26 May – St Philip Neri
He was born in Florence in 1515. At the age of eighteen he went to Rome, and earned his living as a tutor. He undertook much-needed charitable work among the young men of the city, and started a brotherhood to help the sick poor and pilgrims.
He was advised that he could do more good as a priest, and was ordained in 1551. He built an oratory over the church of San Girolamo, where he invented services, consisting of spiritual readings and hymns, which were the origin of the oratorio (tradition is a good thing; but innovation also has its place). He continued to serve the young men of Rome, rich and poor alike, with religious discussions and by organising charitable enterprises. He had a particular care for the young students at the English College in Rome, studying for a missionary life and probable martyrdom in England.
He inspired other clergy to emulate him, and formed them into the Congregation of the Oratory. Oratorian foundations still flourish in many countries today. He died in Rome in 1595.
St Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him (he was famous as a confessor) he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship.
Laughter is not much heard in churches: perhaps that is to be expected… but outside church, Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy, that God bothered to make us, and that he continues to love us despite the idiots we are. Everyone is a sinner, but Christians are sinners redeemed – an undeserved rescue that we make even less deserved by everything we do. It is too serious a matter to be serious about: all we can reasonably do is rejoice.
Very many of the saints, not just St Philip, have an abiding terror of being looked up to. For they know their imperfections better than anyone else, and being revered by other people is doubly bad. It is bad for the others, who should be revering God instead, and for themselves, because they might be tempted to believe their own image and believe themselves to be worthy.
We are not saints yet, but we, too, should beware. Uprightness and virtue do have their rewards, in self-respect and in respect from others, and it is easy to find ourselves aiming for the result rather than the cause. Let us aim for joy, rather than respectability. Let us make fools of ourselves from time to time, and thus see ourselves, for a moment, as the all-wise God sees us.
A man multiplies offerings by keeping the Law;
he offers communion sacrifices by following the commandments.
By showing gratitude he makes an offering of fine flour,
by giving alms he offers a sacrifice of praise.
Withdraw from wickedness and the Lord will be pleased,
withdraw from injustice and you make atonement.
Do not appear empty-handed in the Lord’s presence;
for all these things are due under the commandment.
A virtuous man’s offering graces the altar,
and its savour rises before the Most High.
A virtuous man’s sacrifice is acceptable,
its memorial will not be forgotten.
Honour the Lord with generosity,
do not stint the first-fruits you bring.
Add a smiling face to all your gifts,
and be cheerful as you dedicate your tithes.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
generously as your means can afford;
for the Lord is a good rewarder,
he will reward you seven times over.
Offer him no bribe, he will not accept it,
do not put your faith in an unvirtuous sacrifice;
since the Lord is a judge
who is no respecter of personages.
‘What about us?’ Peter asked Jesus. ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.
‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’
“We have left everything and followed you.”
Two women were once talking about marriage. One of them said that she had never been anywhere outside her parents’ home and leaving her family and the only home she knew to be with her husband seemed almost alien. It took her a full week to get used to her new living circumstances, during which she cried because she was homesick.
The world we know is the one that we have grown up in. Our surroundings, our creature comforts, the people we meet daily, sights and smells. When I was going to university, my parents worried that I would suffer from culture shock being away from home all alone. Thankfully I had a sense of adventure then, and all the “newness” was almost exciting. For some, leaving the environment you are used to can be a very daunting prospect. We fear the unknown. The longer we stay in one situation, the harder it is for us to let go. To put it in perspective, some people who have been in their jobs for more than 10 years will find it less of an adventure to seek greener pastures than a younger person who has been in his job for a year. Such a move would almost be like a leap of faith.
This is what Jesus is calling on us to do today: to take the leap of faith with him and trust in the path that he is showing us. In order to do that, we need to leave behind our dependence on material possessions and more so, our old ways of thinking and living. Embracing God is like putting on new glasses — once our eyes are opened, we see a completely different world.
Are we ready to see a whole new world with Jesus today? Let us pray for the courage to take that leap of faith with him. As Christopher Columbus once said, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore”.
(Today’s Oxygen by Annette Soo)
Prayer: Lord Jesus, help us to shed our fears and give us the courage to take our leap of faith with you.
Thanksgiving: Lord, thank you for being by our side, encouraging us on our journey with you, every step of the way.