As with any Saint, we are attracted to Saint Philip Neri because of the manner in which he lived out the Gospel in his life. But this attraction, this admiration, if it is to have any value must lead to imitation; not so much in specific religious practices but imitation in virtue. It is Philip’s virtue we must emulate.
It is only appropriate then that we begin with and look at the virtue Philip cherished most of all: Humility. He called it the head and guardian of all the virtues and was constantly telling his disciples “Be humble, be lowly.” He defined it as St. Bernard did before him: “Despise the world, despise no one else, despise oneself and despise being despised.” That is, despise all that is contrary to God’s love, be lowly in your manner toward all, hold yourself in little regard, and despise even being held in little regard by the world, as though it could be attributed to your own goodness.
These are very challenging words, and perhaps we may find them a little difficult to reconcile with our image of Philip as the joyful saint. And that’s good. For they force us to look for the deeper reason for Philip’s joy. To begin with they tell us that it was found not in the things of this world, not in power or authority, and surprisingly, not even in his own virtue. Philip knew that there was only one thing to rejoice over – being a child of God. And this is pure gift; received not because of our greatness, our intelligence or even our virtue, but because of the mercy and love of God. What else can we do but “Be humble and lowly”.
There was no virtue which St. Philip so much desired to teach his disciples as humility, which he styled the head and guardian of all virtues. Not satisfied with constantly teaching it, he was always explaining the teaching to his people; and as Saint John was ever saying,, “Love one another,” so Saint Philip was ever saying “Be humble, be lowly,” and desired that this virtue be more diligently sought than any other.
In order to acquire the precious gift of humility, the Saint gives the following advice. We require pure and frequent confession, and light to know God and ourselves; and we may use this ejaculation, which was frequent with the holy Father, and which is quoted by Father Pietro Consolini, “O Light of Light, enlighten my heart.”
We must despise the world, we must despise no one else, but rather esteem others as the holy Father did, who humbled and abased himself and exalted others, was most lowly in his manner towards all, and honored everyone. We must despise ourselves, and despise being despised. The holy Father said that he wished to reach this point, and F. Angelo Velli said that he had gone beyond it.
We must abase and crush our touchiness, which is the remedy given against pride by the holy Father.
We should never think that we have done any good, for Saint Philip himself, though laden with so many merits, felt this so strongly that he used to say with abundance of tears, “I have never done the least good;” and well or ill, to the last days of his life, this was his constant feeling, that he had done no good compared with the Saints, and especially the Martyrs. He said, “I should never have thought of founding the Congregation, had not God of His goodness used me as a weak instrument, that His glory might shine forth the more.” And at another time he said that the Most Holy Virgin was the Foundress, so that he would never be called the Founder.
We should resist any praise which may be bestowed on our holy living, or any gifts of grace or nature, for the Saint said to a woman who asked him to give her something to keep out of devotion, “Go, and God be with you, for I am a devil, and not a Saint.” And when a penitent of his had had a dream which confirmed his opinion of the sanctity of his Confessor, the Saint, as the mortal enemy of his own praise, would not let him begin to repeat it, but with a severe look said, “Get out of my sight, you must be a good man and a good Christian, who desires to go to Paradise, and not to believe in dreams.”
When praised we can make the reply which the Saint sometimes made when anyone told him of the high opinion which was entertained of his sanctity: “Poor me! poor me! God give me grace to become what these people think me!”
If we are thus to resist any praise which may be given us, much more should we perform additional instructions which the holy Master gives us on the subject of humility. . . . No one must ever utter a word in his own praise, either in jest or in reality. When the spiritual children of Saint Philip said anything conducive to their own praise he instantly reproved them, saying “Secretum meum mihi, secretum meum mihi,” (My secret is mine, my secret is mine) thus giving them to understand that we must not publish, nor even disclose, all the inspirations which God may send us, or the graces which His Divine Majesty bestows on us.
“When,” adds the holy Master, “you have done anything good, and it is attributed to another, you should rejoice in this, and acknowledge it to be a great benefit from God; or, at least, you should not grieve that another should take away your glory before men, since you will receive it from God with greater honor.”
The holy Father often reminded his disciples to walk in constant fear, and never to trust in themselves because the devil attacks us unawares, and he who fears not is overcome, since he has not the help of the Lord.
The Saint himself teaches us this by his example. He said that he was in despair, which he thus explained: “i despair in myself, but trust in God.”
When we hear that anyone has committed a fault, we should say with the holy Father, “God grant I may do no worse.” It would be advantageous to imitate the holy Father in the protest which he made every day to God with the Blessed Sacrament in his hands saying “O Lord, look well to me today, else I shall betray Thee, and commit all possible evils.” We should accustom ourselves to say what the holy Master often repeated himself and led others to repeat: “O Lord, the wound in Thy side is large, but if Thou help me not, I shall make it larger.”
We must studiously conceal our making people think them less than they are, and conceal the good we do, praying to God, as Saint Philip prayed that he would not permit it to be discovered. We have his express advice on this subject, for he exhorted his spiritual children that, should God bestow any gift or any virtue on them, they should entreat Him to keep it concealed, that they might be preserved in humility and take no occasion of pride.
So said the holy Master, after having himself set the example, for he shrouded himself, as it were, delighting in being thought to be nothing, and, though most learned, no one would have thought him to be a man of letters, chiefly because, in familiar discourse, his words were concise and hesitating, for he well practiced his own maxim, “Love to be unknown, and to be accounted as nothing.”
The holy Master gave other examples of his carefulness in avoiding singularity, and destroying the good opinion which others might entertain of him; for, when asked to go to some place of recreation, lest anyone should attribute his refusal to a love of mortification, he replied, “Another time, another time, there will be time enough for that.” Even to the very last, he most carefully concealed his great spirituality, and would leave nothing behind him which could discover the great gifts which God had bestowed on him. He therefore caused all his writings to be burnt before his death, and was wont to pray that God would not discover him either in life or in death.
We must not flatter ourselves that our service are essential, especially in the service of souls or of any community, for Saint Philip said to Cesare Baronio, that distinguished member of the Congregation, who had actually labored so much for it, when he thought of leaving it, “God stands in no need of men:” and when anyone had left the Congregation, he used to say, “God is able of these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” Likewise, he also said, “Were all the Congregation to go, I should not grieve, for God has no need of men, and I will have no fear of any man, since He is on my side.”
If a man met with reproof, he should not, says the holy Father, afflict himself too much, “for,” adds the Saint, “the fault which we commit in fretting under the reproof is often a greater fault than the sin for which we were first reproved.” Besides which, extreme sadness generally originates in nothing else but pride. Therefore, he wished that, after a fall, a man should acknowledge the truth in these words: “If I had been humble, I should not have fallen.”
Even when the reproof is unmerited, it displeased the holy Father, that the person should excuse himself; but he desired that he should always own himself to be in the wrong, even though that for which he was corrected was not true. The Saint used to call those who excused themselves, “My Lady Eve.”
excerpted from The School of Saint Philip Neri
by Giuseppe Crispino
translated by Father Faber