Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

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

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