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.
Last week was, as readers of this blog will no doubt recall, the Feast of St. Philip Neri. Here in Oxford, we made merry with Choral First Vespers, Solemn Lauds, and a Solemn High Pontifical Mass celebrated by His Grace the Apostolic Nuncio to the Court of St. James’s. Amidst all that wonderful liturgy, the homily preached by Fr. Ignatius Harrison of the Birmingham Oratory was perhaps the most memorable moment. I have heard some excellent preaching before. Fr. Ignatius’s words ranks among the most edifying, sound, and apposite pieces of liturgical rhetoric I have ever heard.
Luckily, the full text has been put online at the Oxford Oratory’s website. It starts with the words, “The 16th century heresiarch, Jean Calvin,” and shoots off like a rocket from there.
I was especially pleased that Fr. Ignatius placed so much emphasis on the strangeness of St. Philip. The good father is, I think, quite correct in noting that this quality has been blunted and misunderstood by many since the early modern period. We are too quick to claim that St. Philip was just some jovial prankster (and I must say, I think Fr. Faber gets closer to the bone here than Newman—perhaps because Fr. Faber was a bit of a holy loon himself). I had actually been intending to write something on this subject. Now I don’t have to, as Fr. Ignatius has put forth the case so completely and so lyrically.
Is it not dodging the issue somewhat to say that Philip was simply humorous? The plain truth is that he was simply – weird. Nevertheless, for several hours every day, in the confessional, at the afternoon oratory, in his street apostolate, his strangeness somehow managed to interact with the everyday world, though never in a way that could be called completely normal. The supernatural and the praeternatural were always manifesting. His interactions with everyday reality were a real effort for him, a departure from the unearthly invisible realm into which the globe of fire had skewed him in the catacombs, and from which he never fully emerged. Towards the end of his life he admitted that he could stop the palpitating and the shaking if he chose to, but if he did so he was unable to pray…In making Philip Neri a temple of the Spirit, God lifted the veil a little. The Lord allowed something of His otherness to be glimpsed.
It reminded me of what first drew me to St. Philip: his strangeness. I recognized in him something completely different than any other saints I knew, something that gently but firmly turned my mind to the supernatural. I liked St. Philip in the same way I liked Flannery O’Connor or even the Traditional Mass. Here was, Fr. Ignatius’s phrase, the “otherness” of God.
Finally, I’ll add that Fr. Ignatius’s homily is certainly timely. Ross Douthat recently responded to the picturesque blasphemies of the 2018 Met Gala with a call to “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” I have argued much the same point before. The phenomenon known as Weird Catholic Twitter, or WCT, has done a surprising amount of work towards grassroots evangelism. And Traditional or even just middling-orthodox orders, those that stand at odds from the world, are getting lots of vocations. I think it would only be reasonable to grant Fr. Ignatius’s point that we err if we “try and simulate the strangeness, as if it were a regular path to holiness.” But surely a pinch of St. Philip’s oddity is inevitable if we are to stand for the way of sanity in a world gone mad. I can’t bring myself to believe that’s a bad thing.
As my readers will well know, St. Philip Neri is my favorite saint and has been for a long while now. I take every opportunity I can to sing his praises on this blog, and today happens to be one of them. In Oxford, we are celebrating the Feast of the Patronage of St. Philip, a local solemnity that honors the canonical erection of the house here as a Congregation of the Oratory. Please pray for the Oxford Fathers on this, their silver jubilee.
Pangamus Nerio, debita cantica
Quem, supra nitidi sydera verticis,
Virtus et meritum sustulit inclytum,
Carpturum pia gaudia.
Noctes sub spectabus, corpora martyrum,
Quas implent, vigilat sedulus integras,
Ex ipsis satagens discere mortuis
Normam qua bene viveret.
Nocte dum Nereus fercula pauperi,
Gestans praecipitat, panniger Angelus
Tecto significat, qualiter excidat
Numquam fervida caritas.
Orantis penetrans cordis in intimum,
Laxavit spatium Spiritus impete
De Coelo veniens, esset ut hospiti
Immenso locus amplior!
Coelorum Domino, dum sacra munera
Libabat Nerius, saepius advolans,
Tellurem rapido corpore deserit,
Christo fiat ut obvius!
Corpus deseruit, cum Deus Hostiae
Fertur sub niveae tegmine conditus,
Prudens, in Patriam, pergere splendide
Nolens absque Viatico.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an English translation (nor the time and energy to translate from the original myself). Alas.
May St. Philip Neri pray for Oxford, for the Oratorians there, and for all of us who call upon him in filial affection.
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.
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.