We live in a world that takes itself too seriously. I would hazard a guess that many people reading this piece struggle with this taking of one’s self to seriously, just as I do. It turns out, there is a saint to help us: St. Philip Neri. Today the Church celebrates this humorous, charitable, obedient, and joyful saint. He was born in 1515 in Florence, Italy. He spent many years studying and serving as a layman before being ordained a priest. He had a profound mystical experience that led him to serve in hospitals and he felt such great love of God that he preached to the poor and the rich alike in his desire to bring the world to Him.
St. Philip developed quite a following. He founded a confraternity alongside his confessor, Persiano Rossa, called the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents. The confraternity served the needs of poor pilgrims who came to Rome throughout the year and during jubilee years. St. Philip was ordained in 1551 and he also founded the Congregation of the Oratory, which was a group of secular priests.
St. Philip was known for unpredictable behavior that surprised a great many people:
He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. One man came to the Oratory just to make fun of it. Philip wouldn’t let the others throw him out or speak against him. He told them to be patient and eventually the man became a Dominican. On the other hand, when he met a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip didn’t try gentle words, but grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession.
St. Philip Neri, Catholic.org
It is clear that St. Philip could see the need for different approaches depending on the situation. It demonstrated his ability of discernment and his willingness to do what was necessary to bring others to God.
The virtue that enjoyed pride-of-place for St. Philip Neri was humility. He knew that humility was the only way for people to truly find and serve God. His approach to teaching humility to others was unique and often was accompanied by a humorous side. It is obvious that much of pride and anger stems from an overemphasis on self and that can often include an over dependence on seriousness. The Christian life is one of joy and being too serious points too often to sinful pride, which is destructive.
Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humor like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Misere at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.
His approach to humility is one that many of us can learn from in our own journey to holiness. How can St. Philip’s approach to humility guide us?
Properly order our God given gifts.
Each person on this earth who is created in the image and likeness of God, possesses unique gifts that are to be used to further the Kingdom of God. The danger for all of us is to rely too heavily on our own worth or abilities rather than a dependence on and gratitude to God for those gifts. For instance, St. Philip Neri knew that a beautiful sermon and the gift of Homiletics could come with pride and an over-dependence on one’s own insight or intellectual capacity. In order to save this priest from these temptations and dangers, St. Philip taught him that his gifts in writing and delivering sermons rested with God. It is amusing to think of this priest giving the same Homily “six times in a row”, as the parishioners looked on in confusion, or even perhaps, boredom. Whether we are able to write, sing, build, paint, sculpt, deliver speeches, study, or do any other manner of things, we must remember that God has given us those gifts in His service and not our own. Pride in our own abilities often blinds us to the mission God has given us and can impede our journey to sainthood.
We must laugh at ourselves.
Every single one of us has been embarrassed or committed some kind of error. How we react speaks volumes about our progress on the path to holiness. Do we become enraged at ourselves or others? Do we make excuses? In reality, all of us have these reactions from time-to-time. As we progress in the spiritual life, however, we begin to recognize our own limitations. We also accept that we will make mistakes and so will everyone else. As we come to this realization, we stop judging ourselves and others so harshly. We begin to laugh it off. We don’t get angry, frustrated, or make excuses. We get to a point where we can laugh at ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Being too serious in all matters leads to various deadly sins. Pride and anger have led to murder and other serious sins since the Fall. We don’t have to use a weapon to kill or injure others; we only have to open our mouths to do grave and irrevocable harm to those around us.
Be willing to accept constructive criticism.
‘Everyone’s a critic’. We all struggle to focus on our own faults. There is a reason Christ tells us to focus on our own “plank” over our brother’s “speck”. When our eyes are always turned in judgment towards others we cannot possibly move forward towards our eschatological goal of Heaven. Every single one of us will be on the receiving end of criticism. It may be justified and it may be unjust. In most cases the justice of it cannot be fought, so we must learn to take it in, ponder it, and either use it as a teaching tool, or discard it. As hard as it may be at the time, much criticism is born of love. This is especially true in marriage. Spouses who love one another want to fulfill their vocation of leading one another to Heaven. At times that may include much needed constructive criticism. We must not assume that others are automatically trying to hurt us. Instead, we need to remember that someone who truly loves us desires our good and we need to take into consideration what they are trying to tell us. It isn’t easy, but it is a response that can be born out of habit, so that we may attain humility.
Humility is a struggle for all of us. St. Philip Neri’s unique and comical approach to the spiritual life and the fostering of this virtue can help each one of us on our own journey to the Most Holy Trinity. If we are taking ourselves too seriously then we need to take a step back and examine ourselves. We must be willing to accept our weaknesses, so that we can fall on Christ. That takes humility. When we make a mistake we need to laugh and move on. We are on a joyful path, not one of anger and frustration. We must learn to accept constructive criticism born of love, so that we can be purified and made holy through our vocations. May St. Philip Neri’s joyful, humorous, and charitable example guide us to Our Lord. St. Philip Neri, ora pro nobis.