St. Philip Neri, affectionately known as “Pippo Buono,” was born in Florence, Italy on July 22, 1515. He lived a long, fruitful and holy life that ended May 25, 1595. May 26th is the feast day of this incredible and prolific saint. The chronology of his life demonstrates God’s abundant gifts manifested in a soul fully cooperating with grace. St. Philip Neri was the embodiment of that extraordinary paradox fulfilling Christ’s twin commandments to love God and neighbor. He was a contemplative in action. His greatest desire was to be alone with God in prayer, but he was quick to attend to any soul in need of confession, counsel or pastoral care. He would instantly leave his solemn prayers to join a soul in need with the saying “we must leave Christ for Christ.”
St. Philip was supremely educated. He studied the humanities under some of the finest scholars in a wonderfully scholarly age. He studied philosophy at the Sapienza and theology in the school of the Augustinians. When he determined that he had learned enough, he sold all his books and gave the proceeds to the poor. After that, he devoted himself wholly to the sanctification and his soul and that of his neighbor until the end of his life. For our edification, the wise and holy saint left a list of daily Maxims numbering one for each day of the year. The maxims come to us in a translation of the Ricordi e Detti di San Filippo Neri, published at Turin, translated for us by Fr. F.W. Faber who was a contemporary and dear friend to John Henry Cardinal Newman. Following is a single maxim extracted from each month to inspire the desire to learn more and perhaps encourage the practice of daily meditation on St. Philip Neri’s excellent sayings.
January– “Let no one wear a mask, otherwise he will do ill; and if he has one let him burn it!” Here the good saint echoes the lesson of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Let us not be deceived by shadows or external pretenses, especially when it comes to the masks we put on. St. Philip Neri lived this maxim. When he was shown his family pedigree he ripped it up and when he heard that his father’s house had burned he was wholly unconcerned. Let us rip off and burn our false pretenses, unfounded opinions, and illusory constructs. Let us instead “put on Christ.”
February– “Beginners in religion ought to exercise themselves principally in mediation on the last four things.” Death, judgment, Heaven and hell ought to always be at the forefronts of our minds and in our hearts if we are to end as God intends us to end. These four last things are unpopular topics of meditation in this turgid age, much less topics of conversation. We are bidden to recover a sense of urgency in meditating upon these things for as St. Philip tells us, “he who does not in his thoughts and fears go down to hell in his lifetime, runs a great risk of going there when he dies.”
March– “The wisdom of the scriptures is learned rather by prayer than by study.” How well did Saint Philip know the limits of the intellect and our own powers of perception? He had no need of books or of human study. St. Philip tells us that through prayer and meditation on the Holy Scriptures, the One True Teacher by the gifts of the Holy Spirit can instantaneously instruct an obedient soul to heights unachievable by human striving over a lifetime. Let us trust in the instructive power of the Holy Spirit, not our own natural gifts.”
April– “excessive sadness seldom springs from any other source than pride.” This would confound the modern psychologists, but a more truthful artifact of human psychology could hardly be uttered in this age. So abundant was St. Philip Neri’s humility that he was known for his cheerfulness his entire life. On one occasion, one of his flock was appalled by how the good saint was being ill-treated by another parishioner and to calm her indignation he told her “If I were humble, God would not send this to me.” On the Feast of Corpus Christi, May 25, 1595, St. Philip had known that his final hour had come. His physician remarked that he was in spectacularly high spirits. He went to his eternal reward as cheerful as ever. Humility is the wellspring of peace and joy.”
May– “Men are generally the carpenters of their own crosses.” In order to inculcate the virtue of patience in his own disciples, St. Philip would tell them to never lose heart. More importantly, he instructed them never to flee from a cross, because if they did, then most assuredly they would shortly be confronted by a greater cross. The Saint would say “there is nothing on earth more beautiful than to make real virtue of necessity, instead of doing what men mostly do – manufacture crosses for themselves.” Let us learn from holy St. Philip to embrace our crosses and thereby manufacture less of them for ourselves.”
June– “If you want to come where I am going, that is, to glory, you must come this road, that is, through thorns.” It seems counterintuitive to realize that the walk of holiness is fraught with temptations, difficulty and the suffering of the cross. St. Philip would tell his disciples that “on communion days the devil generally makes greater and sharper assaults than on other days; and if young men do not resist these, they come at last to outrage the Sacrament.” Our yes to Christ and embarking on the road to glory is the arduous trek up the path of thorns. Let us be ever vigilant and put on the “armor of God” to withstand the trials.”
July– “To obtain perfectly the gift of humility, four things are required: to despise the world, to despise no person, to despise one’s self, to despise being despised.” This is a hard but essential saying. Without humility we are unable to cooperate with the abundant graces of God. Thomas A Kempis reminds us to “forsake this wretched world” and our souls shall find rest. The commandment to love our neighbor is to recognize that all human souls are made in the image and likeness of God and to despise that image is to condemn ourselves. What we are to despise in ourselves is our falleness and our disordered proclivities. Finally, what we ought to rightfully despise is violence against any image of God.”
August– “The true servant of God recognizes no other country but Heaven.” To have things in their proper order is to put God first and neighbor second. Msgr. Ronald Knox said “we are here to colonize Heaven, not make things better on earth.” It is a beautiful paradox that in colonizing Heaven, we are making things better on earth. If we put the city of man in front of the City of God, we will lose both the City of Man and the heavenly country. So let us follow the wise counsel of the good Saint and recognize only the Heavenly Country.
September– “In giving alms to the poor we must act as good ministers of the Providence of God.” The poverty of this modern world is moral not material. The Apostle’s Catechism called the Didache exhorts, “let the alms perspire in your palm until you know to whom you give.” Too often we imprudently give material succor with the result that we have enabled unvirtuous habits. What is needed is for us to help to recover the image of Christ on our neighbor’s heart in imitation of St. Peter in Acts of the Apostles 3:6 when he said “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee.” Loving our neighbor is spiritual first and providing material aid, though necessary, in these times requires holy discernment.
October– “Fathers and mothers of families should bring up their children virtuously, looking at them rather as God’s children than their own; and to count life and health, and all they possess as loans which they hold of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightfully proclaims in paragraph 1666: “The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called “the domestic church,” a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity.” Saint Philip Neri would exhort us to model our families as domestic churches in imitation of the Holy Family to become the building blocks of the heavenly civilization.
November– “The sanctity of a man lies in the breadth of three fingers, (the forehead,) that is to say, in mortifying the understanding, which would fain reason upon things.” The great Saint warns us of the affliction of this age of reason; that of over valuating the intellect. We ought not to understand the world, our place in it and our final purpose by way of our minds, but by the law written upon our hearts by the authority of the Creator. The gifts of understanding leading to sanctity come by way of the heart and are imparted by the Holy Spirit, not the mind empowered by our own lights.
December– “Certain voluntary attachments of self-love must be cut through, and then we must dig round the, and then remove the earth, till we get down deep enough to find the place they are rooted and interlaced together.” Saint Philip Neri exhorts us to root out our defects by constant prayer, meditation on Holy Scripture, alms giving and frequent confession. Self-deceit is abundant in our fallen natures and a cause to distrust ourselves and to obediently listen to our confessors instead. Let us regain possession of the inner landscape by the practice of detachment and obedience to Divine Law.
In leaving us a year’s worth of daily maxims, Saint Philip Neri encourages and invites all Christians to “a daily spiritual repast… to the end that every one might have each day, either a maxim to meditate upon, or a virtue to copy.” The intended method is to read one a day and to let that daily maxim regulate the particular actions of that day. Here at a glance we have looked at 12 sayings with the hope that this short list will provoke further desire to meditate on one of Saint Philip Neri’s daily sayings each day in the future. Surely the exercise will bear abundant spiritual fruit as this day we celebrate the cheerful Saint Philip Neri.