of these miracles healed the sick and even raised the dead. Yet we must never forget that it was not these extraordinary moments but, rather, the graces of repentance, of conversion, and of final perseverance that were truly the greatest fruits of St. Philip’s particular sanctity. St. Philip’s true fame rests in those whom he carried with him to Heaven, not in the strange and marvelous works that he effected while on earth. The story of Giovan Battista Salviati is one example among many of those who tasted of such sweet fruits. He actualized the grace of his conversion through works of charity towards the sick.
Subsequent writers have retained this act as a sine qua non of the Oratorian life, and then only because St. Philip so clearly demonstrates how essential it is to the Christian life per se.
And it seems to me that on this, St. Philip’s feast day, we would be well-advised to do the same. We find ourselves in the midst of a new and terrifying pandemic. Death is everywhere. In the United States alone we have lost 100,000 souls with almost no public mourning. Many of these people have died alone, afraid, in pain, and deprived of the comfort of God’s Church. The nature of the disease means that most of us cannot actively assist in the hospitals for fear of transmission. All we can do is show kindness to our neighbors, help each other obtain the necessary supplies to stop the spread of the disease, and give blood if we have survived the sickness ourselves. That’s as far as practical action goes for most of us. So much for the corporal works of mercy.
But a Christian is never without a way to directly help his brethren. The first and last resort of the faithful must be prayer. Here, too, we can take St. Philip as our model. Lest we place too much emphasis on St. Philip’s merely material acts in visiting the sick, let us turn to the testimony of Giuseppe Crispino,
When we enter a sick-chamber, let us imitate the holy Father Philip, who was accustomed, immediately upon his arrival, to pray for the patients in their own room and to make the bystanders do the same, especially in the case of the dying. The Saint was also accustomed to retire into another room, and there to pray for the sufferer.
Giuseppe Crispino, The School of Saint Philip Neri, pg. 174 Trans. Frederick William Faber
As I have written elsewhere, we must offer intercession for our suffering fellows now more than ever. And we must do so in union with the whole communion of saints. Indeed, one small blessing of this crisis is that it can, if we let it, draw us closer to the “great cloud of witnesses” ever ready to help us. One of St. Philip’s spiritual sons, Fr. Agostino Manni, made special prayers to the Blessed Virgin whenever he went to the hospitals; the Blessed Juvenal Ancina likewise sought the prayers of the living when he ministered to the sick (Crispino 174-76). And that most perfectly Philippine of English Oratorians, Fr. Faber, conceives of intercession for the dying as an intrinsically Marian act. He tells us that
We learn [a lesson] from Mary about the deaths of others. It is, that devotion for those in their last agony is a Mary-like devotion, and most acceptable to her Immaculate Heart. There is not a moment of day or night in which that dread pomp of dying is not going on. There are persons like ourselves, or better than ourselves, and whose friends have with reason loved them more than ever ours have loved us, who are now straitened in their agony, and whose eternal sight of God is trembling anxiously in the balance. Can any appeal to our charity be more piteously eloquent than this?…Are not the dying our brothers and our sisters in the sweet motherhood of Mary? The family is concerned. We must not coldly absent ourselves. We must assist in spirit at every death that is died in the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians. For they, too, are our brothers and sisters; they have souls; they have eternities at stake; Mary has an interest in them…How much more must they need prayers, who have no sacraments!…How much more earnest must be the prayers, when not ordinary grace, but a miracle of grace, must be impetrated for them!
Fr. Frederick William Faber, The Foot of the Cross
I cannot help but hear a ringing call to intercession for our own times in these words of Fr. Faber. A greater and more fearsome calamity of general death demands a greater and more dedicated oblation of prayer. Especially when even our brethren in the Faith are so often deprived of the Sacraments that should be their final stay and consolation. Yet the power of God to furnish extraordinary grace is far mightier than any earthly sickness. Healing, protection, mercy, conversion, and consolation: let us boldly ask for these gifts on behalf of the ill, the dying, the dead, their caregivers, and their families…while we still can. The hour is late. Tomorrow we may be struck ill with the dread and deadly pestilence. And then, our every thought diverted, our breath failing, our bodies plunged into the depths of a fatigue from which we shall never rise again, we will be grateful for those pious souls who lift us up to the face of the Father in prayer.
So let us pray while we still can. If we do this in a spirit of charity, we will become true Sons and Daughters of St. Philip and more perfectly emulate the Divine Physician who desires to heal us in soul as well as in body.
May St. Philip Neri pray for us all in this troubled time.
Seven years ago, on the evening of March 30th, 2013, I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. I took St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint, and I was confirmed by our pastor at St. Brigid’s Church, John’s Creek, Georgia. He has since gone on to become a bishop and is now the Ordinary of Memphis. I, meanwhile, have had many ups and downs in the life of the spirit. From 2014 on I have consecrated each year to a different Holy Person. I have not always been faithful to the spirit of these consecrations. I have often been useless and even actively unhelpful in my service to God and my neighbor. I have been known to set a bad example, and I know that from time to time I have offended or scandalized others. For that, I am truly sorry.
But throughout the years, I have never lost trust in the grace of God and my hope in the Blessed Sacrament.
And it is in view of that hope that I consecrate this next year of my Catholic life to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. I have long had a devotion to the Precious Blood, and I hope that this coming year will bring a renewed gratitude for that Blood so plenteously shed for the whole world.
Father Faber, in that marvelous book on the subject, writes,
The Precious Blood is invisible. Yet nothing in creation is half so potent. It is everywhere, practically everywhere, although it is not omnipresent. It becomes visible in the fruits of grace. It will become more visible in the splendors of glory. But it will itself be visible in Heaven in our Lord’s glorified Body as in crystalline vases of incomparable refulgence. It belongs to Him, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, although its work is the work of the whole Trinity. In its efficacy and operation it is the most complete and most wonderful of all revelations of the Divine Perfections. The power, the wisdom, the goodness, the justice, the sanctity, of God, are most pre-eminently illustrated by the working of this Precious Blood.
It seems to me somehow appropriate as well to repair unto the Precious Blood in a time of tumult and pestilence, when dead seems to be all around. Every Christian, if a Christian he truly be, is only so by the merits of the Precious Blood. It is our common inheritance as adopted Sons of God.
And what a cause of joy! Is it any wonder that some of the finest hymns praise the Precious Blood with an exuberance and a delight that anticipates what we shall feel in the Parousia? Perhaps this is one of the great attractions of the devotion, at least for me. As someone with a pessimistic temperament and a profound sense of the centrality of suffering in the Christian life, I sometimes struggle to cultivate a joyful approach to faith. But can there be anything that kindles more joy than the absolute gratuity, liberality, and efficacy of the Precious Blood in redeeming us? I wish we could all feel what Father Faber felt when he contemplated the gift of the Precious Blood, which is neither more nor less than the whole mystery of our salvation:
The Word delights eternally in His Human Blood. Its golden glow beautifies the fires of the Holy Ghost. Its ministries beget inexplicable joys in the Unbegotten Father. I was upon the seashore; and my heart filled with love it knew not why. Its happiness went out over the wide waters and upon the unfettered wind, and swelled up into the free dome of blue sky until it filled it. The dawn lighted up the faces of the ivory cliffs, which the sun and sea had been blanching for centuries of God’s unchanging love. The miles of noiseless sands seemed vast as if they were the floor of eternity. Somehow the daybreak was like eternity. The idea came over me of that feeling of acceptance, which so entrances the soul just judged and just admitted into Heaven. To be saved! I said to myself, To be saved!
Then the thoughts of all the things implied in salvation came in one thought upon me; and I said, This is the one grand joy of life; and I clapped my hands like a child, and spoke to God aloud. But then there came many thoughts all in one thought, about the nature and manner of our salvation. To be saved with such a salvation! This was a grander joy, the second grand joy of life: and I tried to say some lines of a hymn; but the words were choked in my throat. The ebb was sucking the sea down over the sand quite silently; and the cliffs were whiter, and more day like. Then there came many more thoughts all in one thought; and I stood still without intending it. To be saved by such a Saviour! This was the grandest joy of all, the third grand joy of life; and it swallowed up the other joys; and after it there could be on earth no higher joy. I said nothing; but I looked at the sinking sea as it reddened in the morning. Its great heart was throbbing in the calm; and methought I saw the Precious Blood of Jesus in Heaven, throbbing that hour with real human love of me.
Pray for me in this coming year, dear readers. Know that I will be praying for you and commending you always to the source of all life, all joy, all love, all purity, all sanctity, all wisdom, and all grace – the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. To whom be all glory, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.
The COVID-19 crisis is impacting all of us at some level. Yet we are not alone in the midst of our fear and pain. In His grace, the Good Lord provides so many ways for us to grow in holiness in the midst of this affair. I offer a few ideas here for the general edification of the faithful.
Offer up your suffering for the salvation and sanctification of sinners
The life of a Christian is the death of Christ. We can therefore unite all our sufferings – physical, emotional, mental – to the Cross. When we do so, we can impetrate tremendous graces for ourselves and others. If you are afflicted by the disease – offer it up. If you are worried for those you know who are ill – offer it up. If you are mourning – offer it up. If you are struggling with troubles related to work (or the lack thereof) – offer it up. If you are bored in quarantine – offer it up. Even minor inconveniences can become springs of grace when we offer them to the Great High Priest on high. A terrible crisis like the one we are now facing is also a marvelous opportunity to grow in holiness, to help others spiritually, and to nurture our abandonment to Divine Providence. Especially as we move through Lent.
Devote time to pious reading, especially of the Holy Scripture
It is the duty of every Christian to be conversant with the Holy Scriptures, especially the Gospels. The stories and teachings of the Divine Physician may be especially comforting in this difficult time. On the other hand, I can hardly think of circumstance more apt to induce us to read the Prophecies and Apocalyptic books of the Bible. Beyond the Scriptures, one might turn to such edifying texts as In Sinu Jesu, All For Jesus, or Revelations of Divine Love.
Develop a friendship with one or more of the plague saints
There are many saints whom Catholics have called upon to help them in times of plague and pestilence. I listed a few here. You might find yourself drawn to St. Rosalia, or St. Sebastian, or St. Charles Borromeo. I have set up a candle in my own prayer corner dedicated to St. Roch. He has been a good intercessor for me in times past, and as the patron of bachelors (I am unmarried) and of animals (my family has many pets), I think he is a very appropriate saint to honor while I am stuck at home during this crisis.
Keep an extra day of special fasting, beyond Lenten Fridays
Wednesday was historically a day of penance in addition to Fridays. You might set aside Wednesday (or Thursday, in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, or Saturday, in honor of Our Lord’s entombment) as a sort of “second Friday.” You don’t have to give up meat; you could add an extra penance you only keep on this second day, such as giving up alcohol, or sweets, or praying an extra set of prayers.
Pray the Seven Penitential Psalms
The Divine Office is superior option to sanctify the hours, but for those who may lack the resources or time to do so, praying the Seven Penitential Psalms is a great alternative. Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 for those of you using Protestant translations) are a moving, profound way to express sorrow for one’s own sins and for those of the whole world.
Pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet
These popular devotions are widely-known, so I won’t go on at length here about their peculiar merits. They are to be commended for their brevity, depth, and penitential character. Both are particularly well-suited to a time when we must implore God to spare us in His mercy. The Rosary also has the added benefit of beseeching the aid of the Queen of Heaven, whose title “Health of the Sick” comes to mind as particularly apropos in view of present circumstances.
Give to the poor and to religious houses
The lack of employment and an inability to leave the house is hitting working class families especially hard in this period, not to mention the homeless, prisoners, and others among society’s most vulnerable. I don’t yet know how to directly help them in a time of social distancing, but would be happy to take and/or post suggestions in the comments to this article. That said, I do know that religious houses will be struggling as well. Please consider giving to these holy souls, many of whom rely on charitable donations to get by month to month. I would direct my readers especially to the good Fathers and Brothers of Silverstream Priory. And don’t just give – pick up one of their excellent handmade decals, books, or prayers to Mother Mectilde de Bar from their online store! I’m sure the monks could use all the help they can get in this time of economic crisis.
Dedicate one hour daily to reparatory Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament through mental recollection
You don’t need to go to a chapel or church to adore the Blessed Sacrament. Set aside an hour in your day as a time of adoration. It need not distract from your work or recreation (though an extra hour of prayer may be a good idea, if it does not become too laborious). We can simply say to God, “I give you the next hour,” then come back to adore Him mentally through the hour as we can recall. And why not take the opportunity to make reparation for offenses against Our Eucharistic Lord, or His neglect in the tabernacles and altars of the world? This is a sweet and easy means to preserve the presence of God. Done regularly, it will help us grow in the sense of God’s proximity and in the trust of His merciful Providence.
Make a plague cross
Those who are feeling crafty might wish to draw or paint a version of one of the old plague crosses used in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods. Examples abound online, as a quick Google search will reveal. This prayerful activity is not only a way to invoke the aid of great saints, but also a great way to connect with the history of Catholic devotion.
Intercede for the dead and dying
Fr. Faber recommends frequent, dedicated intercession for those in their last agony and for the holy souls of Purgatory. In a time of great mortality, it is an act of charity to pray in a special way for those who are succumbing to death. Indeed, praying for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. You might begin by offering prayers for the dead and dying of your parish, then your diocese, then your state, then your nation, then the whole church, then the world. Let your prayer cast a wide net.
Make spiritual communions and acts of reparation each Sunday
This will, sadly, be necessary until public Masses are restored. But spiritual communions are not to be understood as somehow second-rate communions. When you are away from Mass in obedience to your bishop and through no fault of your own, you can still make a good communion with Our Lord. It may not possess the full sacramental character of a good Eucharistic communion, but it still binds us to the Eucharistic sacrifice. And any grace we receive as a result is indeed infused into us by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice. So let us come to love Acts of Spiritual Communion, an underappreciated and undervalued weapon in the Catholic arsenal in good times as well as in bad. You can find a variety all over the internet. I would add to these an Act of Reparation in time of plague.
Pray for the grace of final perseverance
St. Benedict teaches us that the Christian must “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter IV). In a time like this, it is hard not to follow this advice. And yet, we can put off the reality of our mortality by the unconscious assumption that it will never be us. Surely, death will pass us by. Surely, we have blood on our door. But the fact is, we don’t know when our time will come. The more seriously we take the prospect of our own mortality, the more shall we find ourselves drawn to ponder our own judgment. Let this salutary meditation induce us to pray for the graces of final repentance and perseverance and abandonment to the will of God.
And may the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.
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.
Thus concludes Anno Domini MMXVIII. I hope all my readers had a very fruitful year, and I pray for them all to know many blessings in this coming one. I have a lot to be grateful for this year. I made so many wonderful friends, both via this blog and otherwise. You know who you are. My work seems to be progressing well enough. And I was published in First Things, Jesus The Imagination, and The Church Times. This blog received its 100,000th view. So the year was full of activity.
I also feel that I gained more insight into who I am as a person. I’d like to think that in some ways, at least, I’ve become a more self-aware and honest man, and that I’ve learned a little bit more about humility this year.
I encountered God in new ways at different points of the liturgical year and in various holy places. I befriended new saints.
For all this, I am profoundly grateful.
Here are the top 10 posts I published this year, by readership:
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.
A view of the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square. Photo taken by author.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, that great son of St. Philip, was one of the many Oxford converts. He was a Balliol man who later became a fellow of University College, where he embarked on an ecclesiastical career as an Anglican. Later, of course, he came to the Church of Rome and founded the London Oratory. But as I am now settling back into Oxford, I thought it might my readers might enjoy a few of his poems about life at the University. I’ll probably break the collection up into a few different posts. Although Faber was later famous as a hymn-writer, in his youth he was a Romantic poet who won the admiration of none other than Wordsworth, whom he met in the Lake District. Faber’s style may be rather too Victorian for our tastes today. They also represent his spirituality at a very immature stage, when he was still an Anglican. The contrast between “College Chapel’s” rather pathetic final line and Faber’s “Muscular” pose in “College Hall” amuses, to say the least. But occasionally, as in “College Garden,” his sensuality and yearning anticipate the best of the Decadents who came at the end of the century. Finally, I’ll add that Faber’s romantic attachment to the legends and traditions of the English medieval monastics once again confirms my point that there remains an abiding affinity between the Oratorian and Benedictine charisms.
A shady seat by some cool mossy spring,
Where solemn trees close round, and make a gloom,
And faint and earthy smells, as from a tomb,
Unworldly thoughts and quiet wishes bring:
Such hast thou been to me each morn and eve;
Best loved when most thy call did interfere
With schemes of toil or pleasure, that deceive
And cheat young hearts; for then thou mad’st me feel
The holy Church more night, a thing to fear.
Sometimes, all day with books, thoughts proud and wild
Have risen, till I saw the sunbeams steal
Through painted glass at evensong, and weave
Their threefold tints upon the marble near,
Faith, prayer, and love, the spirit of a child!
Still may the spirit of the ancient days
Rest on our feasts, nor self-indulgence strive
Nor languid softness to invade the rule,
Manly, severe, and chaste—the hardy school
Wherein our might fathers learnt to raise
Their souls to Heaven, and virtue best could thrive.
They, who have felt how oft the hour is past
In idle, worldly talk, would fain recall
The brazen Eagle that in times of yore
Was wont to stand in each monastic hall;
From whence the Word, or some old Father’s lore,
Or Latin hymns that spoke of sin and death
Were gravely read; and lowly-listening faith
In silence grew, at feast as well as fast.
Sacred to early morn and evening hours,
Another chapel reared for other prayers,
And full of gifts,—smells after noon-day showers,
When bright-eyed birds look out from leafy bowers,
And natural perfumes shed on midnight airs,
And bells and old church-clocks and holy towers,
All heavenly images that cluster round.
The rose, and pink acacia, and green vine
Over the fretted wall together twine,
With creepers fair and many, woven up
Into religious allegories, made
All out of strange Church meanings, and inlaid
With golden thoughts, drunk from the dewy cup
Of morns and evenings spent in that dear ground!
A churchyard with a cloister running round
And quaint old effigies in act of prayer,
And painted banners mouldering strangely there
Where mitered prelates and grave doctors sleep,
Memorials of a consecrated ground!
Such is this antique room, a haunted place
Where dead men’s spirits come, and angels keep
Long hours of watch with wings in silence furled.
Early and late have I kept vigil here:
And I have seen the moonlight shadows trace
Dim glories on the missal’s blue and gold,
The work of my monastic sires that told
Of quiet ages men call dark and drear,
For Faith’s soft light is darkness to the world.