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Last night the Secular Oratorians gathered to discuss St. Philip Neri's teaching on mortification and how it can be applied to our daily lives and adapted to various stations of life.  Along with the podcast, you will find below a selection from Bacci's biography of Philip on the mortifications that he used to exercise his spiritual children as well as a description of Philip's specific approach both to Exterior and Interior mortification. These have been provided so that you may more easily follow along with the discussion.  


OF THE MORTIFICATIONS WITH WHICH PHILIP EXERCISED HIS SPIRITUAL CHILDREN.


Philip, as we have many times remarked already, was as anxious for the spiritual advancement of those beneath his care, as he was for his own; and one of the most constant exercises in which he occupied them was that of mortification. It would fill a whole book if I were to enumerate the different acts of mortification in which he tried them; it will be enough to mention a few of his most ordinary devices in that way. He used repeatedly to send his penitents, even though they were noble and distinguished persons, to ask alms at the church doors, where there was the greatest concourse of people, neither did he allow them to have their faces covered as the Sacconi have, so that they might not he known. He made them sweep the steps and street in front of the churches, and then carry the sweepings away. He ordered them to beg at sermons, a thing which was not usual in those times, and was considered disgraceful. When he built the rooms at San Girolamo, he made his penitents carry a good part of the materials, like common masons’ labourers. At other times he sent them to private houses to beg morsels of bread for the love of God; and he once ordered one of his spiritual children, who had got a new coat on, and took a vain pleasure in his fine clothes, to go to the door of Santa Maria Maggiore to ask alms, forbidding him to eat any thing that day but what was given him out of charity; and he then sent others on purpose to tease and mock him. Sometimes he sent them to the choir of the Dominicans to hear compline, and ordered them to he at full length, like corpses, on some benches, until the Salve Regina was finished. He had also a great many pairs of spectacles, although he very seldom used any at all; and he would sometimes put one pair on one person, another on another, especially if they were boys, and order them to go and do several things with the spectacles on. The inventions of this sort which he hit upon were almost numberless; but the end of all of them was to keep his spiritual children humble, and make them regardless of what others said or thought of them.

He made Father Francesco Bozzi lie flat on his face in church, in front of his confessional, in the morning while his penitents came to confession, and he kept him there for a considerable space of time. Another morning he did the same to Giovan Battista Ligera, a priest who was given to low spirits and scrupulosity. Anna Borromeo, who was also plagued by scruples, having confessed to the Saint one morning, came back presently afterwards to confess over again. Philip mortified her publicly in the church in the presence of several persons, by driving her away without hearing her confession, and reproaching her in a loud tone of voice. The lady, without changing countenance, turned modestly away, and left the church without making an answer in self-defence.


Another time he sent a young man to ring a bell through the Campo di Fiore and the street de’ Giubbonari, most populous places, in the most inhabited part of Rome; the artisans, attracted by the unusual sound, took him for a madman, and hissed him. Another time he sent one of his penitents through Rome with a great box lid fastened to his shoulders, on which was written in great letters, “For having eaten curds and whey!”


One day Philip went with several of his penitents to visit Cardinal Alessandrino, and before taking leave he said to the cardinal, “Monsignore, I wish you would give me something for these children of mine.” The cardinal, who understood the Saint thoroughly, knew very well that he was seeking an opportunity to mortify them; upon which he went immediately to a cupboard, and took out a large cake, and gave it to him. Philip thanked him, saying, “This is just what I wanted;” and as soon as they got out of the palace he broke the cake into several pieces, and gave a piece to each of them, ordering them all to begin eating, and so they went through the streets of Rome all munching the cake together, as if they were keeping time one with the other.


One of his penitents wishing to leave off the toupee, as was usual in those times, the Saint would not only not allow him to do so, but commanded him to have it trimmed; and to mortify him still further, he told him to go to Fra. Felice, the Capuchin, and that he would have the charity to dress his hair for him. The good penitent went accordingly, and Fra. Felice, who was in league with the Saint, instead of trimming him, shaved the whole of his head, which he bore with the most patient good humour. Another of his penitents, called Alberto Legnajuolo, asked the Saint’s leave to wear a hair shirt; the Saint said, “By all means, but on condition you wear it outside your gown.” The penitent readily obeyed, and wore it in this way till his death, so that people nicknamed him Berto of the hair shirt.


One of the most influential people at court had a dog, which he petted immensely, caressing it in the most extraordinary way, as he had quite a passion for animals. It happened that one morning a gentleman brought this dog with him to San Girolamo, and Philip beginning to caress it, the dog took such a fancy to him that it would not leave his rooms, although the Saint sent it back to its master time after time. At first the master of the animal was very much displeased at this, so he petted the dog more than ever to hinder it from running away, and even kept it tied for some days. At last, seeing that it always ran off to San Girolamo as soon as it was let loose, although Philip had nothing to give it but a bit of bread, he was quite struck with the animal’s attachment to the Saint, and said laughingly, in allusion to some of his gentlemen who by Philip’s persuasion had left the court in order to serve God more perfectly, “Father Philip is not content with taking men from me, but he must needs take even my animals away.” The holy father made great use of this dog in mortifying his spiritual children. Although it was very large, he made some of his penitents, even men of rank, carry it in their arms through the streets; he set others to wash and comb it; and others to lead it tied with a chain or cord through Rome, when he himself went out walking, so that it served to mortify Philip himself, as well as those who led it, for the dog was always trying to get ahead, and dragging his leaders after him, so that they looked like so many blind men led by a dog. The various mortifications in which this dog played its part, lasted for fourteen years; and they were so burdensome that Cardinal Tarugi used to call the animal, “The cruel scourge of human minds;” it would never leave Philip, and died in his room at last.


For the same end, that is, to serve as an occasion for mortifications, he left a cat at San Girolamo, when he went to live at the Vallicella; and for six years together he sent some of his people every day to look after her, and also to go to the shambles to buy meat for her; and when they came back, even though cardinals, prelates, or nobles, wore present, he always asked after the cat, whether they had made her comfortable, how she was, if she had eaten cheerfully, with many other minute questions, as if it had been a matter of the greatest importance.


When Cesaro Baronius first fell into his hands, he set to work training him in a disregard and contempt of himself and men’s opinion of him; and for this purpose he used often to send him to the public-house with a bottle large enough to hold more than six mugs full, and then he bade him ask for half a pint of wine to put into this huge bottle, but that first of all they were to wash the bottle out, and then he was to insist upon going into the cellar to see it drawn himself, and sometimes he was to ask them to give him change for a tester, and sometimes for a gold crown; and when Baronius began to put into execution all these precautions, the publicans, thinking he was making game of them, abused him lustily, and often threatened to give him a sound thrashing. When Baronius was a priest, and lived at S. Giovanni de’ Fiorentini, Philip used often to make him carry the cross before the dead bodies through the streets, by way of mortification.


He made several go about with a berretta of white cloth upon their heads, and others with a huge hat and a cord passing under the chin after the antique fashion. On others he put a large rosary, like a hermit’s, round their neck, and made them go to Church in that costume; and on others he put beards of taffety and gold lace. He often made F. Pietro Consolini wear purple taffety with threads of gold round his hat, and made him walk about Rome with it; and he repeatedly sent Giuliano Magaluffi into the refectory during supper, with a monkey shouldering a gun and with a berretta on its head, commanding him to walk about the refectory in that way. Thus he gave one mortification to one person, and another to another, as he judged expedient, continually repeating, “My children, mortify yourselves in little things, that you may the more easily be able to mortify yourselves in great ones afterwards.”


Neither can we in this matter think it less than wonderful that Philip never laid a mortification on any one, however extravagant it might be, without its being willingly accepted, or without its producing the fruit in the penitent’s soul at which the Saint was aiming. In fact, he knew who were capable of bearing such burdens and who were not. There were some who were thirty or forty years with him, and yet he never gave them one single mortification, in deed or word; others had scarcely come under him before he began to impose the most extravagant things upon them. But he had not only the gift of discerning those who were capable of submitting to mortifications, but also the nature of the mortifications to which they would submit, and in what degree of virtue they were at the time: and so he dealt with them as they could bear it, mortifying them or not as he thought best. To some he gave very severe mortifications, to others moderate ones, to others very little ones, according as he saw good for them, making it a great point that they should submit with alacrity.


As members of the Secular Oratory and students of the “School of St. Philip Neri”, we find in our holy Patron the greatest of spiritual guides.  Though living in the midst of the city of Rome, St. Philip embodied the ascetic discipline of the Desert Fathers and shared their understanding of the human person and the need to control the appetites and transform the passions.  Having studied the writings of St. John Cassian and St. John Climacus and put into practice their teachings from his youth, Philip became an adept spiritual guide for his disciples and remains so for those who look to his example and seek his counsel today. 

 

Exterior mortification, the chastening of the body through fasting, vigils, and other bodily penances, is absolutely necessary for making progress in holiness.  We must control our appetites and humble the body.  This Philip did throughout the entirety of his life, even into old age.  He warned that we must not pamper the body and to those who questioned the practice, Philip reminded in no uncertain terms: “Heaven is not for cowards!”

 

However, while exterior mortification is necessary, Philip also counseled that it should be practiced discreetly and only with the permission of one’s Confessor.  One should not trust in private judgment in this regard for danger of falling into pride or injuring one’s health.

 

Furthermore, as necessary as such exterior mortification may be they are only a prelude to and of secondary importance to interior mortification which involves the subjugating of the will and understanding.  Often the most difficult mortifications involve remaining silent when criticized and not making excuses when judged harshly, accepting work that is repugnant to us, and not seeking the praise of others or avoiding seeming the fool in their eyes.

 

On Exterior Mortification:

 

Bodily mortification is greatly needed by everyone who desires to make progress in perfection.  Saint Philip, therefore, speaking of this mortification, says that exterior mortifications greatly assist in the acquisition of such as are interior and other virtues, and that without mortification we can do nothing.  Therefore, let him who desires to be a faithful follower of the Saint know what he ought to practice, according to the examples and instructions of the holy Master.

 

He must not feed his body delicately, if he would imitate Saint Philip, who sharply chastised his, disciplining himself almost every day . . .

 

We must never easily indulge in the use of delicacies, either on account of age or from any other cause, but be incited by the example of our holy Master, who, notwithstanding his decrepid age, so augmented his abstinences and macerated still more his worn out body that, in the last years of his life, it had become so shriveled that nothing seemed left but skin and bone; but when someone said that he should consider his decrepitude, the holy man replied, “Paradise is not made for cowards.”

 

We must try to conceal our penances, after the example of our holy Master, who changed the conversation when anyone spoke to him of his rigorous disciplines, which they thought too severe, and turned it into another channel.

 

We must, as the holy Master admonishes us, beware of taking disciplines, or doing similar things, without the permission of our Confessor; for whoever does this on his own judgment should know that, according to the opinion of the holy Master, he will injure his constitution or become proud, thinking that he has done some great thing; and he subjoins this maxim, that true perfection consists in captivating our own will and acting according to that of our superiors.  He was thus wont to tell his people that he made no account of abstinences, fasts or anything else performed in self-will; but that they must be careful to mortify their reason even in little things, if they hoped to overcome in greater things, and make progress in the path of virtue. . .  .  These bodily penances must be made with discretion, since the holy Master warns us that the devil sometimes cunningly incites spiritual men to penance and to bodily austerities, to the end that, by performing them indiscreetly, they may weaken themselves in such a way that either they can no longer attend to works of greater profit, or else that, terrified by the illnesses that they incur, they may abandon their accustomed exercises and turn their backs on the service of God.

 

But although these bodily mortifications are commended and inculcated, the holy Master, nevertheless in order to show the far greater advantage of interior mortification, said that we must not attach ourselves to the means as to forget the end, which is charity, the love of God, and the mortification of the understanding : and that it avails far more to mortify a passion, however small it may be, than to use many abstinences, fasts, and disciplines: and he more highly esteemed those persons who, attending moderately to the mortification of the body, used all diligence in mortifying their will and their understanding, even in little things, than those who gave themselves up entirely to corporeal rigors and austerities.

 

On Interior mortification:

 

The holy Master was accustomed to say: “The sanctity of a man lies within the space of three fingers;” and when he said this he touched his forehead, and then added in explanation, “The most important thing of all is to mortify the understanding (razionale)” – a word very familiar with him.

 

This razionale is to be mortified in small things, if we desire to overcome in greater, and to make progress in the way of virtue.  The Saint frequently repeated, “My sons, mortify yourselves in little things, that you may hereafter be able to mortify yourselves in greater.”  By the mortification of the razionale Saint Philip means, as the good disciple Alessandro Fideli explains it, that a man must contend against himself and conquer his own affections, subjugate his passions, and never do his own will, excepting under obedience.  Baronius used to say, in reference to this subject, “Nothing is so pleasing to God as the renunciation of our own will.”  On other occasions the holy Master explained the point in question by saying, “A man must not reason too much; he must not reason anything: he must not play the prudent. . . .  .

 

The holy Master so highly valued this virtue of mortification that he always had on his lips the sentence of Saint Bernard: “to despise the world; to despise no one, to despise oneself, to despise being despised.”

 

When a person is accused of what he has not done, he must mortify himself by making no reply or excuse.  The holy Master was extremely displeased when anyone excused himself, for he said that anyone who really desired to become a Saint ought (excepting in some few cases) never excuse himself, but always to acknowledge himself to have been in fault, although he should be unjustly blamed; and he used to call self-excusing persons, “My Lady Eve.”

 

If we must sometimes be employed in business repugnant to our own will and which seems contrary to human prudence, we should endeavor to mortify ourselves.  Likewise, in conversation, a person may have a fitting exercise of mortification either by not telling anything which would result in his own praise, or by feigning ignorance of what he knows.  The more mortifications such as these are multiplied and repeated and touch us to the quick, the great should be our cheerfulness of heart in receiving them.

 

We should the more sedulously seek to acquire interior mortification, as Saint Philip says, “When anyone can break his own will, and renounce the desires of his soul, he is in a good degree of virtue, and the not doing of this is the origin of many temptations.”  In that case, a person will be easily offended and break up a friendship, and will seldom be cheerful, but generally melancholy and disturbed at what happens to him.  So taught the Master by word and deed, for it is recorded of him, that, by the exercise of mortification, he had gained the entire mastery over his natural passions; and he had disciples so truly mortified, that they relished the fruit of mortification.  

 

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