Here is my New Year’s Resolution, though I confess, it isn’t actually mine. It is rather taken from page 201 of The Spirit of Fr. Faber, Apostle of London.
Recently two very worthy endeavors have come to my attention. The first is the blog of the Stigmatics Project at the Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp. The project “studies the promotion and devotion of the hundreds of stigmatics reported in five European countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” It takes a scholarly, non-confessional approach to its subject. No doubt this new venture will yield greater insights into the stigmata as a social phenomenon.
The second is a much more theological blog called Littlest Souls, and it presents a veritable treasure trove of mystic spirituality. The blogger has clearly read widely in the library of the soul passed on to us from age to age by the Church. He seems to place a special emphasis on the 19th and early 20th century mystics, much like the Stigmatics Project. In fact, they probably cover some of the same figures. But unlike the recently-founded work of the Ruusbroec Institute, Littlest Souls has been up and running since May 2012. There is consequently much more material here to review and contemplate. Fans of that other great blog, Mystics of the Church, will find much here to admire.
In my first post on Father Faber, I noted that he represented a kind of lost world of the faith. Today, it is hard to imagine a Catholicism that once supported the kind of imaginatively baroque and overtly sentimental spirituality that oozes from his pages. Father Faber looks odd to our cynical, postmodern eyes. But in exploring his writings now, I find much in them that’s salutary and beautiful. My hope is that I can play some small part in recovering those gems for our times.
Both of these blogs seem to do precisely that; one at the level of scholarship, and one at the level of spirituality. Both set out to investigate and present a spiritual school that often seems morbid, unhealthy, or slightly daft – certainly one that has little place in our age. But there are real values here, real impressions of humanity in communion with the divine. I can only commend their efforts as important contributions to the memory and mystical life of the Church Militant.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Church is weird because she is supernatural, and the supernatural is always strange. We should embrace that fact.
When I was an undergraduate, I spent an afternoon in one of my theological societies discussing how Christians should respond to the discovery of alien life, should it ever happen. Our group split between those who believed the question was null anyway, as there were no aliens, and those, like me, who held that if they did exist, we should baptize and catechize them anyway.
It seems that no less a figure than Father Faber himself should have something to say on the matter. Imagine my shock when, quite unexpectedly, I came across the following passage yesterday in Faber’s The Precious Blood (1860/1959):
God made the angels and the stars. The starry world is an overwhelming thing to think of. Its distances are so vast that they frighten us. The number of its separate worlds is so enormous that it bewilders us. Imagine a ray of light, which travels one hundred and ninety-two thousand miles in a second; and yet there are stars whose light would take a million of years to reach the earth. We know of two hundred thousand stars down to the ninth magnitude. In one single cluster of stars, eighteen millions of stars have been discovered between the tenth and eleventh magnitudes. Of these clusters men have already discovered more than four thousand. Each of these stars is not a planet, like earth; but a sun, like our sun, and perhaps with planets round it, like ourselves. Of these suns we know of some which are one hundred and forty-six times brighter than our sun. What an idea all this gives us of the grandeur and magnificence of God! Yet we know that all these stars were created for Jesus and because of Jesus. Mary’s Son is the King of the stars. His Precious Blood has something to do with all of them. Just as it merited graces for the angels, so does it merit blessings for the stars. If they have been inhabited before we were, or are inhabited now, or will at some future time begin to be inhabited, their inhabitants, whether fallen and redeemed, or unfallen and so not needing to be redeemed, will owe immense things to the Precious Blood. Yet earth, our little, humble earth, will always have the right to treat the Precious Blood with special endearments, because it is its native place. When the angels, as they range through space, see our little globe twinkling with its speck of colored light, it is to them as the little Holy House in the hollow glen of Nazareth, more sacred and more glorious than the amplest palaces in starry space. (The Precious Blood 20-21).
The passage stood out to me for a few reasons. First, we might note Fr. Faber’s charming vision of angels flying through outer space. It strikes me as typical of his imaginatively poetic spirituality to find all of reality brimming with several orders of hidden and divine life. Secondly, Faber anticipates the very sentiments that astronauts would feel and describe over a century later. But perhaps most strikingly, Faber seems to suggest both the plausibility of extraterrestrial life and its capacity for redemption, presumably through the sacramental work of the Church. I would never have anticipated this idea from a Victorian priest most famous for his effervescent devotions and moralizing sermons. Evidently Faber was well read in the science—and possibly the science fiction—of his day.
On this Feast of Christ the King, I also find Faber’s words particularly apt. There is no part of reality to which the sovereignty of Christ does not extend: “Mary’s Son is the King of the stars.” One imagines that Faber would have enthused over today’s solemnity, had he lived long enough to see its institution.
The whole chapter is a spiritual gem, but this strange little paragraph seemed particularly worthy of consideration. The more I read, the more disconsolate I am that Faber has been so widely neglected by today’s Catholics.
One of the clearest elements of Oratorianism is its outstanding aesthetic tradition. From the very beginnings of St. Philip’s Congregation, the Oratory has fostered the leading artists and composers of every day. Rubens, Caravaggio, Pietro da Cortona, and others competed to fill the Chiesa Nuova with glorious baroque paintings and frescos. The exercises of the Oratory were accompanied from its earliest iterations by the airs of Animuccia and Palestrina.
In the 17th and 18th century, the Oratory reached its high noon. In his 1965 book, The Idea of the Oratory, Fr. Raleigh Addington of the London Oratory traces the history of St. Philip’s family. He shows how it spread rapidly through Italy and Spain, as well as other parts of the Catholic world as far afield as Mexico and Ceylon. Even relatively small towns had Oratories. While few of these houses have survived the French Revolution, Italian Unification, and two World Wars, we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of that world. Let us examine the way that various 18th century composers promoted the cult of St. Philip Neri in an increasingly Enlightened world.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s San Filippo Neri (1705)
The aforementioned accompaniment written by Animuccia and Palestrina eventually turned into a new musical genre: the oratorio, named for the Oratory. The very first oratorio proper was staged at the Roman Oratory in 1600. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo, by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, opens with a stirring exhortation by a baritone representing the voice of Time. His message – “Il tempo, il tempo fugge” – could have come from St. Philip himself. Good Philip went about Rome encouraging those he met “to begin to do good.” This sense of immediacy, even urgency, was inherited by some of his sons, most notably Father Faber of London.
But Cavalieri’s work would hardly be the last Oratorian oratorio. Take, if you will, the Sicilian Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1705 oratorio, San Filippo Neri. It narrates Philip’s life by examining several episodes of his story through a dialogue conducted between the eponymous saint and women representing the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. It is a strange piece, an allegory that blurs the lines between interior and exterior action.
And what a tonal difference a century makes! While Cavalieri’s work still shares something of the dramatic chiaroscuro that marked the Counter-Reformation era, Scarlatti’s oratorio soars into the confidence and optimism of the Age of Enlightenment. Each movements brims with airy light. Scarlatti, who would have known the Oratorians, or Girolamini, of Naples, manages to capture something of St. Philip’s own bounding spirit in the score.
The work represents a significant collaboration between Scarlatti and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Ottoboni, a Venetian who spent much of his career in Rome, is a formidable figure in the history of early modern Catholicism, Italy, and art. He was renowned for his exquisite taste, and he amassed a vast collection of the finest paintings he could lay his hands on. He fostered the careers of several composers, including Antonio Vivaldi, whom resembles Scarlatti resembles in certain formal respects. Ottoboni may not have been a very holy man (Baron de Montesquieu allegedly asserted that he sired “between 60 and 70 children. Portraits of his mistresses as saints, like Margarita Pio Zeno of Savoy (1670-1725), decorated his bedroom”). Nevertheless, he was pious enough to write a theologically sound libretto for Scarlatti’s oratorio.
Ottoboni seems to have had a devotion to St. Philip. At the very least, he was able to compose thoroughly hagiographical lyrics. In movements 10 and 11, Charity sings:
Come then to temple of the Almightythat bears both my and Jerome’s name;and united by your zeal,let a crowd of faithful followersdistribute all aroundthe torches of your flame,so that, repentant and disdaining Avernus,these beloved souls, once led astray,in this bright lightmay wing their way to heaven.You shall be a star,
surpassing all others
while you live here on earth among the shadows;
but when that blessed day arrives,
your flame that now is hidden among the shadows
will be a sun, as once it was a star.
You shall be, etc
Thus we hear of the Oratory’s foundation at San Girolamo della Carità. Here we can see some borrowing from liturgical forms of music. The repetition of “You shall be a star, etc.” in movement 11, repeated throughout the piece on every odd movement, resembles the doubled use of Psalm antiphons in the Divine Office. Whether this came from Scarlatti, Ottoboni, or some other formal precedent, I cannot say.
Ottoboni’s libretto is also colored by some imaginative idiosyncracies. For instance, he has St. Philip announce with some lamentation,
Oh how the memoryof my dearest fatherland,awakens the force of love in my breast!Ah, who will give my heart wingsto see once more my beloved native soil?But what have I said, oh God?Ah, my weakness has taken me far from yourpresence, and on a mortal objectI am tempted to fix my gaze.Yet I am not slow in returning to my formercentre, for wherever I am I always find in you my
St. Philip follows up this resolution with a brief meditation:
The dove that fliesfar from her nestis consoledwhen she returns
to her nest.The dove, etc.
It is perhaps appropriate that, in a period of turbulence and contraction for the Oratory, a piece about St. Philip’s death should be composed. Indeed, Pasquale Anfossi premiered his oratorio 201 years after the saint’s passage into glory, one year before his own death, and in the very same year as Napeoleon’s invasion of Italy. That intrusion would have far-reaching effects for the Church at large (see Ulrich Lehner’s Conclusion in The Catholic Enlightenment, 2016).
The piece (or at least, what I can occasionally find of what seems to be the only recording available) is pleasant enough. Anfossi, though largely forgotten today, was quite popular in his own era. He was particularly well known as the composer of many operas. I confess that I don’t find his work all that striking next to that of some of his contemporaries – e.g. Mozart. But he gave us some nice arias all the same.
In 1705, the allegory centers on the person of St. Philip and those virtues he enacted and embodied. In 1796, all of the parts represent abstractions. The libretto may well be about St. Philip, but he does not appear. If “Genio” is supposed to represent him, then Anfossi and Femi are introducing a classically pagan concept—the personal genius or daemon—to stand in for Philip instead of the saint himself.
The tendency towards abstraction is not entirely foreign to allegory. After all, even the Rappresentatione of 1600 centers on a dialogue between Body and Soul. But the Rappresentatione wasn’t about a saint. Anfossi’s oratorio ostensibly is. To my knowledge, it’s rather unusual in early modern hagiography to divorce the piece from its ostensible subject.
Yet it is entirely typical of Enlightenment discourse. Throughout the Enlightenment, we see a discursive move away from personhood and all the messy particularity it entails, even as we see new emphasis on a universalizable individualism. By the time Anfossi wrote and premiered La Morte di San Filippo Neri, Edmund Burke had already famously railed against the Jacobins as ideologues of unworkable abstractions that they foisted on real people.
I don’t know enough about Anfossi’s other work to know what kinds of values he sought to express. But I would wager on the basis of this peculiar, overly-allegorized oratorio, that he may well be a Catholic Enlightener. Wikipedia, bastion of Definite Truth, relates that he “worked mainly in London, Venice and Rome.” Surely he would have interacted with Enlightened Catholics in some of those environments. The Catholics of London in particular would have been decidedly given over to the liberal spirit of the age. He premiered his first piece there in 1782, the very same year that the anti-Papal Catholic Committee convened for the first time to fight for Emancipation. Might he have known its leaders? And what kinds of contacts did he maintain with non-Catholic Enlighteners in London? For now, we cannot know.
If Anfossi was truly something of a Catholic Enlightener, then we must find a cruel irony in the fact that one of his last oratorios should premier in Papal Rome just before it—and so many Italian Oratories—came crashing down under Napoleon’s enlightenment by force.
Today is Remembrance Sunday here in the U.K. We had a splendid Solemn High Requiem Mass at the Oxford Oratory, complete with black vestments. The setting was a Requiem by Haydn, which seem to draw us on the journey of a holy soul. From an Introit that sounds like the mournful ghosts of the dead, we proceed to a communion that is full of airy light and calm joy – with a great deal of drama in between.
I realized that I had not posted anything for All Souls’ Day. Since today is yet another day set aside, at least by British Catholics, for praying on behalf of the dead, I decided I’d post something by that spiritual master, Father Frederick William Faber of the London Oratory. In his own life, Fr. Faber was known for his great devotion to the Holy Souls. One of his more famous texts deals with prayer for those in Purgatory. I have selected the following passage from that work, Fr. Faber’s Purgatory. You can also find it on this website. I offer it here for your consideration and in the hope that the good priest’s words might kindle in us a fonder and more steadfast devotion to the Faithful Departed.
Both views [of Purgatory within Catholicism] agree again in holding that what we in the world call very trivial faults are most severely visited in purgatory. St. Peter Damian gives us many instances of this, and others are collected and quoted by Bellarmine. Slight feelings of self-complacency, trifling inattentions in the recital of the Divine Office, and the like, occur frequently among them. Sister Francesca mentions the case of a girl of fourteen in purgatory, because she was not quite conformed to the will of God in dying so young: and one soul said to her: Ah men little think in the world how dearly they are going to pay here for faults they hardly note there. She even saw souls that were immensely punished only for having been scrupulous in this life; either, I suppose, because there is mostly self-will in scruples, or because they did not lay them down when obedience commanded. Wrong notions about small faults may thus lead us to neglect the dead, or leave off our prayers too soon, as well as lose a lesson for ourselves.
Then, again, both views agree as to the helplessness of the Holy Souls. They lie like the paralytic at the pool. It would seem as if even the coming of the angel were not an effectual blessing to them, unless there be some one of us to help them Some have even thought they cannot pray. Anyhow, they have no means of making themselves heard by us on whose charity they depend. Some writers have said that Our Blessed Lord will not help them without our co-operation; and that Our Blessed Lady cannot help them, except in indirect ways, because she is no longer able to make satisfaction; though I never like to hear anything our dearest mother cannot do; and I regard such statements with suspicion. Whatever may come of these opinions, they at least illustrate the strong way in which theologians apprehend the helplessness of the Holy Souls. Then another feature in their helplessness is the forgetfulness of the living, or the cruel flattery of relations who will always have it that those near or dear to them die the deaths of Saints. They would surely have a scruple, if they knew of how many Masses and prayers they rob the souls, by the selfish exaggeration of their goodness. I call it selfish, for it is nothing more than a miserable device to console themselves in their sorrow. The very state of the Holy Souls is one of the most unbounded helplessness. They cannot do penance; they cannot merit; they cannot satisfy; they cannot gain indulgences; they have no Sacraments; they are not under the jurisdiction of God’s Vicar, overflowing with the plentitude of means of grace and manifold benedictions. They are a portion of the Church without either priesthood or altar at their own command.
Those are the points common to both views of purgatory; and how manifold are the lessons we learn from them, on our own behalf as well as on behalf of the Holy Souls. For ourselves, what light does all this throw on slovenliness, lukewarmness, and love of ease? What does it make us think of performing our devotions out of a mere spirit of formality, or a trick of habit? What diligence in our examens, confessions, Communions, and prayers! It seems as if the grace of all graces for which we should ever be importuning our dear Lord, would be to hate sin with something of the hatred wherewith He hated it in the garden of Gethsemane. Oh, is not the purity of God something awful, unspeakable, adorable? He, who is Himself a simple act, has gone on acting, multiplying acts since creation, yet he has incurred no stain! He is ever mingling with a most unutterable condescension with what is beneath Him-yet no stain! He loves His creatures with a love immeasurably more intense than the wildest passion of earth- yet no stain! He is omnipotent, yet it is beyond the limits of His power to receive a stain. He is so pure that the very vision of Him causes eternal purity and blessedness. Mary’s purity is but a fair thin shadow of it, and yet we, even we, are to dwell in His arms for ever, we are to dwell amid the everlasting burnings of that uncreated purity! Yet, let us look at our lives; let us trace our hearts faithfully through but one day, and see of what mixed intentions, human respects, self-love, and pusillanimous temper our actions, nay, even our devotions, are made up of; and does not purgatory, heated seven-fold and endured to the day of doom, seem but a gentle novitiate for the Vision of the All-holy?
But some persons turn in anger from the thought of purgatory, as if it were not to be endured, that after trying all our lives long to serve God, we should accomplish the tremendous feat of a good death, only to pass from the agonies of the death-bed into fire, long, keen, searching, triumphant, incomparable fire. Alas! my dear friends, your anger will not help you nor alter facts. But have you thought sufficiently about God? Have you tried to realise His holiness and purity in assiduous meditation? Is there a real divorce between you and the world which youknow is God’s enemy? Do you take God’s side? Are you devoted to His interests? Do you long for His glory? Have you put sin alongside of our dear Saviours’ Passion, and measured the one by the other? Surely, if you had, purgatory would but seem to you the last, unexpected, and inexpressibly tender invention of an obstinate love, which was mercifully determined to save you in spite of yourself. It would be a perpetual wonder to you, a joyous wonder, fresh every morning, a wonder that would be meat and drink to your soul, that you, being what you know yourself to be, what God knows you to be, should be saved eternally. Remember what the suffering soul said so simply, yet with such force, to Sister Francesca: ‘ Ah! those on that side of the grave little reckonhow dearly they will pay on this side for the lives they live! To be angry because you are told you will go to purgatory! Silly, silly people Most likely it is a great false flattery, and that you will never be good enough to go there at all. Why, positively, you do not recognise your own good fortune, when you are told of it. And none but the humble go there. I remember Maria Crocifissa was told that although many of the Saints while on earth loved God more than some do even in heaven, yet that the greatest Saint on earth was not so humble as are the souls in purgatory. I do not think I ever read anything in the lives of the Saints which struck me so much as that. You see it is not well to be angry; for those only are lucky enough to get into purgatory who sincerely believe themselves to be worthy of hell.
But we not only learn lessons for our own good, but for the good of the Holy Souls. We see that our charitable attention towards them must be far more vigorous and persevering than they have been; for men go to purgatory for very little matters, and remain there an unexpectedly long time. But their most touching appeal to us lies in their helplessness; and our dear Lord, with His usual loving arrangement, has made the extent of our power to help them more than commensurate with their ability to help themselves. Some theologians have said that prayer for the Holy Souls is not infallibly answered. I confess their arguments on this head do not convince me; but, conceding the point, how wonderful still is the power which we can exercise in favour of the departed! St. Thomas has at least taught us that prayer for the dead is more readily accepted with God than prayer for the living. We can offer and apply for them all the satisfactions of Our Blessed Lord. We can do vicarious penance for them. We can give to them all the satisfactions of our ordinary actions, and of our sufferings. We can make over to them, by way of suffrage, the indulgences we gain, provided the Church has made them applicable to the dead. We can limit and direct to them, or any one of them, the intention of the Adorable Sacrifice. The Church, which has no jurisdiction over them, can yet make indulgences applicable or inapplicable to them by way of suffrage; and by means of liturgy, commemoration, incense, holy water, and the like, can reach efficaciously to them, and most of all by her device of privileged altars. The Communion of Saints furnishes the veins and channels by which all these things reach them in Christ. Heaven itself condescends to act upon them through earth. Their Queen helps them by setting us to work for them, and the Angels and the Saints bestow their gifts through us, whom they persuade to be their almoners; nay, we are often their almoners without knowing that we are so. Our Blessed Lord vouchsafes to look to us, as if He would say: Here are my weapons, work for me! just as a father will let his child do a portion of his work, in spite of the risk he runs in having it spoiled. To possess such powers, and not to use them, would be the height of irreverence towards God, as well as of want of charity to men. There is nothing so irreverent, because nothing so unfilial, as to shrink from God’s gifts simply because of their exhuberance. Men have a feeling of safety in not meddling with the supernatural; but the truth is, we cannot stand aloof on one side and be safe. Naturalism is the unsafe thing. If we do not enter the system, and humbly take our place in it, it will draw us in, only to tear us to pieces when it has done so. The dread of the supernatural is the unsafest of feelings. The jealousy of it is a prophecy of eternal loss.
It is not saying too much to call devotion to the Holy Souls a kind of centre in which all Catholic devotions meet, and which satisfies more than any other single devotion our duties in that way; because it is a devotion all of love, and of disinterested love. If we cast an eye over the chief Catholic devotion, we shall see the truth of this. Take the devotion of St. Ignatius to the glory of God. This, if we may dare to use such an expression of Him, was the special and favourite devotion of Jesus. Now, purgatory is simply a field white for the harvest of God’s glory. Not a prayer can be said for the Holy Souls, but God is at once glorified, both by the faith and the charity of the mere prayer.
It occurs to me that some of the major differences between Newman and Manning’s later careers can already be glimpsed in their early lives. Specifically, in the reasons they converted.
Cardinal Manning converted after Newman when, in 1850, the Privy Council forced the Church of England to ordain an Evangelical who denied the salvific efficacy of Baptism. This move so shocked Manning that he immediately saw that the Church of England was essentially a political construct without any share of the Apostolic inheritance. It could not resist the demands of the state. And thus, he betook himself to Rome.
Newman became a great theologian; Manning became a great ecclesiastical politician. Newman suffered many troubles with controversies and the censure of the authorities; Manning labored as part of the Catholic establishment and did more than anyone else in England (and, due to his role at Vatican I, arguably the world) to advance the cause of Ultramontanism.
On an unrelated note, there is a rather amusing point of contrast in their biographies. Newman matriculated as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford. Manning was at Balliol (like Faber). Anyone who’s been to Oxford will know that these two colleges are next to each other on Broad Street.
There is so much I could write about Cardinal Newman, on this, his feast day. I have, indeed, already written posts about him many times in the past. But now that courses are starting, I don’t find that I can say as much as I would perhaps like. I also write this essay in some state of exhaustion, having just completed the walking pilgrimage from the Oxford Oratory to Littlemore in honor of Newman’s reception into the Church by the Blessed Dominic Barberi.
So instead of making this a terribly erudite post about a point in Newman’s life or theology, I thought I’d just express my profound gratitude. It can be gauche to make any feast of the Church about one’s self. That is not at all my intention, and I hope I will not be thought self-seeking in writing of my own experience. I don’t pretend that my story is terribly unique—but it is mine, and no one else can tell it. I am emboldened to relate the history of my own friendship with Blessed John Henry because, as I was taught by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, “a grace remembered is a grace renewed.” And of course, it’s not really about me. It’s about God, and what He has mercifully done for me through Blessed John Henry Newman.
Saints come to us at many stages of our life. They are always timely, making their appointments according to Heaven’s clock. The mysterious intervention of the saints provides us with one of the many beautiful aspects under which we might consider the manifold glories of providence. They are, as they were in life, God’s instruments; only now, in beatitude, they are eternally and perfectly so. By their intercession, they fill their afterlife with comings and goings, always about God’s business.
Like so many Catholics, I have known the prayers of a saint. Blessed John Henry Newman entered my life when I was still very young in the faith. Of course, I had heard of him before. His name looms large in the history of conversion, and as a convert myself, I found his story interesting if not overly compelling. All that was to change in the spring of my second year, when, in a class entitled, “The University, God, and Reason,” I had the chance to read the first half of his famous educational treatise, The Idea of a University. His magnificent prose and bold defense of knowledge for its own sake thrilled me. I made him my Lenten companion that spring. And in May, I tried (not entirely successfully) to go through all of his Marian meditations for the entire month. A few weeks later, I left for my study abroad.
This venture is, I think, one of the great privileges and turning-points of my life. The more I reflect on it, and where I have been since, the more I thank God for allowing me that study which was more a pilgrimage than anything else. On my very first day away from home, I had the chance to visit the Brompton Oratory. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Kensington in the late afternoon, stepping into that dark and immense well of stillness, I immediately thought, “This is God’s house.” I had never had that reaction in any other church before, and never yet have since. It was unbidden, unlooked-for, unimagined. Yet there, in the vast twilight of Fr. Faber’s church, I felt the unmistakable presence of God. And whose altar should I find, off in a niche, under a low-hanging balcony? Whose but Cardinal Newman’s? And from Cardinal Newman’s altar I walked up to the transepts—and found the effigy-altar of St. Philip Neri. To this day, it is still my firm conviction that I was led to befriend St. Philip by Blessed John Henry, his son.
That was my first introduction to the Oratory. While I had heard of it and understood some of its distinctives, these were merely academic realities to me until that long journey. Throughout the rest of my travels that summer, my mind turned constantly to Blessed John Henry and St. Philip. In Rome, the presence of the latter seeped from the very walls. I had the grace of visiting the Chiesa Nuova twice, and San Giovanni dei Fiorentini once (though at the time I did not know its history). And when I returned to England to complete the course I had signed up for, I started to find Cardinal Newman everywhere. Across the street from my college in Oxford was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where Newman was vicar. I visited Oriel and passed by Trinity, his two colleges. I worshiped weekly at the Oratory—yet another house of St. Philip—where Newman had preached in his own life. I bought a small portrait of the man himself in the little church shop there. And while on a brief retreat with the monks of Silverstream, I providentially purchased a short biography of St. Philip Neri. It was the first I ever read, and I devoured it in a few days.
I have little to say of the time since my return to the United States in August of 2015. The year that followed was very bad, and my faith suffered greatly. But when I came back after so long a spiritual exile, I once again felt the prayers of Cardinal Newman moving me in the right direction. Slowly but surely, my sense of the presence of God healed. By this point, I was writing a thesis on Newman. I was also seriously pondering my future. I knew I wanted to continue my studies, but the question of where to do so was subject to a number of considerations. So I offered up the issue in prayer to a number of saints, including Our Lady of Walsingham and Bl. Cardinal Newman.
And now I am at Oxford, Newman’s beloved university. Indeed, I am at a college guided by the spirituality of the Anglican movement he began. Cardinal Newman has not failed me by his prayers. I have read so many works by and about him, yet still I feel I have so much more to learn from his life and teaching. He is for me many things at once: intellectual mentor, friend in Heaven, father in God. For someone training for the scholarly life, Newman is a model Catholic academic. He pursued Truth until he found it, and, not resting therein, never ceased following it until his death. I pray that I, too, may follow him out of shadows and images and into the “kindly light” of Truth.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Pray for Us.
The Church offers us the way of salvation. She declares the destination, Heaven; she notes our provenance, the bondage of our sinful nature. And she furnishes a route from the latter up to the former. Or, I might say, “routes.” For while the Cruciform road to Heaven may appear singular from afar, anyone who enters the Journey will find that it is in fact composed of many different paths. The holy diversity of the Church is one testament of its Catholicity. Like a great Cathedral or Basilica that appears as one massive edifice from the street but harbors dozens of little side-altars within, each distinctly the Table of the Lord, the Church offers more streams of spirituality than we can discern. Some flow still in our midst, giving life to multitudes. Others run dry. And some thought long-extinct may suddenly spring forth in new vim and vigor.
It is only a natural and concurrent fact that the Church should likewise offer her children a diverse array of spiritual writers. There is the beautiful, mysterious Areopagite; the mighty, noble St. Augustine; the dazzlingly imaginative St. Ephrem the Syrian; the logical, pacific Aquinas; the bloody consolations of Dame Julian; the gleaming shadows of St. John of the Cross; the brooding brilliance of Pascal; the soaring eloquence of Bossuet; the roseate cheer of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; the luminous fragmentation of T.S. Eliot; the Gothic grotesquerie of Flannery O’Connor. The list goes on and on.
The English Catholic Revival was a fertile time for spiritual writers. At the fountainhead of the entire movement stands Cardinal Newman, whose massive influence is still being felt by theologians and writers today. The founder of the English Oratory was a masterful stylist, so much so that James Joyce considered him the greatest master of English prose. Every ecclesiastical development proves that Newman’s theology is more timely than ever. He has been lauded by subsequent generations, and rightly so. When he is eventually canonized, he will certainly be declared a Doctor of the Church for his labors.
But he has, sadly, overshadowed another figure, one no less deserving of praise for his own work on behalf of the Gospel. That man is Fr. Frederick William Faber, the founder of the London Oratory.
Faber was an Oxford convert like Newman. After leaving the University, he first served as an Anglican parish priest in Northamptonshire. He would later bring eleven men with him across the Tiber when he resigned his post. After shepherding the community for a short time, he eventually joined forces with Newman and co-founded the English Oratory. They split the country. Newman went to Birmingham, and Faber went to London. In the course of his time there, he gained notoriety as a preacher of remarkable versatility and power, a widely-respected hymnodist, a constant friend of the poor, and an authoritative teacher of the spiritual life. As one source has it, his written works
…are a mine of spiritual gold of the highest purity, refined and drawn from Faber’s deep understanding of Catholic spiritual theology. For he had delved deeply, not only into the standard Scholastic philosophy and theology, but especially into the mystical schools. Father Faber was a brilliant man whose theology of the Absolute Primacy of Christ and Mary is grounded in that of the Subtle Doctor, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), all recast in simple ordinary English. (174).
When he died, all the great Catholics of England honored his memory. In France, even the formidable abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger, admired his writings and wrote of him fondly.
But Faber is a largely forgotten figure today, at least among American Catholics. While most have probably heard at least one or two of his hymns, such as “Faith of Our Fathers,” few read more deeply into his life or thought. Why? What has caused this lacuna in our collective memory?
There are, I think, two primary reasons.
The first is that he is eclipsed by Newman. The two had differences in their own day. Newman was resolutely opposed to the pretensions of Ultramonatism; Faber, like Cardinal Manning, was a strong advocate of Rome’s prerogatives. Newman always wanted to return to Oxford and restore some traces of his old, academic life; Faber was content to build the finest church of Great Britain in London, to better minister to the poor. Newman was always a little wary about Marian titles and devotions; Faber practically bathed in them. As Monsignor Rondald Knox writes in 1945,
While Faber is introducing the British public to the most luscious legends of the Counter-Reformation, Newman is still concerned over the difficulties of Anglicans, still asking how and in what sense Catholic doctrine has developed, still cautiously delimiting the spheres of faith and reason. (“The Conversions of Newman and Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 875).
The tensions surrounding Faber’s spirituality eventually led Newman to formally, judicially separate the two houses. Sadly, “While Newman visited Faber shortly before his death, the two men were not able to fully resolve their differences.”
The second, related to the first, is part stylistic, part spiritual. Consider an analogy. Among the Metaphysical Poets, the meditative Donne has always outshone the ebullient Crashaw. Logos is easy to parse. Its analysis is a straightforward, if sometimes arduous task. Pathos, however, is a more slippery beast altogether, and one less communicable and less persistent than we should like to think. It may fire one breast and repel another. Not all hearts chime the same tune in the same wind. Likewise, Newman’s depth, intellect, and style have garnered more attention than Faber’s flowery devotions. His devotional prose is as purple as it gets. Consider the following passage, taken from Part I of “The Mystery of the Precious Blood.”
SALVATION! What music is there in that word – music that never tires but is always new, that always rouses yet always rests us! It holds in itself all that our hearts would say. It is sweet vigor to us in the morning, and in the evening it is contented peace. It is a song that is always singing itself deep down in the delighted soul. Angelic ears are ravished by it up in Heaven; and our Eternal Father Himself listens to it with adorable complacency. It is sweet even to Him out of Whose mind is the music of a thousand worlds. To be saved! What is it to be saved? Who can tell? Eye has not seen, nor ear heard. It is a rescue, and from such a shipwreck. It is a rest, and in such an unimaginable home. It is to lie down forever in the bosom of God in an endless rapture of insatiable contentment. (“The Mystery of the Precious Blood“)
Or, later in the same volume, when he writes the following passage.
Green Nazareth was not a closer hiding-place than the risen glory of the Forty Days. As of old, the Precious Blood clung round the sinless Mother. Like a stream that will not leave its parent chain of mountains, but laves them incessantly with many an obstinate meandering, so did the Blood of Jesus, shed for all hearts of men, haunt the single heart of Mary. Fifteen times, or more in those Forty Days, it came out from under the shadow of Mary’s gladness and gleamed forth in beautiful apparitions. Each of them is a history in itself, and a mystery, and a revelation. Never did the Sacred Heart say or do such ravishing things as those Forty Days of its Risen Life. The Precious Blood had almost grown more human from having been three days in the keeping of the Angels. But, as it had mounted Calvary on Good Friday, so now it mounts Olivet on Ascension Thursday, and disappears into Heaven amidst the whiteness of the silver clouds. It had been but a decree in Heaven before, a Divine idea, an eternal compassion, an inexplicable complacency of the life of God. It returns thither a Human Life, and is throned at the Right Hand of the Father forever in right of its inalienable union with the Person of the Word. There is no change in the Unchangeable. But in Heaven there had never been change like this before, nor ever will be again. The changes of the Great Doom can be nothing compared to the exaltation of the Sacred Humanity of the Eternal Word. The very worship of the glorious spirits was changed, so changed that the Angels themselves cannot say how it is that no change has passed on God. Somehow the look of change has enhanced the magnificence of the Divine immutability, and has given a new gladness to their adoration of its unspeakable tranquility (“The History of the Precious Blood“).
Or this passage from The Blessed Sacrament, taken from a friend who posted it on Facebook for the Nativity of Mary.
Let us mount higher still. Earth never broke forth with so gay and glad fountain as when the Babe Mary, the infant who was the joy of the whole world, the flower of God’s invisible creation, and the perfection of the invisible and hitherto queenless angels of His court, came like the richest fruit, ready-ripe and golden, of the world’s most memorable September. There is hardly a feast in the year so gay and bright as this of her Nativity, right in the heart of the happy harvest, as though she were, as indeed she was, earth’s heavenliest growth, whose cradle was to rock to the measures of the worlds vintage songs; for she had come who was the true harvest-home that homeless world.
His devotion to Our Lady was legendary. He was, in fact, the first English translator of St. Louis de Montfort’s famous text, True Devotion to Mary…and that even before he had become an Oratorian! He was also probably the first English author to think of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. In one of his hymns, he declares:
Mother of God! we hail thy heart,
Throned in the azure skies,
While far and wide within its charm
The whole creation lies.
O sinless heart, all hail!
God’s dear delight, all hail!
Our home, our home is deep in thee,
Fr. Faber’s devotion to Our Lady extended beyond his prolific writings. He not only translated St. Louis’s book. In 1846, he undertook his own Marian consecration in the Holy House of Loreto. He had a tendency to refer to the Mother of God as “Mama.” A famous episode related by Monsignor Knox depicts Fr. Faber at one of his more florid moments. After a particularly high Marian procession at the Oratory, he was observed weeping. Without any care for who heard, he cried out, “Won’t Mamma be pleased?” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891).
None of this spirituality or the writing in which it comes to us fits our modern tastes. It is too perfumed, too sickly-sweet, too campy, too Victorian, too decadent, too redolent of pastel holy cards mouldering in antique prayer books. One critic puts it thus:
There are great slabs of passages, sometimes chapters at a time, which glow with ethereal light but have little content. Hypnotized by his own fluency Faber flows on and on, melodious and tedious…There are awful lapses of taste. (Chapman, quoted here).
And certainly, Faber cared not one shred for taste. The only thing that mattered was the salvation and sanctification of souls. Knox tells us that “‘Art for art’s sake’ had no meaning for him…if a bad verse would have more chance of winning souls than a good verse, down the bad verse would go” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891). There is much to criticize in this tendency from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Christians should commit themselves to the highest standards in all artistic and literary endeavors.
But it is hard not to like the man weeping after the procession; it is harder still to feel totally averse to passages that glow purple as the evening sky. One has the sense that Fr. Faber would have been a remarkable presence today, if only because his emotionalism and baroque, slightly kitschy aesthetic would have made him an ironic celebrity on Weird Catholic Twitter. Imagine what he would have done with memes!
Yet he would also be a sign of contradiction. We have seen a renewed emphasis on Muscular Christianity, with a proliferation of websites, associations, and thinkpieces all dedicated to restoring “authentic masculinity” and resisting the “feminization” of the liturgy. This is a particularly popular movement within the larger Traditionalist wing of the Church. In brief, the narrative usually runs as follows:
1) After Vatican II, the Novus Ordo initiated a new, “feminine” form of the Mass.
2) This innovation was a substantive capitulation to the Sexual Revolution.
3) Men don’t want to serve a feminized Church in a feminized liturgy, with altar girls, felt banners, versus populum, happy-clappy music, etc.
4) The vocations crisis of the last 30-40 years ensues.
5) As such, we need to restore more pronounced gender binaries and hierarchies along with the Usus Antiquior.
Some of this narrative may be correct. I refrain from judging its particular historical claims, social implications, or theological presuppositions.
Nevertheless, Fr. Faber confounds that entire way of thinking. He was anything but a “Muscular” Christian. His personality, style, and spirituality were so clearly “feminine” that his own nephew, the publisher Geoffrey Faber, considered him a probable closet case (see David Hilliard’s famous essay “UnEnglish and Unmanly,” page 5). Whether or not his (disputed) conclusions about the priest (and all the leaders of the Oxford Movement) are true, it suffices to say that Fr. Faber was far from the “authentically masculine” man fetishized by the new Muscular Christianity. Yet liturgically he was known as one of the highest of the high, and his sons at the Brompton Oratory continue that admirable tradition. If nothing else, Fr. Faber’s legacy is the Oratory that still stand as a landmark of reverence, beauty, and transcendent holiness in the midst of postconciliar banality.
What’s more, Fr. Faber is not just a fine hymnodist and devotional writer. He penetrated deep mysteries of the faith. A thoroughgoing Scotist, he advocated the thesis (shared by this author) that Christ probably would have been incarnated anyway even if Adam had never fallen. And as the Church’s Mariology continues to develop, his arguments on behalf of Our Lady’s Co-Redemption may yet prove invaluable. Sophiologists should take note. Here is a man after our own heart.
Fr. Faber writes of Our Lady’s suffering in a passage worth quoting at length:
But this is not all. She co-operated with our Lord in the redemption of the world in quite a different sense, a sense which can never be more than figuratively true of the Saints. Her free consent was necessary to the Incarnation, as necessary as free will is to merit according to the counsels of God. She gave Him the pure blood, out of which the Holy Ghost fashioned His Flesh and bone and Blood. She bore Him in her womb for nine months, feeding Him with her own substance. Of her was He born, and to her He owed all those maternal offices which, according to common laws, were necessary for the preservation of His inestimable life. She exercised over Him the plenitude of parental jurisdiction. She consented to His Passion; and if she could not in reality have withheld her consent, because it was already involved in her original consent to the Incarnation, nevertheless she did not in fact withhold it, and so He went to Calvary as her free-will offering to the Father. Now, this is co-operation in a different sense from the former, and if we compare it with the co-operation of the Saints, their own co-operation, in which Mary herself alone surpassed them all, we shall see that this other peculiar co-operation of hers was indispensable to the redemption of the world as effected on the Cross. Souls could be saved without the co-operation of the Saints. The soul of the penitent thief was saved with no other co-operation than that of Mary, and, if our Blessed Lord had so willed it, could have been saved without even that. But the co-operation of the Divine Maternity was indispensable. Without it our Lord would not have been born when and as He was; He would not have had that Body to suffer in; the whole series of the Divine purposes would have been turned aside, and either frustrated, or diverted into another channel. It was through the free will and blissful consent of Mary that they flowed as God would have them flow. Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Calvary, came out of her consent, a consent which God did in no wise constrain. But not only is the co-operation of the Saints not indispensable of itself, but no one Saint by himself is indispensable to that co-operation. Another Apostle might have fallen, half the Martyrs might have sacrificed to idols, the Saints in each century might have been a third fewer in number than they were, and yet the co-operation of the Saints would not have been destroyed, though its magnificence would have been impaired. Its existence depends on the body, not on the separate individuals. No one Saint who can be named, unless perhaps it were in some sense St. Peter, was necessary to the work, so necessary that without him the work could not have been accomplished. But in this co-operation of Mary she herself was indispensable. It depended upon her individually. Without her the work could not have been accomplished. Lastly, it was a co-operation of a totally different kind from that of the Saints. Theirs was but the continuation and application of a sufficient redemption already accomplished, while hers was a condition requisite to the accomplishment of that redemption. One was a mere consequence of an event which the other actually secured, and which only became an event by means of it. Hence it was more real, more present, more intimate, more personal, and with somewhat of the nature of a cause in it, which cannot in any way be predicated of the co-operation of the Saints. And all this is true of the co-operation of Mary, without any reference to the dolors at all…Our Lord had taken a created nature, in order that by its means He might accomplish that great work; so it seemed as if the highest honor and the closest union of a sinless creature with Himself should be expressed in the title of co-redemptress. In fact, there is no other single word in which the truth could be expressed; and, far off from His sole and sufficient redemption as Mary’s co-operation lies, her co-operation stands alone and aloof from all the co-operation of the elect of God. This, like some other prerogatives of our Blessed Lady, cannot have justice done it by the mere mention of it. We must make it our own by meditation before we can understand all that it involves. But neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption will give us a higher idea of Mary’s exaltation than this title of co-redemptress, when we have theologically ascertained its significance. Mary is vast on every side, and, as our knowledge and appreciation of God grow, so also will grow our knowledge and appreciation of her His chosen creature. No one thinks unworthily of Mary, except because he thinks unworthily of God. Devotion to the Attributes of God is the best school in which to learn the theology of Mary; and the reward of our study of Mary lies in a thousand new vistas that are opened to us in the Divine Perfections, into which except from her heights we never could have seen at all.
(“The Compassion of Mary,” emphases in source.)
There is much in this text, and in so many like it, to warm a Catholic’s flagging devotion to the Mother of God. For that treasure alone, we should be grateful.
As his writing on this subject demonstrates, Father Faber was in all things the most enthusiastic and the most Roman of Catholics. Yet his prodigious work on behalf of the Gospel, and the ardor with which he was wont to express himself, made him a popular figure even among Protestants. His hymns are sung by traditional and mainline Protestant churches even today.
A.W. Tozer held him in high esteem, going so far as to write:
Spinoza wrote of the intellectual love of God, and he had a measure of truth there; but the highest love of God is not intellectual, it is spiritual. God is spirit and only the spirit of man can know Him really. In the deep spirit of a man the fire must glow or his love is not the true love of God. The great of the Kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did. We all know who they have been and gladly pay tribute to the depths and sincerity of their devotion. We have but to pause for a moment and their names come trooping past us smelling of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces. Frederick Faber was one whose soul panted after God as the roe pants after the water brook, and the measure in which God revealed Himself to his seeking heart set the good man’s whole life afire with a burning adoration rivaling that of the seraphim before the throne. His love for God extended to the three Persons of the Godhead equally, yet he seemed to feel for each One a special kind of love reserved for Him alone. The Pursuit of God, p. 40 (quoted here)
If a modern master of Protestant spirituality can appreciate the peculiar wisdom of this effusive little man, then what excuse do we have? The Church has entrusted him to our memory and will, I hope, some day do so formally at the altar of God.
I began this essay describing the various spiritualities that have animated the Church from its earliest days. Some remain vital, others have disappeared, and some may yet come back from quietude. The strange and fragrant spirituality Father Faber let out into the world may appear as one of those dried-up streams, never again to impart life to the desert of our world. We are not Victorians. Yet this great Oratorian offers his gift to us still. We are the ones who must accept it. I have little doubt that his life, example, and thought are welcome aids in our pursuit of Heaven.
Today is the Feast of Our Lady’s nativity. Nine months after the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the luminous and holy birth of the one who would some day give birth to God Himself. As the Church rejoices with S.s. Anne and Joachim, perhaps we should consider the manifold titles under which Mary has come to be known over the centuries.
Some religious orders have devotions to Our Lady under particular titles. The Cenacle Sisters are devoted to Our Lady of the Cenacle, the Institute of the Incarnate Word takes as its patron the Virgin of Luján, and most famously, the Redemptorists were commissioned by Pope Pius IX to care for and propagate devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The Dominicans appeal to Our Lady of the Rosary, the Augustinians to Our Lady of Good Counsel, and the Franciscans to Our Lady, Queen of Angels.
But what of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri? Is there a Marian image, title, or devotion proper to the Oratorians? Since the Oratory is not a religious order, the question may seem ill-put. Nevertheless, some research shows that there is in fact a specifically Oratorian icon of the Mother of God: Our Lady of the Vallicella.
It is related in various lives of St. Philip that, during the construction of the Chiesa Nuova, Our Lady miraculously saved the church. As Gallonio relates in his Vita:
In the following year, 1576, something happened during the building works, which I must not pass over in silence. When the old church had been demolished, along with other buildings on the site of the new construction, one little hovel remained roofed, after the others had been levelled. Suddenly one day Philip had Giovan Antonio, the clerk of works, summoned, and as soon as he arrived he told him to have the roof taken off the hovel immediately. “Last night,” he explained, “I saw the Holy Mother of God, who was holding it up with her own hands.” (The place was being used as a chapel to say Mass and administer the sacraments to the people, for the old church had the responsibility of souls attached to it.) Giovan Antonio went back and ordered the workmen to demolish the roof. As soon as they set to, they noticed that the beam which supported the roof had no support for itself; one of its ends (what they call the beam’s head) was quite out of the wall, which quite astonished those who saw it [Gallonio, Para. 112 – trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO].
This incident is memorialized in the ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova.
It is my understanding that the Saint and his sons attributed the miraculous intervention of Our Lady to an ancient fresco they uncovered during construction. The image depicts Our Lady in blue holding the Infant Christ. Jesus raises his hand in blessing. Both are seated in the moon, while three adoring cherubs look up with rapt attention. These are the essentials of the icon, which canonically follows the “Nicopeia (bringer of victory) or Kyriotissa (enthroned) type.”
This conjunction suggests something about the icon’s meaning. The Mother of God brings us the ultimate victory, Christ Himself; His victory over death is truly her victory and, by extension, ours. What’s more, their relationship is a mutual enthronement. She takes all of her dignity as Queen of Heaven from Christ, and He is most magnified in Her Heart.
It seems appropriate that an image that bears such a meaning would fall to St. Philip and his sons as a kind of special inheritance. After all, Cardinal Newman’s motto encapsulates the entirety of Oratorian life: Cor ad Cor Loquitur, “Heart Speaks to Heart.” This phrase of the Psalmist describes God’s Liturgical communion with us, our spiritual communion with each other, the key process of evangelization—but also the intimacy between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And let us not forget that third heart, the Flaming Heart of St. Philip Neri. All in all, communion and reciprocity are key to Oratorian spirituality in a way that is perhaps more pronounced than in other religious families.
The story of Our Lady of the Vallicella is not just theological, though. It also winds through some of the more important chapters of Art History.
The great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by the fathers of the Roman Oratory to paint the church’s high altar. He ended up painting a few. The first, a canvas, was rejected because it was too reflective and is now in a museum at Grenoble. The second, a painting on slate, remains in situ. He later painted a somewhat rougher third version that now hangs in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
Of course, devotion to Our Lady of the Vallicella is, like so many other elements of Oratoriana, not restricted to the sons of St. Philip. As the whole city of Rome is imbued with his spirit, we find her image among the many picturesque street shrines that stand as one of the Eternal City’s most distinctive forms of public piety.
Regardless, Our Lady of the Vallicella quickly became a major emblem of the Congregation. She adorns most of the first-edition title pages of Baronius’s Annales Ecclesastici, as you can seen in this image from the Twelfth Volume.
Later Oratorians also made use of the icon in their publications. This was particularly true of works brought out by the Fathers of the London Oratory. A publication of Fr. Faber’s Spiritual Conferences from 1859 includes the following sigil on its title page:
More recent Oratorians have also included this image of the Mother of God on the volumes they have published. For example:
What I have not found yet is any evidence that Our Lady of the Vallicella was enshrined or venerated as an icon anywhere outside of the Roman Oratory. Further research may prove otherwise. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope on this Feast of the Nativity of Mary that, as we are living in an Oratorian age, devotion to Mary under her Oratorian title will continue to spread.
In a recent post, I suggested that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a flawed, if well-intentioned, strategy for the Church in our times. I stand by that opinion. I also would like to offer my own “option,” as so many others have done. I will refrain from detailing specific suggestions and strategies, as I have neither the time nor the knowledge nor the experience to profitably contribute to any discussion of specifics. Nonetheless, I think I can say a few things about the general spirit and principles of what we might choose instead of The Benedict Option.
For starters, it would be called something different. Although St. Benedict is an eminent and powerful patriarch, I submit to you that, for our purposes, we must look at another man in an era far more like our own, a man whose spiritual sons also offer powerful examples. That man, of course, is St. Philip Neri.
Early Modernity as Proto-Postmodernity
Like Dreher, I choose my patron saint in part because I think the unique conditions of our own moment deeply resonate with those which St. Philip faced. Any comparison between different periods of time are naturally going to fall flat in certain specifics. But consider, if you will, the following phenomena.
The rise of the Internet, like the advent of printing, has opened up new models of knowledge and new conceptions of the self. Our lives are ever more global, even as new forms of nationalism emerge. We are increasingly aware of various forms of religious difference. Some are extremist, and even violent (see, inter alia, the Münster Rebellion and the sects of the Interregnum). Within the Church, we face public in-fighting among the Cardinals, dangerous sacramental, moral, and doctrinal laxism, a German Church that is falling apart, and a Pope whom the Roman People themselves dislike. We face serious problems with the climate. Our educational aspirations and models are increasingly oriented towards social climbing, even as our specialties are becoming narrower. Literary and textual criticism set the terms of debate in the academy. More broadly, sexual mores have changed considerably, and culture war is the order of the day. Homosexuality and gender nonconformity have emerged as increasingly widely-recognized social phenomena. Our civilizational relationship with Islam is complicated, to say the least. Class divisions and structural inequality have led to political instability. Indeed, unthinkable political events, stemming in large part from those class frictions, have jettisoned any sense of certainty we might hope to sustain.
St. Philip arrived in Rome shortly after just such an unthinkable event. In 1527, the armies of the Emperor descended upon the Papal States and launched a horrifyingly brutal sack of the Eternal City. Both Lutheran and—more scandalously—Catholic soldiers raped, pillaged, and desecrated their way through Rome. It was the second and last sack of Rome committed by civilized Christians, and it put an effective end to the Renaissance in that great city.
Alfonso Cardinal Capecelatro, one of St. Philip’s nineteenth century biographers, describes the event as:
…the terrible sack of Rome in 1527, which had no parallel in the history of the Church, whether regarded as a warning or a chastisement. We must go back to Attila and Genseric to find any event which even distantly approaches it in horror; and even those barbarians were civilized and even reverent in comparison with the soldiers of the most Catholic king and emperor, Charles V. A drunken, furious horde of Lutherans and Catholics together was let loose upon Rome…there were…unutterable outrages not to be thought of without a shudder. (Capecelatro 23).
Pertinent to our purposes, however, is the effect that this calamity left on the culture of Rome. Here, too, Capecelatro is a helpful resource.
To enter into the city of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul at a time when their authority was spurned, vilified, and trampled into the mire by a terrible heresy; to visit the spots hallowed by the blood of martyrs when all around were the hideous traces of their recent profanation; to live in the holy city when the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute or unbecoming, when paganism in science and letters and art was alone in honours must have been, to the heart of a saint such as Philip’s, an anguish inconceivably bitter. (Capecelatro 24).
If, like Dreher, we wish to compare our own times to the sack of Rome, we ought to look a thousand years later than he does. As with Rome circa 1535, we live in a culture riddled with “a terrible heresy,” Dreher’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (among others). We Christians in America have witnessed the martyrdoms of our Coptic and Middle Eastern brethren over mass media. The Church is still reeling from a time when “the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute [and] unbecoming.” The sins of clerical sex abuse continue. And insofar as there is a pagan tendency in our culture today (Camille Paglia certainly thinks there is), it resides in our “science and letters and art.”
While I don’t wish to belabor the point too much, I’ll add that not all is cause for alarm. Many of the good things about early modernity are also true today.
In 1850, Fr. Faber gave a series of lectures to his spiritual sons at the London Oratory. His subject was “The Spirit and Genius of St. Philip Neri.” The second lecture includes a long consideration of St. Philip as the “representative saint of modern times” (Faber 38). Faber argues,
The very essence of heresy and schism is constantly found in the disobedient and antiquarian worship of some pet past ages of the Church, in contradistinction to the present age, in which a man’s duties lie, and wherein the spirit and vigour of the living Church are in active and majestic energy. The Church of a heretic or schismatic is in books and on paper…A Catholic, on the contrary, belongs to the divine, living, acting, speaking, controlling Church, and recognizes nothing in past ages beyond and edifying and instructive record of a dispensation, very beautiful and fit for its day, but under which God has not cast his lot, and which, therefore, he has no business to meddle with or to endeavour to recall. One age may evoke his sympathies, or harmonize with his taste, more than another. Yet he sees beauty in all and fitness in all, because his faith discerns Providence in all. (Faber 40-41).
Dreher would do well to note Fr. Faber’s point. The uncharitable pessimism that animates so much of The Benedict Option is not entirely misbegotten, but certainly falls short of the truth. And why? In part, because Dreher never mentions Church history. His historical narrative of Christianity in Western culture overlooks the actual ways that Christians have responded to modernity since the 16th century. Fr. Faber does not. Instead, he writes,
…it is plain that we are in possession of a great many more doctrinal definitions than we were; the limits of theological certainty are immensely extended. Just as verified observations have extended the domain of the physical sciences, so the number of truths which a believer cannot, without impiety, or in some cases formal heresy, reject, has added to the domain of theology…Now this greater body of certain dogmatic teaching must necessarily influence the whole multitude of believers. It it tells upon literature; it tells upon popular devotion; it tells upon practice…and lastly, it tells upon ecclesiastical art…Neither, in speaking of Modern Times, must we omit to notice the natural connection there is between an increased knowledge of dogma, and the spirit of reverent familiarity in devotion, which has been so prominent a feature in the later Saints. The more extended the vision of faith becomes, th more familiar a man necessarily grows with the sacred objects of which that faith so infallibly assures him…We must not omit then to name the increase and greater universality of mental prayer, the more generally adopted systematic methods of self-examination, the more common practice of spiritual reading, the ways of hearing mass, the obligation of meditation made the condition in most cases of gaining the indulgences of the Rosary, and other things which are all so many marks of what is called nowadays the increased “subjectivity” of the Modern Mind.(Faber 44-46, 49-50).
Faber adds that anyone who would ignore this latter tendency towards “subjectivity” when seeking to evangelize would inevitably “find himself miserably out in his reckoning…The experiment would correct itself” (Faber 50). While Fr. Faber’s optimism is perhaps just as simplistic as Dreher’s pessimism, his perspective helps us attain the proper, prudential, balanced orientation towards modernity that The Benedict Option flatly misses.
Faber offers his historical assessment as a prelude to the consideration of St. Philip Neri’s life and spirituality. For Fr. Faber, St. Philip combines in his person and example the very best of what modernity has to offer. After all, Faber notes, Pippo Buono was ordained while the Council of Trent met. His movement began in an urban setting, “the very capital of Christendom itself,” and he managed to meet and influence “people of all nations” (Faber 51).
Even St. Philip’s personality was that of
…a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it; in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish, of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and very various information. (Faber 52).
Fair enough. But why bother applying the example of this modern saint to our peculiar cultural and religious circumstances? It is one thing to say that a saint might have something to teach us. It is another thing altogether to say that a saint’s teaching might prepare us for the peculiarly harsh cultural conditions which seem to loom on the horizon (Dreher wasn’t wrong about all of it).
Faber answers this question, too. He writes of St. Philip:
He came to Rome at one of the most solemn crises of the Church; the capital was full of Saints, and full of corruption too. He was the quietest man at his hard work that ever was seen; yet he magnetized the whole city; and when he died he left it quite a different city from what it was, nay, with the impress of his spirit and genius so deep upon it, that it was called his city, and he the apostle of it, second only to St. Peter. It was no man clothed in camel’s hair, with the attractive paraphernalia of supernatural austerities upon him, no St. Francis, with his Chapter of Mats all round the Porziuncula, that the city and its foreign visitants went so anxiously to see; it was simply an agreeable gentleman, in a comfortable little room, apparently doing and saying just what any one else might do or say as well. He had come at his right time; he suited his age; men were attracted; he fulfilled his mission. (Faber 53).
St. Philip’s example is pertinent to our present debate insofar as he reformed late Renaissance Rome, a society much like ours, by means far more achievable and far more charitable than the contorted stratagems of The Benedict Option.
“Roots Are Very Important”
Admittedly, those words weren’t spoken by St. Philip. They’re actually the climactic revelation from Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013), one of my favorite films—a story that takes place in Rome. And as with all things Roman, St. Philip is never far away.
Two very singular facts stand out about St. Philip. One is that he was deeply attached to the Eternal City. And, relatedly, he never wished to start a religious order. He always claimed that the Congregation was entirely the work of Mary and the Holy Spirit. St. Philip was even reluctant to permit some of his sons to begin a house in Naples, a decision which would ultimately yield the harvest of many saints. Long before that, St. Philip required those priests he sent to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini to return to San Girolamo every day for the exercises of the Oratory—even in sweltering heat and downpours of rain.
In my recent post on St. Philip’s Benedictine tendencies, I noted that St. Philip understood that spiritual fatherhood can only be built upon a certain degree of stability. Along with that comes a strong sense of place, an immersion in the particular life of any given community. This decentralized localism is why every house of the Oratory throughout the world has its own unique spirit and apostolate. The Congregation only unites under the general aegis of St. Philip’s inspiration, not the ordinary vows of a religious order. To use a somewhat hackneyed analogy—if the Jesuits are the global corporations of the ecclesiastical world, then Oratorians are the folks who run mom & pop shops. However, there is a deeper meaning to this organizational quirk that we will have occasion to examine soon.
That domestic spirit can be summed up by the Oratorian conception of nido, or “nest.” As one source has it,
St Philip’s disciples and penitents sometimes sought him out in his room, where the Exercises of the Oratory were held in the early days. The Oratorian does not emulate a monastic detachment which would periodically surrender one’s very bedroom in manifestation of the premise that material goods are merely ad usum. The Oratorian identifies his room as a nido, a “nest.”
Strong Christian community requires roots. Dreher, as well as the good folks over at places like Front Porch Republic and Solidarity Hall, has frequently made this point over the last several years. It is not a new idea. The Benedict Option is peppered with quotes from Wendell Berry, the godfather of all American localist movements today. If Dreher’s Christian communitarianism is to succeed, then it must be predicated on something very much like the Oratorian sense of place. We would be wise to draw upon the domestic spirit of St. Philip’s nido.
And that very sense of local domesticity often leads to precisely the kind of worldly engagement that Dreher’s book tends to overlook and minimize. Although St. Philip was by no means a polemicist, he took an active interest in the affairs of the world—as they transpired within the walls of Rome. He intervened in affairs of state only once, when he required Baronius to withhold absolution from the Pope until the latter had reversed the excommunication of Henri IV. This successful bit of string-pulling on St. Philip’s part probably kept the French crown Catholic for the duration of the Bourbon dynasty.
Of course, there is more to Oratorian domesticity than that. St. Philip’s genius lies not only in his stability, but in the way he invested so much of his spiritual ministry with romanità (in every sense of the word). He drew his principle practices from the sun-baked stones and the boiling air of the Eternal City, as if by some secret alchemy. He was famous for leading ever-more popular pilgrimages along the path of the Seven Churches. And all this, to compete with and vitiate the heathen delights of the Carnival. Where else but in Rome could a saint freely lead and care for such masses of pilgrims along such a venerable route? Where else in the history of modern Europe do we see such a providential alignment of personality, place, and practice against the pagans? The established traditions of spirituality which had already formed Rome were in turn re-formed by St. Philip. It is for this reason that he has been given the honorific title of “Apostle of Rome,” alongside Saints Peter and Paul.
As long as Christianity remains tied to the parish structure, it will always be a local religion. Consequently, St. Philip Neri’s unique resourcefulness will always be relevant. Especially today. As one writer puts it, “The mission of an Oratorian is to work at ‘home’; the Oratory is thus an apt instrument of the New Evangelization, re-proposing the gospel in formerly Christian societies.” God furnishes us with opportunities all around, if only we wish to see with “the eyes of the dove” (Cant. 1:15 paraphrased).
Illumine the Intellect
Such sight will be clearer and more invigorating if sharpened by the intellect. St. Philip’s exercises in the Oratory constituted a kind of holy pedagogy for the men of Rome. In his biography of the saint, the French Oratorian Louis Bouyer describes it well:
The programme of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of a saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did. He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench facing the gathering. (Bouyer 54).
Another author gives us a more detailed understanding of the kinds of materials that St. Philip and his sons were reading, hearing, and discussing in the exercises:
In St Philip’s time, the most important of his Exercises, which came to be known as the Secular Oratory, or in some places the Little Oratory, was a daily practice spread out over two to three hours during the leisurely Roman siesta and consisting of (1) a period of mental prayer; (2) a reading from the Scriptures or some spiritual book (e.g., Denys the Carthusian, John Climacus, Cassian, Richard of St Victor, Gerson, Catherine of Siena, Innocent III’s De Contemptu Mundi, Serafino da Fermo’s Pharetra Divini Amoris—St Philip’s favourite readings were the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi and The Life of Blessed Colombini by Feo Belcari), followed by a “discourse on the book,” a commentary and dialogue on the subject of the reading; (3) a discourse on the life of a saint; (4) a moral exhortation—a discourse on the virtues and vices; (5) a discourse on the history of the Church; and finally (6) an oratorio or spiritual canticle. (Source).
Herein we find the germ of Oratorian life, “the daily use of the Word of God” (Talpa, quoted here). St. Philip’s model is eminently conversational. The Oratory converts and sanctifies, not only through its stated arms of the sacraments, prayer, and preaching, but through discussion—and, as well shall see, aesthetics.
St. Philip was not, however, given to ostentatious and idle chatter. He well understood the words of St. James, that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6 KJV). Consequently, he always urged his sons to mortify their speech as well as their reason and intellect. The Oratorians were to be wise, intelligent, even scholarly. But they were not to speak freely of the arts and sciences, nor were they to flaunt their learning. One Oratorian father went so far as to feign ignorance of Latin; another would always try to change the subject when any scholarly or humanistic matter came up in conversation. Amare nesciri—“to love to be unknown”—these words were ever on St. Philip’s lips.
None of this is to suggest that St. Philip was actively anti-intellectual. Far from it! After all, St. Philip was a devoted student of theology and philosophy in his younger days, and Father Faber calls even the mature St. Philip a “great student of history” (Faber 53). Those words could perhaps be more truly applied to St. Philip’s spiritual son, the Venerable Cardinal Caesar Baronius. It was St. Philip who commanded Baronius to write the Annales Ecclesiastici, the first great work of church history in modern times. The project served a few functions. First, it got Baronius off of preaching, as he had the unpleasant but slightly amusing habit of turning every sermon into a lengthy and vivid discourse on the everlasting torments of hell (I hope that, when he is eventually canonized, the good Cardinal becomes the patron saint of horror writers). The project also productively occupied Baronius’s prodigious intellect, which St. Philip mortified in many other ways. For instance, Baronius was given kitchen duty so frequently that St. Philip playfully wrote above the stove, “Baronius, Coquus Perpetuus.” Finally, St. Philip and Baronius conceived of the book, which unexpectedly became a decades-long enterprise, as a way of challenging the then-dominant historiography of Protestant authors, as exemplified by the Magdeburg Centuries. A cynic might call this bias. In context, it’s perhaps more fair to interpret Baronius’s motive as one very much akin to those that animate the scholarly disputes of our own day. And because of Baronius’s thoroughgoing method, academic rigor, and meticulous attention to detail, the Annales were received with respect even by those who disputed its claims. It was so impressive a work that several centuries later, Lord Acton could honestly call it “the greatest history of the Church ever written” (Source).
Nor was Baronius the only model of learning in the Oratory. His fellow cardinal, the aristocratic Francesco Maria Tarugi, was the fox to his hedgehog. Louis Bouyer writes that Tarugi “captivated everyone with his natural eloquence and was never at a loss, no matter what the topic of the moment might be” (Bouyer 64). Here again we see the mark of what we may call the specifically Oratorian genius—erudition crowned with beautiful style and fluency in speech.
If St. Philip stands for an appropriate humility of the intellect, Baronius for a rigorous love of truth, and Tarugi for eloquence in discourse, then we must turn to a fourth figure, the greatest scholar ever to enter the Oratorian life. I speak, of course, of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
In Newman’s long, productive, and complicated life, a few key themes emerge. Three are worth examining in connection with the intellectual tradition of the Oratory. First, we may duly note that Newman always exhibited a great love of knowledge for its own sake, and thus of Truth as such. As he writes in The Idea of a University,
Useful Knowledge then, I grant, has done its work; and Liberal Knowledge as certainly has not done its work,—that is, supposing, as the objectors assume, its direct end, like Religious Knowledge, is to make men better; but this I will not for an instant allow, and, unless I allow it, those objectors have said nothing to the purpose. I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. (The Idea of a University 120-21).
Along with this purity of vision, we naturally find in Newman a perennial appreciation of academic engagement, and when necessary, controversy. Indeed, Newman rose to fame and eventually converted because of his involvement in the ecclesiastical turmoil of the 1830’s and 40’s. He produced his first two great works, Tracts for the Times (1833-1841, in collaboration with others) and The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833) in light of those disputes. Likewise, Newman articulated his great theories of doctrinal development (Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 1845) and the important role of the laity (“On Consulting the Faithful,” 1859) in texts occasioned by ongoing controversies within the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches respectively. And although he could be terribly sensitive to even the slightest criticism, Newman took pains to respond with courtesy, as he did to Charles Kingsley in his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865). While Newman never sought out polemics and controversies, he was willing to engage in them when the Truth and Honor of God was at stake.
Finally, we ought to remember that Newman was always animated by a sincere love of that singular matrix of the intellectual life—academic community. His experience at Oxford profoundly shaped his worldview. He is, of course, still widely regarded as one of the great theorists of higher learning. The Idea of a University (1852, 1858) remains one of the most influential texts on Catholic education in modern times. But the impression that Oxford left on Newman is deeper and more subtle. Newman was drawn to the Oratory in part because he recognized in it the same collegiality that defined the best of the houses at Oxford. Newman writes,
Now I will say in a word what is the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know, and that is, one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Take such a College…change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. (Newman, quoted here).
Newman first considered the Oratory in part because he hoped to offer a ministry to the intellectuals of Britain:
The local bishop, Nicholas Wiseman, invited them to the former seminary at Old Oscott while they decided what to do. Newman named it “Maryvale” and planned some sort of Catholic educational institute there. But then Wiseman sent them off to Rome for ordination. While there, they examined various religious congregations, and realised that St Philip’s Oratory was the most suitable. The Birmingham Oratory was accordingly set up in Maryvale (2 February 1847), before settling on its present site, with another Oratory in London. (Oxford Oratory).
Sadly, Newman was unable to achieve his dream of an Oratory in Oxford during his lifetime. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO has a monograph on the subject, worth looking into. Suffice it to say, Newman looked upon the university as a major and potentially ripe field for an intellectual, aesthetically sensitive Catholic missionary presence. There is a reason why Catholic ministries to university students are very often called Newman Centers.
Insofar as we are trying to draw out principles that might be of use to the Church in the face of the various cultural challenges which prompted Dreher to write The Benedict Option, I think the Oratorian example, particularly as reflected in Newman’s life and work, may be of use. What lesson we should take? That we ought not abandon the universities and all that they stand for. Yes, there are failures of free speech, episodes of intimidation, and other serious problems at many institutions of higher learning. Dreher, to his credit, has done a good job reporting on the recent madness at Middlebury and Evergreen State.
But the universities overwhelmingly remain the central locations of serious intellectual exchange in this country and the world. While there are some impressive institutions of higher learning outside of or parallel to the formal university system, these are few and far between (see, inter alia, the Maryvale Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture). For what it’s worth, Alasdair MacIntyre has explicitly argued for a retrenchment of our position within the academy, both in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) and elsewhere. As Rowan Williams notes in his review of the book, Dreher seems to write off public discourse entirely. Dreher’s decision to do so is very foolish, more likely to hurt than help the position of Christians in our culture. Moreover, it is alien to the quintessentially Oratorian spirit of a man like Newman.
One of the marks of the Oratorian charism is a devoted attention to aesthetics. Perhaps it is only appropriate that a vocation emerging from and responding to the Neo-Platonist Renaissance should share its love of beauty. The Florentine St. Philip seems to have known instinctively that beauty evangelizes well and widely.
The exercises of the Oratory were never complete without a great deal of music. Louis Bouyer tells us that St. Philip “liked the conversations to be interspersed with music and the meetings to be brought to a close by some singing, so that the evening was filled with harmony” (Bouyer 54). St. Philip engaged the talents of some of the greatest Roman composers of his day. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina took St. Philip as his confessor, and Giovanni Animuccia was so frequently involved that Bouyer tells us, “In all truth nothing but one of Animuccia’s lovely motets could distill the essence of the Oratory and pass it on undiluted” (Bouyer 55). That same essence continued in the Congregation even after St. Philip’s death. Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo premiered at the house of the Roman Oratorians in 1600, and as a result, is generally considered the first oratorio.
St. Philip did not limit his careful deployment of beautiful and holy music to the formal exercises of the Oratory. He also knew that the long walks and pilgrimages he conducted around Rome would more easily win souls if they were elevated by sweet harmony. As Bouyer reports,
On such occasions music played a more important role than ever. Animuccia would bring along Rome’s best musicians, and the ‘Adoremus te Christe’ by Orlando de Lassus, or the ‘O vos omnes’ by Vittoria, would mingle with the sound of the fountains’ silvery cascades, of the leaves rustling in the sea breeze…On their way in the freshness of those early summer mornings on the Roman Campagna, Serafino Razzi’s Laudi would alternate with Gregorian Litanies.
At San Sebastiano…would follow a fine Polyphonic Mass, perhaps Palestrina’s wonderful ‘Mass of Pope Marcellus’ or his ‘Ecce Sacerdos magnus’…On their return to the centre of the city they would visit Santa Maria Maggiore on the heights of the Esquiline. Beneath the ceiling which Alexander VI had just decorated with the first American gold to be brought by Christopher Columbus from Peru, and among the Ionic columns of pure white marble, the day would draw to a close in an outburst of Palestrina music, and a ‘Salve Regina’ would fill the falling night with its loveliness gathered from the rivers and the stars. (Bouyer 57-60).
Nor was St. Philip insensible to the appeal of visual beauty. He was fond of Federico Barocci. We can detect in Barocci’s work a certain light sfumato, an airy other-worldliness that hovers over the strikingly intimate scenes the artist depicts. In the works of Barocci, there is something of the spirit of St. Philip, in whom the presence of God was so manifest and so exemplary in one so strangely human.
Some years after St. Philip’s death, the Oratorian fathers commissioned Caravaggio to create a sizeable painting for a side-altar. The result was the famous “Entombment of Christ“ (1603-04), now hanging in the Vatican Museums.
These artistic traditions have not fallen away in later houses of the Congregation. The Brompton Oratory in London is renowned for its architecture as well as its world-class Schola Cantorum. Its founder, Fr. Faber, gained wide respect as a hymnodist and poet. Newman also wrote some excellent verse, though he is more commonly regarded as a master prose stylist; Joyce considered him the greatest prose writer in the English language. St. Philip wrote some poetry too, though he destroyed most of his verses before he died. All that survive are a few religious sonnets. As one Italian author puts it,
Philip was perhaps the first who, after the reform in our poetry effected by Bembo and other distinguished men, treated religion with that fine poetic taste with which Petrarch treated the philosophy of Plato. Philip flourished as a poet about 1540; and then he forsook literature and gave himself wholly to God, and flourished far more in holiness, until his death. But though he no longer wrote poetry, he did not set it altogether aside. He well knew its great uses when guided by a christian spirit, and therefore he made a great point of it in his Congregation. He read poetry himself, and ordered that it should be always read and used by his followers in the way described in our previous notes. (Crescimbeni, quoted by Capecelatro, here).
St. Philip frequently found ways of incorporating the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi into the spiritual reading that formed such an important part of the exercises of the Oratory. It was one of only two books we know he brought with him from Florence. The Laudi was a text to which St. Philip returned frequently throughout his life, and one that always bore new graces (Bouyer 53).
All of this goes to say that St. Philip and his sons were no philistines. They appreciated and, in some cases, produced fine art across a variety of disciplines. While their vocation was never primarily or deliberately aesthetic, Oratorians throughout history have understood the spiritual importance of beauty.
Dreher hits this point pretty well in The Benedict Option. In that sense, my dissent from his recommendation may be more a matter of emphasis than of substance. Insofar as we differ at all, I think my issue is summed up well by Rebecca Bratten Wise:
Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.
Nevertheless, I do strongly criticize Dreher for lacking a sufficiently sacramental vision. The Oratorian aesthetic makes up for this failure, in that it is primarily liturgical.
Live and Love Eucharistically
And thus, we finally turn to the most important feature of St. Philip’s life and charism, the feature which made him a saint and a father of saints—his burning, Eucharistic charity. We can find evidence of St. Philip’s Eucharistic life in the peculiar and highly somatic form of mysticism that we encounter in his vitae. St. Philip never trusted ecstasies and visions, though he was granted such graces himself—usually in connection with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.
Capecelatro depicts the scene for us:
But now, in his 76th year, he could no longer restrain the impetuosity of Divine love which glowed within his heart, and he resolved to say Mass in private that he might give free course to his devotion.
From that time his usual method of saying Mass was this: up to the Domine, non sum dignus, everything went on as before; but at the solemn moment which precedes the priest’s communion, those who were in the chapel withdrew, the server lighted a lamp, put out the altar candles, closed the shutters of the windows, locked both doors, and left the Saint alone with God. Philip would have none to witness the raptures of his love, or to check the freedom of his sighs, words, and tears. A notice was then hung on the door, with these words: “Silence—the Father is saying Mass.” He would remain alone with Jesus in the Adorable Sacrament for two hours, hours of contemplation and of prayer with many tears, and urgent intercession for the Holy Church, the Bride of Jesus Christ, that He would render it as holy in the life of its children as it is in its faith and teaching. After two hours the server came back and knocked gently at the door; if the Saint answered, he opened the door, relighted the candles on the altar, opened the window-shutters, and Philip finished his Mass in the usual way. If the server received no answer, he went away for some time longer, nor did he enter the chapel until the Saint gave some sign that he might do so. What passed in those hours is known to God alone; those who saw Philip when his Mass was over were struck with amazement and awe, until his countenance was pale and wasted, as of one about to die. (Capecelatro 131-32).
And this in the immediate age of Trent! What are we to make of these irregularities?
St. Philip’s Mass is not a model of liturgical praxis, but of liturgical spirituality. In his own highly idiosyncratic prayer, St. Philip becomes a universal model of the soul in adoration of the Eucharistic God. St. Philip was, indeed, one of the great apostles of adoration in his time, as he popularized the Forty Hours’ devotion in Rome. Today, the Quarant’Ore remains a tradition of the Church and the Oratory throughout the world.
St. Philip’s sons are known for their tender devotion to the liturgical rubrics. In fact, I draw my title from a line in Fr. Jonathan Robinson’s foreword to Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (2014), by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. Fr. Robinson speaks of an “Oratorian option” not in relation to the early stages of the Benedict Option controversy, but as “a Reform-of-the-Reform ars celebrandi” (Robinson, in Kwasniewski 3). Indeed, the Oratories of the Anglophone world have a particularly strong reputation for their reverent and careful celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As with the best monasteries, the best Oratories exhibit “dignity and magnificence of the liturgical ars celebrandi” (source). In London, Birmingham, Oxford, Toronto, Vienna, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington, Brisbane, York, Manchester—in short, wherever the spirit of St. Philip prevails over all rivals and distractions—we find a true Domus Orationis, a “House of Prayer” (Matt. 21:13).
The chief fruit of this discipline is supernatural charity. St. Philip sought to found his congregation on this virtue, not the vows which have historically defined the religious state. There is a Trinitarian logic to this plan. For, just as the superabundant love in the heart of the Trinity impels the Three Divine Persons freely to create, redeem, and sanctify, so too should the love of the Oratory overflow into the streets and lead its members to good works. The love of God descends to a love of brethren, which descends in turn to a love of neighbor. Each of these lesser loves ought to confirm, extend, and refine the higher loves. This chain of charity, then, is a veritable Jacob’s ladder, for those in the angelic state are called ever to climb up and down until their passage into beatitude.
Of course, the basic pattern here is not unique to the Oratory. What sets the Oratory apart is its love of the world. A kind of holy worldliness distinguishes the Oratorian spirit, even as St. Philip’s own outlandish behavior earned him a reputation for other-worldliness. I don’t mean to suggest that St. Philip and his sons were given over to the permissive and pagan times in which they lived. Rather, I mean that St. Philip and the Oratorians are characterized by two separate but related qualities that proceed from their Eucharistic life.
First, St. Philip was renowned for prudence. After all, he was a much sought-after confessor. The irony at the heart of so many of his jokes is that, by mocking his own and others’ pretensions, he demonstrated how utterly divorced so many of our lives are from good Christian common sense. In this respect, he was a true fool for Christ very much after the Eastern model. St. Philip’s prudence did indeed appear foolish to those whose vision could not penetrate to the mysteries of God.
While in other ages, prudence led some saints to undertake and advise great hardships for the kingdom, that same virtue taught St. Philip a different path. He drew his own strength from fastidious and hidden rigors, but he always counseled his penitents to avoid excessive asceticism. Once, when the future Cardinal Tarugi, still young and wealthy and vain, came to him for confession, he asked St. Philip if he might wear a hairshirt. St. Philip saw through the man’s pride. He assented—but only allowed Tarugi to wear the hairshirt on top of all his other garments! For such an admirer of Savonarola, St. Philip could hardly have been farther from his practice when it came to matters of mortification. What little he did urge he usually salted with his own brand of humor. He famously took the Dominican novices of the Minerva out on long picnics and urged them to eat and grow fat. So, too, his pleasant indulgence of children was legendary. And what of those long walks with the crowds under the Roman sky?
St. Philip loved the world. He hated its lies and vices, but he was ever able to peer beyond that sordid stratum and into God’s glory. As one source puts it, “St. Philip was the Apostle of Rome, who by means of the ‘counter-fascination of purity and truth’ reconverted both clerics and laymen in the city at the centre of the Church.” Or, as Louis Bouyer tells us,
Does not Philip, in fact, merely yield to Renaissance optimism? Does he not ignore original sin when he bases his apostolate on freedom and confidence? His ‘religion without tears’ surely expects from undisciplined nature what the discipline of grace alone can produce?
…There is no doubt that it was dangerous to go out against the new paganism with no other arms save love, and just as dangerous to expose his apparently vulnerable simplicity to its disturbing influence, yet his outrageous method made him the victorious apostle of neo-pagan Rome. (Bouyer 28-29).
The love that conquered Rome was the fruit of St. Philip’s sacramental interior life. The unique grace of his special relationship with the Holy Spirit was a cardinal element of that life, but so was his ardent devotion to the Eucharist.
It was this element that I found so disturbingly absent in Dreher’s book. There is no properly Christ-like love of the lost in The Benedict Option, only one angry jeremiad after another. And why? Perhaps because Dreher hardly ever mentions the Eucharist. Dreher writes as if Christ’s presence on earth is an afterthought, one tool among many to be deployed in the quest for community. The result is a spiritually crabbed book, insufficiently sacramental and brimming with self-righteous anxiety.
St. Philip shows us another way.
At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet to halt the various troubles that the Church faces in what seems like an increasingly hostile, secular West. Christ never abandons us to the narrow limits of our own imagination and resources. Instead, He furnishes the Church with untold gifts, charisms, and holy exemplars among the saints. In this sense, the recent proliferation of “Options”—to which this essay contributes—is probably a blessing.
But we musn’t forget one ineradicable fact. Christ never raises these lesser creations over His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. There is no blessing, no vocation, and no grace that can go beyond the work of the Adorable Sacrament. If we forsake the one rock of the Altar and instead build upon the sand of the innumerable personal graces and unique charisms spread throughout the Church Universal, then all of our works will shatter beneath the hammer of the storm.
St. Philip Neri understood this truth and lived it out across the long span of his ministry. Those qualities which distinguish the Oratorian charism—domesticity, localism, intellectual rigor, humility, collegiality, aesthetics, urbanity, prudence, and love of the world—can only be integrated and understood in the light of the sanctuary lamp. St. Philip’s entire life was a ceaseless testament to the power of the Eucharist “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 KJV). In keeping close to the Sacrament and to the example of St. Philip, we may just make it after all.