Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

School of St. Philip Neri: Stayers at home

The great benefit which the soul derives from retirement and the virtue of silence is clearly shown by the desire which David implored them of God: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth"' and by the admonition of Saint James the Apostle, that he must not esteem himself religious who does not bridle the tongue. "If any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man's religion is vain."

Let us therefore esteem silence to be a most important thing.  The mother of silence is retirement, and Saint Philip, who had to pass his life in the midst of Rome, which seemed opposed to retirement, which is generally only to be found in the deserts, was warned by God, by a special revelation, that he should live like a hermit there.  The Saint obeyed, as did also his companions, of whom F. Pietro Consolini said, that the first Fathers of the Congregation were stayers at home, and that F. Cesare Baronius said  to himself, "Stay at home Cesare," that he might not be unlike the holy Master, who was most careful to stay at home, either in the church or in his cell, and never left the house unless constrained to do so on works of charity.

Though, according to Tarugi, a spiritual man should, like Saint Catherine of Siena, form in his heart a cell, in which to retire frequently when in the midst of worldly occupations; and though, if a man cannot retire into himself and there find that peace which the Holy Spirit gives good consciences, he will never derive it from persons or places; still we should delight in retirement as far as becomes our state, since St. Philip, from his youth up, as far as he could, lived in solitude.  His life was esteemed eremitical, and he was always most addicted to retirement.

Let us mortify ourselves sometimes by imitating the Saint who separated himself from intercourse with men and avoided conversations however innocent.

Silence is connected to retirement, and this, so far as it was in accordance with the Institute, was especially loved by Saint Philip during his whole life.  We should love it, like F. Flaminio Ricci, devoting at least some hours of the day to its observance.

Amongst other innumerable good effects which this silence produced in Saint Philip, we are told that it greatly assisted him in the contemplation of divine things.

To produce another example, F. Alessandro Fedeli greatly loved retirement, prayer and contemplation, in which he found his delight and his advantage.  Brother Battista Flores says of him, "The affection which he bore the exercises of the Oratory made him a friend of silence and solitude, a lover of home and of his room and he disliked to go far from his nest; also that Cardinal Antoniano, who was most familiar with the congregation, used to call him the "Silent one." 

School of St. Philip Neri: Mary, My Love and Consolation

In professing devotion, we must, if we would be conformed to our holy Father Philip, render deep devotion  to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  To this devotion no incitement is necessary, for it promotes itself, since the Virgin Mary is the gate of heaven and the holy Fathers agree in declaring that "None may be saved, except through Mary."  But we must not omit to tell how devoted the holy Master was to her.

Philip, as we shall see, had a tender affection for Mary and spoke of her as a child would a mother.  His was more than a detached devotion; bur rather a relationship that occupied his time and to which he invested so much of himself.  Knowing her importance in his life, Philip sought to give free reign to his love for her; conversing with her through sweet colloquies and by remaining often whole nights in prayer before her image in the many churches of Rome.  

Mary was his constant source of consolation in times of illness and came to attend to him at the time of his death.

This devotion he passed on to his children by teaching them many short prayers and chaplets that could be said repeatedly throughout the day and in the midst of their labors. He guided his penitents to her as a refuge in times of temptation and they often felt consolation merely through the touch of his rosary, which had been said so often.

So frequently had he been the recipient of graces through her, Philip demanded that images of Our Lady should don the altars of the Church.  Indeed, it was through a vision of her having supported the roof the Church which had been badly damaged by fire that disaster was averted. 

Finally, Philip, when referred to as he who established the Congregation of the Oratory, would immediately correct the speaker by saying that Mary was the true Founder and Protector of the Community.

Our Blessed Lady is, as S. Bernard teaches us, the neck by which all spiritual goods descend from Christ the head, into the mystical body of the Holy Church. Philip, therefore, was so devoted to her, that he had her name continually in his mouth, calling her his love and his consolation, and preaching her up everywhere as the dispensatrix of all the graces which the goodness of God concedes to the sons of Adam. His affection towards her was so tender, that he used to speak of her as little children speak of their mother, calling her, “Mamma mia.” He frequently visited her images in the churches of Rome, remaining before them a long while, giving vent and relief to the fulness of his devotion towards her. He often spent whole nights in his prayers, indulging in the sweetest colloquies with her. He was once seriously ill at S. Girolamo della Carità, and the physicians had ordered that he should not be left alone at night, but that some one should remain always in the room with him. One night Father Giovanni Antonio Lucci sat up with him; and as it was summer, and the room extremely small, the heat was so intense that he did not think he could persevere at his post during the night, and, therefore, went to his duty with no good will. Nevertheless he spent the time with so much sweetness and satisfaction, that when the Ave Maria rang in the morning, he thought it was the evening Ave, the night had passed so quickly; for in fact, the Saint not supposing that there was any one to hear him, did nothing but converse with our Blessed Lady in such affectionate terms, that it actually seemed as if she was present, and discoursing with him face to face.

He had also two ejaculations which he was continually making in her honour. The first was, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me,” sometimes lengthened thus, “Pray to Jesus thy Son for me a sinner:” the second was simply, “Virgin Mother;” for he said that in these words all the possible praises of the Madonna were briefly comprised; because, first of all, she was called by her name Mary, and those two great titles were given her of Virgin and Mother, and then that other unspeakable one of Mother of God; and lastly, the most holy fruit of her womb was named,- Jesus, the bare mention of which name has power to soften and melt the heart. Of those two prayers he taught his penitents to make a chaplet, repeating one or other of them sixty-three times, with the Pater Noster, to the great profit of their souls. He himself carried beads almost always in his hand, in order to use this devotion, which was so acceptable to the Divine Goodness, that many of those who used it confessed that it was a singular aid to them in their temptations. A layman of our congregation was very much molested by evil thoughts about our Blessed Lady’s virginity; he mentioned his temptation to the Saint, who proposed this devotion to him as a remedy; he obeyed, and in a short time was entirely freed from that annoyance.

Philip professed that he had received infinite favours from our Blessed Lady, and particularly that in praying before an image of her he was delivered from many horrible things with which the devil attempted to frighten him. He had a grateful remembrance of these benefits which he had received from her; and when they were erecting the altars in the church, he ordered that a mystery of our Saviour should be painted on each of them, and that the Madonna was to appear in the mystery. So after the beatification of the Saint, when the fathers had to expose his picture in his chapel, they decided that the picture of our Blessed Lady should be painted there, because they remembered how, like another S. Bernardino of Siena, he was enamoured of her.

While they were building the church, Giovanni Antonio Lucci, who superintended the work, had left a piece of roof above a part of the old church, where there was an ancient picture of our Blessed Lady, very devotional, the same which is now at the high altar. He had done this in order that mass might be said under it, and the Blessed Sacrament reserved. One morning the holy father sent for him in great haste, and ordered him to have the roof taken off immediately, because he had seen that it would have fallen that very night just passed, if the glorious Virgin had not held it up with her own hands. Giovanni Antonio immediately went with some workmen to execute the obedience, and found that the principal beam had started from the wall, and was apparently self-supported in the air, so that all who saw it cried out, “A miracle! a miracle!”

Our Blessed Lady corresponded to the devotion of Philip, in giving him a church dedicated in her most Holy name, that the son who was so devoted to her might not be removed from his mother; and before he died she favoured him with that wonderful apparition of which we shall speak fully in its place, and which left him so full of sweetness, and of devotion towards her, that during the short time that he survived, he could never satiate himself with crying out over and over again, “O my sons, be devoted to the Madonna, be devotees of Mary!”

Monday, June 1, 2015

School of St. Philip Neri: Not he who shall begin, but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved

We continue during this 500th anniversary of St. Philip Neri's birth to consider his life and teachings.  In the most gentle and thoughtful fashion, Philip sought to revitalize the faith of Catholics that had grown slack from neglect and from lack of guidance.  He had the capacity to present the fullness of the spiritual traditions of the Church in the most appealing manner.  Rooted in experience and common sense, Philip's teaching was both accessible and practical.  

Such is the topic at hand: Perseverance.  Having begun the spiritual life or even appearing to have made great strides is of little consequence.  The important thing is to persevere to the end of one's life.  This means to be measured in one's thinking and action, making use of discretion and understanding that spiritual development and growth does not take place in a day.  It is a great labor we undertake and those lacking wisdom and prudence will often quit the course.  

Beyond this, the path must not be taken alone but rather with a trusted guide and Confessor.  The most important of these guides who nurtures us and educates us in the mysteries of the faith is Mary, the Mother of God.  

Our food for the journey must be the grace of the Sacraments, in particular frequent confession and daily Mass whenever there is no impediment to such discipline.  

While never relinquishing our resolutions, Philip counsels moderation in the spiritual disciplines we take upon ourselves; always sure never to overestimate our strength.  It is better to attend to those practices well tried and that will bear fruit for us in time. 

Finally, it is love of the virtues pursued that bring us to the desired end.  We must hold on in the struggle and in the midst of failures; not seeking consolation for ourselves but rather to please God who alone can bring us to a happy end.

The principal lesson which the holy Father gave, and which he frequently repeated as the most important since the fulfillment of all the rest depends upon it, was the necessity of holy perseverance. Therefore, let these words of Christ, which St. Philip had constantly in his mouth sink into our hearts, and be indelibly impressed upon them: "Not he who shall begin, but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved."  The holy Father used to say that to begin to walk in the spiritual life was no great matter, but that perseverance was the important thing.


Saint Philip declares discretion to be the best means for attaining holy perseverance and perfection.  Therefore, we must not wish to do everything in one day, nor desire to become saints in four days, since perfection cannot be acquired without great labor.  The Saint used to laugh at people who, having a little spirituality, think it a great thing, and said that it seemed to him more difficult to moderate those who wish to do too much, than to excite those who do too little.

The holy Master exhorts us continually to entreat the Lord, of His goodness, to grant us this gift of perseverance, and we may say, every day, five Paters and five Aves,  which the holy Father introduced into evening prayers of the Oratory, that His Divine Majesty may grant us perseverance in His holy service.

The Saint declared that for the acquisition of this holy gift of perseverance, perseverance in prayer is one of the best means, as also the never leaving a Confessor after having once chosen him with mature deliberation and much prayer.

He exhorts us to have a devotion to the Most Holy Mother of God, this devotion being, as he says, necessary to our beginning and ending well.  For this same end of perseverance, the holy Master exhorts us to hear Mass every morning when there is no impediment.  Let us frequently renew our good resolutions, nor ever relinquish them, whatever temptations may arise.

The Saint says that it is not well to burden ourself with many spiritual exercises, adding that some persons by degrees take up the practice of saying so many rosaries and offices, that, after a time, they grow weary and discontinue them, or, if they continue, say them without devotion.  He counsels us to take a little upon us, but never to intermit that little, for if the devil can induce us only to omit an exercise, he can easily make us omit a second, and then a third, till at last we come to do nothing; therefore, Saint Philip goes on to say, "Do not let a day pass without doing some good during it."  We must not pass over our devotions on every slight occasion.

As to young persons, the holy Father says that it is necessary to their perseverance in virtue that they should avoid evil deeds and accompany their good practices by the frequent use of the Sacraments.   Nor must we readily believe them when they show great spirituality, for, when Saint Philip was told of some young people who seemed to walk well in the spiritual way, he replied, "Let them be fledged, and we shall then see how they shall fly," adding that he would undertake to lead a person into great spirituality, but that perseverance was the important thing.


Saint Philip exhorts us to guard against small faults, and gives this as a reason for doing so, that if we once begin to go back and despise those faults, the conscience becomes bloated, and all goes to ruin.

We must frequent the holy Sacraments and never omit confession on the appointed days.  We should hear Mass every morning when there is no impediment to our doing so; and this, as has been said, is one of the means of obtaining perseverance.  We must read spiritual books, especially the Lives of the Saints.  We must frequent the Oratory, which means that we must persevere in its exercises . . . 


Our loving and holy Father Philip urges us to persevere through motives of love, and encourages us by these words: "By persevering in contending against our own passions, for the love of virtue, without experiencing any sensible sweetness, we shall in time, even in this world, attain to a tranquil, quiet, and all but angelic life, without feeling trouble or anxiety at anything whatever.  

But the inestimable gains of persevering do not terminate here, for the holy Father adds a declaration which should continually excite us to holy perseverance: "The Lord," says the Saint, "never sends death to a spiritual man without first making him aware of it, and sending him an extraordinary measure of spirituality."  Hence F. Giovanni Matteo Ancina, in his last illness, exhorted those who visited him to lead good lives, "for," said he, "if we do not send before us the light of good works, we shall find ourselves in the dark at the hour of death."

The School of St. Philip Neri
Giuseppe Crispino

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Cowards are the Victors": St. Philip Neri on Chastity

Once again St. Philip Neri proves to be the best of spiritual guides; particularly regarding his teachings on the struggle for chastity.  Philip sought to maintain purity throughout the whole course of his life (at times through rather rigorous means) and kept unsullied the gift of his virginity.  Despite his rigor, Philip did not suffer from scrupulosity; nor did he have a negative view of the human person or sexuality.  Rather, he humbly understood the power of human desire and relentless nature of temptations that arise from the appetites.  If he gave himself no leeway in maintaining strict mental and physical discipline and seemed not merely reserved in his relationships with members of the opposite sex but one might say severe, it was because he knew that no matter what age or how pure of heart one might be that the devil will never miss an opportunity to stir the bodily appetites which are a part of the human experience.

Philip held the virtue of Chastity in the highest regard and the quest for purity of heart as the immediate and essential aim of the spiritual life; so much so that he held no one in esteem (even the seemingly virtuous) if they were at all unchaste.  His teaching was simple and straightforward, yet not easy.  There are three kinds of temptations against purity: "one from the devil, which is overcome by prayer, another which arises from excess in eating, which is overcome by abstinence; and a third which arises from looking at women and conversing with them, and this is overcome by shunning occasions of sin, chiefly by bridling the sight."  Below, we have the fitting remedies for all these temptations as taught by St. Philip

Again, the thinking and language behind these teachings may seem coarse and severe but we must remember what Philip himself offered as a reason for this: "All sins displease God, but most of all those contrary to purity, and they are very difficult to cure."  Beyond this, it is helpful to understand that his understanding was shaped by the desert fathers, in particular St. John Cassian, who placed purity of heart as the immediate aim of the spiritual life; for through it and through maintaining physical chastity one develops a greater freedom in loving God and others.  It is in rigorously purifying the passions that desire becomes rightly ordered and with it the capacity for true intimacy.


We must be vigilantly diligent in avoiding occasions of sin, for Saint Philip reminds us of that doctrine so much inculcated by the Saints, that whereas some temptations are vanquished by conflict, and others by contempt, temptations against purity can only be overcome by flight.  Our Saint, therefore, used to say that in this conflict, cowards are the most secure, because in the wars of this world, cowards fly.

We must scrupulously observe custody of the eyes, which the Saint did in such a manner that he did not look at women even in the confessional, as was attested by a most beautiful penitent of his, who delcared that during the thirty years in which he had been her Confessor, she had never perceived that he had looked at her once.  Now as the Saint was ordained a Priest at the age of thirty-six, he must then have been nearly seventy years of age; whence we may draw some other instructions which he inculcated, saying, "Whilst a man can raise his eyelids, he should not trust in any age."


The instructions of the holy Master for the preservation of chastity are as follows.

1. Be humble; for the Saint declares humility to be the true safeguard of chastity; so that we must endeavor to pursue this virtue in an especial manner.

2. You need a good and experienced confessor.

3. Be frequent in prayer.

4. Use this ejaculation: "I trust in God, I trust in the goodness of God."

5. Often say from the heart, "O Lord, trust not in me; for if Thou help me not, I shall surely fall:" or "O Lord, look for nought but evil from me."

6. Frequent the holy Sacraments.

Use of the ejaculation which Saint Philip teaches us to use under sensual temptations: "O Virgin Mary, Mother of God! pray to Jesus, thy Son, for me a sinner.  Virgin and Mother!" for all who have used it have found it very efficacious.

We should have a particular affection for those Saints who have been distinguished for purity, as F. Gallonio had, who, by the counsel of the holy Master undertook from devotion to write histories of the Roman Virgins, and derived great spiritual profit from his labors.

This is another motive for affectionate devotion to the Saint, who gives us this further advice: "When we hear of anyone's fall, we must excite ourselves to compassion and not to anger;" for he said that one of the best means of keeping ourselves chaste is to have compassion on those who fall through frailty; never to boast of our own escapes, but humbly to refer all to the mercy of God; and he assures us that want of compassion in such cases is the sure presage of a fall.

In regard to nocturnal tempations, the holy Father exhorts us, when going to bed, to say the hymn "Te lucis ante terminum," adding that he always said it when he went to bed.

The holy Father especially warns us against feeding the body delicately: this the Saint also taught by his actions, for he mortified his flesh by abstinence - one of the principal helps for maintaining the preserving purity; and for the same purpose it will be very desirable to take the discipline three times a week, as prescribed by Saint Philip to the members of the Congregation and to the brothers of the external Oratory.  This was confirmed by the saying of Marcello Ferri, his spiritual son, who, asking Saint Philip how he could possess chastity, "Master, what must I do to possess chastity?" the Saint replied that he must mortify the flesh; and for this purpose, he showed him the iron chains with which he disciplined himself.


To certain temptations which present themselves to the mind in this manner: "If you had such a facility or such an opportunity of offending against modesty, what would you do?" the holy Master counsels us to reply, "I do not know what I would do; but I know well what I ought to do:" and he commends this manner of reply more than saying absolutely, "I would not do it; I would not say it," because this would be to have presumption in ourselves.

When we feel tempted, let us have recourse to the powerful means of holy prayer, by which Saint Philip overcame, and by his example instructs us to do likewise; as once, when passing the Colosseum, as the Sacred Legend tells us, the devil tried to raise filthy images in his mind; but, having recourse to his usual remedy of prayer, he remained victor in the battle.  "When," says the Saint, "a man feels temptation, let him have recourse to the Lord, devoutly repeating that ejaculation so much esteemed by the holy Fathers of the desert,  "O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me;" or this verse, "Create a clean heart within me, O God, and renew a right spirit within my bowels."

1. Kiss the ground.

2. Fly from idleness as far as you are able.

The holy Master also prescribes that, when a temptation arises, the person should call to mind his former consolations in prayer, by doing which he will easily surmount the temptation.

He should disclose his thoughts to his Confessor with all freedom, for this the holy Master declares to be a sovereign means for the preservation of chastity; for, by disclosure to the physician, the wound is healed.

An excellent and powerful remedy in these attacks is to invoke the aid of our loving Father Saint Philip, since many, by conversing with him, preserved their chastity, and very many received the same grace when the Saint only drew them to his breast.

F. Antonio Gallonio, who was always free from sensual temptations, said that the holy old man used to pinch him here and there on his sides with such force as to give him great pain; and he thought that he had received this great favor from the touch of his holy hands; also by threatening the tempter that they would accuse him to Saint Philip, his spiritual children were completely freed from these temptations.

In doing this, they executed a counsel which he had given them, and which all his devoted children may imagine to be addressed to themselves.  The counsel is this: "When you feel yourself tempted in such a manner, say to the devil, "I will accuse you to Philip;" and that the temptations then ceased.

He warned them, however, to repeat these words simply, and without reasoning, knowing how much the devil fears words spoken in faith and holy simplicity.

Now, if our Saint was so powerful on earth, how far more so must he be in Heaven!  Surely there he can obtain for us the effects of this and other instructions which flowed from his mouth, so that in our need we may invoke his help in the following manner:

"To thee, O holy and Virgin Father, to whom the noxious vice of impurity was so displeasing, I thine unworthy servant commend myself, imploring they powerful help.  Behold, the enemy assails me; already he begins to increase the number of his burning goads and piercing shafts; I accuse him to thee, I invoke thy miraculous name, Philip, Philip!  Now is the time to give the aid of thy powerful patronage to my soul, which is in danger of falling into the hands of the filthy enemy.  Defend it, holy Father, for thou canst do so."

Giuseppe Crispano

The School of Saint Philip Neri

Sunday, April 5, 2015

From Emptiness to Joy

When I first read our gospel today, it left me with a rather peculiar feeling.  The mood of the whole scene is very somber and grave:  Not at all consistent with the spirit we have become accustom to on Easter Sunday.   The focus is not on the risen Christ, but on the empty tomb and the bewilderment of Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and John.  To be honest, my first inclination was to disregard the ominous character of the gospel, and focus instead upon perhaps something more joyous - something more compatible with our understanding of this special day.  But I kept being pulled back to the experience of these three people and its meaning.  I began to understand that there is something here that we must grasp if we desire to know the full joy of the Resurrection.

Magdalene had watched the dead body of her Lord being put into the tomb, the stone being rolled into place and sealed; a sober, almost brutal fact.  The Lord and his love had suddenly been made inaccessible to her.  In almost a pitiful manner, she came to the tomb in spite of the fact that all reason for doing so seemed to have disappeared.  His death was a very real end and his entombment nothing less than an utter annihilation of hope.  The one who had healed her, freed her, the one in whom she had placed her faith, was gone.  The emptiness of the tomb at her arrival only added to her sorrow - she was prevented now from even performing a final act of love by anointing the body of her Lord.

In desperation she ran to witness to this emptiness.  She ran to others who would surely share her horror, her desolation, her loss.   Not only had their Lord be taken from them in life, but now also in death.

Peter and John ran together.  Peter, who had at one time seen the truth about Jesus so clearly, now found himself running in confusion to an empty tomb; carrying on his shoulders the guilt of his betrayal of the Lord. He could only run slowly and with a heavy tread - as one utterly distraught and painfully aware of his own inadequacy as a human being.  The Lord had given him a special place among his followers and his knees buckled beneath the weight of responsibility.  The demands of the truth were too heavy to bear.

John came to the tomb as one who had known a special closeness with the Lord and even though they have been separated in death he still ran with the swiftness of a friend when summoned.  Although in sorrow, he was still driven by his love for the Lord.  Yet, arriving at the tomb he did not go in, for the Lord was not there.  He yearned for the love that only the Lord could bring, but the tomb stood as empty as his heart.

For all three, the Lord's life among them had opened them up to an unparalleled experience forgiveness, truth and love; Without him it all disappeared into thin air.  At his death they were not only deprived of his presence, but their lives were suddenly empty of hope, meaning and humanity.   

Each of them knew painfully what the loss of their Lord meant.  But it was precisely out of the experience of their emptiness, captured so completely in the image of the empty tomb, that they would be able to testify to the fullness of the resurrection. 

On some level, all of us have experienced such an emptiness in our lives. Perhaps it is the void left by the death of one close to you, the knowledge that no one can fill that empty space within your heart.   It can be the hollowness of loveless marriage, a relationship that has grown as cold as the grave.   Or maybe you know the emptiness of having betrayed another, the feeling that nothing can restore your personal integrity.  You may even carry within you a nameless void that you search desperately to fill with things, people, or work; but to no avail.

It is then that the experience of Mary Magdalene, Peter and John speak most clearly to us.  They show us, they remind us all of the futility of life, the uselessness of hope, the vanity of faith - - without Christ.  They do this that we may know and truly understand the blessing and joy that comes from hearing and believing:  "He is risen!"