May 26 is the feast day of Philip Neri, known as the Second Apostle of Rome—after Peter himself—and the prophet of joy, a man who was marked by his love of the desert fathers. Philip’s approach to holiness was that all were called to it, including those in the world doing worldly and even intellectual business.
Since their first appearance in the Egyptian wilderness, the desert fathers have alternately repelled and fascinated. For many devout humanists and even some Christian theologians, the reaction has been disgust or revulsion. Adolf von Harnack said that “no book has had a more stultifying effect on Egypt, Western Asia, and Europe than the Vita S. Antonii.” The nineteenth-century Irish historian Lecky spoke of an “ascetic epidemic,” describing the disease’s mania thus:
A hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato.
For those who admire them, however, what they bequeathed to the world is something different. Helen Waddell, from whom I’ve taken these quotations, writes in the introduction to The Desert Fathers, her 1936 translation of selected texts and sayings, that the brains of these figures were not delirious but practical, set not on the “wingy mysteries of divinity” nor on “phantoms” but instead on the biggest topics of life: humility, kindness, love, and the source of love in the eternal and infinite God. “These men, by the very exaggeration of their lives, stamped infinity on the imagination of the West.” Future Christians and even non-Christians could make up sayings like “Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff” because of those figures whose stamp made us think of things sub specie eternitatis. But they could also see that it is in small stuff that the infinite hides. “And, paradoxical as it seems,” Waddell writes, “their denial of the life of earth has been the incalculable enriching of it, and they have affected the consciousness of generations to which they are not even a name. They thought to devaluate time by setting it over against eternity, and instead they have given it an unplumbed depth.”
This is why true Christian renewal has almost always involved an appeal to the eastern deserts. Ex occidente lex goes the old saying, but ex oriente lux. Out of the west comes law while out of the east comes light. May 26 is the feast day of Philip Neri, known as the Second Apostle of Rome—after Peter himself—and the prophet of joy, a man who was marked by his love of those desert fathers.
Though known well to Romans, my introduction to him, like that of many in the English-speaking world, was through John Henry Newman who, after entering the Catholic Church in 1845 and preparing for the Catholic priesthood, decided that he wanted to pursue life in the Oratory, a community of diocesan priests living together and bound not by vows but only a common mission and a life of deep prayer. The Oratories have a very simple rule and are essentially autonomous though belonging to a Federation. Pope Pius IX gave Newman the task of founding an Oratory in England, which he did in Birmingham and then in a London suburb. Though he wanted to found an Oratory in Oxford, he was blocked from doing so by the Catholic bishops. A century after his death, that dream was achieved, a curious answer to Newman’s reflections on the occasion:
I am of the opinion that the Bishops see only one side of things, and I have a mission, as far as my own internal feelings go, against evils which I see. On the other hand, I have always preached that things which are really useful, still are done, according to God’s will, at one time, and not at another—and that, if you attempt at a wrong time, what in itself is right, you perhaps become a heretic or schismatic. What I aim at may be real and good, but it may be God’s will it should be done a hundred years later…. When I am gone it will be seen perhaps that persons stopped me from doing a work which I might have done. God overrules all things. Of course it is discouraging to be out of joint with the time, and to be snubbed and stopped as soon as I act.
Newman’s desire to found an Oratory in Oxford during the height of the nineteenth-century intellectual challenges to Christian faith was very much in line with Philip’s own approach to the Renaissance humanism of the sixteenth century insofar as Philip’s approach—despite his own love of Savonarola—was not to decry the fashions, intellectual and otherwise, of his time but to help men discover the truth that is deeper than fashion. Newman ended his famous Discourses in The Idea of a University with a dedication to St. Philip, whose way he thought incarnated the way in which a Catholic university should approach minds:
He saw the great and the gifted, dazzled by the Enchantress, and drinking in the magic of her song; he saw the high and the wise, the student and the artist, painting, and poetry, and sculpture, and music, and architecture, drawn within her range, and circling round the abyss: he saw heathen forms mounting thence, and forming in the thick air:—all this he saw, and he perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher, but by means of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth…. Philip preferred, as he expressed it, tranquilly to cast in his net to gain them; he preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.
Philip’s approach to holiness was that all were called to it, including those in the world doing worldly and even intellectual business. The key to change was not to stay away from dangerous ideas but to “give oneself totally to God. He who wants anything other than Christ, does not know what he wants.”
That giving oneself totally to God is where the desert fathers and Newman’s own difficulties come together. Philip spent a number of years essentially living as a kind of hermit in the midst of the city of Rome (to which he had moved at the end of his youth) eating a spartan diet of a little bread, a few olives, and perhaps some wine mixed with water, praying, and serving the poor and hungry in the streets and in the hospitals. When questioned about reading about the desert fathers he said, “I want to read about people who lived as I live.” While he spent a bit of time as a student and read Thomas Aquinas all his life—and was reputed to be able to discuss complicated theological topics—his main goal was, as the desert fathers before him, to be utterly open to God’s will, even when it came in the form of unjust stoppages of or hostility to his own work (especially in his defense of gypsies and heretics in the city of Rome) by Church authorities—as did happen under the papacies of Paul IV and Pius V. For him as for those desert fathers, “giving oneself totally to God” was not found in extraordinary penances or works of charity but depended “on mortifying the razionale (reason),” by which he meant not one’s rationality but instead, as Paul Türks observes in his excellent biography, Philip Neri: Apostle of Joy, “critical pride of thought, self-satisfaction, and egoism.”
Philip, who went about much of his work in the confessional, was famous for assigning penances designed to mortify the Renaissance dandies who were attracted by his sweetness enough to come to him for spiritual advice. Commanding young men to wear ridiculous hats or shave half their beards were common penances. Nor were his Oratorian brothers spared. One brother was always asked to do folk dances for guests; another was instructed to behave as if drunk; and a third, scheduled to undergo an examination in the presence of the pope, was instructed that he was to begin the examination with the statement that he was far too learned to have to take the exam. Today, he would probably be assigning young men mullets, MAGA hats, and public performances of what the kids call “cringe.”
He did not spare himself the humiliation, either, often playing the fool himself in the streets of Rome or keeping popular comic literature around to begin reading, thus making sure that he was not caught at prayer by visitors. The humiliation was not the goal, however, but only the means to the end: humility. Philip wanted the puffed-up egos to decrease so that his penitents would have room to be filled by the Holy Spirit.
He himself had felt that feeling in a strange way akin to the stigmata of St. Francis. In 1544, at the age of 29, he had been praying in the catacombs of Rome for the Holy Spirit to give him all of the gifts and graces he could take. As his disciple and first biographer Antonio Gallonio describes it, Philip “suddenly felt himself divinely filled with the power of the Spirit with such force that his heart began to palpitate within his body and to be inflamed with such love that, his nature being unaccustomed to such a palpitation of the heart, he indicated that he was completely unable to bear it.” From this point of swallowing what he believed to be a kind of divine fire, he had a large mass above his heart, which seemed to radiate heat and which Philip himself associated with a change of blood pressure. After his death, his body was examined and it was determined that the mass on his chest came from the breaking open of his ribs such that his enlarged heart was protruding. He would later describe his experience as having been “wounded by love.” But he would not speak of his experiences directly except to say secretum meum mihi—my secret is mine.
Despite this experience, he, like the desert fathers of old, did not associate such events with holiness per se; they might even be dangerous to one: “Visions do happen, but the most important thing is to know how to deal with them. One must have great humility, total submission to God, and complete detachment from self in order not to lose God on account of visions.” It was not the extraordinary and miraculous experiences of God that counted; it was the response to them, which he knew was difficult. One of his sayings was, “One should not wish to do everything in one day, or to become a saint in four days, but step by step.” He favored short prayers, meditation on Scripture, the practice of joy, and the careful search for Christ in good times and especially bad: “We must seek Christ where He is not, that is, in crosses and trials, where He in fact is not at present, but if we seek Him on this path, we will find Him in His glory.” We begin in trouble as the weeping women at the tomb who are told, “He is not here,” but if we keep seeking we will see him in the dazzling white described in the book of Revelation.
All of this humility, obedience, and surrender made Philip the perfect man to correct others and show them Christ. When he spoke to others of their faults, he spoke to them as one having the same faults. One contemporary said Philip “has a way of inflicting blows that do not seem to wound.” Philip showed sympathy to sinners and heretics alike, bringing many of them back to faith and the Church as well as drawing further those already in and making them hear, as the desert fathers did their age, the unplumbed depths of time in the shadow of eternity. It is no surprise that his followers included two men who did plumb those depths and set what they heard to the dance of notes measured across time that we call music: Tomas Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
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The featured image is “The Virgin Appearing to St Philip Neri” (c. 1675) by Carlo Maratta (1625–1713) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.