St. Philip Neri and the God Who Dwells With Men

The Vision of St. Philip Neri, Giovanni Camillo Sagrestani (Source)

“Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.” – Revelation 21:3

St. Philip’s feast always falls within that sunny period of the Church’s year when, passing from Easter to Ascensiontide and following on to Pentecost and Corpus Christi, we find our days running over with the majesty of these great mysteries. The days grow longer, and so they seem to grow more golden with the ever-descending light of the Holy Ghost. We are in a season of peculiar glory. The culminating lesson of these mysteries is clear: God has made his dwelling among men, and in the midst of His people shall He reign.

St. Philip receives the Holy Ghost while at prayer in the catacombs. (Source)

St. Philip knew this truth well. His whole life could well be described as a journey between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, the two feasts that most clearly teach us of God’s enduring presence in His Church. It was on the Vigil of Pentecost, 1544, that St. Philip received the grace that would define his vocation and the character of his sanctity. While praying in the catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Holy Ghost descended into St. Philip’s heart visibly and sensibly in the form of a ball of fire. This experience, which provided as much heat and pain as rapturous joy, marked the true beginning of St. Philip’s active ministry. In St. Philip, the Holy Ghost once again made His dwelling among men.

St. Philip Neri Receiving the Holy Spirit in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Francesco Solimena (Source)

From then on, St. Philip’s whole life would be marked by a singular union with the Holy Ghost. He became the “tabernacle of the Most High” and a living fountain of graces. His many miracles testify to the indwelling of the Spirit within him. So does his manifest oddity, his clear and salutary estrangement from the ways and works of ordinary men. The prophet writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” So does the Holy Ghost speak from the heart of St. Philip. For this reason, the Church applies the words of St. Paul to the new Apostle of Rome:

The love of God has been poured into our hearts
through the Spirit of God dwelling within us

Introit for the Feast of St. Philip Neri

St. Philip’s priestly life was marked by the overwhelming presence of God. Everything about him spoke to the present reality of the supernatural. This reality took two chief forms. The most famous were the astounding miracles wrought by St. Philip – most notably the raising of Prince Paolo Massimo from the dead. But there was also St. Philip’s profound adoration of the Eucharist. His popularization of the Forty Hours’ Devotion was but the visible extension of his love of the Blessed Sacrament. So too were the Eucharistic ecstasies to which he was increasingly susceptible as he became older. St. Philip knew no sweeter hours than those that he spent at Mass as an old man, kneeling in darkness before the altar, lost in the rarefied heights of a contemplation we can barely begin to fathom.

Engraving of St. Philip Neri, Hieronymus Frezza (Source)

One particularly perceptive observer has written:

In recalling the holiness of Saint Philip, it occurs to me that it was essentially this: he was all priest. He was always and everywhere a priest. His priesthood suffused his very being, making him incandescent with the fire of the Cross and of the altar.

Vultus Christi

St. Philip’s extraordinary endowment with the Spirit was ordered towards his life as a priest – namely, towards the glory of God in the Eucharist. This is the case with all of us. The Spirit, God in us, is given precisely for us to receive the Eucharist, God with us. Confirmation, like all the other sacraments, exists with the Eucharist as its proper telos.

The Mass of St. Philip Neri, Circle of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (Source)

How fitting, then, that St. Philip should pass into eternal life when he did. May the 25th, 1595, was the feast of Corpus Christi. As Fr. Faber has it,

Day set on Rome! its golden morn
Had seen the world’s Creator borne
Around St. Peter’s square
Trembling and weeping all the way,
God’s Vicar with his God that day
Made pageant brave and rare!

“St. Philip’s Death,” F.W. Faber

Providence often grants the saints a Christ-like death. It is a sign that, even in suffering and death, God is still dwelling with us. St. Benedict died in choro during a liturgy, just as Christ died in the fulfillment of His high priesthood. Many martyrdoms were accompanied by strange signs and mystical evocations of the Sacrifice of Christ. It should be no surprise that God would take St. Philip in a similarly edifying manner.

The Death of St. Benedict, F. Rosaspina, 1830, after D.M. Canuti. (Source)

In his death, St. Philip reminds us that we are all meant to imitate Christ in His Sacrifice, that is, in the Blessed Sacrament. There is no more perfect pedagogue in the life of the Spirit than the Son, who has presented Himself to us on all the altars of the world. Would that we might take this lesson to heart!

St. Philip died when he did because, by a singular grace of Providence, God was pleased to mark His servant’s passing with the Church’s celebration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Just as St. Philip honored the Eucharistic God in his life, so did the Eucharistic God honor him in his death.

We, too, can honor the saint best by cleaving to the Lord. St. Philip’s words to a spiritual daughter are as true today as they once were:

“Let us concentrate ourselves so completely in the divine love, and enter so far into the living fountain of wisdom, through the wounded Side of our Incarnate God, that we may deny ourselves and our self-love, and so be unable to find our way out of that Wound again.”

St. Philip Neri

God dwells with us just as He once dwelt in the blessed heart of St. Philip. He comes to us just as He came once to the priestly hands of St. Philip. Let us abide in Him, just as St. Philip did once and does forevermore in the heights of Heaven.

Votive image of St. Philip Neri from the British Museum. As they have it: “St Philip Neri kneeling on a cloud in front of altar; angel to right holding tray with burning hearts and ascending towards Holy Trinity; Virgin Mary mediating surrounded by angels, after Maella. 1801 Engraving, printed on silk.” Note the Eucharist enthroned in a monstrance. (Source)
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St. Philip, the Massimo Miracle, and the Priesthood

The raising of Paolo Massimo (Source).

On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.

We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,

“Paolo…Paolo…”

This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.

We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.

For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.

Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.

We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.

That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.

The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.

St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.

The Charism of Eccentricity

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The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  You can read more about him in my article, “On the Wings of the Dawn – the Lure of the Occult.”

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

Ballyscullion

Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

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Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

Prosaic Relics

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.

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Your humble servant in Cardinal Newman’s own library. Photo taken by Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory. You can see Cardinal Newman’s violin case on the lower shelf of his standing desk at right.

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 worldand, sadly, a Churchso often inimical to things of the spirit.

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The Birmingham Oratory with the relics of the Blessed Cardinal displayed for veneration by the faithful. This photo was taken by the author shortly before Mass.

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.

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The altar of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by the author.

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.

StPhilipsSpectacleCase

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 ageit 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. Philipas with many saints, and with Our Lord Himselfto 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 bizarrean 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 casehow utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violinthe sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newmanbut 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.

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The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.

 

A Carmelite Daughter of St. Philip: The Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

One of my favorite essays to write on this blog so far has been my study of the way that St. Philip Neri embodied certain Benedictine qualities. In that piece, I argue that sometimes we can gain a deeper understanding of a saint by looking at their likenesses with saints of a different religious family or by the influence of other saints in their lives. As an extension of that essay, I’d like to introduce my readers to a Venerable whom they have probably never heard of, one who followed St. Philip in a very Benedictine spirit: the Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

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Ven. Serafina di Dio (1621-1699), Neapolitan Carmelite mystic. (Source)

The Life of a Mystic

Prudenza Pisa was born in the Kingdom of Naples in 1621. She clashed with her father at a young age when she refused to marry the young man he had chosen as her husband. She also cut her hair and donned pentiental garb. These actions did not go over well, and she soon found herself expelled from the household. Prudenza resided during this rather fraught period in what was essentially the family chicken coop. Yet she grew closer to her mother, who brought her meals secretly. Prudenza saw these sufferings as an opportunity for growth in trust of God. She also set herself to the good works of visiting the sick. In the Neapolitan Plagues of 1656, she continued her ministry even as the illness claimed her beloved mother. Her behavior at this terrible juncture was edifying:

Seraphina prepared her mother for death and actually closed her eyes when she died on August 5th 1656. Christian burial was not allowed during the plague. With her own hands, she dug a shallow grave in the backyard and personally buried her mother.

Yet her active life was soon to draw to a close. One of her uncles, a prominent priest, died of the same plague. He had been planning to found a convent of enclosed nuns on Capri. She carried on this noble work after his departure. She gathered together various companions from Naples and, on 29th of May, 1661, took the habit of the Discalced Carmelites at Naples Cathedral. It was then that she took the name of Serafina of God. Later that year, the community moved to Capri. Their residence soon proved inadequate, and they constructed a much larger monastery dedicated to the Most Holy Savior. Mother Serafina’s leadership bore fruit in another six Carmelite convents in the Kingdom of Naples, a remarkable flourishing clearly drawing its power from the Holy Ghost.

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The (very Dominican) arms of Pope Benedict XIII, friend of Ven. Serafina di Dio (Source)

Ven. Serafina was not without trials. Although she wrote an attack on Quietism, she was herself accused of this noxious heresy. For six years, the Inquisition conducted an investigation into her writings and activities. For two, she was confined to her cell without the benefit of Holy Communion. But at last, her name was cleared, in no small part because of the intervention of her friend, Archbishop Vincenzo Maria Orsini, the future Pope Benedict XIII.

There can be little doubt that these troubles arose from within her own religious family. Although Mother Serafina was entirely blameless in conduct, her manner of spiritual leadership won her many enemies among her more lax daughters. Perhaps some of the trouble could have been anticipated from the fact that her recruits were customarily drawn from the ranks of the Neapolitan aristocracy, not a class generally known for its ascetic rigor. The Carmelites treated their foundress poorly. For example, while Serafina was ill in her confinement, she begged to see some of the sisters. They did not come. Yet the patience with which she bore these final trials remains exemplary. As one biographer notes, “Two days before she died she asked the Prioress to look after the sisters who had been so contrary to her, making excuses for their behavior.” This mercy converted the hard of heart, for, as the same writer says, “After her death on March 17, 1699, some of the sisters who were most against her became some of the most enthustiastic promoters of her Cause.”

Spiritual Daughter of St. Philip Neri

An heir of the Tridentine reform, the Ven. Serafina was a great admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, whom she endeavored to emulate in all things. She was a prolific writer, composing at least 2,173 letters and enough theological writing to fill 22 books. Some of her topics included:

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Ven. Serafina writing (Source).

-the prayer of faith
-mental prayer
-the love of God and the practice of the divine presence
-the common life
-conformity to the will of God.

Alas, I don’t believe any of these have been translated into English. Perhaps some intrepid early modernist will someday render these works into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. She went about life with a constant ability to fall into meditation. In Serafina’s own words:

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

The greatest misfortunes could not turn her from the praise of God. For in all things, she perceived the benevolent Providence of God. Her unfailing rule was that “All that God did and allowed was beautiful, good, ordered for our good.” Even the terrible things in life thus became for Serafina an occasion of magnification and blessing.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. At one point, “She was so overwhelmed with her vision of the Godhead that she wondered what else could be reserved for her in heaven.” The experiences she was granted were extraordinary, though she took pains to keep them discreet. Yet we do have letters attesting to some of her ecstasies.

One figure who emerges as particularly important in her religious life is St. Philip Neri. The Oratorian Fr. Francesco Antonio Agnelli tells us that she honored St. Philip by, for instance, devoutly kissing the feet of the crucifix thirty-three times in his honor; she was repaid for this act of love with a vision of the glorified St. Philip prostrate and kissing the feet of Jesus thirty-three times in her name (Agnelli 194).

Serafina’s spiritual father was Fr. Vincenzo Avinatri of the Naples Oratory. She wrote him letters describing the visions she had of St. Philip. In one such letter, she reports that

“I saw the Saint, with the great Mother of God, in a flame of fire, and surrounded with light…with a sweet countenance, he told me many beautiful things…He showed me what his sons ought to be, and the dignity of the Congregation, made, so to speak, in the likeness of God and of the three Divine Persons, and especially of the Person of the Holy Spirit…Without speaking, he had explained to me the perfection we must have in order to be sons of light. It would be a monstrous thing if fire generated snow, if light brought forth darkness, if crystal produced mud…How much greater wonder would it be, if in any of the sons of St. Philip, who are called sons of the Holy Spirit, there should be any defect!” (qtd. in Agnelli 195-96)

In another vision that came to her on the vigil of St. Philip’s day, she was carried way into a heavenly rapture and saw the Saint aflame with a supernal light. And in view of St. Philip, she saw her own heart on fire, as well. But it did not glow as brightly as his; therefore, she prayed to the Saint that she might receive a more perfect and ample share of Divine Love. As Agnelli describes it,

Then the Saint united his heart with hers, and thus united they sent forth a great flame; she felt so much love that she could not express it, and the Saint invited her to rejoice in the presence of the Lord, and to sing His praises, desiring her to repeat with him these words, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis [Holy, holy, holy, great is the Lord and worthy of all praise], adding that it is impossible to find in the most devout Canticles words more pleasing to God. (Agnelli 194-95).

She was thus adopted by the saint as a kind of daughter in the Spirit. She also looked upon Oratorians as her own sons. This spiritual affinity was later attested by a physical resemblance with St. Philip. When an autopsy was conducted on Mother Serafina’s body, the examiners found signs of transverberation in her heart.

It may seem odd for a visionary to become so friendly with St. Philip and his sons. After all, St. Philip himself was notorious for his skepticism when it came to visions. He had treated the Ven. Ursula Benincasa with unrelenting verbal abuse to test her inspiration – a test she passed, even if the holy man never quite came around to endorsing her. St. Philip taught that, “As for those who run after visions, dreams, and the like, we must lay hold of them by the feet and pull them to the ground by force, lest they should fall into the devil’s net.” Though a man of tremendous supernatural gifts himself, he knew that the spiritual world was a minefield of dangers. False visionaries abounded in his day, and his prudent words have retained their perennial wisdom down into our own era.

To properly understand the nature of Ven. Serafina’s visionary mysticism, and why we can properly say it breathes of a Philippine spirit, we must look at it in the context of her leadership of a Carmelite monastery.

A Liturgical Mysticism

The troubles in Serafina’s life began because of her governance. As one biographer has it,

As often happens, Sr. Seraphina’s strongest talents and graces became her heaviest crosses. In her foundations she shared her convictions about religious life with her sisters. She firmly believed that the best guarantee of authenticity of one’s religious experience was a dogged faithfulness to the traditional forms. She was immersed in the church’s liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, and the feasts of the Saints. She was often led to intimate communion with Christ Jesus at the liturgy beginning with the midnight office. She also stressed the need for silence and solitude as requisites for prayer. [emphasis mine – RTY]

Her tenacious devotion to the traditional forms of worship and to the great prayer of the Church, the Liturgy and Divine Office, shows that the Ven. Serafina was in every way a monastic. Indeed, these salutary measures evince a Benedictine sensibility.

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An 18th century portrait of the Ven. Serafina di Dio. Note the prominent place of the Blessed Sacrament in this composition. (Source)

Her ecstasies were not a superfluous and shallow add-on to this liturgical life. She built the house of her prayer upon the rock of tradition, and it was illumined with the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost.

Serafina’s mystical life was tied to her experience of the liturgical calendar. For instance, any of her most profound encounters with St. Philip took place on the vigil and day of his feast (Agnelli 194-95). A cynic would see in this timebound quality a mark of the merely human dimension of religion, a fine example of confirmation bias. But those who have learned of divine things will discover a deeper reality. In Serafina they will see a soul that has grown attuned to the Wisdom of God, made manifest in time through the Incarnation of Christ and the Liturgy of the Church.

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High Altar of the Chiesa Santissimo Salvatore, Capri. Although it has not been a Carmelite monastery since Napoleonic times, this is the altar where the Ven. Serafina would have received communion. (Source)

These are quintessentially sound foundations for the spiritual life. Her strictly liturgical and monastic way engendered serious opposition among her daughters, but it also gave her the strength to bear that opposition with true Christian patience. One can only imagine the terrible suffering that two years without the Blessed Sacrament must have inflicted on such a soul. Yet, by grounding herself in the Liturgy, she was able to nourish that innate trust in Providence already evident in her earliest days. Surely, that sustained her in the darkest days of her old age.

The Long Road to Sainthood

It seems somehow appropriate that, as an adopted daughter of St. Philip, the Ven. Serafina should not yet have been canonized. Many of his spiritual children have had a similar fate. Witness the stalled cases of Ven. Cardinal Cesare Baronius, Bl. Juvenal Ancina, Bl. Anthony Grassi, and Bl. Sebastian Valfre, just to name a few of the many early modern Oratorians who have not yet reached the highest altars of the Church.

Still, we can pray that this Carmelite mystic will one day be recognized as the saint she was. Let us beg her intercession and emulate her profound devotion to the Liturgy of the Church.

UPDATE: A Carmelite friend pointed out to me that Ven. Serafina was in fact not subject to the jurisdiction of either Carmelite order, essentially running independent Carmelite conservatories of oblates in the Discalced habit, following an adaptation of St. Teresa’s constitutions. She was a sort of Carmelite version of St. Francesca Romana. More info can be found in the works of Smet. As such, any use of the Carmelite letters after her name may be inappropriate, but given a) the unusual nature of the case, and b) the difficulty of changing my title and thus invalidating links, I have decided to keep my text as is and merely add this disclaimer.

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May the Ven. Serafina di Dio pray for us! (Source)

“Love is His Bond”

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St. Philip, pray for us. (Source)

The Mass of St. Philip Neri is a little lesson in joy. The propers again and again stress a common theme: namely, the great saint’s joy, built upon his constant and fiery communion with the Holy Ghost. Holy Mother Church lifts her voice and sings in the Introit, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me praise His holy name.” At the Collect, we pray to God to “mercifully grant that we, who rejoice in his solemnity, may be profited by the example of his virtues.” When, in the third reading, we hear of the saint’s overpowering love of “the spirit of wisdom,” we learn as well that “All good things together came to me with her…and I rejoiced in them all” (from Wisdom 7). The Offertory likewise proclaims with the Psalmist, “I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou hast set my heart at liberty” (Ps. 118). Everywhere we turn, we find the joy and freedom that alone springs from communion with the Holy Ghost.

And then we come to a remarkable moment. In the Secret, the priest prays over the offerings,

We beseech Thee, O Lord, favorably to regard these present sacrifices: and grant that the Holy Spirit may inflame us with that fire, wherewith he wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.

The Church has here enshrined a stunning and highly instructive truth. Yet it is easy to miss.

The very heart of St. Philip – that organ claimed so powerfully by the Holy Ghost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, ever converting those sinners with the happy fortune of touching Philip’s breast, inflaming the saint with the deathless ardor of love, bearing such close likeness to those sacred hearts of Christ, Our Lady, and St. Joseph, beloved by generations upon generations – that heart is set up for us here in parallel to the Eucharist. For just as it is the Spirit who will so shortly transform bread into the most holy and eternal heart of Jesus, so it is that same Spirit who made of St. Philip’s heart a “hostia pura, hostia sancta, hostia immaculata.” Christ gives himself entirely to us by the Holy Ghost in the Liturgy, and St. Philip Neri became entirely Christ’s by the arrival of the Holy Ghost in those dark catacombs. To possess the heart is to possess the whole man.

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A plate illustrating the life of St. Philip from a rare 1699 Vita, kindly shown to me and since publicly shared by the Cardiff Oratorians. (Source)

This mutual possession of God and man animates everything for the Christian. The more we are given over to it, the more God allows us to partake of His own life. The more we are His, the more He becomes ours. This spiritual truth was well understood by St. Philip, who enshrined it as the principal of unvowed community life in the Oratory. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter.” This line, written of St. Philip, could apply just as well to Our Savior, Jesus Christ. For it is by His indwelling love that we come to love Him. It is by love that we can join our hearts to His in the Eucharist. It is truly by love that we share “that fire, wherewith [the Holy Spirit] wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.”

The 83rd Psalm comes to the Church’s lips at the Communion. She sings, “My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” These are not only St. Philip’s words, but those of every soul who gives herself over to the indwelling love of God. And at the Postcommunion, the Church prays,

O Lord, who hast fulfilled us with Thy heavenly delights: we beseech Thee, that by the merits of blessed Philip Thy Confessor, and by following him, we may ever earnestly seek after those things whereby we truly live.

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St Philip lived a preeminently liturgical life. (Source)

What are “those things whereby we truly live?” The Holy Ghost, the Eucharist, and prayer – those things, if it be not too blasphemous to speak of them as “things,” which were ever St. Philip’s “heavenly delights.” Or, more properly, that mystic unity of the three in the Liturgy. In his own words, “A man without prayer is like an animal without the use of reason.” And it is surely the grand and orderly and perfect prayer of Christ the Priest and Victim that St. Philip means when he speaks of our super-sensual reason.

What, then, does it mean to “truly live?” If I may be permitted to tie together a few of St. Philip’s maxims, we can discern his own answer to this question:

In the spiritual life there are three degrees: the first may be called the animal life; this is the life of those who run after sensible devotion, which God generally gives to beginners, to allure them onwards by that sweetness to the spiritual life, just as an animal is drawn on by a sensible object. The second degree may be called the human life; this is the life of those who do not experience any sensible sweetness, but by the help of virtue combat their own passions. The third degree may be called the angelic life; this is the life which they come to, who, having been exercised for a long time in the taming of their own passions, receive from God a quiet, tranquil, and almost angelic life, even in this world, feeling no trouble or repugnance in anything. Of these three degrees it is well to persevere in the second, because the Lord will grant the third in His own good time.

A departure from the passions and a cleaving to virtue; mortification mixed with convivial, holy companionship; and above all, an overriding joy.  These are the manifestations of the indwelling love of God. These constitute a life “truly lived.” These are the fragrant flowers accompanying the fruits of the Holy Ghost. “Thou hast set my heart at liberty;” the saint embodies the song of the Offertory.

St. Philip’s life was marked in every way by such a communion with the Holy Ghost, first in a singular and miraculous way in the catacombs, and then again at every Mass. The love of God made him the most perfect model of the very “angelic life” he described to his sons and companions. Those of us privileged enough to count him among our heavenly friends may, by his merciful intercession, hope to share that one Divine Joy he knew so well. May he so pray for us on this, his feast.

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Aparición de la Virgen a San Felipe Neri, Mexico, detail. (Source)

 

A Hymn for St. Philip’s Day

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The Carlo Dolci portrait of St. Philip, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source)

St. Philip’s Picture

Fr. Frederick William Faber of the London Oratory

I.

Saint Philip! I have never known
A Saint as I know thee;
For none have their wills and ways
So plain for men to see.
I live with thee; and in my toil
All day thou hast my part;
And then I come at night to learn
Thy picture off by heart.

II.

O what a prayer thy picture is!
Was Jesus like to thee?
Whence hast thou caught that lovely look
That preaches so to me?
Sermon and prayer thy picture is,
And music to the eye;
Song to the soul, a song that sings
Of whitest purity!

III.

A blessing on thy name, dear Saint!
Blessing from young and old,
Whom thou in Mary’s gallant band
Hast winningly enrolled!
If ever there were poor man’s Saint,
That very Saint art thou!
If ever time were fit for thee,
Dear Saint! That time is now!

IV.

Philip! Strange missioner thou art,
Biding so still at home,
Content if with the evening star
Souls to thy nets will come!
If ever spell could make hard work
Profit and pastime be,
That spell is in thy coaxing ways,
That magic is in thee.

V.

Sweet-faced old Man! For so I dare,
Saint though thou be on high,
To name thee, for thou temptest love
By thy humility.
Sweet-faced old Man! What are thy wiles
With which thou winnest men?
Art thou all saints within thyself?
If not, what art thou then?

VI.

John’s love of Mary thou hast got,
Thy house is Mary’s home;
And then thou hast Paul’s love of souls
With Peter’s love of Rome.
Thy heart, that was so large and strong,
It could not quiet bide;
O was it not like his that beats
Within a wounded side?

VII.

Saint of the over-worked and poor!
Saint of the sad and gay!
Jesus and Mary be with those
Who keep to thy true way!
O bless us, Philip! Saint most dear!
Thine Oratory bless;
And gain for those who seek thee there
The gift of holiness!

My Favorite Hymn to St. Philip Neri

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St. Philip, pray for us (Source)

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.

To celebrate, here is my favorite hymn to the Apostle of Rome – Pangamus Nerio, as sung by the choir of the Birmingham Oratory. It is the vesperal hymn of St. Philip.

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.

Amen.

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.

 

Five Years a Catholic

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May the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary pray for us. (Source)

“To begin and end well, devotion to our Blessed Lady, the Mother of God, is nothing less than indispensable.” – St. Philip Neri, Maxims.

Five years ago, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. The journey since then has been an adventure, to say the least. Not all of it has been good. I’ve continued to make lots of mistakes, often failing in faith, hope, charity, and all the other virtues. Individual Catholics have often disappointed me. There were moments of doubt along the way, and, like the infamous Pillar of Salt, I am no stranger to the occasional backwards glance.

But in reflecting on those five years, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. The many wonderful people I have met – and, more importantly, the graces I have received – have confirmed for me the essential soundness of my choice. I have no regrets. I only wish more people could know the abiding peace that comes with conversion to the Church that Christ established on St. Peter. And having consecrated myself to Mary, I feel as if I have had a new strength in the spiritual life since last Summer.

Thus far, I have dedicated each year to some mystery of the Faith. It is in that same spirit that I consecrate this sixth year of my Catholic life to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. I pray that by her triumphant heart, she will continue to guide me to a more perfect knowledge of Her Father, Son, and Spouse. As St. Philip says, “Our Blessed Lady ought to be our love and consolation.” I hope that she ever will be mine.

And thus on this Good Friday, I beg your prayers and those of the saints, that I might persevere in the faith and grow in the love of God.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray for us.
Our Lady Immaculate, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
St. Philip Neri, pray for us.

Amen.

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The Queen of Heaven. (Source)