The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

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A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

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A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

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Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

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Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

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Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

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Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

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A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

Thoughts on Converting the Young

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The official drink of the movement. (Source)

By now, it has become a commonplace among the Catholic literati that, as one reporter put it, “The Kids are Old Rite.” Traditionalism is on the rise among Millennial Catholics. Several overlapping clans of young, traditional Catholicism have arisen over social media, especially Twitter. Traditional orders get more and younger vocations; older, more progressive orders face extinction in the near future. The Pope himself has taken notice and expressed concerns about this trend. Of course, most of the young trads prefer a pope closer to their own age.

Several unrelated items recently have come up in my news-feed that have collectively crystallized the issue for me.

I

First, a three-part study of FOCUS (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students) has just appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. While I’m often wary of NCR’s coverage on just about anything, I’d encourage you to read it. Sometimes the magazine’s liberal bias gets the best of it, as in a mostly uninteresting examination of FOCUS’s ties to Neo-Conservative and generally right-wing organizations in Part II.

But there are also genuine insights. A lot of the issues raised reminded me of my own somewhat mixed experience with a FOCUS-dominated campus ministry. I certainly made friends, some of whom I still consider important mentors. My first-year Bible Study leader, a fellow student who had been “discipled” by the FOCUS missionaries, was a great influence in my first year of Catholicism (and beyond). But I more or less left the ministry fairly early on, like most of my trad or trad-lite friends. The NCR study gets into some of the reasons why.

For instance, in Part 1, we read:

A FOCUS women’s Bible study group gave Elisa Angevin purpose and strengthened her values — at first. As a freshman at New York University, she met a missionary, who became a mentor and a friend.

But as she met different people outside that community — some of whom were “rubbed the wrong way” by FOCUS — Angevin began to distance herself from the group because it felt exclusionary, rigid and not open to different ways of being Catholic.

“Once you become part of FOCUS, it has a very structured approach,” recalled Angevin, now 25 and a social worker in New York. “It created a lot of passion. But a lot of student leaders looked down on other people who didn’t have the same passion.”

Angevin attended some of FOCUS’ mega-conferences, such as the Student Leadership Summit, and was inspired by the speakers and sense of community. “It was empowering to see people my age who were as excited as I was,” Angevin recalled. “But as I started to get older, the newness had worn off … and it felt very closed.”

A lot of this rings true. Speaking from my own experience, I always got the very strong impression that FOCUS represented a fairly “mainstream” form of Catholicism, the JP2 consensus. Banal liturgy coupled with social conservatism. But there really isn’t any room for traditionalists – or even just those who are friendly to the Old Mass and the piety it sustained. I remember being called “judgmental” for my views. Other trads were  sidelined as well.

I also think that the program’s reliance on *very young* missionaries often leads to a dumbing-down of the vast spiritual and intellectual inheritance that is Catholicism. There’s some call for this at a campus ministry, where ministers have to reach as many people as possible. Not everyone can or even should be St. Thomas Aquinas. Undergraduates don’t often go to ministries looking for lectures, but for some escape from the academic life. Still, must it all be so infantilizing? Perhaps you can see what I mean here:

At the Chicago event, held at the sprawling McCormick Place convention center, FOCUS founder Curtis Martin struts onto the stage, hands in the air, shouting “Woo!” and “Awesome!” to the applauding summit attendees who had been enjoying a contemporary Christian band before his keynote address. Two days earlier, actor Jim Caviezel — Jesus in the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” — made a surprise visit to the conference.

“This is how awesome you are,” Martin said. “When the guy who pretended to be Jesus walked in the room, you all stood up and clapped, but when Jesus showed up, you all fell down and knelt. You know the difference. How cool is that?”

What an ineffably stupid way of addressing adults. Mr. Martin manages to strike at once a patronizing and self-congratulatory tone, a true rhetorical feat.

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One thing I learned in the NCR articles is that FOCUS missionaries only get four weeks of training the summer before they begin. And some of that is dedicated to learning how to fund-raise. (Source)

Yet my unease with FOCUS wasn’t just with that sort of standard, if irritating, campus ministry procedure. As a recent convert who had grown up in an Evangelical Protestant school, I found a lot of FOCUS’s Protestant-lite discourse unsatisfying. It was more than just the use of emotivist praise and worship music at Benediction (as grating as that was). It was more than just the way FOCUS mission trips seemed to mirror the sort of make-work vacation mission trips I recognized from my time in the Evangelical world. I got the distinct sense that FOCUS borrowed heavily from the discourse of Evangelicalism, even down to the language it deployed when talking about conversion. Here’s an example from Part III:

As former FOCUS employees (called “missionaries”) or as students involved with the organization on their college campuses, they were taught its “Win, build, send” formula.

“Win” means to build “authentic friendships” with people, with the ultimate purpose of evangelization, while “build” requires helping those friends grow in faith and virtue through what FOCUS calls “the big three” virtues: chastity, sobriety and excellence.

First, we have the shallow reduction of evangelization to a business-like slogan, as if the work of the Holy Ghost could be charted like a marketing campaign. This type of lingo is, in my experience, very common in Evangelical discourse. Paired with it we find the language of authenticity. The first step in FOCUS’s three-part strategy is to “build ‘authentic friendships.'” Authenticity is like obscenity – you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. The problem, of course, is that you can’t actually plan an “authentic friendship.” The planning is precisely what makes it artificial. Friendships come about organically, and no two look alike. The same can be said of conversions. At best, FOCUS should rather resemble what St. Philip Neri imagined the Oratory to be, though he never constructed any firm plans for the Congregation’s foundation or development. At worst, students get the sense of entering faux, farmed, and framed friendships. Those attract precisely no one.

In the emphasis on “chastity, sobriety, and excellence” as, risibly, “‘the big three’ virtues,” we find a synecdoche of the very strong note of philistine, puritanical prudery ensconced in FOCUS. Encountering this tendency also made me recall the moralistic Calvinism of my youth. Everything in Christianity seemingly came back to sex, drinking, and drugs. No one who ponders the state of American students could seriously suggest that these issues don’t matter, but to hammer on about them to the exclusion of two other triads – Faith, Hope, and Charity, and the Good, the True, and the Beautiful – makes Christianity dull.

 

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Protestant Sunday worship, or Catholic conference? Hard to tell…and therein lies the rub. (Source)

But why does FOCUS make “chastity, sobriety, and excellence” its threefold mantra? The FOCUS promotional video in Part 1 offers some insight into their worldview. The narrative told there is one of nostalgia and decline. Various clips from the 1950’s are shown in contrast to the sex, drugs, technology, and mass media of today. The message is obvious: society was better back then, and it’s worse now. But it’s not fundamentally true. First of all, evil has always existed. FOCUS’s Manichaean view of the past may not be unusual, but it’s also deeply lopsided. All the terrible things FOCUS decries about our modern society – pornography, addiction, suicide, the disenchantment of consumerist technology – all of these things existed prior to the 1960’s. And lots of bad things about the society of the 1950’s have disappeared or been greatly mitigated in various ways (need I point out segregation as the elephant in the room?). Yet none of those advances are mentioned. It’s not surprising that social justice Catholics, like trads, find themselves ill at ease with FOCUS. Is it all that shocking that “a lack of racial, ethnic and economic diversity among students served by FOCUS is another criticism?”

The FOCUS video also fails to note the role the Church herself played in clearing the way for, hastening, and abetting the worst changes. Nary a peep do we hear about how leaders of the postconciliar Church abandoned her sacred mission to convert a sinful world, nor the way that such a surrender was intimately tied to the loss of the Mass of Ages.

I don’t intend for this post to be a simple laundry-list of my grievances with FOCUS, philosophical and otherwise. After all, I know plenty of wonderful people who got a lot out of their connection with the organization. The FOCUS missionaries themselves were always perfectly pleasant, and seemed orthodox enough. But I also knew others who felt excluded and patronized by the model they brought to campus ministry. I confess a very deep ambivalence about their hopes to expand ministry to parishes (though the veritable clerisy of middle-class lay ministers that Marti Jewell envisions in Part III of the report is hardly any better).

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An alternative. (Source)

If we want to win the youth with “authenticity,” then look no further than the Latin Mass. Or even just the Novus Ordo celebrated according to Fortescue, as you see at the English Oratories. That which is unmistakably Catholic and orthodox has the best chance of bringing about conversion of heart. I would be curious to know how Juventutem compares to FOCUS in terms of outreach, vocations, etc. Regardless, my own view of how this program of evangelization might best function is in my essay, “The Oratorian Option.” Nothing has changed since then, except that I’ve gotten the chance to attend an Oratorian parish consistently, an experience that has corroborated my original theories. The Eucharist and the worthy celebration of the Mass are at the heart of it all.

It’s just unfortunate that FOCUS, at least as I’ve known them, aren’t interested.

II

The New York Times published a piece on the Trappists of Mepkin, monks in my own home Diocese of Charleston. They’re good, quiet priests who farm mushrooms on a prime piece of real estate next to the Cooper River. The Times profile is nice enough, though I think its central flaws are aptly pointed out by my friend, Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, in his response over at The City and the World. To wit:

Despite the NYT‘s suggestion that the Mepkin “affiliate program” represents “a new form of monasticism,” the monks themselves realize that it does not. As NYT reporter Stephen Hiltner observes, “the monks at Mepkin are cleareyed about the likelihood that their new initiatives — which will probably attract young, interfaith and short-term visitors — will fail to attract Roman Catholics who are interested in a long-term commitment with the core monastic community.” Mepkin’s abbot also frankly admits that the monastery may not survive: “I’d rather be in a community that has a vital energy and a good community life. And if that means closing Mepkin, that means closing Mepkin.”

“New” and dubiously monastic programs substituted for genuine, old-fashioned monasticism? We’ve seen this before. Mepkin’s well-intended program differs even from, say, the Quarr internship insofar as it isn’t primarily targeted to candidates who might plausibly have a vocation, single Catholic men from the ages of 18 to 25. And unlike Quarr, a monastery which retains its Solesmes heritage, Mepkin seems to be failing in part because it holds too tightly to the Spirit of the Council. Mepkin’s new affiliate program is open to women as well as men, “of any faith tradition.” It seems that the solution they’ve come up with to their vocational crisis is to become less Catholic, not more.

Fr. Koczera continues at length:

As Terry Mattingly points out at GetReligion, the NYT article is very one-sided, focusing on monasteries that are dying without ever asking questions about monasteries that actually are drawing vocations. Most Trappist monasteries in the United States seem to be in straits similar to those of Mepkin, at least judging by yearly statistics published by the Trappist Order. On the other hand, it isn’t difficult to find monasteries in the United States (albeit those of other orders) that continue to attract (and retain) young vocations: one thinks of the Benedictines at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma or Saint Louis Abbey in Missouri, or of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (a monastery I’ve written about once or twice before)…Despite the evident sincerity of the monks at Mepkin Abbey, their sense of what young people want belies data about what young Catholics in particular are looking for. As the monks acknowledge, seeking to provide a haven for ‘spiritual but not religious’ types will not lead to an influx of new vocations. The monks may realize, too, that Millennial Catholics who take their faith seriously are also serious about commitment and likely to be unimpressed by a strategy that is specifically tailored to seekers who are “interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion.” In this sense, it’s interesting to contrast the NYT story on Mepkin Abbey with a NBC News story from just last week that highlighted the rising number of American Millennials who are choosing to enter religious orders – and who enter looking for a solid sense of identity and commitment that is countercultural. They represent a generation of Catholics who find themselves, as Tracey Rowland writes, “in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era” as they seek “to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture.” Some will find the resources they need to assemble those fragments in one or another of America’s remaining monasteries – but not, it seems, at Mepkin Abbey.

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A 2016 photo of the community of Norcia. The monastery is unlike Mepkin in many ways: young, international, augmented by regular vocations, and above all, Traditional. (Source)

Of the new monasteries that do seem to get vocations (and lots of them), two stand out: Norcia and Silverstream. The lives of these two monasteries are so attractive to young American Catholic men that, though they are in Italy and Ireland respectively, they are mostly inhabited by Americans willing to make the move to Europe. Both are old-rite monasteries. And I would wager that neither Dom Cassian Folsom nor Dom Mark Daniel Kirby went about planning their monastic ventures with catchy slogans or even a very programmatic sense of action. They celebrated the Mass reverently, preached orthodoxy, and, with the help of the internet, they achieved widespread fame. They shared the trust in Divine Providence that St. Philip had as he – or, in his own words, Our Lady – founded the Oratory.

III

My friend John Monaco has just published an excellent personal narrative at his blog, Inflammate Omnia. It describes his Catholic upbringing, difficulties in seminary, extended flirtation with liberalism, and final reversion to a basically Traditionalist position. Parts of it reminded me of my own story: my natural religious sentiment as a child, my vituperative liberalism in High School, my conversion and eventual move towards a more or less Traditionalist orientation, in part through the beneficent influence of the Christian East.

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Christ offers us His heart freely and fully. (Source)

I was particularly taken with the way that the Act of Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as traditional a devotion as you can get, gently shaped John’s sensibilities over time. His original resistance to the Sacred Heart gave way to the a love of Jesus in precisely this mystery. And by the infallible rule of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, the prayer also led him to adhere more perfectly to the Faith as enshrined in Tradition. He writes,

You see, the more I prayed to the Sacred Heart, the more I began to really think about what I was actually praying. Prayer of Reparation? “For what?” I asked. My sins. What does it mean to “resist the rights and teaching authority of the Church which Thou hast founded?” That must obviously mean that the Church has authority, and that Christ founded the Church. The more and more I prayed these prayers, the more I began to question its essence. And even more so, I began to question my own conduct and dispositions.

You see, none of this “mercy” stuff makes sense if we don’t believe that sin actually harms. If all sin is simply personal weaknesses that do not affect our relationship with God and each other, then why do we need forgiveness? Or, in response to some moral theologians, if it is impossible to sin, then what is the purpose of grace? If the Church doesn’t have authority, then why do we consider the command to preach the Gospel? If Christ didn’t found the Church, then why should we bother following it? I also wondered why I was skipping all of the “hard-sayings” of Jesus, such as His words on divorce and remarriage, purity, suffering, obedience, and the promise that the “world” would hate me for preaching the truth. I started examining the fact that people would tell me, “I like you because you’re not talking about Hell and all of that sin stuff all the time”, and that had less to do with me balancing the Christian message than it did with me picking & choosing which parts to speak about.

John also captures the essence of the new, young Traditionalism:

Delving beyond the contemporary face of Catholicism, I was able to re-discover Tradition- not through EWTN or Rorate Caeli, nor through PrayTell or Crux, but rather through a true experience of the sacred liturgy, prayer, and study.

A future church historian will take that line as summative of the entire experience of a generation. The only thing I would add is that in my own case, as with many others, beauty was the central thing. Community, tradition, stability, a sense of history; all these are goods that the Church offers her children. But it was supernatural beauty that captured my imagination and led me to a genuine encounter with the Living God. The Church has the chance to re-present that “beauty ever ancient, ever new” each week at the Mass. It is Christ Himself in the Eucharist who will convert the world. Not our misbegotten, if earnest, attempts to plan out the advance of His Kingdom. If anything, we too often get in His way.

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More of this, please. (Source)

When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

UPDATE 4/2/20: It has recently come to my attention that Giovanni Gasparro, the artist profiled here, whose work I have admired at this blog on several occasions, has just produced a painting that reproduces the vicious anti-Semitic trope of Jewish ritual murder. This lie has historically led to violence against the Jews and, to put it lightly, is a subject unbecoming of a Christian painter. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. While I used to look to Mr. Gasparro as a prime example of what Christian art could be in our postmodern era, his embrace of imagery more fit for the pages of Der Stürmer means that I can no longer endorse him. Nevertheless, I have decided to keep this essay up online because it enunciates certain principles about art that I think remain important. I hope that my readers will understand that they reflect an assessment of Mr. Gasparro’s value as religious art that I no longer hold. 

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

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.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)

Heat, Song, Sweetness: A Meditation on the Benedictine Life of St. Philip Neri

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“Rome will be your Indies.” St. Philip receives his vocation from a Cistercian. (Source)

It has not been remarked upon very often that St. Philip loved the Benedictines. Monks played an important part in his life at two critical moments: first, when he decided to go to Rome, and second, when he decided to stay in Rome.

While working with his uncle Romolo in San Germano, near Naples, St. Philip would go to pray at Monte Cassino. As one author has it, “From [the Benedictines], he developed a profound love of the liturgy, the Bible and the ancient Church Fathers.” Their rich spiritual life helped cultivate a sense of God’s will, which led him to his first conversion. St. Philip quit his lucrative mercantile career with Romolo and set off for the Holy City. We shall examine his second run-in with the sons of St. Benedict later.

In considering St. Philip, we start to find similarities with other saints. Father Faber likened him unto St. Francis of Assisi; just as St. Francis was the “representative saint” of the middle ages, so was St. Philip the true saint of modernity. Cardinal Newman took another approach, tracing the influence of S.s Benedict, Dominic, and Ignatius Loyola,  thereby arriving at something like a portrait by comparison. My strategy and emphases will differ somewhat from both of theirs.

Among the “great cloud of witnesses” who make up the Church Triumphant, there are an infinite number of likenesses and connections between the saints. Here and there, one spies a similarity in outlook, or devotion, or manner of life between figures who lived across centuries and continents. The eternal coinherence, the “dance” that binds them all, is the ineffable life of the Trinity in Unity. Thus, it is not surprising that when we observe similarities between Philip Neri and that great father among the saints, Benedict of Nursia, we should also find a deeper, Trinitarian resemblance.

I would like to offer a meditation on the life and spirituality of St. Philip through the lens of the Benedictine vows. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the Trinitarian character of the three vows as well as St. Philip’s remarkable interior life. His Trinitarian spirituality was distinguished by the threefold experience of God that the great English mystic Richard Rolle describes in The Fire of Love: “ghostly heat, heavenly song and godly sweetness” (Rolle I.5).

Keeping all of these disparate lenses in mind, let us commence.

I. The Warmth of the Father’s Stability

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St. Philip Neri was especially popular among the young men of Rome. (Source)

St. Philip was the spiritual father of many men in his own day. Palestrina, Animuccia, St. Camillus of Lellis, and others received forgiveness from him in the confessional. He was particularly kind to youth. Once, when the scholarly Baronius complained that the children with whom St. Philip was playing in the yard were too loud for his studies, St. Philip replied that he’d let them chop wood off his own back, if only they might not sin. The long-suffering Baronius accepted St. Philip’s paternal will. It was a salutary and exemplary mortification, and St. Philip knew that. It was also a lesson. St. Philip intended for his sons to live out spiritual fatherhood in the world. And they were to do it, following his own example, with intense joy.

When we contemplate the Fatherhood of God, we are struck dumb with wonder at the abyss of Being abiding in His fullness. God the Father is the immovable, the unshakeable, the indefinable One. It is from God the Father that we learn that fatherhood can only be cultivated upon presence…rootedness…constancy. And it must also blaze with the heat of love. The two qualities are mutually reinforcing. Put briefly, the warmest paternity will cool, harden, and falter if it is not sustained by stability.

St. Benedict understood this dynamic, and when he sought to compose a rule for his spiritual family, he knew that he had to incorporate it into his model. In the very first chapter of the Rule, we read of the different kinds of monks. The worst are those whom St. Benedict calls “Gyrovagues,” men who

…spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony (Rule of St. Benedict I).

Instead, St. Benedict calls for his monks to pass their lives in one place, at one task—seeking God. Stability is so central to his vision that he doesn’t even bother writing a chapter about it. Instead, he assumes it as a necessary condition from the very beginning and lets it color his prescriptions from then on.

St. Philip was equally adamant about stability. The organization of the Oratory is a great testament to his idea of stability. Even in the early days, when he first sent some priests to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, he required that they return to his chamber above San Girolamohis “cenacle,” if you willand continue with the exercises of the Oratory.  When the priests finally left both parishes and moved to Santa Maria in Vallicella, the Chiesa Nuova, St. Philip imagined that his religious family would never grow beyond its four walls. He was deeply reluctant to grant the foundation of an Oratory in Naplesthough it would furnish the Church with great saints such as the Blessed Giovanni Juvenal Ancina.

The basic grain of St. Philip’s idea has endured in those lands where the Oratory has flourished. Oratorians spend their whole priestly lives in one community. They can travel and work more freely than vowed religious, since they are truly secular priests, but their range of motion is restricted by the value of stability that St. Philip imposes on his sons. The quality of that stability differs from the asceticism which marked the experience of the early monks. As Newman puts it:

The Congregation is to be the home of the Oratorian. The Italians, I believe, have no word for homenor is it an idea which readily enters into the mind of a foreigner, at least not so readily as into the mind of an Englishman. It is remarkable then that the Oratorian Fathers should have gone out of their way to express the idea by the metaphorical word nido or nest, which is used by them almost technically. (Newman, qtd. by Robinson).

As Newman said elsewhere:

…the objective standard of assimilation is not simply the Rule or any abstract idea of an Oratory, but the definite local present body, hic et nunc, to which [the novice] comes to be assimilated (Newman, qtd. on the Toronto Oratory Vocations page).

The stability of the Oratory is enlivened with a certain warmth, a familial domesticity that is adequately captured in the Italian nido. The Oratorian has his “nest” in his cell, and beyond that, his house, and beyond that, the city where God has led him. None of these becomes his “nest” by matter of location, but by the network of sacramental relationships he enters there. He is begotten anew by the paternity of St. Philip, by his immediate superiors, and ultimately, by God. The same spirit prevails in the very best monastic houses, as any visitor to Silverstream Priory or the Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte or Stift Heiligenkreuz or Clear Creek Abbey or L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux can attest. Dom Aelred Carlyle’s Caldey Island had just such a sensibility, as did Nashdom Abbey before its decline. The Oratory and the Benedictine Monastery keep alive the fire of God’s paternal love by their community life and stability in prayer.

II. The Son’s Obedient Song

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The Madonna Appearing to Saint Philip Neri, Sebastian Conca. (Source)

Up to now, I have not addressed the peculiar irony in my approach. The model that St. Philip left for his sons is singular among all others in the Church in its total rejection of vowssuch as those that mark the Benedictine vocation. The constitutions of the Congregation are very clear. Even if all the members around the world should take vows and only one abstain, the true Oratory would rest with that lone dissenter, and not the majority. Instead, Newman tells us, “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter.” St. Philip trusted that bond of charity to sustain the common life he envisioned for the Oratory.

St. Philip hoped that his sons, through mortification of the intellect and an easy, friendly concord, would persevere in the love that was their peculiar vocation. Just as voices unite in harmony for no better end than beauty, so might we describe the Oratorian ideal as a kind of “song”Rolle’s second experience of God. The liturgy for the Sixth Sunday in Easter illustrates this point admirably. The Introit (Vocem iucunditatis annuntiate), Psalm (Let all the earth cry out to God with joy), and Offertory (Benedicite gentes Dominum) all refer to song as the properly obedient response to God’s grace. The truth and beauty of that good song is attractive to souls made weary by the heavy dross of the world. St. Philip knew this fact well, and he employed some of the leading composers of the timePalestrina and Animucciato write music for the exercises of the Oratory.

Moreover, one could almost imagine that the first reading, which mentions the Apostle Philip, was really intended to tell us something about the life of the Joyful Saint:

Philip went down to the city…and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing…There was great joy in that city. (Acts 8: 5-8 NAB)

Similarly, the Epistle calls to mind St. Philip’s singular mystical life. We read, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts,” (1 Pet. 3: 15-18 NAB). And how are we, like St. Philip, to go about sanctifying Christ in our hearts? The Gospel tells us:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14:15-17 NAB)

Christ is preeminently the man who responds with a song of obedience, and St. Philip follows his lead. And what do St. Philip and his sons sing in their common life? What but the praise of God? What but the Divine Word, the Logos, Christ made present in prayer and scripture and sacrament? Indeed, Eliot’s description of “every phrase/And sentence that is right” could apply just as well to the Oratorian life:

…where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together
(Little Gidding V)

The life of the Benedictine monk is not so seemingly free. He has one work, the liturgy, the Opus Dei. This one task is the first and final way that the Benedictine fulfills his vow of obedience to Christ. As Chapter 5 of the Holy Rule has it: “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ” (Rule of St. Benedict V). The eleven degrees that follow build upon this cornerstone, marked as it is by the love of Christ. It is a love that conforms the monk to the obedience of Christ crucified. The wicked Sarabaites that St. Benedict describes in Chapter 1 are chiefly marked by their unwillingness to obey:

They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful. (Rule of St. Benedict I).

St. Philip knew how to obey. When he was under suspicion of heresy, he immediately ceased his labors in submission to the Papal investigators until he knew the outcome. He only resisted when it came to the cardinalate, which he always resolutely refused. Once, upon receiving the Red Hat, he made jokes about the honor and laughed it off as if it were nothingin the very presence of the Pope! Exasperated, the Holy Father decided to grant St. Philip’s wish, and did not insist on the appointment.

But he also obeyed the voice of God through other figures, such as when he formally received his vocation. Hearing the many stories of St. Francis Xavier in the East, St. Philip determined to set out for India. But he decided to wait and test the calling with the advice of another man he trusted.

In Rome, there is a Cistercian monastery called the Tre Fontane, which takes its name from the legend that when St. Paul was martyred, his head bounced three times. It is said that three fountains miraculously sprang up from the earth where his head fell. Later, a house of religion was founded there. It was to this monastery that St. Philip went to consult a well-respected monk known for his spiritual insights. The monk listened to St. Philip’s situation, and told him to return later. When St. Philip came back to the Tre Fontane, he had his answer“Rome will be your indies.” He never again desired to leave the Holy City. Cardinal Newman tells us that the monk did this under the spiritual guidance of St. John. How appropriate that the Apostle so intimately tied to the Second Person of the Trinity should teach St. Philip to imitate Christ’s obedient humility!

III. The Sweetness of the Spirit’s Conversatio Morum

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The Holy Spirit made the heart of St. Philip sacramental while on this earthly journey. (Source)

Few saints have such a manifest intimacy with the Holy Spirit as St. Philip Neri. Biographers and commentators throughout the centuries have always noted the peculiar affinity between St. Philip and the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

When St. Philip first came to Rome, he spent most of his nights praying in the catacombs. He drew surpassing sweetness from this salutary solitude. For him, Rome was not just a (recently sacked) city of decadent palaces, picturesque ruins, and opulent vices. Rome was a landscape marked by the work of the Holy Spirit through human history. The catacombs reminded St. Philip of the Church of the martyrs.

It was on one of these vigils that St. Philip experienced a visitation by the Holy Spirit. He came to the catacomb of St. Sebastian on the night before Pentecost. While praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Fr. Philip G. Bochanski of the Oratory describes the scene well:

As the night passed, St Philip was suddenly filled with great joy, and had a vision of the Holy Spirit, who appeared to him as a ball of fire. This fire entered into St Philip’s mouth, and descended to his heart, causing it to expand to twice its normal size, and breaking two of his ribs in the process.  He said that it filled his whole body with such joy and consolation that he finally had to throw himself on the ground and cry out, “No more, Lord!  No more!” (Source).

Throughout his life, St. Philip would report an unremitting heat throughout all of his body, though always most intense around his heart. Even in the dead of winter, he’d be so warm as to freely unbutton his collar when everyone else was shivering. Pressing someone’s head to his breast, letting him hear his heartbeat and feel the miraculous warmth, was enough to convert even the most hardened and impenitent sinners. We can say with no exaggeration that the Holy Spirit made St. Philip a living sacrament. He became a fountain issuing forth graces. He bore all of the sweet fruits of the Holy Spirit. As Fr. Bochanski puts it, “St Philip was convinced and constantly aware of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in him and through him…He was sure that he had received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and this assurance set him free to bear the Spirit’s fruits.”

St. Philip’s special relationship with the Holy Spirit drew him into an almost uncontrollable ardor of love for the Eucharist. He was a great mystic of the Blessed Sacrament. Under St. Philip’s direction, the Roman Oratory popularized the Forty Hours Devotion of Eucharistic Adoration, an important precursor for later efforts at Perpetual Adoration. In spite of his wise suspicion of visions and miracles, he was granted innumerable ecstasies. These would usually come in some connection with the Eucharist. St. Philip had jokes read to him in the sacristy as he vested, as he had a very realistic fear of entering a sweet trance of joy before the Mass even began.

In his old age, St. Philip was allowed to give free reign to these Eucharistic ecstasies. By special permission of the Pope, he would say his Mass only in a private chapel on the top floor of the Vallicella. At the consecration, he would kneel down before the altar. The servers would close the windows, shut the door, and place a sign on the handle which read, “Silence! The Father is saying Mass.” Then, in darkness and silence, St. Philip would commune with the Eucharistic God for upwards of two hours. When he was done, the servers would ring a bell, the sign on the door would be removed, and he would continue the Mass as if nothing had happened.

In all of these phenomena, we may be tempted to draw a contrast with the staid, rhythmic, simple spirituality of St. Benedict’s Rule. Not sofor we must examine why St. Philip was given the singular graces that marked his life in the Holy Spirit.

The third vow that St. Benedict demands of his sons is Conversatio Morum, the conversion of manners (Rule of St. Benedict LVIII). The monk enters the monastery that he might “seeketh God,” and seek Him fully (Rule of St. Benedict LVIII). Like all Christians, he is after deification. But unlike most of us, he is called to theosis by shunning the distractions of the World. He can only do this by entering into the sacrifice of the Eucharistic Christ, whom he adores in the liturgy that marks the hours of every day. The Benedictine vocation is, at its heart, life made explicitly Eucharistic.

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby of Silverstream, building upon the work of the Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion and Mother Mectilde de Bar, has put the point admirably. Among many other similar passages, we find in a poem from 2011:

The Eucharistic Humility of God
is inseparable from His Eucharistic Silence.
This Saint Benedict understood,
for in his Rule, the silent are humble,
and the humble silent.
This our Mother Mectilde understood
for she wanted her Benedictine adorers to bury themselves
in the silence of the hidden God,
the ineffably humble God
in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. 
(Source)

In the Eucharist, we find the consummation of all God’s sweetness. “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopeth in him” (Psalm 33:9 DRA). It is the grand work of the Spirit, the crown of the sacraments, the dawn of the new and everlasting life. Just as Richard Rolle passed into “the most delectable sweetness of the Godhead,” so too does the monk return each day to the Eucharist to drink of the Spirit’s epicletic sweetness (Rolle I.5).

And St. Philip, with his Eucharistic ecstasies and his intimacy with the Spirit, knew that sweetness better than we can possibly imagine. The sweetness of the Holy Spirit transformed him into an instrument of grace, a human sacrament whose own manners were deeply converted and who aided many along the same journey. It is little wonder that Oratories and Benedictine monasteries remain centers of reverent and beautiful celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Conclusion

Ritratto di San Filippo-b

Portrait of St. Philip Neri. (Source)

St.-Benedict-81

Portrait of St. Benedict. (Source)

Many writers have found in St. Philip Neri the likeness of other saints, including those predecessors whom he admired, the contemporaries whom he loved, and the innumerable great saints who followed in the generations since he went on to immortal glory.

Yet is any resemblance so striking, and so Trinitarian, as that between the Father of the Oratory and the Father of Monks? In both, we find the very image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In both, we can see the marks of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners. And in both, we detect the surpassing heat, song, and sweetness which Richard Rolle describes as indicative of a true encounter with God.

By their prayers, may we someday share that eternal encounter.

Solimena, Francesco, 1657-1747; The Holy Trinity with St Philip Neri in Glory

The Holy Trinity with St. Philip Neri in Glory, Francesco Solimena. The figure at left is probably the Benedictine Oblate, St. Francesca Romana. The painting, originally intended for the Naples Oratory, now hangs in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford (Source).

Saint-Benedict-in-Glory-1500-58b5a7553df78cdcd88ab39f

St. Benedict in Glory, c. 1500. Artist unknown. (Source)