Thursday, November 13
Philip Neri, Fool for Christ
"How, in cold words, can we capture the spirit of Philip or explain the charm this hunter of souls exercised over his prey? There can be no doubt that what first attracted people to Philip was the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit in his soul. Not everyone experienced it in the same way, but no one who spend any length of time in his company was in any doubt about it. The manifestations of this presence were sometimes extraordinary.
"His extravagant behavior cannot be passed over without some explanation. Why, for example, when certain Polish noblemen came to visit him at the Vallicella [the church adjoining the present-day Roman Oratory], seeking edification, did he have read aloud the most ridiculous passages from Pastor Arlotto saying that it was his spiritual reading? Why, when invited to the house of one of his penitents, a rich Roman lady who had invited him to meet her worldly relatives, did he arrive with half his beard shaved off? Why, when some scholarly Bishop, little given to jesting, attended his Mass, did he commit every possible error in pronunciation? Why did he sometimes wear a red jersey or a fur coat over his cassock? Why did he walk through the streets carrying a bouquet of flowers in his hand, or perform a burlesque dance before an audience of Cardinals chanting comic verses which he made up as he went along?
"Was it merely to make a fool of himself and cause others to think little of him? His buffonery cannot be so simply explained, for we must take into consideration the pranks he was constantly playing on others. These pranks took many forms; some were merely unexpected and ludicrous, as when he pulled the impressive beard of a Swiss Guard, others were more elaborate, as when he sent Baronius to a wineshop to sample all the wines before buying half a bottle; to make it all the worse he had to offer a gold piece in payment and ask for change. Then there was the somewhat scandalous prank he used to play on people who came to him for miraculous cures. He would give them a small sachet which they were to place on the affected part, with the proviso that they must on no account open it. As soon as he died the recipients could restrain their curiosity no longer. On opening up their sachets they found that they contained nothing more than a cheap holy medal!
"Certainly, Philip acted in this way to lower himself in the eyes of the world yet there are many saints who would have found it difficult even to understand anyone using such strange methods of doing so. Philip engaged in these jests because he had a natural tendency that way and saw it as no part of his duty to resist a tendency that was not fundamentally evil. Philip did not exaggerate his eccentricities simply in order to pass as an addle-pate; his unbounded humour was the spontaneous expression of that freedom which to him was inseparable from being in a state of grace, the freedom of the children of God.
"He knew that the devil is ever striving to make us take grace for granted, claim it as a right or place ourselves on an equality with God and that is why he continually prevented those about him from taking themselves too seriously. The only antidote to deadly seriousness into which pride can lead us is, when all is said and done, the joyful simplicity of the children of God. Why should children in their Father’s arms be other than joyful? They alone in the world have the secret of true freedom and happiness, and even if those who cannot fathom the reason for their joy, judge it madness, they can, with a clear conscience, make their own the words of Wisdom: ‘I was at His side... my delight increasing with every day, as I made play before Him all the while, made play in this world of dust, with the sons of Adam for my play-fellows.’ (Proverbs viii. 31.)"
For more from Bouyer on St. Philip, excerpted from his The Roman Socrates, click here.
(Cappa hood tip to Fra J.M.B.)