Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

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!"