John Henry Newman, in his ‘Fragment of a Life of St Philip’, has left us an unexpected (and often overlooked) hermeneutic key to unlock the nature of holiness in both canonized saints and those in the making – including with our benefit and hindsight – himself.
…a saint’s life may often have in it things not directly and immediately spiritual. To find a saint sitting down to cards, or reading a heathen author, or listening to music or taking snuff, is often a relief and an encouragement to the reader, as convincing him that grace does not supersede nature, and that as he is reading of a child of Adam and his own brother, and he is drawn up to his pattern and guide while he sees that pattern can descend to him; whereas that shadowy paper-Saint, as I may call it, bloodless, ideality which may be set up in the mind from the exclusive perusal of a roll of unconnected details, may, from the weakness of our hearts, chill us unduly, lead [us] to shrink from the Saints and to despond about ourselves. (Newman’s Oratory Papers, p.258-259).
Partly ‘tongue in cheek’, Newman makes serious points about the importance of human details, as well as a person’s good works, being made an intrinsic part of official, contemporary, canonisation accounts. They would help bring a Saint closer to us. He would, he laments, like to know much more about the practical spirituality and fun-filled, earth-grounded humour, of St Philip than is recorded.
Those commenting on Neri’s life highlight his capacity for spontaneous practical jokes and witty repartee. His preaching was inspired by Dominican street evangelists, like Savonarola, who emphasized the importance of conversion, and the role of scripture, in dramatic style. Philip learned the art of communication, in the public spaces, amongst passers-by, merchants, warehouse workers, and traders. He imitated the ardour and child-like simplicity of Blessed Colombini and the story of a Priest called Piovano Arlotto, known for his generosity and ability to engender laughter, was one of Neri’s favourite books (Turks, P, The Fire of Joy, p.4; 6-7; 11).
Philip realised that the way to a person’s heart was by beginning with normal discourse of daily life before, by God’s grace, taking them to a different place they might find challenging. Then, return them to the familiar with renewed new eyes.
Sometimes know as the ‘Columbus of the catacombs’, Neri, during his period living a hermit-like existence in Rome, meticulously explored the graves of the martyrs of the early Church, in order to pray with the communion of saints for a deeper relationship with the Lord they had given their lives for. This was no morbid preoccupation. It helped form, within his being, a wellspring of unquenchable joy. Philip’s desire for Christ eventually led him to have a ‘Pentecost’ spiritual experience, which manifested itself as an ‘inner burning’. He interpreted this as the purifying love of God. It made him focus on disciplined living and the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist as the means of growing in the love of God and neighbour.
As John Paul II concludes in a letter for the Fourth Centenary of the death of St Philip:
May St Philip, a man lovable and generous, holy, chaste and humble, an apostle both active and contemplative; may he remain the constant model for the members of the Congregation of the Oratory. He transmits to all Oratorians a programme and a life style which still retains today a special relevance. The so-called quadrilateral – humility, charity, prayer and joy – remains always a most solid foundation on which to erect the internal structure of one’s own spiritual life.
Fr Peter Conley