Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Strive to enter the narrow gate

        The tone of our gospel today is rather terse and ominous.  But, as always, Jesus speaks not as a pessimist but as a realist.  He may tell us the sad truth; but he offers it as an invitation to choose something better for ourselves - and invitation to change our direction.  The truth may not be pleasant or easy, but if accepted and followed will lead us to freedom. 
       We hear today that the entrance gate to the kingdom is narrow and there are few of us who find it and fewer still who choose to travel the rough road to life.  Jesus declares, in no uncertain terms, that entry to the kingdom can never be automatic, but is the result of a struggle.  "Keep on striving to enter," he says. The word for striving is the word from which the English word agony is derived.  The struggle to "enter" is so intense that it can be described as an agony of soul and spirit.
      As professed Christians, then, we run a certain danger.  We can deceive ourselves.  The name Christian alone can create a false sense of security - as though granting us instant access to the kingdom.   But the reality is that many who seek to gain entrance will be shut out - - much to their surprise.  They will be so surprised, Jesus tells us, that they will begin to defend themselves: "We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." These words couldn't be more challenging for us as Catholics, for many of us will undoubtedly seek to defend ourselves in the same manner: "We ate and drank in your presence, we have received the Eucharist.  Every Sunday, sometimes more often, we listened to your word as it has been proclaimed to us."
      Yet, as with those in the gospel, we may be unaware that we often eat and drink to our own condemnation.  We may show by the way we live our lives that we have not embraced Christ's teaching, that we prefer what this world has to offer over the kingdom, that our faith is a sham.  Perhaps our actions have made us unrecognizable as children of God.  Maybe the only response God will be able to give us is: "Depart from me all you who are workers of iniquity," because that is what we have been and made ourselves.

        What Jesus wants us to understand in all of this is the dramatic quality of our lives and our choices.  God desires our salvation.  The path has already been marked out: Christ is the Way, the sure road, into the actual living presence of the Creator.  But we alone decide the way our soul shall go.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

St. Philip Neri on Conversation

It is in the common elements of daily life that sanctity is gained or lost.  St. Philip Neri was particularly conscious of this and so was attentive to things such as conversation, which is the topic of the following conference.  Truthfulness, sincerity, honesty, humility and patience were all to be guarded in one's speech.  This can be difficult given that we tend in our day to view sins of speech a small matters.  In an age when conversation is marked crassness, sarcasm, exaggeration, vanity, duplicity and vulgarity, we must be particularly vigilant.  Philip once again proves to be a master teacher in this regard; setting the example for his disciples.

Philip was sparing in his speech - never giving way to idle conversations and speaking little and simply so as not to put on airs or draw attention to himself or his gifts.  As a lover of silence, he avoided discussion about new or curious things or matters of politics and litigation.  He would remind others at such times that "adversity befalls us because of our sins" and that they would do well to remedy these while giving no attention to the rest.

Propriety and modesty were to be practice so as not to lead oneself or others into what is profane.  Never should purity of heart be sacrificed for the sake of clarity or under the pretense of condemning vice.  Nor should one for a moment jeopardize his own spiritual state by remaining in the company of those who use obscenities in their speech.

When engaging others, we should rather always seek to guide the discussion to spiritual matters and for their and our edification; such as Paradise or the Passion of our Lord.  Yet, even here we must avoid all honor, singularity, and applause but approach these matters with humility and simplicity.  One must guard against seeking a reputation for being spiritual and avoid drawing undue attention to themselves.  Let all ostentation be an enemy.  We must instead "love to be unknown and to be accounted as nothing."

Truth must always be spoken even when it tells against us.  Fear of loss of reputation or esteem in the eyes of others should not be our concern but rather love of the truth.  If we question anything it should be our own perception of the truth.  When vexed and harmed by the actions of others, we must be quick to excuse them or attribute such things to ignorance; guarding our good opinion of the other and trusting that God in His providence works through the frailty of others for the good.

Whenever we have to speak to anyone, whatever their social status, let us follow the example of Saint Philip, who could not endure to receive honor, and would not allow anyone to stand uncovered in his presence.

Let us imitate the playfulness of the holy Master in speaking, and the truthfulness and sincerity of his conversation, for he disliked dealing with double-faced persons who were not genuine and sincere in their transactions.  Let our words be without affectation, which the Saint greatly abhorred.

Let us, as did the Saint, avoid all secular ceremonies and courtly compliments, showing ourselves to be, like him, the friends of Christian simplicity.  Our Saint was sometimes observed not to give a title, but a simple "you" to persons of rank, and not to attend them to the stairs when they came to visit him.  Baronius was consequently an enemy to compliments and courtly etiquettes and many times corrected his secretary from writing too elegantly.

It will be commendable in us to speak little and of necessary things, thus to imitate the holy Father, of whom Marcello Ferri says, "During the forty-three years that I was his unworthy spiritual child, I never heard him utter an unnecessary word in any of his conversations."  This was noticeable by F. Giovenale, in whose own mouth there was never found an idle or unnecessary word.  His brother, Giovanni Matteo, also spoke little and simply.

F. Antonio Gallon gives us a bright example of modesty in speaking, for, having well copied the example of Saint Philip, it is said in his life that his modesty was so great that more could not be desired in a young virgin.

Let us avoid idle and useless discourses, as conversations about new and curious things, following the example of F. Giovanni Matteo, who loved silence, and the little which he said was always on spiritual subjects, for he always gracefully changed useless conversations.  When the topic was war, litigation, or any such matter, he endeavored to make the speakers understand that "adversity befalls us on account of our sins", and that they should try to remedy this, and give themselves no trouble about the rest.

Brother Giovanni Battista Guerra was very careful not to lose his time in idle conversation.  It is also related of a disciple, a lay-brother of the Congregation, that in the business of his office he never intermitted his spiritual exercises, but, excluding all conversation on idle, new, or useless subjects, he always had some devout prayer in his mouth; and that he especially used to sing a song taught him by Saint Philip:
By deeds, by deeds, not words alone
Shall we our God's dear law fulfill;
A pure desire will reach His throne,
But deeds are incense sweeter still.

We must be careful not to utter profane words, remembering that no word that bore the least shadow  of impropriety ever issued from the saintly mouth of our holy Father.  Neither, when sick, did he express any necessity which could not have been uttered with propriety.

This holy modesty is especially mentioned by F. Pietro Consoling, whose conversation was far removed from all profaneness; he could not endure that the least indelicate word should be uttered in his presence, citing this counsel of the Apostle, "But obscenity, and all uncleanness,  . . . let it not so much as be named among you."  Above all, he detested the imprudence of those preachers who, under the pretense of blaming vice, use words which are not perfectly delicate, adding that had Saint Philip heard any of his people fall into any such imprudence, he would have publicly interrupted him in his discourse.  The holy father once forbade an intimate acquaintance ever to come again into his presence, simply because he had uttered an indecent word before him.

Our discourse must be of spiritual things, and our desire to produce spiritual fruit in our hearers, for our glorious Saint, when young and a layman, greatly desired the spiritual good of his neighbor, and endeavored to procure it.  So, when going to the squares or shops, he began gracefully to discourse on spiritual things with all persons, saying,, "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" persuading them to fly from sin and avoid dangerous occasions and practices.

Germanico Fedeli says that he spoke in public, and in private, on subjects calculated to excite the affections, as of Paradise, of the Passion and death of Christ, and of the love which He bore to man.  We have seen above the declaration of Marcello Ferro, that for forty three years he had never heard a single word that was not spiritual proceed from the lips of Saint Philip.

After this most profitable example, those who are devoted to Saint Philip, particularly priests, should avail themselves of whatever opportunities may occur to introduce spiritual conversation, which is so effectual that was tried by the disciples of the Saint - for instance, by F. Giovenale, by whose familiar conversations God wrought the daily conversion of sinners.

Besides which, such conversations excite fervor in our own souls, as is related of the Saint, who discoursed familiarly on the things of God, with the associates of the Confraternity of the Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, thus inflaming each other with the desire of Christian perfection.  In practicing this important instruction, we must conform ourselves to the example of Saint Philip, who, when he discoursed on spiritual subjects, was observed to be altogether mortified and of a humble and meek spirit.

Although we are to avoid idle and profane conversation, and our discourse must only be of virtuous and profitable things, we must, nevertheless, know that Saint Philip, in order to avoid that honor and applause which he abhorred as a pestilence, did not generally converse on spiritual subjects with persons who had the reputation of being spiritual, excepting when they asked his counsel; nor did he speak of letters with literary men.

F. Pietro Consolini, Saint Philip's true imitator, was most sparing in speaking of spiritual matters, especially with spiritual people, and if others spoke to him of them, he would pleasantly change the discourse.  He sincerely thought himself unable to enlighten others, and well knew that we often come away from such conversations vain of ourselves and advanced in the esteem of our hearers, and that the end of such discourse is generally rather to gain credit  for our own spirituality than to profit by that of our companion.  A novice having one day by his importunity extracted from him some instructions respecting prayer, he had hardly gratified him, when he felt remorse at having done so, and said, "Poor me!  What nonsense you have made me talk! you have bewitched me:" thus confounding himself for having spoken of what he did not understand; and when someone said to him that we must sometimes introduce spiritual conversation for the good of our neighbor, he replied that we must procure for our neighbor's good by prayer at the foot of the Crucifix, and by penances, and not by fine words and playing the master.  He further confessed that he could not understand how someone who had hardly entered on the spiritual life assumed a magisterial gravity, which he said would hardly be becoming in Saint Basil the Great.

Let all ostentation be rejected by us, and let us observe the maxim of our Saint, that the true servant of God must not boast of his knowledge.  The Saint himself, in conversation, studiously avoided ostentation, of which he was the decided enemy.
When we have to speak and give particular replies to the questions which may be put to us, we must, with all care and study, conceal our talents, profiting by that saying of Saint Philip, "The true servant of God should try to attain knowledge, but not to display it."  

This was the practice of the Saint himself, who, when asked to give counsel, gave such replies that they seemed, as it were, given at random, but, nevertheless, were given with great judgment and on the most solid grounds.  Cardinal Ottavio Bandini thus said, "he was so candid a man, and so pure in his conversation, that often, through the freedom that he used, and the simplicity of his words movements and gestures, he seemed to be in jest; but when you reflected on what he had said, you would discover that all was spirituality and Christian cheerfulness."

In fact, he used every means to conceal his spirit, and, some years before his death, having given up public discourses because he melted into tears like wax before fire, he said that he did not know how to preach, because he had not the talent. He was also wont to cover his knowledge with the mantle of stupidity.

Let us, as far as we can, avoid speaking of ourselves without necessity, regulating ourselves by the example of the Saint, who always abhorred speaking of himself unnecessarily, and was never accustomed to say, "I said," or, "I did."

He especially exhorts us not to display what is good in ourselves, whether in jest or in earnest.  Still more must we avoid contending with those to whom we speak, and must never insist on our own opinion, for the holy Master was the capital enemy of emulation and contention.

When questioned, it will be an excellent thing, before answering, to raise our minds up to God, that He may suggest our replies, since the Saint, when questioned, never replied to anyone without previously praying interiorly.

The skill of F. Antonio Gallonio in concealing his talents in conversation was very great, for though he was versed in the sciences, and had such a lively genius and such application to study, that at the age of eighteen he was master and reader in Theology, yet out of love for that "To be unknown and to be accounted as nothing" so much insisted on by our holy Master, after he entered the Congregation, he shrouded his knowledge from the eyes of others, occasionally speaking of scientific matters in improper terms like an ignorant person, so that many really supposed him to be a man of little learning, and others that he hardly knew the Latin language, which was exactly what he wanted.  And, to increase this idea of his ignorance, he used to keep his books in a closed case, that no one might judge of his capacity by seeing them.  

F. Giulio Savioli was the same, for he always abhorred and changed any conversation which redounded to his own praise, and, to those who did not know his family, used to say that he was a poor priest from the province of Padua.

Neither must we on any account omit to cite the example of F. Pietro Consolini; in imitation of this great Father, we must divert the conversation  from subjects on which we have experience and on which we can speak with credit to ourselves, since he not only never discussed on scientific subjects, but changed the conversation when other introduced them, though he was most accomplished in human literature, in philosophy, in medicine, in theology, in the Sacred Scriptures, in ecclesiastical history, in Hebrew, in Greek, and in every kind of knowledge, and he did all this in order to conceal his talents.

We should use the method adopted by F. Pietro himself for turning away such discourse, who used, on occasions in which recreation and conversation could not be avoided, to have six or seven occurrences which had taken place in Rome many years before, and these he used to relate, whether a-propos or not, and perhaps twenty times or more to those who had not heard them, thus at once mortifying himself and others.

When compelled to make some reply, we may still conceal our talents, imitating the same F. Pietro, who, when requested to give some spiritual instruction, used to say, "My son, go to your Father Confessor; go to Ananias; he can tell you what is right better than I;" but when he felt himself obliged to give some instruction, he would say, "I remember that the holy Father did so and so in such a case," or "I think, had you asked the holy Father, he would have replied;" thus concealing that he himself was the author of the counsel.

We must above all things be careful not to tell lies, of which the Saint was the capital enemy, and expressly admonishes us to avoid them like the pestilence.  We must guard against them like Baronius, who often said, "Lord, take not Thou word of truth utterly out of my mouth," and as he was most sincere and true-hearted in his conversation he could never imagine that others told lies.

Truth should always be spoken, even though it tells against us; Baronius practiced this; in all things he dispassionately loved truth, and loved it steadily when it told against himself.

Not only must we abstain from the detestable vice of murmuring but, like our Saint, we must grieve when we hear others murmur and endeavor to prevent it as far as we are permitted.  Murmurs were so displeasing to the holy Father, that he told F. Antonio Gallonio, that whenever he heard them, he should kneel down in the midst of the murmurers at such and such a thing," just as if he himself had been the murmurer, and by this means he would convince them of their error.

When anything vexatious or unbecoming is related to us, we must always try to excuse or interpret it in good part.  Saint Philip not only did this, but wished that others with whom he conversed would do the same.

The good disciple Giulio Savioli fulfilled the Saint's injunction, and we may learn the practice of this important instruction from him, for he practiced it very frequently.  The good Father united to the love of God the most heartfelt love of his neighbor.  He used always to interpret kindly the actions of others; nor did he give credit to anyone who spoke ill of another, whoever it might be, saying, "It is not as you say; take care, it cannot be;" and, when the fact was inexcusable, he used the saying of Saint Bernard, "Excuse the intention, if you cannot excuse the act; think ignorance, subreption, custom."

Let us profit by the exhortation which the holy Father gives us to stay at home, as he calls it, that is, in our interior, considering our own actions, and not go out to examine the lives of others or to judge their actions.  Even when our neighbor's actions seem faulty, we must not lay aside our good opinion of him, but imitate in this the good disciple Pietro Consolini, who used to say, "How do I know what may be within, however things may appear without, of what God means to work in that soul?"

Let us always revere the judgments of God, but without passing our own judgment, being warned by the following example.  A prelate who had persecuted the saint, died suddenly.  The Saint could not endure to hear a word said against him, but on the contrary, when one of his penitents, going to confession, wished to enter into the judgments of God as regarded his death, the Saint immediately stopped his mouth, bidding him be quiet.

Giuseppe Crispino
The School of St. Philip Neri

Sunday, May 8, 2016

St. Philip Neri on the Love of God

Desire for God, a longing for Him and His love, is at the heart of the spiritual life.  To desire means to have a clear sense of lack and incompleteness.  It drives us on in the pursuit of God's love and the pursuit of perfection.  The more we desire God, the more we desire to please Him.  Lack of desire reveals a lack of love and leads to mediocrity.  

St. Philip burned with the love quite literally - his heart inflamed by the Spirit of love beat so loudly that it shook the room and when he drew others to his breast they were immediately consoled by the warmth of its love.  

Philip's profound wish was that others might be set ablaze - consumed and inflamed by this Divine love. We must not be lukewarm but rather yearn for the sanctity and perfection of the saints to be made manifest in our lives and actions. We must never measure ourselves according to our own judgment by always according to the Divine standard: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."   We must seek and be driven in the pursuit of this command; despite our weakness constantly striving for holiness and ceaseless praying for the grace that is needed to attain it.  So ardent must this desire become that it should even steal sleep from us - our hearts longing for what God alone can satisfy.  And like so many of the saints, Philip saw the measure of one's love for God as revealed in the desire to suffer for Him.

The love of God, which is the foundation and root of all virtues, was found in such a pre-eminent degree in Saint Philip that the flame which consumed his soul was visible even in his body, so that sometimes, when he was saying Office, or after any other spiritual act, sparks of fire were seen to issue from his face and eyes.  He desired that the hearts of others should also be inflamed with this Divine love, and sometimes expressed such wishes as these: "May Saint Anthony's fire burn you!" by which he meant to express a wish that the person, like St. Anthony, might glow with Divine love.

F. Giulio Savioli, since he was inflamed by this heavenly fire, desired that all others would glow with the same Divine love.  This is what he meant by saying, when he went to St. Peter's, where he frequently went, "When, when shall I see this great palace burning? Fire! fire!"   The holy Master said to others, "May you be killed," that is, for the faith, by means of holy martyrdom.

So great was the progress made in the love of God in the School of St. Philip that even some members of the external Oratory were inflamed by it.  Martin Altieri, a Roman nobleman, one of St. Philip's children, like another Moses, could not speak of God from the overflowing of this love.

In exciting ourselves to this holy love, it will be useful to reflect that our holy Father, though rich in merit, when he saw young persons, considering that they had time to do good, used to say, "Happy are you who have time to do good, which I have not done."

Let us first endeavor ever to have fixed in our mind that maxim of the saint, the repetition of which can never be superfluous, that "Whatever love is given to creatures, is so much taken from God," and let us practice the instructions given us on the subject by the holy Master, which are as follows:

"Desire to do great things for God's service, and not be content with mediocrity in goodness, but wish to surpass even Saint Peter and Saint Paul in sanctity, though it may be unattainable, ought to be desired, since we may, at least in desire, perform what we cannot do in fact.  Never be contented with any degree of perfection to which you may have attained, for the pattern which Christ places before our eyes is the Eternal Father Himself, 'Be thou therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.'  No one must ever imagine that he has done any good." The holy Father himself, thought ladened with merits, when he confessed, was wont to say with abundance of tears, "I have never done any good."

We must thoroughly bear in mind what the Saint said, that perfection cannot be acquired without great labor; therefore, in the ways of God, we must always urge ourselves from good to better.

To obtain from God his holy love, the following ejaculations of Saint Philip should be familiar to us.  "When shall I love Thee with a filial love?  O Jesus, be to me Jesus: I do not love Thee.  O may Lord, grant me grace to love Thee, not from fear, but from love.  O my Jesus, I desire to love Thee.  I have never loved Thee, but I desire to love Thee, O my Jesus.  I shall never love Thee, except Thou help me, O my Jesus. O my Jesus, I desire to love Thee, but I know not how."

F. Pietro Consoling was also in the habit of asking for Divine love by ejaculatory prayer.  He frequently implored it by the following ejaculations.  "Wound my soul with a greater love of Thee.  Strike my hard should with the love of Thee.  Create a clean heart in me, O Lord.  O Lord Jesus, by the most Sacred mystery of Thy Body, and by They five wounds, from which the Blood which Thou has shed for me didst flow, have mercy on according as Thou knows my necessities of soul and body. Receive me according to Thy word, that I may live, and disappoint not my hope, but take pity on me, O my mercy."  This he uttered with the most ardent emotion, when the Sacred Host was elevated by the celebrant; and this, "Thou art my help and my refuge.  O my God, I will hope in Thee."

Whoever wishes for a sign whether he be advanced in the love of God, may find one given by the holy Father Philip in these words:  "When a soul is truly enamored of God, it cannot sleep at night, but passes the time in tears and sighs and tender affections, and is constrained to say, "O Lord, suffer me to sleep."

He, indeed, often experienced this for frequently, when contemplating God, he was unable to sleep, "and," adds the holy Master, "the greatness of our love of God is known by the desire we have to suffer for Him."  From this desire a person may take the measure of his love of God.  If the desire to suffer much be very great, the love is great; if little, it is little; and if there be no such desire, then, according to the maxim of Saint Philip, there will be no love.

The School of Saint Philip Neri
by Giuseppe Crispino