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.

St. Benedict in Art History

Certain saints haunt the Western canon. Who could fail to recognize slender St. Sebastian leaning languidly against a tree, or St. Lucy peering primly over her cup of eyes? St. Jerome is the only cardinal known for consorting with lions, and St. Mary Magdalene carries her jar of spikenard from century to century.

St. Benedict is one such ubiquitous saint. Today, in honor of his feast, I would like to offer a few examples of St. Benedict’s image drawn from the history of Western art. Each offers a unique view of the Patriarch of Monks, and each bears careful examination and meditation. St. Benedict may have one of the most stable iconographic traditions in the Church, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t inspired a wide variety of artists to bring their own stamp to his image. His life and spirituality are too vast; he fills and spills beyond the few symbols allotted him. Thus, I give you these 21 representative selections.

Sancte Pater Benedicte, ora pro nobis.

StBenedictThrone

St. Benedict enthroned with Roman abbot, fresco, c. 13th century. (Source)

VisionStBenedict

St. Benedict’s Vision of the Universe. 14th century. (Source).

DeathofSt.Benedict

Death of Saint Benedict, Giovanni del Biondo, c. mid 14th century. (SourceSource)

StBenedictTemptation

The temptation of St. Benedict from the Mettener Regel. 1414. (Source).

StBenedictVadeRetroSatana

Drawing of St. Benedict, 15th century. (Source).

St Benedict a Bohemian artist

St. Benedict with monks by a Bohemian artist, probably c. mid 15th century. (Source).

Fra_Angelico_Benedict

St. Benedict from Crucifixion With Saints, by Fra Angelico. c. 1441-42. San Marco, Florence. (Source)

BenedictTriptych.jpg

St. Benedict from a triptych by Bellini, c. 1488. (Source)

StPaulandStBenedict

Madonna and Child with St. Paul and St. Benedict, attr. to Francesco Vanni. c. Late 16th century. (Source)

Allori, Alessandro, 1535-1607; The Temptation of St Benedict

The Temptation of St. Benedict, Alessandro Allori. c. 1587. The Fitzwilliam Museum. (Source).

StBenedictZurbaran.jpg

Saint Benedict, by Fransisco de Zurbaran, c.1640-45. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source).

AnneofAustriaBenedictines

Anne of Austria and her Children at Prayer with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, Philippe de Champaigne. 1646. Versailles. (Source).

VisionofStBenedictCano

Vision of St. Benedict with Three Angels, Alonso Cano. c.1658-60. El Prado. (Source).

StBenedictMelk

St. Benedict’s Triumphal Ascent to Heaven, by Johann Michael Rottmayr. 1721. Melk Abbey, (Source)

StBenedictStatueBook

Statue of St. Benedict from the Augustinian church in Salamanca. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP.  c. 16th-19th century. (Source)

mauruskapelle_med

S.s Benedict and Scholastica with Our Lady and Jesus. Peter Lenz, 1869. Beuron (Source).

 

StBenedictHolyCard

Holy card style portrait of St. Benedict (Source).

StatueStBenedictCross

St, Benedict in an English cowl. Date unknown, probably 19th or 20th century. (Source)

PietroAnnigoniStBenedictHandshisRuletoPopeVictorIII

St. Benedict Hands His Rule to Pope Victor III. Pietro Annigoni. c. Mid to Late 20th century. (Source)

DunstanMasseySt.Benedict

Fresco of St. Benedict, Dunstan Massey OSB. Late 20th century. (Source).

AnnigoniGloryofStBenedict

The Glory of St. Benedict, Pietro Annigoni. Late 20th century. (Source).

 

Heat, Song, Sweetness: A Meditation on the Benedictine Life of St. Philip Neri

spn-indies

“Rome will be your Indies.” St. Philip receives his vocation from a Cistercian. (Source)

It has not been remarked upon very often that St. Philip loved the Benedictines. Monks played an important part in his life at two critical moments: first, when he decided to go to Rome, and second, when he decided to stay in Rome.

While working with his uncle Romolo in San Germano, near Naples, St. Philip would go to pray at Monte Cassino. As one author has it, “From [the Benedictines], he developed a profound love of the liturgy, the Bible and the ancient Church Fathers.” Their rich spiritual life helped cultivate a sense of God’s will, which led him to his first conversion. St. Philip quit his lucrative mercantile career with Romolo and set off for the Holy City. We shall examine his second run-in with the sons of St. Benedict later.

In considering St. Philip, we start to find similarities with other saints. Father Faber likened him unto St. Francis of Assisi; just as St. Francis was the “representative saint” of the middle ages, so was St. Philip the true saint of modernity. Cardinal Newman took another approach, tracing the influence of S.s Benedict, Dominic, and Ignatius Loyola,  thereby arriving at something like a portrait by comparison. My strategy and emphases will differ somewhat from both of theirs.

Among the “great cloud of witnesses” who make up the Church Triumphant, there are an infinite number of likenesses and connections between the saints. Here and there, one spies a similarity in outlook, or devotion, or manner of life between figures who lived across centuries and continents. The eternal coinherence, the “dance” that binds them all, is the ineffable life of the Trinity in Unity. Thus, it is not surprising that when we observe similarities between Philip Neri and that great father among the saints, Benedict of Nursia, we should also find a deeper, Trinitarian resemblance.

I would like to offer a meditation on the life and spirituality of St. Philip through the lens of the Benedictine vows. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the Trinitarian character of the three vows as well as St. Philip’s remarkable interior life. His Trinitarian spirituality was distinguished by the threefold experience of God that the great English mystic Richard Rolle describes in The Fire of Love: “ghostly heat, heavenly song and godly sweetness” (Rolle I.5).

Keeping all of these disparate lenses in mind, let us commence.

I. The Warmth of the Father’s Stability

St-Philip-NeriBoys

St. Philip Neri was especially popular among the young men of Rome. (Source)

St. Philip was the spiritual father of many men in his own day. Palestrina, Animuccia, St. Camillus of Lellis, and others received forgiveness from him in the confessional. He was particularly kind to youth. Once, when the scholarly Baronius complained that the children with whom St. Philip was playing in the yard were too loud for his studies, St. Philip replied that he’d let them chop wood off his own back, if only they might not sin. The long-suffering Baronius accepted St. Philip’s paternal will. It was a salutary and exemplary mortification, and St. Philip knew that. It was also a lesson. St. Philip intended for his sons to live out spiritual fatherhood in the world. And they were to do it, following his own example, with intense joy.

When we contemplate the Fatherhood of God, we are struck dumb with wonder at the abyss of Being abiding in His fullness. God the Father is the immovable, the unshakeable, the indefinable One. It is from God the Father that we learn that fatherhood can only be cultivated upon presence…rootedness…constancy. And it must also blaze with the heat of love. The two qualities are mutually reinforcing. Put briefly, the warmest paternity will cool, harden, and falter if it is not sustained by stability.

St. Benedict understood this dynamic, and when he sought to compose a rule for his spiritual family, he knew that he had to incorporate it into his model. In the very first chapter of the Rule, we read of the different kinds of monks. The worst are those whom St. Benedict calls “Gyrovagues,” men who

…spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony (Rule of St. Benedict I).

Instead, St. Benedict calls for his monks to pass their lives in one place, at one task—seeking God. Stability is so central to his vision that he doesn’t even bother writing a chapter about it. Instead, he assumes it as a necessary condition from the very beginning and lets it color his prescriptions from then on.

St. Philip was equally adamant about stability. The organization of the Oratory is a great testament to his idea of stability. Even in the early days, when he first sent some priests to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, he required that they return to his chamber above San Girolamohis “cenacle,” if you willand continue with the exercises of the Oratory.  When the priests finally left both parishes and moved to Santa Maria in Vallicella, the Chiesa Nuova, St. Philip imagined that his religious family would never grow beyond its four walls. He was deeply reluctant to grant the foundation of an Oratory in Naplesthough it would furnish the Church with great saints such as the Blessed Giovanni Juvenal Ancina.

The basic grain of St. Philip’s idea has endured in those lands where the Oratory has flourished. Oratorians spend their whole priestly lives in one community. They can travel and work more freely than vowed religious, since they are truly secular priests, but their range of motion is restricted by the value of stability that St. Philip imposes on his sons. The quality of that stability differs from the asceticism which marked the experience of the early monks. As Newman puts it:

The Congregation is to be the home of the Oratorian. The Italians, I believe, have no word for homenor is it an idea which readily enters into the mind of a foreigner, at least not so readily as into the mind of an Englishman. It is remarkable then that the Oratorian Fathers should have gone out of their way to express the idea by the metaphorical word nido or nest, which is used by them almost technically. (Newman, qtd. by Robinson).

As Newman said elsewhere:

…the objective standard of assimilation is not simply the Rule or any abstract idea of an Oratory, but the definite local present body, hic et nunc, to which [the novice] comes to be assimilated (Newman, qtd. on the Toronto Oratory Vocations page).

The stability of the Oratory is enlivened with a certain warmth, a familial domesticity that is adequately captured in the Italian nido. The Oratorian has his “nest” in his cell, and beyond that, his house, and beyond that, the city where God has led him. None of these becomes his “nest” by matter of location, but by the network of sacramental relationships he enters there. He is begotten anew by the paternity of St. Philip, by his immediate superiors, and ultimately, by God. The same spirit prevails in the very best monastic houses, as any visitor to Silverstream Priory or the Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte or Stift Heiligenkreuz or Clear Creek Abbey or L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux can attest. Dom Aelred Carlyle’s Caldey Island had just such a sensibility, as did Nashdom Abbey before its decline. The Oratory and the Benedictine Monastery keep alive the fire of God’s paternal love by their community life and stability in prayer.

II. The Son’s Obedient Song

StPhilipNeriMadonna

The Madonna Appearing to Saint Philip Neri, Sebastian Conca. (Source)

Up to now, I have not addressed the peculiar irony in my approach. The model that St. Philip left for his sons is singular among all others in the Church in its total rejection of vowssuch as those that mark the Benedictine vocation. The constitutions of the Congregation are very clear. Even if all the members around the world should take vows and only one abstain, the true Oratory would rest with that lone dissenter, and not the majority. Instead, Newman tells us, “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter.” St. Philip trusted that bond of charity to sustain the common life he envisioned for the Oratory.

St. Philip hoped that his sons, through mortification of the intellect and an easy, friendly concord, would persevere in the love that was their peculiar vocation. Just as voices unite in harmony for no better end than beauty, so might we describe the Oratorian ideal as a kind of “song”Rolle’s second experience of God. The liturgy for the Sixth Sunday in Easter illustrates this point admirably. The Introit (Vocem iucunditatis annuntiate), Psalm (Let all the earth cry out to God with joy), and Offertory (Benedicite gentes Dominum) all refer to song as the properly obedient response to God’s grace. The truth and beauty of that good song is attractive to souls made weary by the heavy dross of the world. St. Philip knew this fact well, and he employed some of the leading composers of the timePalestrina and Animucciato write music for the exercises of the Oratory.

Moreover, one could almost imagine that the first reading, which mentions the Apostle Philip, was really intended to tell us something about the life of the Joyful Saint:

Philip went down to the city…and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing…There was great joy in that city. (Acts 8: 5-8 NAB)

Similarly, the Epistle calls to mind St. Philip’s singular mystical life. We read, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts,” (1 Pet. 3: 15-18 NAB). And how are we, like St. Philip, to go about sanctifying Christ in our hearts? The Gospel tells us:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14:15-17 NAB)

Christ is preeminently the man who responds with a song of obedience, and St. Philip follows his lead. And what do St. Philip and his sons sing in their common life? What but the praise of God? What but the Divine Word, the Logos, Christ made present in prayer and scripture and sacrament? Indeed, Eliot’s description of “every phrase/And sentence that is right” could apply just as well to the Oratorian life:

…where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together
(Little Gidding V)

The life of the Benedictine monk is not so seemingly free. He has one work, the liturgy, the Opus Dei. This one task is the first and final way that the Benedictine fulfills his vow of obedience to Christ. As Chapter 5 of the Holy Rule has it: “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ” (Rule of St. Benedict V). The eleven degrees that follow build upon this cornerstone, marked as it is by the love of Christ. It is a love that conforms the monk to the obedience of Christ crucified. The wicked Sarabaites that St. Benedict describes in Chapter 1 are chiefly marked by their unwillingness to obey:

They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful. (Rule of St. Benedict I).

St. Philip knew how to obey. When he was under suspicion of heresy, he immediately ceased his labors in submission to the Papal investigators until he knew the outcome. He only resisted when it came to the cardinalate, which he always resolutely refused. Once, upon receiving the Red Hat, he made jokes about the honor and laughed it off as if it were nothingin the very presence of the Pope! Exasperated, the Holy Father decided to grant St. Philip’s wish, and did not insist on the appointment.

But he also obeyed the voice of God through other figures, such as when he formally received his vocation. Hearing the many stories of St. Francis Xavier in the East, St. Philip determined to set out for India. But he decided to wait and test the calling with the advice of another man he trusted.

In Rome, there is a Cistercian monastery called the Tre Fontane, which takes its name from the legend that when St. Paul was martyred, his head bounced three times. It is said that three fountains miraculously sprang up from the earth where his head fell. Later, a house of religion was founded there. It was to this monastery that St. Philip went to consult a well-respected monk known for his spiritual insights. The monk listened to St. Philip’s situation, and told him to return later. When St. Philip came back to the Tre Fontane, he had his answer“Rome will be your indies.” He never again desired to leave the Holy City. Cardinal Newman tells us that the monk did this under the spiritual guidance of St. John. How appropriate that the Apostle so intimately tied to the Second Person of the Trinity should teach St. Philip to imitate Christ’s obedient humility!

III. The Sweetness of the Spirit’s Conversatio Morum

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The Holy Spirit made the heart of St. Philip sacramental while on this earthly journey. (Source)

Few saints have such a manifest intimacy with the Holy Spirit as St. Philip Neri. Biographers and commentators throughout the centuries have always noted the peculiar affinity between St. Philip and the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

When St. Philip first came to Rome, he spent most of his nights praying in the catacombs. He drew surpassing sweetness from this salutary solitude. For him, Rome was not just a (recently sacked) city of decadent palaces, picturesque ruins, and opulent vices. Rome was a landscape marked by the work of the Holy Spirit through human history. The catacombs reminded St. Philip of the Church of the martyrs.

It was on one of these vigils that St. Philip experienced a visitation by the Holy Spirit. He came to the catacomb of St. Sebastian on the night before Pentecost. While praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Fr. Philip G. Bochanski of the Oratory describes the scene well:

As the night passed, St Philip was suddenly filled with great joy, and had a vision of the Holy Spirit, who appeared to him as a ball of fire. This fire entered into St Philip’s mouth, and descended to his heart, causing it to expand to twice its normal size, and breaking two of his ribs in the process.  He said that it filled his whole body with such joy and consolation that he finally had to throw himself on the ground and cry out, “No more, Lord!  No more!” (Source).

Throughout his life, St. Philip would report an unremitting heat throughout all of his body, though always most intense around his heart. Even in the dead of winter, he’d be so warm as to freely unbutton his collar when everyone else was shivering. Pressing someone’s head to his breast, letting him hear his heartbeat and feel the miraculous warmth, was enough to convert even the most hardened and impenitent sinners. We can say with no exaggeration that the Holy Spirit made St. Philip a living sacrament. He became a fountain issuing forth graces. He bore all of the sweet fruits of the Holy Spirit. As Fr. Bochanski puts it, “St Philip was convinced and constantly aware of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in him and through him…He was sure that he had received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and this assurance set him free to bear the Spirit’s fruits.”

St. Philip’s special relationship with the Holy Spirit drew him into an almost uncontrollable ardor of love for the Eucharist. He was a great mystic of the Blessed Sacrament. Under St. Philip’s direction, the Roman Oratory popularized the Forty Hours Devotion of Eucharistic Adoration, an important precursor for later efforts at Perpetual Adoration. In spite of his wise suspicion of visions and miracles, he was granted innumerable ecstasies. These would usually come in some connection with the Eucharist. St. Philip had jokes read to him in the sacristy as he vested, as he had a very realistic fear of entering a sweet trance of joy before the Mass even began.

In his old age, St. Philip was allowed to give free reign to these Eucharistic ecstasies. By special permission of the Pope, he would say his Mass only in a private chapel on the top floor of the Vallicella. At the consecration, he would kneel down before the altar. The servers would close the windows, shut the door, and place a sign on the handle which read, “Silence! The Father is saying Mass.” Then, in darkness and silence, St. Philip would commune with the Eucharistic God for upwards of two hours. When he was done, the servers would ring a bell, the sign on the door would be removed, and he would continue the Mass as if nothing had happened.

In all of these phenomena, we may be tempted to draw a contrast with the staid, rhythmic, simple spirituality of St. Benedict’s Rule. Not sofor we must examine why St. Philip was given the singular graces that marked his life in the Holy Spirit.

The third vow that St. Benedict demands of his sons is Conversatio Morum, the conversion of manners (Rule of St. Benedict LVIII). The monk enters the monastery that he might “seeketh God,” and seek Him fully (Rule of St. Benedict LVIII). Like all Christians, he is after deification. But unlike most of us, he is called to theosis by shunning the distractions of the World. He can only do this by entering into the sacrifice of the Eucharistic Christ, whom he adores in the liturgy that marks the hours of every day. The Benedictine vocation is, at its heart, life made explicitly Eucharistic.

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby of Silverstream, building upon the work of the Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion and Mother Mectilde de Bar, has put the point admirably. Among many other similar passages, we find in a poem from 2011:

The Eucharistic Humility of God
is inseparable from His Eucharistic Silence.
This Saint Benedict understood,
for in his Rule, the silent are humble,
and the humble silent.
This our Mother Mectilde understood
for she wanted her Benedictine adorers to bury themselves
in the silence of the hidden God,
the ineffably humble God
in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. 
(Source)

In the Eucharist, we find the consummation of all God’s sweetness. “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopeth in him” (Psalm 33:9 DRA). It is the grand work of the Spirit, the crown of the sacraments, the dawn of the new and everlasting life. Just as Richard Rolle passed into “the most delectable sweetness of the Godhead,” so too does the monk return each day to the Eucharist to drink of the Spirit’s epicletic sweetness (Rolle I.5).

And St. Philip, with his Eucharistic ecstasies and his intimacy with the Spirit, knew that sweetness better than we can possibly imagine. The sweetness of the Holy Spirit transformed him into an instrument of grace, a human sacrament whose own manners were deeply converted and who aided many along the same journey. It is little wonder that Oratories and Benedictine monasteries remain centers of reverent and beautiful celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Conclusion

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Portrait of St. Philip Neri. (Source)

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Portrait of St. Benedict. (Source)

Many writers have found in St. Philip Neri the likeness of other saints, including those predecessors whom he admired, the contemporaries whom he loved, and the innumerable great saints who followed in the generations since he went on to immortal glory.

Yet is any resemblance so striking, and so Trinitarian, as that between the Father of the Oratory and the Father of Monks? In both, we find the very image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In both, we can see the marks of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners. And in both, we detect the surpassing heat, song, and sweetness which Richard Rolle describes as indicative of a true encounter with God.

By their prayers, may we someday share that eternal encounter.

Solimena, Francesco, 1657-1747; The Holy Trinity with St Philip Neri in Glory

The Holy Trinity with St. Philip Neri in Glory, Francesco Solimena. The figure at left is probably the Benedictine Oblate, St. Francesca Romana. The painting, originally intended for the Naples Oratory, now hangs in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford (Source).

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St. Benedict in Glory, c. 1500. Artist unknown. (Source)

Elsewhere: The Return of the Silverstream Podcast

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St. Benedict, his sons, and his rule. Source.

Rejoice! The best Catholic podcast has returned to the best Catholic blog. Over at Vultus Christi, Dom Mark Daniel Kirby of Silverstream Priory has announced that the podcast once again lives. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Dom Mark’s preaching, and that of his sons, is some of the most spiritually nourishing wisdom you can find online. Check it out.