On the Society of the Victims

Reparatrice et Cté au choeur

Reparation done well; before the Eucharist, in choir, among a monastic community, under the Rule of St. Benedict. Not in a largely-autonomous secret society. This Mectildian charism inspired that lower variant. (Source: Vultus Christi)

The Society of the Victims was a secret group founded by one Jacqueline-Aimée Brohon in late 18th century France. Their story is a strange one. Under Brohon’s leadership, they aspired to be a kind of Catholic Justice League, saving the world through Reparation. The goals and gender dynamics of the Society make it a potentially interesting example of how Catholic women led and took ownership of their own religious life before the advent of feminism. The Society’s theological grounding seems to depend not only upon the work of Mère Mectilde du Saint Sacrement (1614-1698), but possibly also on more esoteric sources such as the Kabbalah. If an historical theologian could find a complete edition of Brohon’s works in the original, there might be something useful there.

But in truth, we can also see serious problems with the Society, too. There is something cult-like in their self-conception, and some of their founder’s statements seem to draw very near to blasphemy. The few later scholars who paid any attention to Brohon did not hesitate to attribute her ideas to madness.

To my knowledge, there is only one source in English that tells the story of the mysterious Society. The following article is copied from pages 270-73 of the seminal 1817 text by Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to those who study early modern religion, are versed in Benedictine spirituality, or otherwise take an interest in the spiritual legacy of Mother Mectilde de Bar. In transcribing the work, I have retained all quotes, capitals, spellings, and italics as close to the original as I could. This has resulted in certain evident anachronisms and irregularities, for which I beg the patience of my readers.

On a side note, Hannah Adams herself is worth looking intoa pioneer of comparative religion, a member of the Adams family of Boston, and the first American to work as a professional writer. One of the reasons I love studying religious history is coming across remarkable characters like her. Not to mention oddballs like Madame Brohon.

SOCIETY OF THE VICTIMS

On the 23rd of June, 1804, an imperial decree was issued for the suppression of those associations, known under the names of Fathers of the Faith, adorers of Jesus or Pacanaristes. This decree was provoked by a report of Portalis, minister of worship; a report extremely well written, printed, but not published. It has been translated into German, and therein speaks of a secret society of Victims, concerning which society the following account has been given by Gregoire, in his learned work, styled, “Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses.”

Catherine de Bar was born at Lorraine in 1619. She established, in the year 1657, at Rambervillers, a new religious order, for persons of her own sex, which spread rapidly in France. She adopted the rule of St. Benedict, but with some modifications, which she explained in a work, entitled, “The true spirit of the perpetual religious worshippers of the most holy sacrament of the altar.” The proper character of these nuns was that of being Victims, to expiate the sins committed against Jesus Christ in the celebration of the eucharist. Each day one of the Religious remains in her retreat from mattins until vespers. Her office is to be the expiatory Victim. When the sisters go to their dining room, the Victim is the last to leave the choir. She appears with a cord about her neck, and a torch in her hands. When they have all taken their places, she reminds them that they are all Victims, immolated for the sake of Jesus Christ: she then bows herself, returns to the choir during dinner, and remains there until after vespers, like a victim separated from the flock, destined for sacrifice.

Regnauld, a curate of Vaux, author of a work, entitled, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” makes mention of a work, entitled, “Les Galarics,” published in 1754, a species of mysticism in favour of convulsions. In the fourth galeric of Elias, the author asserts, “The victims are of the greatest importance. They are devoted for every crime, and each of them bears different parts in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This character will make them known to the Gentiles. The despair of the victims will expiate presumptuous confidence, as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has represented and expiated the sins into which mankind has fallen. They must bear to be culpable in the eyes of men, that they may complete what is wanting in the passion of our Saviour. They must bear the burdens of agner of God and men. They must be found amid the abodes of infamy, among robbers and murderers. Besides these public victims, there must be secret ones, delivered up to the horrible states of passion, despair, and distraction.”

Such probably were the ideas of the lady when on the eve of founding the order of the Victims. She had lived in Lorraine, where the houses of the Benedictines of the holy sacrament were numerous. She relates that at the age of nine years, having experienced in a sensible manner the protection of the blessed virgin, she consecrated herself to her service.

Madam Brohon, who was born at Paris, early devoted herself to the cultivation of letters. The Abbe la Porte, author of the “Literary History of French Women,” written in 1769, says, “It is now fifteen years since much mention was made fo the mind, the graces, and the talents of Madam Brohon, though she was then but eighteen years old.[“] He proceeds to give an analysis of a work of hers, entitled, “The Charms of Ingenuity.” It is a tale of about twenty eight pages. Bossy, the editor of the Mercury, has praised it.

Her life having been preserved, as she asserts, by a miracle of the blessed father Fourier, she determined to take the monastic vows. She repented having written romances, and consulted the Abbe Clement, who directed her for some time, and whose virtues she highly extolled.

The penitent devoted herself to retirement, for the space of fourteen years. At last she returned to Paris, and there died, the eighteenth of September, 1778, being upwards of forty years old.

From the time she quitted her literary career her active spirit exercised itself on ascetic subjects. Many of her works have been anonymously published by her admirers. Such as “Edifying Instructions on the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert;” and, “The Manuel of the Victims of Jesus, or Extracts from the instructions which the Lord has given to his first victims.” This last work appeared in 1799, a volume in octavo of four hundred pages.

1774, writing to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, she predicted that God was about to execute his judgments on the nations, to punish a tenth part of the earth, and to choose a new people; but first he would establish those victims, who would constantly immolate themselves to him. The Abbe de Garry would be their director. France, which had been the first christian kingdom, and which had distinguished itself by the purity of its faith, and its piety towards the holy virgin, would be the cradle of this new people, if its perversity did not deprive it of this benefit. If France rejected the Victims, God would take away its provinces; he would raise up a strange prince to devastate and enslave it. She pretended to foresee that the Spanish nation was to be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Great calamities would then fall upon the capital; the clergy, secular as well as regular, would be humbled; the sanctuaries would be abolished, in order to punish those who ought to have been their ornaments and glory. This was published in 1791.

In a letter to Lewis XV, then sick, Madam Brohon introduces the Almighty as a Mediator, and demands in his name Madam Victoire to be one of the victims. Sophia du Castelle, the daughter of a Notary de Peronne, a novitiate of the Benedictine de Gomer Fontaire, was also to be one of the victims. The number was fixed at twelve to represent the apostolic college with the same attributes. The college of Victims was composed of an equal number of men and women. The latter would have the honour of beginning the new mission; 1. as an effect of the love of Jesus Christ for his holy mother; 2. in order to reward the fidelity of the women to Jesus Christ in the course of his mortal life and passion; 3. in order to humble the masculine sex, who abuse their authority; and to provoke their jealousy when they see the zeal of feeble women. The male victims would be clothed with the sacerdotal garments. The women, however, would not be subordinate to them; they acknowledge no superiour but the bishops; but they would preserve a great respect for the body of pastors, united to the Pope, the head of the true church, who would receive an augmentation of power over faithful souls. Some auxiliaries would form a body for reserve out of which the successors of the Victims would be chosen.

The Victims, according to their own account, are predicted in the bible; without them an essential part of the Messiah would fail. They will be established near Jesus Christ, to fulfil the same functions for him that he has fulfilled for his Father. There are, say they, some faithful souls, who have grace enough to ensure their own salvation; but not enough to immolate themselves to divert the plague which menaces the human species. The Victims are consecrated to do it by taking upon themselves the general anathema. They are the centre and recipients of grace, the fountain from which it is distributed over the whole earth. They boasted of being advanced in glory above the monastic life, and having the same privileges as the angels, who would mourn if anything was wanting to complete their felicity. They asserted, that “they were very dear to the Saviour; that the precious blood which flowed from his side is the adorable ink with which their names are written;” and that “himself and the holy virgin have declared themselves the father and mother of the Victims, the promise of refusing them nothing.”

“The sacrifice of the mass will continue during the glorious reign of the Redeemer. Then there will be no monasteries. The Victims will be the vine and body of the church. Enoch and Elias will preside.”

The greatest crimes are committed between six o’clock in the evening and two in the morning; the Victims pass that time in prayer, and recite matins at midnight.

Each Victim has suspended to her neck a silver medal, on which is engraven the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which they owe a perfect devotion.

Madam Brohon, being the first Victim, it will not be found surprising that she was adorned with extraordinary graces by Jesus, who was her common confessor. She declares, that he said to her one day, as he showed her the wounds on his side, “Seek me no more on the cross, I have yielded to thee my place, I shall no more be crucified, my Victims will be instead of me.”

In 1792, a consultation of many of the professors and doctors of the Sorbonne was printed on the following works: “Edifying Instructions” and “Edifying Reflections.” They reproached Madam Brohon, the author, with various impieties, and the most reprehensible ideas.*

*Gregoire’s Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses, vol. ii. p. 1, 2, 3, 4, &c.

Given the extreme scarcity of resources on the Society, we are beholden unto Gregoire-cum-Adams’s interpretation.

Nevertheless, there are problems with this account. Purely from a historiographical perspective, we should note that Gregoire is Adams’ only source. This introduces some measure of doubt. We have no way of assessing Gregoire’s biases, and no way of separating fact from interpretation.

Moreover, Adams leaves us without any explanation of what exactly the Sorbonne fathers found lacking in the then-deceased Brohon’s work. We could perhaps imagine some of the problems, based on what has already been told. But the sketch is so vague and so detached from the wider context of Brohon’s writings, French Society, and 18th century theology, that we really cannot infer the trouble with any degree of certainty. The condemnation certainly came during an inauspicious year, the same that saw the assault of the King at the Tuileries, the beginnings of unrest in the Vendée, the September Massacres, and the abolition of the monarchy. In fact, 1792 would later be known (for a short time) as Year One of the Revolutionary Calendar. Was the Sorbonne still reliable at that late date? How intriguing that Brohon’s prophecy of destruction and divine punishment for France should have been published only one year before the condemnation of her work came out, a full 13 years after her own death. It is entirely possible that her words were deployed in protest of the Revolution.

Sorbonne_17thc

The Sorbonne in the 17th century. (Source)

Neither Adams nor Gregoire make any such suggestion. Other than telling us about this censure and of the Society’s implication in the suppression of the Pacanaristes, we are left with no sense whatsoever of what the Society actually did, nor what became of it. Did the Victims meet together, or was their work carried out remotely? If they did congregate, were their acts based upon the rites of reparation established by Mother Mectilde? What kind of relationship, if any, did the Society maintain with Mectildean monasteries? Where were the Society’s main centers and circles? Who knew of them, and what was their broader reputation before the Sorbonne issued its decree? Did they exert any influence at all at court or in the Church of France, beyond the two letters to the Archbishop and the King?

Other sources shed a little more light.

Although he dismisses Brohon as a madwoman, Alfred Maury helpfully writes in the Revue des deux mondes (1854) that “Mlle. Brohon did not delay in exercising a veritable empire over distinguished men; with her hallucinations and her pretend prophecies, she occupied a mob of members of the clergy and of persons of high society” (Maury 474; translation is my own). With Adams, he details the letters to Beaumont and Louis XV, and adds that neither paid much attention at all to her demands. More recent scholars have turned their attention to Brohon. In their introduction to the 2011 study Victimes au féminin, Marc Kolakowski and Francesca Prescendi suggest that Brohon’s use of the word “victim” animated connotations of separation and sacrifice reaching all the way back to Roman antiquity (Kolakowski and Prescendi 31-32). This feature is perhaps unsurprising for late 18th century France, which was infused with a mania for all things Roman—culminating in the outburst of violent Republicanism that began on July 14, 1789.

Of course, there is another question that rises like a plume of smoke over all of these sources. No writer definitively confirms that the Society ever really existed. All we can glean is the plan of the alleged Foundress—her spirituality, her intentions for the group, the popularity we think she might have enjoyed in certain quarters, and the names of the other Victims she wanted to join the Society. But nowhere do we find any proof that the privileged circle of the Elect ever extended beyond her.

And thus we are left with one of the innumerable, tangled mysteries of religious history, one that draws together the spirituality of a 17th century Benedictine, the sacred delusions of an 18th century aristocrat, and the fires of the French Revolution.

The Advice of an Abbot

17thCenturyAbbot

Portrait of an abbot, half-length, in a white cassock, before a draped curtain, a landscape beyond, Italian School, c. 17th century. (Source)

I came across this passage in Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of Cardinal Baronius, as republished by Mediatrix Press in 2015. It comes a letter sent by the Abbot of St. Martin’s to Baronius when the latter was “in a fit of despondency…as to the real value of the Annals” (Kerr 154). I felt it was a good bit of advice generally, and thought I’d make it more readily available here for those who might derive some benefit therefrom. The translation is, no doubt, from Lady Kerr’s own hand. It can be found on page 154 of the volume.

Do not be cast down. Eat the bread of life and drink of eternal wisdom; and so will you more easily reach the Mount of God. You have not got to live for yourself alone, but for the Church of God and the good of your fellow men. Acquit yourself manfully, and your heart will be comforted, and God will sustain you. Truly it belongs to our mortality to be filled with fear when we look forward to the day of our judgment; but perceiving as we do so many earnests of our eternal happiness, and experiencing as we do the work of the Spirit of God within us, why should we be anxious and tormented of soul? Be of good heart, my Cesare, and think of nothing but of persevering until you have completed your work, which is so pleasing to the Church, and which will live for ever. When it is finished, then by all means devote yourself solely to the thoughts of eternal life; and I feel confident that at the last day the just Judge will give to you, who have worn yourself out by your labours for Him, a crown of justice.

Elsewhere: Cooper on Edo Japan

image

Some art of the Edo period. (Source).

Over at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox, Matthew Franklin Cooper has an excellent  short post on the history of Edo Japan. I’ve never studied too much Japanese history in any depth, but found Mr. Cooper’s essay a pleasant and enlightening read. However, I did see Silence in January. One of the things about the film that most stood out to me was the simple beauty of 17th century Japan. It is difficult for me to understand how anyone could not find the aesthetics of this period deeply attractive…but de gustibus. 

The Oratorian Option

StPhilipNeriandEnglishSeminarians

St. Philip Neri blessing the departing seminarians of the English College. Fr. V.J. Matthews tells us that St. Philip would hail the seminarians, whose college is directly across from San Girolamo, with the words Salvete Flores Martyrum, “Hail, flowers of the Martyrs” (Matthews 85). Edited photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.  (Source).

In a recent post, I suggested that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a flawed, if well-intentioned, strategy for the Church in our times. I stand by that opinion. I also would like to offer my own “option,” as so many others have done. I will refrain from detailing specific suggestions and strategies, as I have neither the time nor the knowledge nor the experience to profitably contribute to any discussion of specifics. Nonetheless, I think I can say a few things about the general spirit and principles of what we might choose instead of The Benedict Option.

For starters, it would be called something different. Although St. Benedict is an eminent and powerful patriarch, I submit to you that, for our purposes, we must look at another man in an era far more like our own, a man whose spiritual sons also offer powerful examples. That man, of course, is St. Philip Neri.

Early Modernity as Proto-Postmodernity

Like Dreher, I choose my patron saint in part because I think the unique conditions of our own moment deeply resonate with those which St. Philip faced. Any comparison between different periods of time are naturally going to fall flat in certain specifics. But consider, if you will, the following phenomena.

The rise of the Internet, like the advent of printing, has opened up new models of knowledge and new conceptions of the self. Our lives are ever more global, even as new forms of nationalism emerge. We are increasingly aware of various forms of religious difference. Some are extremist, and even violent (see, inter alia, the Münster Rebellion and the sects of the Interregnum). Within the Church, we face public in-fighting among the Cardinals, dangerous sacramental, moral, and doctrinal laxism, a German Church that is falling apart, and a Pope whom the Roman People themselves dislike. We face serious problems with the climate. Our educational aspirations and models are increasingly oriented towards social climbing, even as our specialties are becoming narrower. Literary and textual criticism set the terms of debate in the academy. More broadly, sexual mores have changed considerably, and culture war is the order of the day. Homosexuality and gender nonconformity have emerged as increasingly widely-recognized social phenomena. Our civilizational relationship with Islam is complicated, to say the least. Class divisions and structural inequality have led to political instability. Indeed, unthinkable political events, stemming in large part from those class frictions, have jettisoned any sense of certainty we might hope to sustain.

St. Philip arrived in Rome shortly after just such an unthinkable event. In 1527, the armies of the Emperor descended upon the Papal States and launched a horrifyingly brutal sack of the Eternal City. Both Lutheran andmore scandalouslyCatholic soldiers raped, pillaged, and desecrated their way through Rome. It was the second and last sack of Rome committed by civilized Christians, and it put an effective end to the Renaissance in that great city.

Alfonso Cardinal Capecelatro, one of St. Philip’s nineteenth century biographers, describes the event as:

…the terrible sack of Rome in 1527, which had no parallel in the history of the Church, whether regarded as a warning or a chastisement. We must go back to Attila and Genseric to find any event which even distantly approaches it in horror; and even those barbarians were civilized and even reverent in comparison with the soldiers of the most Catholic king and emperor, Charles V. A drunken, furious horde of Lutherans and Catholics together was let loose upon Rome…there were…unutterable outrages not to be thought of without a shudder. (Capecelatro 23).

Pertinent to our purposes, however, is the effect that this calamity left on the culture of Rome. Here, too, Capecelatro is a helpful resource.

To enter into the city of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul at a time when their authority was spurned, vilified, and trampled into the mire by a terrible heresy; to visit the spots hallowed by the blood of martyrs when all around were the hideous traces of their recent profanation; to live in the holy city when the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute or unbecoming, when paganism in science and letters and art was alone in honours must have been, to the heart of a saint such as Philip’s, an anguish inconceivably bitter. (Capecelatro 24).

SackofRome1527

A blasphemous mock-Papal procession during the 1527 Sack of Rome. (Source).

If, like Dreher, we wish to compare our own times to the sack of Rome, we ought to look a thousand years later than he does. As with Rome circa 1535, we live in a culture riddled with “a terrible heresy,” Dreher’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (among others). We Christians in America have witnessed the martyrdoms of our Coptic and Middle Eastern brethren over mass media. The Church is still reeling from a time when “the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute [and] unbecoming.” The sins of clerical sex abuse continue. And insofar as there is a pagan tendency in our culture today (Camille Paglia certainly thinks there is), it resides in our “science and letters and art.”

While I don’t wish to belabor the point too much, I’ll add that not all is cause for alarm. Many of the good things about early modernity are also true today.

In 1850, Fr. Faber gave a series of lectures to his spiritual sons at the London Oratory. His subject was “The Spirit and Genius of St. Philip Neri.” The second lecture includes a long consideration of St. Philip as the “representative saint of modern times” (Faber 38). Faber argues,

The very essence of heresy and schism is constantly found in the disobedient and antiquarian worship of some pet past ages of the Church, in contradistinction to the present age, in which a man’s duties lie, and wherein the spirit and vigour of the living Church are in active and majestic energy. The Church of a heretic or schismatic is in books and on paper…A Catholic, on the contrary, belongs to the divine, living, acting, speaking, controlling Church, and recognizes nothing in past ages beyond and edifying and instructive record of a dispensation, very beautiful and fit for its day, but under which God has not cast his lot, and which, therefore, he has no business to meddle with or to endeavour to recall. One age may evoke his sympathies, or harmonize with his taste, more than another. Yet he sees beauty in all and fitness in all, because his faith discerns Providence in all. (Faber 40-41).

Dreher would do well to note Fr. Faber’s point. The uncharitable pessimism that animates so much of The Benedict Option is not entirely misbegotten, but certainly falls short of the truth. And why? In part, because Dreher never mentions Church history. His historical narrative of Christianity in Western culture overlooks the actual ways that Christians have responded to modernity since the 16th century. Fr. Faber does not. Instead, he writes,

…it is plain that we are in possession of a great many more doctrinal definitions than we were; the limits of theological certainty are immensely extended. Just as verified observations have extended the domain of the physical sciences, so the number of truths which a believer cannot, without impiety, or in some cases formal heresy, reject, has added to the domain of theology…Now this greater body of certain dogmatic teaching must necessarily influence the whole multitude of believers. It it tells upon literature; it tells upon popular devotion; it tells upon practice…and lastly, it tells upon ecclesiastical art…Neither, in speaking of Modern Times, must we omit to notice the natural connection there is between an increased knowledge of dogma, and the spirit of reverent familiarity in devotion, which has been so prominent a feature in the later Saints.  The more extended the vision of faith becomes, th more familiar a man necessarily grows with the sacred objects of which that faith so infallibly assures him…We must not omit then to name the increase and greater universality of mental prayer, the more generally adopted systematic methods of self-examination, the more common practice of spiritual reading, the ways of hearing mass, the obligation of meditation made the condition in most cases of gaining the indulgences of the Rosary, and other things which are all so many marks of what is called nowadays the increased “subjectivity” of the Modern Mind.(Faber 44-46, 49-50).

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Fr. Frederick William Faber, founder of the Brompton Oratory in London. (Source)

Faber adds that anyone who would ignore this latter tendency towards “subjectivity” when seeking to evangelize would inevitably “find himself miserably out in his reckoning…The experiment would correct itself” (Faber 50). While Fr. Faber’s optimism is perhaps just as simplistic as Dreher’s pessimism, his perspective helps us attain the proper, prudential, balanced orientation towards modernity that The Benedict Option flatly misses.

Faber offers his historical assessment as a prelude to the consideration of St. Philip Neri’s life and spirituality. For Fr. Faber, St. Philip combines in his person and example the very best of what modernity has to offer. After all, Faber notes, Pippo Buono was ordained while the Council of Trent met. His movement began in an urban setting, “the very capital of Christendom itself,” and he managed to meet and influence “people of all nations” (Faber 51).

Even St. Philip’s personality was that of

…a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it; in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish, of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and very various information. (Faber 52).

Fair enough. But why bother applying the example of this modern saint to our peculiar cultural and religious circumstances? It is one thing to say that a saint might have something to teach us. It is another thing altogether to say that a saint’s teaching might prepare us for the peculiarly harsh cultural conditions which seem to loom on the horizon (Dreher wasn’t wrong about all of it).

Faber answers this question, too. He writes of St. Philip:

He came to Rome at one of the most solemn crises of the Church; the capital was full of Saints, and full of corruption too. He was the quietest man at his hard work that ever was seen; yet he magnetized the whole city; and when he died he left it quite a different city from what it was, nay, with the impress of his spirit and genius so deep upon it, that it was called his city, and he the apostle of it, second only to St. Peter. It was no man clothed in camel’s hair, with the attractive paraphernalia of supernatural austerities upon him, no St. Francis, with his Chapter of Mats all round the Porziuncula, that the city and its foreign visitants went so anxiously to see; it was simply an agreeable gentleman, in a comfortable little room, apparently doing and saying just what any one else might do or say as well. He had come at his right time; he suited his age; men were attracted; he fulfilled his mission. (Faber 53).

St. Philip’s example is pertinent to our present debate insofar as he reformed late Renaissance Rome, a society much like ours, by means far more achievable and far more charitable than the contorted stratagems of The Benedict Option.

“Roots Are Very Important”

Admittedly, those words weren’t spoken by St. Philip. They’re actually the climactic revelation from Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013), one of my favorite filmsa story that takes place in Rome. And as with all things Roman, St. Philip is never far away.

Two very singular facts stand out about St. Philip. One is that he was deeply attached to the Eternal City. And, relatedly, he never wished to start a religious order. He always claimed that the Congregation was entirely the work of Mary and the Holy Spirit. St. Philip was even reluctant to permit some of his sons to begin a house in Naples, a decision which would ultimately yield the harvest of many saints. Long before that, St. Philip required those priests he sent to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini to return to San Girolamo every day for the exercises of the Oratoryeven in sweltering heat and downpours of rain.

Borromini Facade of Oratorio dei Filippini (as drawn by Barriere, 1720 engraving)

Borromini’s facade of the Roman Oratory, sketched 1720’s. (Source).

In my recent post on St. Philip’s Benedictine tendencies, I noted that St. Philip understood that spiritual fatherhood can only be built upon a certain degree of stability. Along with that comes a strong sense of place, an immersion in the particular life of any given community. This decentralized localism is why every house of the Oratory throughout the world has its own unique spirit and apostolate. The Congregation only unites under the general aegis of St. Philip’s inspiration, not the ordinary vows of a religious order. To use a somewhat hackneyed analogy—if the Jesuits are the global corporations of the ecclesiastical world, then Oratorians are the folks who run mom & pop shops. However, there is a deeper meaning to this organizational quirk that we will have occasion to examine soon.

That domestic spirit can be summed up by the Oratorian conception of nido, or “nest.” As one source has it,

St Philip’s disciples and penitents sometimes sought him out in his room, where the Exercises of the Oratory were held in the early days. The Oratorian does not emulate a monastic detachment which would periodically surrender one’s very bedroom in manifestation of the premise that material goods are merely ad usum. The Oratorian identifies his room as a nido, a “nest.”

Strong Christian community requires roots. Dreher, as well as the good folks over at places like Front Porch Republic and Solidarity Hall, has frequently made this point over the last several years. It is not a new idea. The Benedict Option is peppered with quotes from Wendell Berry, the godfather of all American localist movements today. If Dreher’s Christian communitarianism is to succeed, then it must be predicated on something very much like the Oratorian sense of place. We would be wise to draw upon the domestic spirit of St. Philip’s nido.

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The effigy of St. Philip Neri, created from life once he could no longer lead the pilgrimage to the Seven Churches. Currently in possession of the Roman Oratory. (Source).

And that very sense of local domesticity often leads to precisely the kind of worldly engagement that Dreher’s book tends to overlook and minimize. Although St. Philip was by no means a polemicist, he took an active interest in the affairs of the worldas they transpired within the walls of Rome. He intervened in affairs of state only once, when he required Baronius to withhold absolution from the Pope until the latter had reversed the excommunication of Henri IV. This successful bit of string-pulling on St. Philip’s part probably kept the French crown Catholic for the duration of the Bourbon dynasty.

Of course, there is more to Oratorian domesticity than that. St. Philip’s genius lies not only in his stability, but in the way he invested so much of his spiritual ministry with romanità (in every sense of the word). He drew his principle practices from the sun-baked stones and the boiling air of the Eternal City, as if by some secret alchemy. He was famous for leading ever-more popular pilgrimages along the path of the Seven Churches. And all this, to compete with and vitiate the heathen delights of the Carnival. Where else but in Rome could a saint freely lead and care for such masses of pilgrims along such a venerable route? Where else in the history of modern Europe do we see such a providential alignment of personality, place, and practice against the pagans? The established traditions of spirituality which had already formed Rome were in turn re-formed by St. Philip. It is for this reason that he has been given the honorific title of “Apostle of Rome,” alongside Saints Peter and Paul.

As long as Christianity remains tied to the parish structure, it will always be a local religion. Consequently, St. Philip Neri’s unique resourcefulness will always be relevant. Especially today. As one writer puts it, “The mission of an Oratorian is to work at ‘home’; the Oratory is thus an apt instrument of the New Evangelization, re-proposing the gospel in formerly Christian societies.” God furnishes us with opportunities all around, if only we wish to see with “the eyes of the dove” (Cant. 1:15 paraphrased).

Illumine the Intellect

Such sight will be clearer and more invigorating if sharpened by the intellect. St. Philip’s exercises in the Oratory constituted a kind of holy pedagogy for the men of Rome. In his biography of the saint, the French Oratorian Louis Bouyer describes it well:

The programme of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of a saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did. He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench facing the gathering. (Bouyer 54).

Another author gives us a more detailed understanding of the kinds of materials that St. Philip and his sons were reading, hearing, and discussing in the exercises:

In St Philip’s time, the most important of his Exercises, which came to be known as the Secular Oratory, or in some places the Little Oratory, was a daily practice spread out over two to three hours during the leisurely Roman siesta and consisting of (1) a period of mental prayer; (2) a reading from the Scriptures or some spiritual book (e.g., Denys the Carthusian, John Climacus, Cassian, Richard of St Victor, Gerson, Catherine of Siena, Innocent III’s De Contemptu Mundi, Serafino da Fermo’s Pharetra Divini Amoris—St Philip’s favourite readings were the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi and The Life of Blessed Colombini by Feo Belcari), followed by a “discourse on the book,” a commentary and dialogue on the subject of the reading; (3) a discourse on the life of a saint; (4) a moral exhortation—a discourse on the virtues and vices; (5) a discourse on the history of the Church; and finally (6) an oratorio or spiritual canticle. (Source).

Herein we find the germ of Oratorian life, “the daily use of the Word of God” (Talpa, quoted here). St. Philip’s model is eminently conversational. The Oratory converts and sanctifies, not only through its stated arms of the sacraments, prayer, and preaching, but through discussionand, as well shall see, aesthetics.

St. Philip was not, however, given to ostentatious and idle chatter. He well understood the words of St. James, that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6 KJV). Consequently, he always urged his sons to mortify their speech as well as their reason and intellect. The Oratorians were to be wise, intelligent, even scholarly. But they were not to speak freely of the arts and sciences, nor were they to flaunt their learning. One Oratorian father went so far as to feign ignorance of Latin; another would always try to change the subject when any scholarly or humanistic matter came up in conversation. Amare nesciri“to love to be unknown”these words were ever on St. Philip’s lips.

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The Venerable Cardinal Caesar Baronius, author of the Annales Ecclesiastici, father of Church history. (Source).

None of this is to suggest that St. Philip was actively anti-intellectual. Far from it! After all, St. Philip was a devoted student of theology and philosophy in his younger days, and Father Faber calls even the mature St. Philip a “great student of history” (Faber 53).  Those words could perhaps be more truly applied to St. Philip’s spiritual son, the Venerable Cardinal Caesar Baronius. It was St. Philip who commanded Baronius to write the Annales Ecclesiastici, the first great work of church history in modern times. The project served a few functions. First, it got Baronius off of preaching, as he had the unpleasant but slightly amusing habit of turning every sermon into a lengthy and vivid discourse on the everlasting torments of hell (I hope that, when he is eventually canonized, the good Cardinal becomes the patron saint of horror writers). The project also productively occupied Baronius’s prodigious intellect, which St. Philip mortified in many other ways. For instance, Baronius was given kitchen duty so frequently that St. Philip playfully wrote above the stove, “Baronius, Coquus Perpetuus.” Finally, St. Philip and Baronius conceived of the book, which unexpectedly became a decades-long enterprise, as a way of challenging the then-dominant historiography of Protestant authors, as exemplified by the Magdeburg Centuries.  A cynic might call this bias. In context, it’s perhaps more fair to interpret Baronius’s motive as one very much akin to those that animate the scholarly disputes of our own day. And because of Baronius’s thoroughgoing method, academic rigor, and meticulous attention to detail, the Annales were received with respect even by those who disputed its claims. It was so impressive a work that several centuries later, Lord Acton could honestly call it “the greatest history of the Church ever written” (Source).

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St. Philip urging Baronius to write the Annales. (Source).

Nor was Baronius the only model of learning in the Oratory. His fellow cardinal, the aristocratic Francesco Maria Tarugi, was the fox to his hedgehog. Louis Bouyer writes that Tarugi “captivated everyone with his natural eloquence and was never at a loss, no matter what the topic of the moment might be” (Bouyer 64). Here again we see the mark of what we may call the specifically Oratorian geniuserudition crowned with beautiful style and fluency in speech.

If St. Philip stands for an appropriate humility of the intellect, Baronius for a rigorous love of truth, and Tarugi for eloquence in discourse, then we must turn to a fourth figure, the greatest scholar ever to enter the Oratorian life. I speak, of course, of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

In Newman’s long, productive, and complicated life, a few key themes emerge. Three are worth examining in connection with the intellectual tradition of the Oratory. First, we may duly note that Newman always exhibited a great love of knowledge for its own sake, and thus of Truth as such. As he writes in The Idea of a University,

Useful Knowledge then, I grant, has done its work; and Liberal Knowledge as certainly has not done its work,—that is, supposing, as the objectors assume, its direct end, like Religious Knowledge, is to make men better; but this I will not for an instant allow, and, unless I allow it, those objectors have said nothing to the purpose. I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. (The Idea of a University 120-21).

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Newman never abandoned the life of the mind. (Source).

Along with this purity of vision, we naturally find in Newman a perennial appreciation of academic engagement, and when necessary, controversy. Indeed, Newman rose to fame and eventually converted because of his involvement in the ecclesiastical turmoil of the 1830’s and 40’s. He produced his first two great works, Tracts for the Times (1833-1841, in collaboration with others) and The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833) in light of those disputes. Likewise, Newman articulated his great theories of doctrinal development (Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 1845) and the important role of the laity (“On Consulting the Faithful,” 1859) in texts occasioned by ongoing controversies within the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches respectively. And although he could be terribly sensitive to even the slightest criticism, Newman took pains to respond with courtesy, as he did to Charles Kingsley in his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865). While Newman never sought out polemics and controversies, he was willing to engage in them when the Truth and Honor of God was at stake.

Finally, we ought to remember that Newman was always animated by a sincere love of that singular matrix of the intellectual lifeacademic community. His experience at Oxford profoundly shaped his worldview. He is, of course, still widely regarded as one of the great theorists of higher learning. The Idea of a University (1852, 1858) remains one of the most influential texts on Catholic education in modern times. But the impression that Oxford left on Newman is deeper and more subtle. Newman was drawn to the Oratory in part because he recognized in it the same collegiality that defined the best of the houses at Oxford. Newman writes,

Now I will say in a word what is the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know, and that is, one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Take such a College…change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. (Newman, quoted here).

Newman first considered the Oratory in part because he hoped to offer a ministry to the intellectuals of Britain:

The local bishop, Nicholas Wiseman, invited them to the former seminary at Old Oscott while they decided what to do. Newman named it “Maryvale” and planned some sort of Catholic educational institute there. But then Wiseman sent them off to Rome for ordination. While there, they examined various religious congregations, and realised that St Philip’s Oratory was the most suitable. The Birmingham Oratory was accordingly set up in Maryvale (2 February 1847), before settling on its present site, with another Oratory in London. (Oxford Oratory).

Sadly, Newman was unable to achieve his dream of an Oratory in Oxford during his lifetime. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO has a monograph on the subject, worth looking into. Suffice it to say, Newman looked upon the university as a major and potentially ripe field for an intellectual, aesthetically sensitive Catholic missionary presence. There is a reason why Catholic ministries to university students are very often called Newman Centers.

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The Oratorian tradition of scholarship continues today, as with, inter alia, the work of Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory. Here is the cover of his 2015 book, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri. (Source).

Insofar as we are trying to draw out principles that might be of use to the Church in the face of the various cultural challenges which prompted Dreher to write The Benedict Option, I think the Oratorian example, particularly as reflected in Newman’s life and work, may be of use. What lesson we should take? That we ought not abandon the universities and all that they stand for. Yes, there are failures of free speech, episodes of intimidation, and other serious problems at many institutions of higher learning. Dreher, to his credit, has done a good job reporting on the recent madness at Middlebury and Evergreen State.

But the universities overwhelmingly remain the central locations of serious intellectual exchange in this country and the world. While there are some impressive institutions of higher learning outside of or parallel to the formal university system, these are few and far between (see, inter alia, the Maryvale Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture). For what it’s worth, Alasdair MacIntyre has explicitly argued for a retrenchment of our position within the academy, both in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) and elsewhere. As Rowan Williams notes in his review of the book, Dreher seems to write off public discourse entirely. Dreher’s decision to do so is very foolish, more likely to hurt than help the position of Christians in our culture. Moreover, it is alien to the quintessentially Oratorian spirit of a man like Newman.

Contemplate Beauty

One of the marks of the Oratorian charism is a devoted attention to aesthetics. Perhaps it is only appropriate that a vocation emerging from and responding to the Neo-Platonist Renaissance should share its love of beauty. The Florentine St. Philip seems to have known instinctively that beauty evangelizes well and widely.

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Baroque apse of Santa Maria in Vallicella, by Pietro da Cortona (Source).

The exercises of the Oratory were never complete without a great deal of music. Louis Bouyer tells us that St. Philip “liked the conversations to be interspersed with music and the meetings to be brought to a close by some singing, so that the evening was filled with harmony” (Bouyer 54). St. Philip engaged the talents of some of the greatest Roman composers of his day. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina took St. Philip as his confessor, and Giovanni Animuccia was so frequently involved that Bouyer tells us, “In all truth nothing but one of Animuccia’s lovely motets could distill the essence of the Oratory and pass it on undiluted” (Bouyer 55). That same essence continued in the Congregation even after St. Philip’s death. Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo premiered at the house of the Roman Oratorians in 1600, and as a result, is generally considered the first oratorio.

St. Philip did not limit his careful deployment of beautiful and holy music to the formal exercises of the Oratory. He also knew that the long walks and pilgrimages he conducted around Rome would more easily win souls if they were elevated by sweet harmony. As Bouyer reports,

On such occasions music played a more important role than ever. Animuccia would bring along Rome’s best musicians, and the ‘Adoremus te Christe’ by Orlando de Lassus, or the ‘O vos omnes’ by Vittoria, would mingle with the sound of the fountains’ silvery cascades, of the leaves rustling in the sea breeze…On their way in the freshness of those early summer mornings on the Roman Campagna, Serafino Razzi’s Laudi would alternate with Gregorian Litanies.

At San Sebastiano…would follow a fine Polyphonic Mass, perhaps Palestrina’s wonderful ‘Mass of Pope Marcellus’ or his ‘Ecce Sacerdos magnus’…On their return to the centre of the city they would visit Santa Maria Maggiore on the heights of the Esquiline. Beneath the ceiling which Alexander VI had just decorated with the first American gold to be brought by Christopher Columbus from Peru, and among the Ionic columns of pure white marble, the day would draw to a close in an outburst of Palestrina music, and a ‘Salve Regina’ would fill the falling night with its loveliness gathered from the rivers and the stars. (Bouyer 57-60).

Nor was St. Philip insensible to the appeal of visual beauty. He was fond of Federico Barocci. We can detect in Barocci’s work a certain light sfumato, an airy other-worldliness that hovers over the strikingly intimate scenes the artist depicts. In the works of Barocci, there is something of the spirit of St. Philip, in whom the presence of God was so manifest and so exemplary in one so strangely human.

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Madonna di San Simone, by Federico Barocci, c. 1567. (Source).

Some years after St. Philip’s death, the Oratorian fathers commissioned Caravaggio to create a sizeable painting for a side-altar. The result was the famous “Entombment of Christ (1603-04), now hanging in the Vatican Museums.

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The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio, c. 1603-04. (Source).

These artistic traditions have not fallen away in later houses of the Congregation. The Brompton Oratory in London is renowned for its architecture as well as its world-class Schola Cantorum. Its founder, Fr. Faber, gained wide respect as a hymnodist and poet. Newman also wrote some excellent verse, though he is more commonly regarded as a master prose stylist; Joyce considered him the greatest prose writer in the English language. St. Philip wrote some poetry too, though he destroyed most of his verses before he died. All that survive are a few religious sonnets. As one Italian author puts it,

Philip was perhaps the first who, after the reform in our poetry effected by Bembo and other distinguished men, treated religion with that fine poetic taste with which Petrarch treated the philosophy of Plato. Philip flourished as a poet about 1540; and then he forsook literature and gave himself wholly to God, and flourished far more in holiness, until his death. But though he no longer wrote poetry, he did not set it altogether aside. He well knew its great uses when guided by a christian spirit, and therefore he made a great point of it in his Congregation. He read poetry himself, and ordered that it should be always read and used by his followers in the way described in our previous notes. (Crescimbeni, quoted by Capecelatro, here).

St. Philip frequently found ways of incorporating the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi into the spiritual reading that formed such an important part of the exercises of the Oratory. It was one of only two books we know he brought with him from Florence. The Laudi was a text to which St. Philip returned frequently throughout his life, and one that always bore new graces (Bouyer 53).

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“L’Angelo mostra a San Filippo Neri un dipinto della Vergine con Bambino e San Giovannino,” Circle of Carlo Maratti (Source).

All of this goes to say that St. Philip and his sons were no philistines. They appreciated and, in some cases, produced fine art across a variety of disciplines. While their vocation was never primarily or deliberately aesthetic, Oratorians throughout history have understood the spiritual importance of beauty.

Dreher hits this point pretty well in The Benedict Option. In that sense, my dissent from his recommendation may be more a matter of emphasis than of substance. Insofar as we differ at all, I think my issue is summed up well by Rebecca Bratten Wise:

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

Nevertheless, I do strongly criticize Dreher for lacking a sufficiently sacramental vision. The Oratorian aesthetic makes up for this failure, in that it is primarily liturgical.

Live and Love Eucharistically

And thus, we finally turn to the most important feature of St. Philip’s life and charism, the feature which made him a saint and a father of saintshis burning, Eucharistic charity. We can find evidence of St. Philip’s Eucharistic life in the peculiar and highly somatic form of mysticism that we encounter in his vitae. St. Philip never trusted ecstasies and visions, though he was granted such graces himselfusually in connection with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.

Capecelatro depicts the scene for us:

But now, in his 76th year, he could no longer restrain the impetuosity of Divine love which glowed within his heart, and he resolved to say Mass in private that he might give free course to his devotion.

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“Madonna con Bambino in trono e san Filippo Neri,” Giacomo Zoboli (Source)

From that time his usual method of saying Mass was this: up to the Domine, non sum dignus, everything went on as before; but at the solemn moment which precedes the priest’s communion, those who were in the chapel withdrew, the server lighted a lamp, put out the altar candles, closed the shutters of the windows, locked both doors, and left the Saint alone with God. Philip would have none to witness the raptures of his love, or to check the freedom of his sighs, words, and tears. A notice was then hung on the door, with these words: “Silence—the Father is saying Mass.” He would remain alone with Jesus in the Adorable Sacrament for two hours, hours of contemplation and of prayer with many tears, and urgent intercession for the Holy Church, the Bride of Jesus Christ, that He would render it as holy in the life of its children as it is in its faith and teaching. After two hours the server came back and knocked gently at the door; if the Saint answered, he opened the door, relighted the candles on the altar, opened the window-shutters, and Philip finished his Mass in the usual way. If the server received no answer, he went away for some time longer, nor did he enter the chapel until the Saint gave some sign that he might do so. What passed in those hours is known to God alone; those who saw Philip when his Mass was over were struck with amazement and awe, until his countenance was pale and wasted, as of one about to die. (Capecelatro 131-32).

And this in the immediate age of Trent! What are we to make of these irregularities?

St. Philip’s Mass is not a model of liturgical praxis, but of liturgical spirituality. In his own highly idiosyncratic prayer, St. Philip becomes a universal model of the soul in adoration of the Eucharistic God. St. Philip was, indeed, one of the great apostles of adoration in his time, as he popularized the Forty Hours’ devotion in Rome. Today, the Quarant’Ore remains a tradition of the Church and the Oratory throughout the world.

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The Forty Hours’ Devotion at the London Oratory. (Source).

St. Philip’s sons are known for their tender devotion to the liturgical rubrics. In fact, I draw my title from a line in Fr. Jonathan Robinson’s foreword to Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (2014), by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. Fr. Robinson speaks of an “Oratorian option” not in relation to the early stages of the Benedict Option controversy, but as “a Reform-of-the-Reform ars celebrandi” (Robinson, in Kwasniewski 3). Indeed, the Oratories of the Anglophone world have a particularly strong reputation for their reverent and careful celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As with the best monasteries, the best Oratories exhibit “dignity and magnificence of the liturgical ars celebrandi” (source). In London, Birmingham, Oxford, Toronto, Vienna, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington, Brisbane, York, Manchesterin short, wherever the spirit of St. Philip prevails over all rivals and distractionswe find a true Domus Orationis, a “House of Prayer” (Matt. 21:13).

The chief fruit of this discipline is supernatural charity. St. Philip sought to found his congregation on this virtue, not the vows which have historically defined the religious state. There is a Trinitarian logic to this plan. For, just as the superabundant love in the heart of the Trinity impels the Three Divine Persons freely to create, redeem, and sanctify, so too should the love of the Oratory overflow into the streets and lead its members to good works. The love of God descends to a love of brethren, which descends in turn to a love of neighbor. Each of these lesser loves ought to confirm, extend, and refine the higher loves. This chain of charity, then, is a veritable Jacob’s ladder, for those in the angelic state are called ever to climb up and down until their passage into beatitude.

Of course, the basic pattern here is not unique to the Oratory. What sets the Oratory apart is its love of the world. A kind of holy worldliness distinguishes the Oratorian spirit, even as St. Philip’s own outlandish behavior earned him a reputation for other-worldliness. I don’t mean to suggest that St. Philip and his sons were given over to the permissive and pagan times in which they lived. Rather, I mean that St. Philip and the Oratorians are characterized by two separate but related qualities that proceed from their Eucharistic life.

First, St. Philip was renowned for prudence. After all, he was a much sought-after confessor. The irony at the heart of so many of his jokes is that, by mocking his own and others’ pretensions, he demonstrated how utterly divorced so many of our lives are from good Christian common sense. In this respect, he was a true fool for Christ very much after the Eastern model. St. Philip’s prudence did indeed appear foolish to those whose vision could not penetrate to the mysteries of God.

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From Guido Reni. It seems only appropriate that St. Philip should be so frequently depicted fully vested for Mass. (Source).

While in other ages, prudence led some saints to undertake and advise great hardships for the kingdom, that same virtue taught St. Philip a different path. He drew his own strength from fastidious and hidden rigors, but he always counseled his penitents to avoid excessive asceticism. Once, when the future Cardinal Tarugi, still young and wealthy and vain, came to him for confession, he asked St. Philip if he might wear a hairshirt. St. Philip saw through the man’s pride. He assentedbut only allowed Tarugi to wear the hairshirt on top of all his other garments! For such an admirer of Savonarola, St. Philip could hardly have been farther from his practice when it came to matters of mortification. What little he did urge he usually salted with his own brand of humor. He famously took the Dominican novices of the Minerva out on long picnics and urged them to eat and grow fat. So, too, his pleasant indulgence of children was legendary. And what of those long walks with the crowds under the Roman sky?

St. Philip loved the world. He hated its lies and vices, but he was ever able to peer beyond that sordid stratum and into God’s glory. As one source puts it, “St. Philip was the Apostle of Rome, who by means of the ‘counter-fascination of purity and truth’ reconverted both clerics and laymen in the city at the centre of the Church.” Or, as Louis Bouyer tells us,

Does not Philip, in fact, merely yield to Renaissance optimism? Does he not ignore original sin when he bases his apostolate on freedom and confidence? His ‘religion without tears’ surely expects from undisciplined nature what the discipline of grace alone can produce?

…There is no doubt that it was dangerous to go out against the new paganism with no other arms save love, and just as dangerous to expose his apparently vulnerable simplicity to its disturbing influence, yet his outrageous method made him the victorious apostle of neo-pagan Rome. (Bouyer 28-29).

The love that conquered Rome was the fruit of St. Philip’s sacramental interior life. The unique grace of his special relationship with the Holy Spirit was a cardinal element of that life, but so was his ardent devotion to the Eucharist.

It was this element that I found so disturbingly absent in Dreher’s book. There is no properly Christ-like love of the lost in The Benedict Option, only one angry jeremiad after another. And why? Perhaps because Dreher hardly ever mentions the Eucharist. Dreher writes as if Christ’s presence on earth is an afterthought, one tool among many to be deployed in the quest for community. The result is a spiritually crabbed book, insufficiently sacramental and brimming with self-righteous anxiety.

St. Philip shows us another way.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet to halt the various troubles that the Church faces in what seems like an increasingly hostile, secular West. Christ never abandons us to the narrow limits of our own imagination and resources. Instead, He furnishes the Church with untold gifts, charisms, and holy exemplars among the saints. In this sense, the recent proliferation of “Options”to which this essay contributesis probably a blessing.

But we musn’t forget one ineradicable fact. Christ never raises these lesser creations over His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. There is no blessing, no vocation, and no grace that can go beyond the work of the Adorable Sacrament. If we forsake the one rock of the Altar and instead build upon the sand of the innumerable personal graces and unique charisms spread throughout the Church Universal, then all of our works will shatter beneath the hammer of the storm.

St. Philip Neri understood this truth and lived it out across the long span of his ministry. Those qualities which distinguish the Oratorian charismdomesticity, localism, intellectual rigor, humility, collegiality, aesthetics, urbanity, prudence, and love of the worldcan only be integrated and understood in the light of the sanctuary lamp. St. Philip’s entire life was a ceaseless testament to the power of the Eucharist “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 KJV). In keeping close to the Sacrament and to the example of St. Philip, we may just make it after all.

Newman’s Novena to St. Philip Neri

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Articles of devotion to St. Philip Neri, Florence. Photo taken by the author in June of 2015.

St. Philip Neri is my favorite saint. I came to his acquaintance during the summer after my second year in college, when I studied abroad in locations marked by the presence of Oratories. I believe that I was, so to speak, “introduced” to St. Philip by his famous son, the Blessed Cardinal Newman, whose work I had already read and admired. It is also perhaps of some significance that I had devoted that year of my Catholic life to the Holy Spirit. Desiring a deeper friendship with St. Philip, I followed along with Newman’s novena to St. Philip last May. Having read several biographies and having started a blog, I thought I might try my own hand at offering some small act of devotion to St. Philip in the form of nine brief meditations on his life and virtues.

Unfortunately, it seems that the frenzy of graduation week has crept up on me, and I was unable to complete this task. I do, however, offer my own biography of the saint. My sources are chiefly the various Oratorian materials produced by the London and Oxford houses, Good Philip, by Alfonso Cardinal Capecelatro, the biographies by V.J. Matthews, Louis Bouyer, Anne Hope, and Theodore Maynard, and finally, sundry writings by Cardinal Newman, Fr. Faber, Fr. Jonathan Robinson, and Monsignor Knox. All are excellent resources, and I would be happy to provide more details about them in the comments section if asked.

The actual text of the novena will be taken from the Newman Reader, which is my go-to source for all things Newman. I claim no authorship of these texts and am entirely in debt to that great theologian, the Blessed Cardinal of the Birmingham Oratory. I have decided to do this, rather than simply link to the Newman Reader, in part because I am starting my novena a day later than Newman does. Newman began his novena to St. Philip on the 17th and ended it on the 25th, presumably because of the various festivities that the 26th would usher in. However, as I do not live in an Oratory, I will be starting and ending a day later, so that the readings of the ninth day fall on the feast proper. There is a certain liturgical grace that comes with the feast this year, but I will discuss that in another post.

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John Henry Newman as an Oratorian. (Source)

For now, I’ll say that I will be offering this novena for the vocation of Nathan Hart, whom some of you may know over at Simeon Song. I invite you to join me. Nathan’s late leap into the blogosphere was one of the events that inspired me to establish my own masthead. He will be entering the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle at Silverstream Priory, Stamullen, Co. Meath, Ireland, on May 31st, the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. If for some reason you were unaware of the monastery, you can read up on the its remarkable spirituality and vocation at Vultus Christi, written by its priorDom Mark Daniel Kirby, OSB.

Pray for Nathan as he pursues the Lord’s will. St. Philip, as we shall see, is a very good heavenly guide for young men. He is especially helpful for those who are trying to discern the will of God in their lives.

 

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A famous image of St. Philip. He is customarily depicted in a red or rose chasuble in iconography. (Source).

Each day, start by reading the meditation and prayer, and then say the prayer of Cardinal Baronius:

Look down from heaven, Holy Father, from the loftiness of that mountain to the lowliness of this valley; from that harbour of quietness and tranquillity to this calamitous sea.  And now that the darkness of this world hinders no more those benignant eyes of thine from looking clearly into all things, look down and visit, O most diligent keeper, this vineyard which thy right hand planted with so much labour, anxiety and peril.  To thee then we fly; from thee we seek for aid; to thee we give our whole selves unreservedly.  Thee we adopt as our patron  and defender; undertake the cause of our salvation, protect thy clients.  To thee we appeal as our leader; rule thine army fighting against the assaults of the devil.  To thee, kindest of pilots, we give up the rudder of our lives; steer this little ship of thine, and, placed as thou art on high, keep us off all the rocks of evil desires, that with thee for our pilot and guide, we may safely come to the port of eternal bliss. Amen.

Those of you who prefer Latin can find it at this link.

On the ninth day, conclude by adding on the Collect and Litany at the very end of this post.

St. Philip’s Life

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Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595), by Carlo Dolci, c. 1645. The finest portrait of the saint was painted long after he died. In his own life, St. Philip was patron of the arts, and was even Palestrina’s confessor. (Image Source).

St. Philip Romolo Neri was born in Florence to a loving father and stepmother and brought up in the faith by the Dominicans of San Marco. The embers of Savonarola’s fiery spirit still burned in the memories of the Florentines, and for the rest of his life, St. Philip would hold the reformer in a high regard. But his temperament was as different from Savonarola’s as day is from night. St. Philip was always good-natured, kind, and generous. He was not overly pious, with play-acting the Mass or anything of that sort. Instead, he cultivated a winning personality that earned him the nickname “Pippo Buono.” He was remarkably humble, never giving much weight to the things of this world. Once, he was shown a beautiful diagram of his family tree; he promptly tore it up.

When he reached adulthood, St. Philip went to seek his fortune with his uncle Romolo, a merchant in San Germano. He found that the life of commerce was not conducive to his temperament, and so, after praying at the shrines of the Benedictines at Monte Cassino and Gaeta, he left for Rome almost penniless. The city had just been sacked by the soldiers of the Emperor, and work was hard to come by. Nevertheless, St. Philip was soon employed as a tutor for the Caccia family. The boys he taught would later go on to lives of holiness as priests. St. Philip made few friends in this period of his life. Like a hermit, he would hardly eat anything and spent his nights in the catacombs, remembering and praying to the martyrs of the early Church. On one such occasion, while he was in the catacombs of San Sebastiano, he had a mystical experience that would forever change his life. The Holy Spirit descended into his heart as a ball of fire. For the rest of his life, he would report heart palpitations, an incredible heat, and physical shaking – sometimes enough to move the chair in which he sat. Upon occasion, it was enough to convert a sinner only to draw their head to his Spirit-infused breast. Only in very old age did he confide his secret. When he died, his heart was found to be considerably enlarged. Several ribs were dislocated by its growth.

But in youth, he kept all this under wraps. He slowly started to gain a following. He would frequent the Seven Stational Churches, even leading bands of pilgrims on picnics. As he got older, these journeys grew in size and festivity. But in the early days, he was followed only by a few young men who were attracted to a charismatic tutor. He would also visit and help in the hospitals, perhaps the most common form of charitable work in Renaissance Italy. He would later exert a great influence on that marvelous saint of the hospitals, St. Camillus of Lellis.

St. Philip and his friends moved into the Church of San Girolamo, where, every afternoon, they would have a time of prayer, hymn-singing, recitation of the Bible, public commentary on the Scriptures, and some lesson from the history of the Church or the lives of the saints. This was the first Oratory. St. Philip’s way of life looked mighty suspicious to the authorities in a Rome still reeling from the Reformation, and he was investigated and opposed by several figures – namely an irate cardinal close to the Pope. But that cardinal died before the end of his investigation into St. Philip, an event whispered to be the wrath of God. Every other opposition fell away, and in time, St. Philip became an established figure in Rome. He was eventually persuaded to seek ordination. While never a Doctor of the Church, St. Philip learned his theology well, and was able to put it to good use in his later pastoral life.

When the Church of the St. John of the Florentines requested that St. Philip move to their community, he balked. Instead, he sent some of his best disciples, including Cesare Baronius, later to become a great cardinal and historian of the Church. However, all of the priests he sent were required to return to San Girolamo every day for the Oratory sessions. In this practice, we can perceive the seeds of the Congregation that would later flourish throughout the Catholic world.

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The Chiesa Nuova, Rome. (Source)

When St. Philip was given the chance to build a new church, Santa Maria in Vallicella, he stunned the architects by boldly demanding a much larger structure than expected. Yet build it he did, and the “Chiesa Nuova,” or “New Church,” became the nerve center for the entire Oratorian family. St. Philip always resisted turning the Oratory into a religious order; today, it is still no such thing. Oratorians take no vows, but are bound to each other by a promise of charity. Love (and, one must assume, a tremendous amount of patience) holds each Oratory together. The closest parallel would be the Benedictines, who live in one place their entire life and belong to a wide, loose, familial confederation.

St. Philip Neri made friends with a great many Romans, and more than a few saints. He was on close terms with many of the Popes of his day, and more than one went to him for confession. Two great cardinals came from his immediate circle, Baronius the historian and Tarugi the politician. St. Philip was particularly intimate with the great Capuchin mystic, St. Felix of Cantalice. He also sent so many men to the Jesuits that St. Ignatius took to calling him “the Bell of the Society,” always bringing in more, but never entering himself. All in all, it was for the best. St. Philip’s temperament and spirituality were thoroughly un-Jesuit. Where St. Ignatius was hard, St. Philip was soft; where St. Ignatius was demanding, St. Philip was persuasive; where St. Ignatius sent his sons to a thousand works, St. Philip allowed them but one. But the two saints always held each other in a high, slightly bemused regard. St. Philip was the confessor of St. Camillus of Lellis as well as the composers Palestrina and Animuccia. Their compositions for St. Philip’s afternoon meetings became the first oratorios. St. Philip was always trying to draw souls to Christ by way of holy beauty. This quality, along with so many others, would make him a particularly apt spiritual father for the revival of Catholicism in 19th century Britain.

St. Philip could be a very hard confessor. He could tell if someone was holding back a sin, and he’d often relate the substance of that sin to the penitent himself. Yet his demands were always tempered by a certain tenderness. He was never inclined to endorse any kind of extreme asceticism, and positively distrusted anyone who claimed special visions and ecstasies.

Nevertheless, the Lord did grant him many such graces anywayand usually when saying Mass. St. Philip was a mystic of the Eucharist. Just in order to get through the process of vesting, let alone the Mass itself, he would have his server read jokes to him in the sacristy. In his old age, he would go into ecstasies at the Masses he celebrated, sometimes taking a few hours to say the entire liturgy. He also popularized the devotion of the Forty Hours of Adoration, a tradition that still takes place in so many of the Oratories of the world.

St. Philip was known as a joker, and he would teach his disciples to mortify their reason through his many practical jokes. Along with the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi, the joke books then popular in Florence and Rome were some of his favorite reading. He once showed up to a formal function with half of his beard shaved off. At another solemn occasion, he started to stroke the beard of a Swiss guard for no apparent cause. At yet another time, he made his aristocratic disciple Tarugi follow and carry a little lapdog through the city, to the jeers of the crowds. He is known as the “Joyful Saint” for very good reasons.

He effected such a change in the devotions and morals of the broken, decadent, and dispirited city, that he became known as the Third Apostle of Rome. When he died, he was immediately the subject of widespread devotion. The official workings of the Vatican could not proceed quickly enough for the people of Rome, who prayed to the departed priest with all the zeal they could muster. When he was finally elevated to sainthood in 1622, the Romans took to saying that the Pope had canonized “four Spaniards and a saint.”

Yet Spain would not receive the Florentine’s spiritual heritage in its fullness. Nor would France, where Cardinal de Bérulle heard of the Oratory, liked the idea, and started his own order with a very different organization and spirituality. The French Oratorians may be considered St. Philip’s nephews, but not his sons. For many centuries, only Italy bore the mark of what St. Philip really wanted from his sons – holy, independent houses of secular priests bound together by nothing more than the bond of charity.

And the Italian Oratories persevered valiantly until a convert from Anglicanism came to Rome to study for the priesthood: John Henry Newman. It was Newman, along with Fr. Frederick William Faber and Fr. Ambrose St. John, who brought the Oratory to England, where it thrived as almost nowhere else. The Oratories of Birmingham and London were the great centers of English Catholicism, leavening all the other efforts of the Church in that land. Oratorians played a significant role in the lives of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R. Tolkien, to mention but a few. The Oratory has seen an explosion in the United Kingdom over the last few decades, with new houses in Oxford, York, Manchester, Cardiff, and Bournemouth having opened or set to open in the near future. It seems that in these troubled times, the Holy Spirit is multiplying their numbers for some great work. More and more Oratories are starting in the United States, many on the lines of the English and Italian models. In Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Washington, Kalamazoo, and so many more cities, St. Philip is making his home. In these days of preparation for his feast, let us remember the great works God has wrought through him and his sons.

Day 1: Philip’s Humility

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The famous effigy of St. Philip in the Roman Oratory, made while he was still living. It would go around to the Seven Churches when he could no longer make the pilgrimage. (Source)

If Philip heard of anyone having committed a crime, he would say, “Thank God that I have not done worse.”

At confession he would shed abundance of tears, and say, “I have never done a good action.”

When a penitent showed that she could not bear the rudeness shown towards him by certain persons who were under great obligations to him, he answered her, “If I were humble, God would not send this to me.”

When one of his spiritual children said to him, “Father, I wish to have something of yours for devotion, for I know you are a Saint,” he turned to her with a face full of anger, and broke out into these words: “Begone with you! I am a devil, and not a saint.”

To another who said to him, “Father, a temptation has come to me to think that you are not what the world takes you for,” he made answer: “Be sure of this, that I am a man like my neighbours, and nothing more.”

If he heard of any who had a good opinion of him, he used to say, “O poor me! how many poor girls will be greater in Paradise than I shall be!”

He avoided all marks of honour. He could not bear to receive any signs of respect. When people wished to touch his clothes, and knelt as he passed by, he used to say, “Get up! get out of my way!” He did not like people to kiss his hand; though he sometimes let them do so, lest he should hurt their feelings.

He was an enemy to all rivalry and contention. He always took in good part everything that was said to him. He had a particular dislike of affectation, whether in speaking, or in dressing, or in anything else.

He could not bear two-faced persons; as for liars, he could not endure them, and was continually reminding his spiritual children to avoid them as they would a pestilence.

He always asked advice, even on affairs of minor importance. His constant counsel to his penitents was, that they should not trust in themselves, but always take the advice of others, and get as many prayers as they could.

He took great pleasure in being lightly esteemed, nay, even despised.

He had a most pleasant manner of transacting business with others, great sweetness in conversation, and was full of compassion and consideration.

He had always a dislike to speak of himself. The phrases “I said,” “I did,” were rarely in his mouth. He exhorted others never to make a display of themselves, especially in those things which tended to their credit, whether in earnest or in joke.

As St. John the Evangelist, when old, was continually saying, “Little children, love one another,” so Philip was ever repeating his favourite lesson, “Be humble; think little of yourselves.”

He said that if we did a good work, and another took the credit of it to himself, we ought to rejoice and thank God.

He said no one ought to say, “Oh! I shall not fall, I shall not commit sin,” for it was a clear sign that he would fall. He was greatly displeased with those who made excuses for themselves, and called such persons. “My Lady Eve,” because Eve defended herself instead of being humble.

Prayer

PHILIP, my glorious patron, who didst count as dross the praise, and even the good esteem of men, obtain for me also, from my Lord and Saviour, this fair virtue by thy prayers. How haughty are my thoughts, how contemptuous are my words, how ambitious are my works. Gain for me that low esteem of self with which thou wast gifted; obtain for me a knowledge of my own nothingness, that I may rejoice when I am despised, and ever seek to be great only in the eyes of my God and Judge.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 2: Philip’s Devotion

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St. Philip had a tender devotion to Our Lady, and she gave him many outstanding graces. (Source).

The inward flame of devotion in Philip was so intense that he sometimes fainted in consequence of it, or was forced to throw himself upon his bed, under the sickness of divine love.

When he was young he sometimes felt this divine fervour so vehemently as to be unable to contain himself, throwing himself as if in agony on the ground and crying out, “No more, Lord, no more.”

What St. Paul says of himself seemed to be fulfilled in Philip: “I am filled with consolation—I over-abound with joy.”

Yet, though he enjoyed sweetnesses, he used to say that he wished to serve God, not out of interest—that is, because there was pleasure in it—but out of pure love, even though he felt no gratification in loving Him.

When he was a layman, he communicated every morning. When he was old, he had frequent ecstacies during his Mass.

Hence it is customary in pictures of Philip to paint him in red vestments, to record his ardent desire to shed his blood for the love of Christ.

He was so devoted to his Lord and Saviour that he was always pronouncing the name of Jesus with unspeakable sweetness. He had also an extraordinary pleasure in saying the Creed, and he was so fond of the “Our Father” that he lingered on each petition in such a way that it seemed as if he never would get through them.

He had such a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament that, when he was ill, he could not sleep till he had communicated.

When he was reading or meditating on the Passion he was seen to turn as pale as ashes, and his eyes filled with tears.

Once when he was ill, they brought him something to drink. He took the glass in his hand, and when he was putting it to his mouth stopped, and began to weep most bitterly. He cried out, “Thou, my Christ, Thou upon the Cross wast thirsty, and they gave Thee nothing but gall and vinegar to drink; and I am in bed, with so many comforts around me, and so many persons to attend to me.”

Yet Philip did not make much account of this warmth and acuteness of feeling; for he said that Emotion was not Devotion, that tears were no sign that a man was in the grace of God, neither must we suppose a man holy merely because he weeps when he speaks of religion.

Philip was so devoted to the Blessed Virgin that he had her name continually in his mouth. He had two ejaculations in her honour. One, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me.” The other, simply “Virgin Mother,” for he said that in those two words all possible praises of Mary are contained.

He had also a singular devotion to St. Mary Magdalen, on whose vigil he was born, and for the Apostles St. James and St. Philip; also for St. Paul the Apostle, and for St. Thomas of Aquinum, Doctor of the Church.

Prayer

PHILIP, my glorious Patron, gain for me a portion of that gift which thou hadst so abundantly. Alas! thy heart was burning with love; mine is all frozen towards God, and alive only for creatures. I love the world, which can never make me happy; my highest desire is to be well off here below. O my God, when shall I learn to love nothing else but Thee? Gain for me, O Philip, a pure love, a strong love, and an efficacious love, that, loving God here upon earth, I may enjoy the sight of Him, together with thee and all saints, hereafter in heaven.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 3: Philip’s Exercise of Prayer

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A depiction of St. Philip by the contemporary Italian artist, Salvo Russo. (Source).

From very boyhood the servant of God gave himself up to prayer, until he acquired such a habit of it, that, wherever he was, his mind was always lifted up to heavenly things.

Sometimes he forgot to eat; sometimes, when he was dressing, he left off, being carried away in his thought to heaven, with his eyes open, yet abstracted from all things around him.

It was easier for Philip to think upon God, than for men of the world to think of the world.

If anyone entered his room suddenly, he would most probably find him so rapt in prayer, that, when spoken to, he did not give the right answer, and had to take a turn or two up and down the room before he fully came to himself.

If he gave way to his habit of prayer in the most trifling degree, he immediately became lost in contemplation.

It was necessary to distract him lest this continual stretch of mind should be prejudicial to his health.

Before transacting business, however trivial, he always prayed; when asked a question, he never answered till he had recollected himself.

He began praying when he went to bed, and as soon as he awoke, and he did not usually sleep more than four, or at the most five hours.

Sometimes, if anyone showed that he had observed that Philip went to bed late or rose early in order to pray, he would answer, “Paradise is not made for sluggards.”

He was more than ordinarily intent on prayer at the more solemn feasts, or at a time of urgent spiritual necessities; above all, in Holy Week.

Those who could not make long meditations he advised to lift up their minds repeatedly to God in ejaculatory prayers, as “Jesus, increase my faith,” “Jesus, grant that I may never offend Thee.”

Philip introduced family prayer into many of the principal houses of Rome.

When one of his penitents asked him to teach him how to pray, he answered, “Be humble and obedient, and the Holy Ghost will teach you.”

He had a special devotion for the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, and daily poured out before Him most fervent prayers for gifts and graces.

Once, when he was passing the night in prayer in the Catacombs, that great miracle took place of the Divine presence of the Holy Ghost descending upon him under the appearance of a ball of fire, entering into his mouth and lodging in his breast, from which time he had a supernatural palpitation of the heart.

He used to say that when our prayers are in the way of being granted, we must not leave off, but pray as fervently as before.

He especially recommended beginners to meditate on the four last things, and used to say that he who does not in his thoughts and fears go down to hell in his lifetime, runs a great risk of going there when he dies.

When he wished to show the necessity of prayer, he said that a man without prayer was an animal without reason.

Many of his disciples improved greatly in this exercise—not religious only, but secular persons, artisans, merchants, physicians, lawyers, and courtiers—and became such men of prayer as to receive extraordinary favours from God.

Prayer

PHILIP, my holy Patron, teach me by thy example, and gain for me by thy intercessions, to seek my Lord and God at all times and in all places, and to live in His presence and in sacred intercourse with Him. As the children of this world look up to rich men or men in station for the favour which they desire, so may I ever lift up my eyes and hands and heart towards heaven, and betake myself to the Source of all good for those goods which I need. As the children of this world converse with their friends and find their pleasure in them, so may I ever hold communion with Saints and Angels, and with the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of my Lord. Pray with me, O Philip, as thou didst pray with thy penitents here below, and then prayer will become sweet to me, as it did to them.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 4: Philip’s Purity

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St. Philip in tiles. Although I don’t know where this photo was taken, I am reminded of the thriving tradition of decorative tiling in Portugal. (Source).

Philip well knowing the pleasure which God takes in cleanness of heart, had no sooner come to years of discretion, and to the power of distinguishing between good and evil, than he set himself to wage war against the evils and suggestions of his enemy, and never rested till he had gained the victory. Thus, notwithstanding he lived in the world when young, and met with all kinds of persons, he preserved his virginity spotless in those dangerous years of his life.

No word was ever heard from his lips which would offend the most severe modesty, and in his dress, his carriage, and countenance, he manifested the same beautiful virtue.

One day, while he was yet a layman, some profligate persons impudently tempted him to commit sin. When he saw that flight was impossible, he began to speak to them of the hideousness of sin and the awful presence of God. This he did with such manifest distress, such earnestness, and such fervour, that his words pierced their abandoned hearts as a sword, and not only persuaded them to give up their horrible thought, but even reclaimed them from their evil ways.

At another time some bad men, who are accustomed to think no one better than themselves, invited him on some pretext into their house, under the belief that he was not what the world took him to be; and then, having got possession of him, thrust him into a great temptation. Philip, in this strait, finding the doors locked, knelt down and began to pray to God with such astonishing fervour and heartfelt heavenly eloquence, that the two poor wretches who were in the room did not dare to speak to him, and at last themselves left him and gave him a way to escape.

His virginal purity shone out of his countenance. His eyes were so clear and bright, even to the last years of his life, that no painter ever succeeded in giving the expression of them, and it was not easy for anyone to keep looking on him for any length of time, for he dazzled them like an Angel of Paradise.

Moreover, his body, even in his old age, emitted a fragrance which, even in his decrepit old age, refreshed those who came near him; and many said that they felt devotion infused into them by the mere smell of his hands.

As to the opposite vice. The ill odour of it was not to the Saint a mere figure of speech, but a reality, so that he could detect those whose souls were blackened by it; and he used to say that it was so horrible that nothing in the world could equal it, nothing, in short, but the Evil Spirit himself. Before his penitents began their confession he sometimes said, “O my son, I know your sins already.”

Many confessed that they were at once delivered from temptations by his merely laying his hands on their heads. The very mention of his name had a power of shielding from Satan those who were assailed by his fiery darts.

He exhorted men never to trust themselves, whatever experience they might have of themselves, or however long their habits of virtue.

He used to say that humility was the true guard of chastity; and that not to have pity for another in such cases was a forerunner of a speedy fall in ourselves; and that when he found a man censorious, and secure of himself, and without fear, he gave him up for lost.

Prayer

PHILIP, my glorious Patron, who didst ever keep unsullied the white lily of thy purity, with such jealous care that the majesty of this fair virtue beamed from thine eyes, shone in thy hands, and was fragrant in thy breath, obtain for me that gift from the Holy Ghost, that neither the words nor the example of sinners may ever make any impression on my soul. And, since it is by avoiding occasions of sin, by prayer, by keeping myself employed, and by the frequent use of the Sacraments that my dread enemy must be subdued, gain for me the grace to persevere in these necessary observances.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 5: Philip’s Tenderness of Heart

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St. Philip Neri and Pope Clement VIII. (Source).

Philip could not endure the very sight of suffering; and though he abhorred riches, he always wished to have money to give in alms.

He could not bear to see children scantily clothed, and did all he could to get new clothes for them.

Oppressed and suffering innocence troubled him especially; when a Roman gentleman was falsely accused of having been the death of a man, and was imprisoned, he went so far as to put his cause before the Pope, and obtained his liberation.

A priest was accused by some powerful persons, and was likely to suffer in consequence. Philip took up his cause with such warmth that he established his innocence before the public.

Another time, hearing of some gipsies who had been unjustly condemned to hard labour, he went to the Pope, and procured their freedom. His love of justice was as great as his tenderness and compassion.

Soon after he became a Priest there was a severe famine in Rome, and six loaves were sent to him as a present. Knowing that there was in the same house a poor foreigner suffering from want of food, he gave them all to him, and had for the first day nothing but olives to eat.

Philip had a special tenderness towards artisans, and those who had a difficulty of selling their goods. There were two watchmakers, skilful artists, but old and burdened with large families. He gave them a large order for watches, and contrived to sell them among his friends.

His zeal and liberality specially shone forth towards poor girls. He provided for them when they had no other means of provision. He found marriage dowries for some of them; to others he gave what was sufficient to gain their admittance into convents.

He was particularly good to prisoners, to whom he sent money several times in the week.

He set no limits to his affection for the shrinking and bashful poor, and was more liberal in his alms towards them.

Poor students were another object of his special compassion; he provided them not only with food and clothing, but also with books for their studies. To aid one of them he sold all his own books.

He felt most keenly any kindness done to him, so that one of his friends said: “You could not make Philip a present without receiving another from him of double value.”

He was very tender towards brute animals. Seeing someone put his foot on a lizard, he cried out, “Cruel fellow! what has that poor animal done to you?”

Seeing a butcher wound a dog with one of his knives, he could not contain himself, and had great difficulty in keeping himself cool.

He could not bear the slightest cruelty to be shown to brute animals under any pretext whatever. If a bird came into the room, he would have the window opened that it might not be caught.

Prayer

Philip, my glorious Advocate, teach me to look at all I see around me after thy pattern as the creatures of God. Let me never forget that the same God who made me made the whole world, and all men and all animals that are in it. Gain me the grace to love all God’s works for God’s sake, and all men for the sake of my Lord and Saviour who has redeemed them by the Cross. And especially let me be tender and compassionate and loving towards all Christians, as my brethren in grace. And do thou, who on earth was so tender to all, be especially tender to us, and feel for us, bear with us in all our troubles, and gain for us from God, with whom thou dwellest in beatific light, all the aids necessary for bringing us safely to Him and to thee.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 6: Philip’s Cheerfulness

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St. Philip and an angel. (Source)

Philip welcomed those who consulted him with singular benignity, and received them, though strangers, with as much affection as if he had been a long time expecting them. When he was called upon to be merry, he was merry; when he was called upon to feel sympathy with the distressed, he was equally ready.

Sometimes he left his prayers and went down to sport and banter with young men, and by this sweetness and condescension and playful conversation gained their souls.

He could not bear anyone to be downcast or pensive, because spirituality is always injured by it; but when he saw anyone grave and gloomy, he used to say, “Be merry.” He had a particular and marked leaning to cheerful persons.

At the same time he was a great enemy to anything like rudeness or foolery; for a buffooning spirit not only does not advance in religion, but roots out even what is already there.

One day he restored cheerfulness to Father Francesco Bernardi, of the Congregation, by simply asking him to run with him, saying, “Come now, let us have a run together.”

His penitents felt that joy at being in his room that they used to say, Philip’s room is not a room, but an earthly Paradise.

To others, to merely stand at the door of his room, without going in, was a release from all their troubles. Others recovered their lost peace of mind by simply looking Philip in the face. To dream of him was enough to comfort many. In a word, Philip was a perpetual refreshment to all those who were in perplexity and sadness.

No one ever saw Philip melancholy; those who went to him always found him with a cheerful and smiling countenance, yet mixed with gravity.

When he was ill he did not so much receive as impart consolation. He was never heard to change his voice, as invalids generally do, but spoke in the same sonorous tone as when he was well. Once, when the physicians had given him over, he said, with the Psalmist, “Paratus sum et non sum turbatus” (“I am ready, and am not troubled”). He received Extreme Unction four times, but with the same calm and joyous countenance.

Prayer

PHILIP, my glorious Advocate, who didst ever follow the precepts and example of the Apostle St. Paul in rejoicing always in all things, gain for me the grace of perfect resignation to God’s will, of indifference to matters of this world, and a constant sight of Heaven; so that I may never be disappointed at the Divine providences, never desponding, never sad, never fretful; that my countenance may always be open and cheerful, and my words kind and pleasant, as becomes those who, in whatever state of life they are, have the greatest of all goods, the favour of God and the prospect of eternal bliss.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 7: Philip’s Patience

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St. Philip’s otherworldly spirituality was infused with a hard and cutting common sense. (Source).

Philip was for years and years the butt and laughing-stock of all the hangers-on of the great palaces of the nobility at Rome, who said all the bad of him that came into their heads, because they did not like to see a virtuous and conscientious man.

This sarcastic talk against him lasted for years and years; so that Rome was full of it, and through all the shops and counting-houses the idlers and evil livers did nothing but ridicule Philip.

When they fixed some calumny upon him, he did not take it in the least amiss, but with the greatest calmness contented himself with a simple smile.

Once a gentleman’s servant began to abuse him so insolently that a person of consideration, who witnessed the insult, was about to lay hands on him; but, when he saw with what gentleness and cheerfulness Philip took it, he restrained himself, and ever after counted Philip as a saint.

Sometimes his own spiritual children, and even those who lay under the greatest obligations to him, treated him as if he were a rude and foolish person; but he did not show any resentment.

Once, when he was Superior of the Congregation, one of his subjects snatched a letter out of his hand; but the saint took the affront with incomparable meekness, and neither in look, nor word, nor in gesture betrayed the slightest emotion.

Patience had so completely become a habit with him, that he was never seen in a passion. He checked the first movement of resentful feeling; his countenance calmed instantly, and he reassumed his usual modest smile.

Prayer

PHILIP, my holy Advocate, who didst bear persecution and calumny, pain and sickness, with so admirable a patience, gain for me the grace of true fortitude under all the trials of this life. Alas! how do I need patience! I shrink from every small inconvenience; I sicken under every light affliction; I fire up at every trifling contradiction; I fret and am cross at every little suffering of body. Gain for me the grace to enter with hearty good-will into all such crosses as I may receive day by day from my Heavenly Father. Let me imitate thee, as thou didst imitate my Lord and Saviour, that so, as thou hast attained heaven by thy calm endurance of bodily and mental pain, I too may attain the merit of patience, and the reward of life everlasting.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 8: Philip’s Care for the Salvation of Souls

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St. Philip Neri’s flame-red chasuble is one of the hallmarks of his iconography, such as in this portrait by Guido Reni, 1619. (Source)

When he was a young priest, and had gathered about him a number of spiritual persons, his first wish was to go with them all to preach the gospel to the heathen of India, where St. Francis Xavier was engaged in his wonderful career—and he only gave up the idea in obedience to the holy men whom he consulted.

As to bad Christians at home, such extreme desire had he for their conversion, that even when he was old he took severe disciplines in their behalf, and wept for their sins as if they had been his own.

While a layman, he converted by one sermon thirty dissolute youths.

He was successful, under the grace of God, in bringing back almost an infinite number of sinners to the paths of holiness. Many at the hour of death cried out, “Blessed be the day when first I came to know Father Philip!” Others, “Father Philip draws souls to him as the magnet draws iron.”

With a view to the fulfilment of what he considered his special mission, he gave himself up entirely to hearing confessions, exclusive of every other employment. Before sunrise he had generally confessed a good number of penitents in his own room. He went down into the church at daybreak, and never left it till noon, except to say Mass. If no penitents came, he remained near his confessional, reading, saying office, or telling his beads. If he was at prayer, if at his meals, he at once broke off when his penitents came.

He never intermitted his hearing of confessions for any illness, unless the physician forbade it.

For the same reason he kept his room-door open, so that he was exposed to the view of everyone who passed it.

He had a particular anxiety about boys and young men. He was most anxious to have them always occupied, for he knew that idleness was the parent of every evil. Sometimes he made work for them, when he could not find any.

He let them make what noise they pleased about him, if in so doing he was keeping them from temptation. When a friend remonstrated with him for letting them so interfere with him, he made answer: “So long as they do not sin, they may chop wood upon my back.”

He was allowed by the Dominican Fathers to take out their novices for recreation. He used to delight to see them at their holiday meal. He used to say, “Eat, my sons, and do not scruple about it, for it makes me fat to watch you;” and then, when dinner was over, he made them sit in a ring around him, and told them the secrets of their hearts, and gave them good advice, and exhorted them to virtue.

He had a remarkable power of consoling the sick, and of delivering them from the temptations with which the devil assails them.

To his zeal for the conversion of souls, Philip always joined the exercise of corporal acts of mercy. He visited the sick in the hospitals, served them in all their necessities, made their beds, swept the floor round them, and gave them their meals.

Prayer

PHILIP, my holy Patron, who wast so careful for the souls of thy brethren, and especially of thy own people, when on earth, slack not thy care of them now, when thou art in heaven. Be with us, who are thy children and thy clients; and, with thy greater power with God, and with thy more intimate insight into our needs and our dangers, guide us along the path which leads to God and to thee. Be to us a good father; make our priests blameless and beyond reproach or scandal; make our children obedient, our youth prudent and chaste, our heads of families wise and gentle, our old people cheerful and fervent, and build us up, by thy powerful intercessions, in faith, hope, charity, and all virtues.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

Day 9: Philip’s Miraculous Gifts

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The veneration of St. Philip has spread around the world. (Source)

PHILIP’S great and solid virtues were crowned and adorned by the divine Majesty with various and extraordinary favours, which he in vain used every artifice, if possible, to hide.

It was the good-pleasure of God to enable him to penetrate His ineffable mysteries and to know His marvellous providences by means of ecstasies, raptures, and visions, which were of frequent occurrence during the whole of his life.

A friend going one morning to confession to him, on opening the door of his room softly, saw the Saint in the act of prayer, raised upon his feet, his eyes looking to heaven, his hands extended. He stood for a while watching him, and then going close to him spoke to him—but the saint did not perceive him at all. This state of abstraction continued about eight minutes longer; then he came to himself.

He had the consolation of seeing in vision the souls of many, especially of his friends and penitents, go to heaven. Indeed, those who were intimate with him held it for certain, that none of his spiritual children died without his being certified of the state of their souls.

Philip, both by his sanctity and experience, was able to discriminate between true and false visions. He was earnest in warning men against being deluded, which is very easy and probable.

Philip was especially eminent, even among saints, for his gifts of foretelling the future and reading the heart. The examples of these gifts which might be produced would fill volumes. He foretold the deaths of some; he foretold the recovery of others; he foretold the future course of others; he foretold the births of children to those who were childless; he foretold who would be the Popes before their election; he had the gift of seeing things at a distance; and he knew what was going on in the minds of his penitents and others around him.

He knew whether his penitents had said their prayers, and for how long they were praying. Many of them when talking together, if led into any conversation which was dangerous or wrong, would say: “We must stop, for St. Philip will find it out.”

Once a woman came to him to confession, when in reality she wished to get an alms. He said to her: “In God’s name, good woman, go away; there is no bread for you”—and nothing could induce him to hear her confession.

A man who went to confess to him did not speak, but began to tremble, and when asked, said, “I am ashamed,” for he had committed a most grievous sin. Philip said gently: “Do not be afraid; I will tell you what it was”—and, to the penitent’s great astonishment, he told him.

Such instances are innumerable. There was not one person intimate with Philip who did not affirm that he knew the secrets of the heart most marvellously.

He was almost equally marvellous in his power of healing and restoring to health. He relieved pain by the touch of his hand and the sign of the Cross. And in the same way he cured diseases instantaneously—at other times by his prayers—at other times he commanded the diseases to depart.

This gift was so well known that sick persons got possession of his clothes, his shoes, the cuttings of his hair, and God wrought cures by means of them.

Prayer

PHILIP, my holy Patron, the wounds and diseases of my soul are greater than bodily ones, and are beyond thy curing, even with thy supernatural power. I know that my Almighty Lord reserves in His own hands the recovery of the soul from death, and the healing of all its maladies. But thou canst do more for our souls by thy prayers now, my dear Saint, than thou didst for the bodies of those who applied to thee when thou wast upon earth. Pray for me, that the Divine Physician of the soul, Who alone reads my heart thoroughly, may cleanse it thoroughly, and that I and all who are dear to me may be cleansed from all our sins; and, since we must die, one and all, that we may die, as thou didst, in the grace and love of God, and with the assurance, like thee, of eternal life.

Prayer of Cardinal Baronius (above)

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St. Philip Neri, remember thy congregation. (Source)

Collect for the Feast of St. Philip Neri

O God, who never cease to bestow the glory of holiness
on the faithful servants you raise up for yourself,
graciously grant
that the Holy Spirit may kindle in us that fire
with which he wonderfully filled
the heart of Saint Philip Neri.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect for the Feast of St. Philip)

Newman’s Litany to St. Philip Neri
(source)

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A stained glass depiction. (Source)

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of Heaven,
Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, 
Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God,
Have mercy on us.

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St. Philip with (l-r): St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Isidore the Farmer. All five were canonized on the same day in 1622. The people of Rome said that, on that day, the Church canonized “Four Spaniards and a Saint.” (Source).

Holy Mary,
pray for us.
Holy Mother of God, 
pray for us. 
Holy Virgin of Virgins, etc.

Saint Philip,
Vessel of the Holy Spirit,
Child of Mary,
Apostle of Rome,
Counselor of Popes,
Voice of Prophecy,
Man of Primitive Times,
Winning Saint,
Hidden Hero,
Sweetest of Fathers, 
Martyr of Charity,
Heart of Fire,
Discerner of Spirits,
Choicest of Priests,
Mirror of the Divine Life,
Pattern of humility,
Example of Simplicity,
Light of Holy Joy,
Image of Childhood,
Picture of Old Age,
Director of Souls,
Gentle Guide of Youth,
Patron of thine Own,

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“The Ecstasy of St. Philip Neri,” Gaetano Lapis, 1754. (Source)

Thou who observed chastity in thy youth,
Who sought Rome by Divine guidance,
Who hid so long in the catacombs,
Who received the Holy Spirit into thy heart,
Who experienced such wonderful ecstasies,
Who so lovingly served the little ones,
Who washed the feet of pilgrims,
Who ardently thirsted after martyrdom,
Who distributed the daily word of God,
Who turned so many hearts to God,
Who conversed so sweetly with Mary,
Who raised the dead,
Who set up thy houses in all lands,

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, 
Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, 
Have mercy on us.

Christ, hear us.
   Christ, graciously hear us.

V. Remember thy congregation.
R. Which thou hast possessed from the beginning.

Let us Pray.

   O God, Who hast exalted blessed Philip, Thy confessor, in the glory of Thy Saints, grant that, as we rejoice in his commemoration, so may we profit by the example of his virtues, through Christ Our Lord. 
R. Amen.

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“St. Philip Neri,” by contemporary artist Alvin Ong. Acrylic on wood. 2014. Commissioned by the Oxford Oratory. (Source)

A Theological Primer on Emblems

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“I Live,” from the Emblemata Sacra (1618)

Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.

It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s  Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.

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“Le Monde est L’Image de Dieu,” one of the more explicit expressions of esoteric philosophy, in Boissard’s Emblemes latins […] avec l’interpretation Francoise (1588). It anticipates Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum by nearly 40 years.

Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.

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Emblem XXI from the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens (1617), by the Lutheran Rosicrucian Michael Maier

There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).

The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.

Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”