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Members of the Secular Oratory gathered with Fr. David for a discussion on 'Holy Stillness.' The group read and reflected upon a brief selection from 'Meditations Before Mass' by Msgr. Romano Guardini

It is curious to think in our day that one of the most beautiful aspects of the Latin Rite Liturgy is the presence of silence.  I say curious because it is so little found today or fostered.  To do so seems to violate the "freedom" of distraction that individuals fight to maintain.  A confrontation with silence is too frightening a thing in a culture that thrives on perpetual diversion.  Any attempt to speak of the value of silence is met with either polite disregard or suspicion. Recently, I came across an article describing concern for maintaining a prayerful setting for worship as a reflection of narcissism; claiming that external distractions pull people out of focus on self and internal distractions that masquerade as prayer; allowing them to shift their prayers on to the needs of those around them.  The absurdity of such an argument is unnecessary to address. Rather, I would like to reconsider a classic writing on liturgy - Romano Guardini's Meditations Before Mass.  He begins by emphasizing what is sorely needed and painfully absent in our day: Stillness.

 

WHEN Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become silent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indicate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participation. What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?

It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail, that no other sounds of movements, of turning pages, of coughing and throat-clearing be audible. There is no need to exaggerate. Men live, and living things move; a forced outward conformity is no better than restlessness. Nevertheless, stillness is still, and it comes only if seriously desired. If we value it, it brings us joy; if not, discomfort. People are often heard to say: “But I can’t help coughing” or “I can’t kneel quietly”; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. That stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence dominates, a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and truly important reign. We must earnestly desire stillness and be willing to give something for it; then it will be ours. Once we have experienced it, we will be astounded that we were able to live without it.

What Guardini captures here is essential: silence does not happen spontaneously.  It has to be desired as a good, fostered and we must be willing to make certain sacrifices to attain it.  Few in our day have tasted true stillness and the beautiful fruit it produces in the soul and the liturgy.

Moreover, stillness must not be superficial, as it is when there is neither speaking nor squirming; our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must also find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us, spreading ever deeper through the seemingly plumbless world within.

Once we try to achieve such profound stillness, we realize that it cannot be accomplished all at once. The mere desire for it is not enough; we must practice it. The minutes before Holy Mass are best; but in order to have them for genuine preparation we must arrive early. They are not a time for gazing or day-dreaming or for unnecessary thumbing of pages, but for inwardly collecting and calming ourselves. It would be still better to begin on our way to church. After all, we are going to a sacred celebration. Why not let the way there be an exercise in composure, a kind of overture to what is to come? I would even suggest that preparation for holy stillness really begins the day before. Liturgically, Saturday evening already belongs to the Sunday. If for instance, after suitable reading we were to collect ourselves for a brief period of composure, its effects the next day would be evident.

Again, astutely, Guardini notes that preparation for such holy stillness begins not with the start of the liturgy but at the beginning of the Sabbath the evening before.  The desire for stillness must be such that it leads us to begin the movement to still the mind and heart and regain the kind of composure that will become fully evident the following day.  Saturday evening is often a time of heightened distraction rather than the begin of a fast from those things that fragment the mind and heart and lead to dissipation.

Thus far we have discussed stillness negatively: no speech, no sound. But it is much more than the absence of these, a mere gap, as it were, between words and sounds: stillness itself is something positive. Of course we must be able to appreciate it as such. There is sometimes a pause in the midst of a lecture or a service or some public function. Almost invariably someone promptly coughs or clears his throat. He is experiencing stillness as a breach in the unwinding road of speech and sound, which he attempts to fill with something, anything. For him the stillness was only a lacuna, a void which gave him a sense of disorder and discomfort. Actually, it is something rich and brimming.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being “all there,” receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Stillness is not a void but rather a receptivity; the tranquillity of soul that prepares one to hear God as He speaks the Word He desires us to receive.  In truth we should seek to live in a state of perpetual receptivity and alertness - a mindfulness of God that comes only through prayer and asceticism.  We must seek to purify our desires and order our passions in order that nothing should distract us from the presence of God.

Attentiveness that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God. What then is a church? It is, to be sure, a building having walls, pillars, space. But these express only part of the word “church,” its shell. When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated “in church,” we are including something more, the congregation. “Congregation,” not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual “space” around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything depends on whether or not the faithful are capable of forming congregations that erect indestructible “churches” wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

By fostering stillness, we our constructing the real sanctuary where God is worshipped in spirit and truth.  The Congregation is formed not only physically but more importantly spiritually and altar of sacrifice must be humble and contrite hearts.

We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for nothing do these reflections on the liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understanding of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics of mere withdrawal into the ego we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected; the prerequisite of the liturgical holy act.

 

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

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Fear has big eyes. It sees everything as a threat and so controls our thoughts and destroys our hopes. In this sense it becomes an idol. We invest it with meaning above everything else - including the Love that God has for us and what He gives us. It directs our thoughts, makes our decisions and drives our actions. It may slow us down but it is not a holy stillness or silence that allows for an encounter with God and an experience of His grace. Rather, it paralyzes us; prevents us from reaching out to the One who seeks for us at every moment. Instead of being lifted up by Love we remain earthbound; unable to break free of the moorings of our fears. Our vision becomes warped and we are prevented from seeing His Eucharistic Face. We are everything to Him and yet we minimize the King of the Universe.
 

Any importance given to person and things reduces God's presence and activity within the soul," writes St. John of the Cross. God wants to protect me from being so deeply wrapped up in people and things that I push Him out. Through preoccupation with what He has created, I can effectively cover Him up.

 
My life will always be quite topsy-turvy if I have more regard for people and things than for our Eucharistic Lord. I can get so wrapped up in my possessions that they begin to take me over to my detriment. I get so drawn away from God that I scarcely relate to the Eucharistic One.
 
I can get so absorbed in my work, it can be like a drug. Workaholics suffer by pushing God out. Results become my spur. In being so attached to them, I marginalize the Eucharist. I don't hand over my concern about the results to Him. That is odd since it is He who determines the outcome.
 
St. John of the Cross tells us that the more we identify ourselves with things, the more we become subservient to them. I get so wrapped up in my surroundings, I drive God into the outskirts. So we all suffer when the living Eucharistic God actually disappears from my daily life as if He doesn't exist at all.
 
Fear has big eyes, according to the proverb. What I fear can grow enormously, engulfing me so that both the world and our Eucharistic Redeemer cease to matter in these moments. Yet He is in the Eucharist for me and the world. Fear alone exists and that becomes like an idol for me. My attitude to an idol can either be that of adoring love or fearful rejection.
 
The more I marginalize God, the more I suffer from fear and haste. It is not just that I need to slow down. Slowing down can still be haste if I am continually earthbound. Real lack of haste is silence within me. It involves searching for fulfillment in Eucharistic Love. If I am just thirsting for exclusively earthly love, acting very slowing goes on impeding God's grace. Allowing my life to be centered on the One who daily comes onto our altars is the only way to save men from the deprivation of anxiety, sadness, and feverish activity.
 
I may declare I best find God in nature, yet it is by no means certain I am looking for God in this pastime. It is true that trees are God's gift, yet I can get into a trap if I focus more on them than on God. They blur my vision, drowning me in the forest by diverting my focus away from the pursuit of amazing Eucharistic Love. I need to avoid making love of nature my final goal. The great and beautiful forest can conceal my Eucharistic, hidden God who is always longing and searching for me.
 
Where am I going? Should I not change direction? After all, if I receive the grace to believe in the Creator not just of trees and animals but also of galaxies rushing into infinity, then I may get engrossed in His love. It may happen that as I look at the star-filled sky, I will simply pray. I may not be asking for anything but I will be adoring God. Humbly looking in faith includes adoration. Maybe I will be led on beyond the lit-up sky to see my own smallness in contrast to the greatness of the Only One. Maybe I will not just stay in this thought but go on to embrace the inner core of it. Maybe I will hold onto God's greatness in His very personal, supportive power and love. After all, these great things are not just there for me to look at with powerful telescopes. The wonders of the universe are an invitation to draw close to Him in adoring amazement. Everything created should impel me toward incomprehensible Eucharistic Love.
 
My prayer of adoration should always more or less lead me to God's amazing reality. It is He who is adored in the Eucharist; it is He who is worshiped by choirs of angels. God is always so amazing. However, we need discerning eyes of faith with worshiping hearts inspired by His superabundant miracles. These point to His never-ending love for me. He wants to give me unending opportunities. He wants me to respond at least to some of this truth; He wants me to worship the Eucharist maybe in the words, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power..." (Apoc. 4:11).  He superabundantly reveals His glory to inspire me to some adoration of the real Master of the Universe.  On the Eucharistic altar He always reigns supreme.
 
I still minimize the King of the Universe. In my everyday life I undervalue the Eucharistic One. Yet my participation in the Mass is a vital part of my life. I frequently ask how it is that I don't make the Infinite One more important, especially on account of His miraculously incomprehensible Eucharistic love. Why don't I change in a radical way? I am everything to Him; I am the one who is unique to Him; He just wants me to share in His eternal glory.
 
Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer
Amazing Nearness
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The great benefit which the soul derives from retirement and the virtue of silence is clearly shown by the desire which David implored them of God: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth"' and by the admonition of Saint James the Apostle, that he must not esteem himself religious who does not bridle the tongue. "If any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man's religion is vain."

Let us therefore esteem silence to be a most important thing.  The mother of silence is retirement, and Saint Philip, who had to pass his life in the midst of Rome, which seemed opposed to retirement, which is generally only to be found in the deserts, was warned by God, by a special revelation, that he should live like a hermit there.  The Saint obeyed, as did also his companions, of whom F. Pietro Consolini said, that the first Fathers of the Congregation were stayers at home, and that F. Cesare Baronius said  to himself, "Stay at home Cesare," that he might not be unlike the holy Master, who was most careful to stay at home, either in the church or in his cell, and never left the house unless constrained to do so on works of charity.

Though, according to Tarugi, a spiritual man should, like Saint Catherine of Siena, form in his heart a cell, in which to retire frequently when in the midst of worldly occupations; and though, if a man cannot retire into himself and there find that peace which the Holy Spirit gives good consciences, he will never derive it from persons or places; still we should delight in retirement as far as becomes our state, since St. Philip, from his youth up, as far as he could, lived in solitude.  His life was esteemed eremitical, and he was always most addicted to retirement.

Let us mortify ourselves sometimes by imitating the Saint who separated himself from intercourse with men and avoided conversations however innocent.

Silence is connected to retirement, and this, so far as it was in accordance with the Institute, was especially loved by Saint Philip during his whole life.  We should love it, like F. Flaminio Ricci, devoting at least some hours of the day to its observance.

Amongst other innumerable good effects which this silence produced in Saint Philip, we are told that it greatly assisted him in the contemplation of divine things.

To produce another example, F. Alessandro Fedeli greatly loved retirement, prayer and contemplation, in which he found his delight and his advantage.  Brother Battista Flores says of him, "The affection which he bore the exercises of the Oratory made him a friend of silence and solitude, a lover of home and of his room and he disliked to go far from his nest; also that Cardinal Antoniano, who was most familiar with the congregation, used to call him the "Silent one." 

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We continue during this 500th anniversary of St. Philip Neri's birth to consider his life and teachings.  In the most gentle and thoughtful fashion, Philip sought to revitalize the faith of Catholics that had grown slack from neglect and from lack of guidance.  He had the capacity to present the fullness of the spiritual traditions of the Church in the most appealing manner.  Rooted in experience and common sense, Philip's teaching was both accessible and practical.  

Such is the topic at hand: Perseverance.  Having begun the spiritual life or even appearing to have made great strides is of little consequence.  The important thing is to persevere to the end of one's life.  This means to be measured in one's thinking and action, making use of discretion and understanding that spiritual development and growth does not take place in a day.  It is a great labor we undertake and those lacking wisdom and prudence will often quit the course.  

Beyond this, the path must not be taken alone but rather with a trusted guide and Confessor.  The most important of these guides who nurtures us and educates us in the mysteries of the faith is Mary, the Mother of God.  

Our food for the journey must be the grace of the Sacraments, in particular frequent confession and daily Mass whenever there is no impediment to such discipline.  

While never relinquishing our resolutions, Philip counsels moderation in the spiritual disciplines we take upon ourselves; always sure never to overestimate our strength.  It is better to attend to those practices well tried and that will bear fruit for us in time. 

Finally, it is love of the virtues pursued that bring us to the desired end.  We must hold on in the struggle and in the midst of failures; not seeking consolation for ourselves but rather to please God who alone can bring us to a happy end.

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Once again St. Philip Neri proves to be the best of spiritual guides; particularly regarding his teachings on the struggle for chastity.  Philip sought to maintain purity throughout the whole course of his life (at times through rather rigorous means) and kept unsullied the gift of his virginity.  Despite his rigor, Philip did not suffer from scrupulosity; nor did he have a negative view of the human person or sexuality.  Rather, he humbly understood the power of human desire and relentless nature of temptations that arise from the appetites.  If he gave himself no leeway in maintaining strict mental and physical discipline and seemed not merely reserved in his relationships with members of the opposite sex but one might say severe, it was because he knew that no matter what age or how pure of heart one might be that the devil will never miss an opportunity to stir the bodily appetites which are a part of the human experience.


Philip held the virtue of Chastity in the highest regard and the quest for purity of heart as the immediate and essential aim of the spiritual life; so much so that he held no one in esteem (even the seemingly virtuous) if they were at all unchaste.  His teaching was simple and straightforward, yet not easy.  There are three kinds of temptations against purity: "one from the devil, which is overcome by prayer, another which arises from excess in eating, which is overcome by abstinence; and a third which arises from looking at women and conversing with them, and this is overcome by shunning occasions of sin, chiefly by bridling the sight."  Below, we have the fitting remedies for all these temptations as taught by St. Philip

Again, the thinking and language behind these teachings may seem coarse and severe but we must remember what Philip himself offered as a reason for this: "All sins displease God, but most of all those contrary to purity, and they are very difficult to cure."  Beyond this, it is helpful to understand that his understanding was shaped by the desert fathers, in particular St. John Cassian, who placed purity of heart as the immediate aim of the spiritual life; for through it and through maintaining physical chastity one develops a greater freedom in loving God and others.  It is in rigorously purifying the passions that desire becomes rightly ordered and with it the capacity for true intimacy.

OF THE OCCASIONS OF SIN WHICH WE MUST AVOID IF WE WOULD PRESERVE OUR CHASTITY

We must be vigilantly diligent in avoiding occasions of sin, for Saint Philip reminds us of that doctrine so much inculcated by the Saints, that whereas some temptations are vanquished by conflict, and others by contempt, temptations against purity can only be overcome by flight.  Our Saint, therefore, used to say that in this conflict, cowards are the most secure, because in the wars of this world, cowards fly.

We must scrupulously observe custody of the eyes, which the Saint did in such a manner that he did not look at women even in the confessional, as was attested by a most beautiful penitent of his, who delcared that during the thirty years in which he had been her Confessor, she had never perceived that he had looked at her once.  Now as the Saint was ordained a Priest at the age of thirty-six, he must then have been nearly seventy years of age; whence we may draw some other instructions which he inculcated, saying, "Whilst a man can raise his eyelids, he should not trust in any age."

MEANS OF DEFENCE AGAINST TEMPTATIONS

The instructions of the holy Master for the preservation of chastity are as follows.

1. Be humble; for the Saint declares humility to be the true safeguard of chastity; so that we must endeavor to pursue this virtue in an especial manner.


2. You need a good and experienced confessor.

3. Be frequent in prayer.

4. Use this ejaculation: "I trust in God, I trust in the goodness of God."

5. Often say from the heart, "O Lord, trust not in me; for if Thou help me not, I shall surely fall:" or "O Lord, look for nought but evil from me."

6. Frequent the holy Sacraments.

Use of the ejaculation which Saint Philip teaches us to use under sensual temptations: "O Virgin Mary, Mother of God! pray to Jesus, thy Son, for me a sinner.  Virgin and Mother!" for all who have used it have found it very efficacious.

We should have a particular affection for those Saints who have been distinguished for purity, as F. Gallonio had, who, by the counsel of the holy Master undertook from devotion to write histories of the Roman Virgins, and derived great spiritual profit from his labors.

This is another motive for affectionate devotion to the Saint, who gives us this further advice: "When we hear of anyone's fall, we must excite ourselves to compassion and not to anger;" for he said that one of the best means of keeping ourselves chaste is to have compassion on those who fall through frailty; never to boast of our own escapes, but humbly to refer all to the mercy of God; and he assures us that want of compassion in such cases is the sure presage of a fall.

In regard to nocturnal tempations, the holy Father exhorts us, when going to bed, to say the hymn "Te lucis ante terminum," adding that he always said it when he went to bed.

The holy Father especially warns us against feeding the body delicately: this the Saint also taught by his actions, for he mortified his flesh by abstinence - one of the principal helps for maintaining the preserving purity; and for the same purpose it will be very desirable to take the discipline three times a week, as prescribed by Saint Philip to the members of the Congregation and to the brothers of the external Oratory.  This was confirmed by the saying of Marcello Ferri, his spiritual son, who, asking Saint Philip how he could possess chastity, "Master, what must I do to possess chastity?" the Saint replied that he must mortify the flesh; and for this purpose, he showed him the iron chains with which he disciplined himself.

REMEDIES AGAINST TEMPTATIONS WHEN THEY BESET US

To certain temptations which present themselves to the mind in this manner: "If you had such a facility or such an opportunity of offending against modesty, what would you do?" the holy Master counsels us to reply, "I do not know what I would do; but I know well what I ought to do:" and he commends this manner of reply more than saying absolutely, "I would not do it; I would not say it," because this would be to have presumption in ourselves.

When we feel tempted, let us have recourse to the powerful means of holy prayer, by which Saint Philip overcame, and by his example instructs us to do likewise; as once, when passing the Colosseum, as the Sacred Legend tells us, the devil tried to raise filthy images in his mind; but, having recourse to his usual remedy of prayer, he remained victor in the battle.  "When," says the Saint, "a man feels temptation, let him have recourse to the Lord, devoutly repeating that ejaculation so much esteemed by the holy Fathers of the desert,  "O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me;" or this verse, "Create a clean heart within me, O God, and renew a right spirit within my bowels."

1. Kiss the ground.

2. Fly from idleness as far as you are able.

The holy Master also prescribes that, when a temptation arises, the person should call to mind his former consolations in prayer, by doing which he will easily surmount the temptation.

He should disclose his thoughts to his Confessor with all freedom, for this the holy Master declares to be a sovereign means for the preservation of chastity; for, by disclosure to the physician, the wound is healed.

An excellent and powerful remedy in these attacks is to invoke the aid of our loving Father Saint Philip, since many, by conversing with him, preserved their chastity, and very many received the same grace when the Saint only drew them to his breast.

F. Antonio Gallonio, who was always free from sensual temptations, said that the holy old man used to pinch him here and there on his sides with such force as to give him great pain; and he thought that he had received this great favor from the touch of his holy hands; also by threatening the tempter that they would accuse him to Saint Philip, his spiritual children were completely freed from these temptations.

In doing this, they executed a counsel which he had given them, and which all his devoted children may imagine to be addressed to themselves.  The counsel is this: "When you feel yourself tempted in such a manner, say to the devil, "I will accuse you to Philip;" and that the temptations then ceased.

He warned them, however, to repeat these words simply, and without reasoning, knowing how much the devil fears words spoken in faith and holy simplicity.

Now, if our Saint was so powerful on earth, how far more so must he be in Heaven!  Surely there he can obtain for us the effects of this and other instructions which flowed from his mouth, so that in our need we may invoke his help in the following manner:

"To thee, O holy and Virgin Father, to whom the noxious vice of impurity was so displeasing, I thine unworthy servant commend myself, imploring they powerful help.  Behold, the enemy assails me; already he begins to increase the number of his burning goads and piercing shafts; I accuse him to thee, I invoke thy miraculous name, Philip, Philip!  Now is the time to give the aid of thy powerful patronage to my soul, which is in danger of falling into the hands of the filthy enemy.  Defend it, holy Father, for thou canst do so."


Giuseppe Crispano

The School of Saint Philip Neri


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