Beginning the Christian life is easy; persevering in it is difficult. One can only endure to the end by humility. Indeed, one “of the most efficient ways of keeping ourselves sinless is to have compassion for those who fall due to frailty, and never to boast of our rightness, but with real humility acknowledge that if we are in a state of grace, it is by the mercy of God.” St. Philip Neri’s words remind us that every good thing we do comes from God alone.
In today’s busy society, we can easily look at reality solely from our perspectives or from those of the people around us. But we miss the big picture unless we look at everything from God’s perspective – especially at sin. In a sense, every sin is an infinite offense hurled at God because every sin is an act of hate directed at infinite Goodness. Only when we understand the reality of sin can we understand the greatness of God’s mercy. St. Philip lived in this spirit of contrite humility, always returning good for evil.
Born in Florence in 1515, he studied under nearby Dominicans, then went to San Germano to study under his uncle, a merchant, in hopes of one day assuming his uncle’s fortune and occupation. But soon after arriving in San Germano, the young Philip experienced a reversion to the Catholic faith and, abandoning worldly pursuits, left his uncle to go to Rome.
Upon reaching the eternal city, he lodged under a local aristocrat in exchange for tutoring the aristocrat’s two sons. He subsequently studied for three years, both at the Sapienza and under the Augustinians in Rome. After that, he made rounds of the hospitals, visiting the city’s sick. He also gained a group of followers and visited shops, plazas, and other venues around Rome, evangelizing the people.
Although he became famous for the fruit of his labors, his holiness did not come from them, but from his interior charity and humility. He went to Holy Mass every day, received Holy Communion frequently, went regularly to Confession, fasted daily on bread and water, lived in an austerely furnished room, and slept on the floor.
Realizing sin’s gravity, and that everyone was guilty of sin, made Philip understand how imperfect mankind is, and thus how much he needs the Lord’s mercy. Living the Passion of Christ constantly filled him with love in knowing that God would become sin in order to redeem man from its shackles. With God’s love and man’s sin in mind, St. Philip sought to lead everyone whom he met to Heaven. He gave no consideration to his physical well-being but spent himself entirely for the Lord. Moreover, he did it all cheerfully. He knew how to “rejoice with those who rejoice [and] weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
This disposition did not mean that he compromised on the truth. Rather, his cheerfulness enabled him to persevere in God’s love to the end of his life by keeping his heart fixed on Heaven. In fact, he even equated humility with cheerfulness, saying that “charity and humility, or charity and cheerfulness, should be our motto.”
By always preferring the lower place, St. Philip cultivated an attitude of genuine unworthiness: not a false humility or a “woe is me” complex, but a sincere self-giving love to God, which manifested itself in tireless prayer and work. But he did not prefer the humble place primarily because he wished to be exalted, but rather to give glory to God. He knew that before God, he was dust, and so he knew everything good he had received, or even done, sprung from God’s mercy and goodness, not his. Out of this attitude rose another one of his mottos: amare nesciri – to love being hidden.
If St. Philip’s head had been filled with noise, he would not have been able to live a life of constant interior union with God. But his contemplative spirit perpetually opened him to the Holy Spirit’s voice, prompting his heart to the Divine Will of God. He surrendered everything to the Lord and gave no obstacle to God working in his life, and, through him, the lives of others. His quiet mind and heart continually made him a humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard.
St. Philip’s humility meant he was very much tied to the earth, as one living off the land would be. “Humility” comes from the Latin humilitas, whose root word, humus, means “ground.” Thus, the humble man is close to the ground, while remaining unworldly. Philip understood what it means to be humble but not indulgent, meek but not cowardly. He lived knowing that he would one day return to the dirt whence he came, and so saw that anything that ended in material goods meant nothing. “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (Jn 6:63). Consequently, he synthesized the spiritual and the material, making “everything work for the good” of mankind’s salvation (Rom 8:28).
St. Philip emphasized the universal call to holiness long before the Second Vatican Council would explicitly state it, because he saw that Christ Himself called all His children to the heights of holiness when he bid us “be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). No soul was a means for Philip. Everyone had a unique call from God and mattered infinitely to Him. Even though he might feel mad or indifferent towards another, Philip would suppress these feelings in order to seek the other’s salvation. His charity which caused him to go the extra mile sprung from his unique emphasis on mortification.
Mortification is the act of subduing one’s desires, usually of a corporal nature, and St. Philip practiced and preached the need for mortification of the flesh. But he also expounded the need to mortify the intellect, for the brain is “the chief means by which we become sinners or saints.” While learning about how to become holy is important, such knowledge is useless unless we become holy. As St. John of the Cross taught that a mortified mind was a “house at rest,” so St. Philip emphasized the need to concentrate all one’s desires on the Lord, with no exceptions.
Living such a life is difficult, but possible. “For with God nothing [is] impossible” (Lk 1:37). Following St. Philip’s example, may we live authentically humble and charitable lives – amare nesciri in Corde Dei.
Image: Giovan Francesco Barbieri detto Guercino, San Filippo Neri. Reproduction courtesy of Stefano Bolognini on Wikimedia Commons