I have just discovered that Once I Was a Clever Boy, a blog I used to enjoy but was sorry to see in hiatus, has returned. John Whitehead, the blog’s author, is a friend and a Brother of the Little Oratory here in Oxford. He hasn’t put up any new content recently. Nevertheless, there was a long time when for whatever technical reason – either on John’s end or mine, I was never sure – the blog was totally inaccessible. I’m very happy to see it’s back, and I look forward to more content from this quintessentially Oxonian blog.
Earlier this week, I went to the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Bl. John Henry Newman. Fr. Ignatius Harrison, the Provost, was kind enough to open up the Oratory house to me. I must offer him my tremendous thanks for his hospitable willingness to let me see such an incredible (and, it must be said, holy) place. Likewise, I thank Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory for taking time out of his busy schedule to give me what was an extraordinarily memorable tour. I went away from the experience with a rekindled devotion to Cardinal Newman.
There were many striking and beautiful sights at the Oratory – not the least of which was the Pontifical High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, celebrated by His Excellency, Bishop Robert Byrne. Even from so short an experience, I can tell that the Birmingham Oratory is one of the places where Catholicism is done well, where the Beauty of Holiness is made manifest for the edification of all the faithful. I walked away from that Mass feeling drawn upwards into something supernal, something far beyond my ken. This place that so palpably breathes the essence of Cardinal Newman is, as it were, an island of grace and recollection amidst a world—and, sadly, a Church—so often inimical to things of the spirit.
Yet amidst all this splendor, I found myself peculiarly drawn to one very quiet, very easy-to-miss relic. It lies in the little chapel to St. Philip Neri to the left of the altar; in this placement, one can see the influence of the Chiesa Nuova on Newman and his sons, who modeled their house’s customs on Roman models. And so it is only appropriate to find relics of St. Philip there in that small and holy place, so evocative of the great father’s final resting place.
The collection of relics in the chapel are mostly second-class. These are not pieces of the body, but materials that touched St. Philip either in his life or after his death. One of these small items spoke to me in an especially strong way.
The little grey pouch you see to the left is St. Philip’s spectacle case. There is nothing terribly remarkable about it. It may not even be entirely intact, for all I know. A visible layer of dust covers the case, and a hard-to-read, handwritten label is all that identifies its use and provenance. No one comes to the Birmingham Oratory to see what once held St. Philip’s glasses. But of all the glorious relics I saw that day —some encrusted in gold, some taken from rare and holy men, some evoking the perilous lives of saints who lived in a more heroic age—it was this humble artifact that most fired my imagination.
A spectacle case is no great thing. It does not shift the balance of empires or change the course of history. But humility and nobility are close cousins all the same. Here we come upon St. Philip in his quotidian life. A saint so marvelously strange, so crammed with the supernatural, so flame-like in darting from one miracle to another, nevertheless bent his fingers to the perfectly ordinary task of opening this case and taking out his spectacles so that he might see just a little better. It is a true maxim that grace builds upon nature. We have been told of St. Philip’s many graces. Here we find him in his nature; frail and imperfect and in need of just a little aid, so like our own.
The supernatural never erases the natural, and God is never more glorified than in our weakness. The hands that took up this case and opened it and drew forth its contents, perhaps a little fumblingly from time to time, are the very same thaumaturgic hands that lifted a prince out of death and Hell so that he might make his final confession. We know the story of the miracle. How rarely do we ponder the everyday conditions of its operation! How rarely do we consider those hands in their ordinary life.
There is a tendency with St. Philip—as with many saints, and with Our Lord Himself—to reduce his life to one or two features. Some would make him an avuncular chap, always happy to laugh and thoroughly pleasant to be around, a jokester, a picture of joy and friend to all. On the other hand, we can get lost in the extraordinarily colorful miracles that mark St. Philip’s life, losing him in a fog of pious pictures and pablum. Neither captures his essence. The true middle way is to maintain a healthy sense of the bizarre—an approach that recognizes the extraordinary in-breaking of the supernatural precisely because it appreciates the ordinary material of St. Philip’s day-to-day existence. It was this view that Fr. Ignatius himself recommended, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on the “weird,” in his homily delivered last St. Philip’s day.
I was reminded of this double reality when I saw St. Philip’s spectacle case. Prosaic relics carry this two-fold life within them more vividly than those upon which our ancestors’ piety has elaborated in glass and gold. Even Cardinal Newman’s violin case is not so markedly dual in this way; after all, every instrument belongs to that human portion of the supernatural we call “art.” Music, paintings, and other aesthetic forms all lift the human soul out of itself and into another world. In some ways, they are cousins both to Our Lady and to the Sacraments, God’s masterpieces of the sensible creation. Yet a spectacle case—how utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violin—the sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newman—but a spectacle case? Drab as this one is, its beauty comes only from the story it tells, from the life it once served, from the little help it gave its owner in his acquisition of beatitude.
Too often we wish to be God’s violins. In our quest for holiness, we wish to be admired, to cast our voice abroad, to give and seek beauty. These are not necessarily unworthy goals. But they are not the most important thing. Too infrequently do we turn our mind to the spectacle case. All too rarely do we seek our holiness in the gentle, quiet, everyday task of being useful, unnoticed, and present to God precisely when He needs us.
St. Philip knew how to be both, when he needed to be. May we learn to be like him in this as in so many respects.
Many of my readers will know the Venerable Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) for his monumental work of sacramentology and liturgical exegesis, The Liturgical Year. I happened to be perusing a 1908 French edition of the text and came upon Dom Guéranger’s homage to St. Philip Neri in Volume 3 of his Easter writings. Naturally, this discovery was of great interest to me, as I have written before on the similarities between the Oratorian and Benedictine vocations. I thus present to you my own translation of the prayer, found on pages 548-50 in the edition I was using. I hope it may be thought a fair translation of the great monk’s words. At any rate, I have tried to render his prayer in an elevated style worthy to the subject.
Thou didst love the Lord Jesus, O Philip, and thy whole life was nothing but a continuous act of love; but thou didst not wish to enjoy the highest good alone. All thine efforts tended to make Him known by all men, such that all might love Him with thee and thus reach their supreme end. For forty years, thou wast the indefatigable apostle of the holy city, and nothing could subtract from the action of the divine fire that burned in thee. We who are the posterity of those who heard thy words and admired the celestial gifts in thee, we dare to beg of thee to cast thy gaze upon us as well. Teach us to love our Jesus resurrected. It does not suffice for us to adore Him and to rejoice in His triumph; we must love Him: for the train of His mysteries from His Incarnation to His Resurrection have no other aim but revealing to us, in an ever growing light, His divine kindness. It is by loving him ever more that we shall succeed in elevating ourselves to the mystery of His Resurrection, which fulfills in us the revelation of all the riches of His heart. The more He lifts Himself into the new life that He won in leaving His tomb, the more He appears full of love for us, and the more He desires that our hearts should be joined with His. Pray, O Philip, and beg that “our heart and our flesh might quake for the living God” [Ps. 83:2]. After the mystery of Easter, introduce us to that of the Ascension; dispose our hearts to receive the divine Spirit of Pentecost; and when the august mystery of the Eucharist shines before our eyes with all its fires in the solemnity that approaches, thou, O Philip, who didst celebrate it one last time here below, who didst rise at the end of the day to that eternal rest where Jesus shows Himself unveiled, do thou prepare our souls to receive and to taste “the living bread which giveth life to the world” [John 6:33].
The sanctity that shone in thee, O Philip, had as its character the momentum of thy soul towards God, and all those who approached thee soon participated in this disposition that alone could respond to the call of the divine Redeemer. Thou didst know that thou took hold of souls, and thou drovest them to perfection by the way of trust and generosity of heart. In this great work thy method was never to have any method at all, imitating the Apostles and the ancient Fathers, and thou didst trust in the virtue proper to the word of God. By thee the fervent frequenting of the sacraments reappeared as the surest sign of the Christian life. Pray for the faithful, and come to the aid of so many souls who grow restless and exhaust themselves in the paths that the hand of man hast traced, and that too often retard or prevent the intimate union of Creator and creature.
Thou didst most ardently love the Church, O Philip; and this love of the Church is the indispensable sign of sanctity. Thine elevated contemplation did not distract thee from the dolorous lot of this holy Bride of Christ, so tested in the century when thou wast born and died. The efforts of triumphant heresy in so many countries enkindled zeal in thy heart: obtain for us from the Holy Ghost this living sympathy for Catholic Truth that renders us sensible to its defeats and victories. It does not suffice for us to save our souls; we must desire with ardor and aid with all our means the advancement of the Reign of God on earth, the extirpation of heresy, and the exaltation of our mother the holy Church: it is in this condition that we are children of God. By thine examples, O Philip, inspire in us this ardor by which we must totally associate ourselves with the sacred interests of our common mother. Pray as well for the Church Militant which counted thee in her ranks as one of her best soldiers. Serve valiantly the cause of Rome, which holds as an honor the debt owed to thee for so many of thy services. You sanctified her during thy mortal life; hallow her again and defend her from heaven on high.
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.
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.
Today, on the double feast of Our Lady of Ransom and Our Lady of Walsingham, I was blessed to consecrate myself totally to the Mother of God at the Church of her Immaculate Heart, otherwise known as the Brompton Oratory. Thank you to everyone who prayed for me en route to this wonderful occasion. I look upon it as a momentous date, a renewal of my entrance into the Church four years ago,
The date and place are especially meaningful to me. I have long had a devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham, Patroness of England. During the stresses of my final year at Virginia, I entrusted all my major projects–in particular my thesis and my graduate school applications–to her. And over the course of the last few years, my love for St. Philip Neri and his sons has grown into a true devotion to the Oratorian way. Brompton was where that began for me, almost two and a half years ago. I date the start of my friendship with St. Philip to my first overawed trip to the Oratory in 2015. And I pronounced my vow of consecration at the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, a grace that reminded me of all the wonderful Dominicans I have known over the short course of my life as a Catholic.
So thank you to all those who have prayed for me. And please pray still, that I might not forget my vow as the inevitable distractions, delights, and stresses of grad school set in.
Yesterday, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross. Today, naturally, we follow that sorrowful glory of Jesus with the sorrowful glory of Mary. And Crashaw remains our companion. Here is his “Sancta Maria Dolorum; or The Mothers of Sorrows, A Pathetical Descant upon the Devout Plainsong of Stabat Mater Dolorosa.” You can also find the text over here.