St. Philip Neri: the Virtue of Joy
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA
19 April 2015
“Men are generally the carpenters of their own crosses.” – St Philip Neri
It is early February in the year 1590. Philip Neri – Pippo Buono – is 75 years old and long a saintly figure in the streets and courts of Rome. Confessor and confidant to cardinals, statesmen, thugs, and fishwives, Pippo stands with the entire Oratory community of the Chiesa Nouva and eleven cardinals, waiting for the solemn procession to arrive. Relics of the ancient martyrs, Papias and Maurus, had been discovered in the titular church of Agostino Cardinal Cusano earlier in the year. Cardinal Cusano, a penitent under Pippo's spiritual care, wanted to bestow on his confessor and friend a singular honor. He had ordered the newly discovered relics to be transferred to Pippo's home, the Chiesa Nuova. When the procession arrives, the Papal Swiss Guard comes to attention and forms an aisle for the relics into the church. As the relics pass by Pippo, a familiar buzzing begins in his heart. An old friend, Joy, rises in his soul and Pippo does what he always does when the nearness of holiness threatens him with ecstasy. He does something foolish. Where most of us would drop to our knees in prayer, or shout out praise and thanksgiving to God, Pippo does the unexpected. He walks up to one of the stoically serious Swiss Guards and begins pulling on his beard!1 For St. Philip Neri, for Pippo Buono, the joy that love demands of us is best expressed in humble acts of apparent foolishness.
And about his apparent foolishness there is much to say. Reading Pippo's biographies is like reading a catalog of schoolboy pranks. Attending vespers at a fashionable parish, he would dress like a beggar and loudly mispronounce the Latin. He would send penitents on public errands with their clothes turned inside-out. He would demand that the young dandies who came to him for advice shave half their beards. He was once seen skipping like a child inside the church of St Peter in Chains. And another time, during Mass at the Chiesa Nuova, he had a barber cut his hair!2 Many thought he was simply an addle-minded old man. Others thought he was a saint entirely lost to ecstasy. Pippo saw himself as a sinner tempted by pride to embrace the power and glory that his closeness to God afforded him, a temptation that – on a much larger scale – had corrupted Rome and exiled godly humility. Pippo's antics were not attention-seeking, or foolishness for the sake of foolishness. His ridiculous behavior kept his joy grounded in humility. He feared the lightness of his heart at the merest thought of God would lift him away – literally, allow him to fly – and he feared that his people would come to believe that only those so lifted in flight could be said to be holy. His life, his work, his death all point us toward the truth of joy: Joy is love in action. Human joy, our joy, is divine love, God's love for us, in action.
With Pippo's living-admonition to remain firmly grounded in humility ringing in our ears, we can move – cautiously move – toward a less animated exploration of the virtue of joy and how joy must enliven a priest's ministry. I say “cautiously move” because joy is an effect of love and we do ourselves only a little good by simply pinning joy to a specimen board, splaying open its belly, and dissecting its parts. Examination is good and necessary, but it is also woefully insufficient. Joy is best known in being joyful. Not by knowing the names and functions of all its parts. That said, we turn to the Great Dissector himself, Thomas Aquinas, for the better parts of understanding where we are intellectually with joy.
According to Thomas, strictly speaking, joy is not a virtue.3 It is not an operative habit, nor does it incline us to perform any specified acts. However, the virtues (theological, moral, intellectual) do tend to produce “several ordinate and homogeneous acts,” or effects. In the case of the virtue of charity, joy is one such ordinate and homogeneous act, making joy an effect of charity. Thomas writes, “Hence [charity] inclines us to love and desire the beloved good, and to rejoice in it. But in as much as love is the first of these acts, that virtue takes its name, not from joy, nor from desire, but from love, and is called charity. Hence joy is not a virtue distinct from charity, but an act, or effect, of charity. . .”
How are these scholastic distinctions even remotely pertinent to our exploration of Pippo's apparent foolishness? Philip Neri studied philosophy at the Sapienza in Rome and theology with the Augustinians just short of a decade after Emperor Charles V paid mercenaries to sack the city in 1527. In his biography of Pippo, Paul Turk, notes, “. . .it is well testified that he read St. Thomas Aquinas throughout his life and that later on he was capable of discussing intricate problems with learned men of his day.”4 Though Pippo always downplayed his intellectual prowess and education, the influence of Thomas in Pippo's day was pervasive and unavoidable. Pippo often sent young men to the Dominicans and maintained friendships with the friars at San Marco in Florence. The fiery friar-preacher, Savonarola, was a life-long inspiration for Pippo. So, it is a safe assumption that the fine scholastic distinctions found the Angelic Doctor's work made their way into the saint's humble heart and mind, and were given an exaggerated expression in his apparent foolishness. Pippo fully understood that his antics were both a means to humility and a way to be loving. In other words, he wasn't just acting crazy to be seen acting crazy. When the fire of joy overflowed, Pippo – always mindful of the temptation of vanity – let loose in the streets of Rome a circus of God's love and drew to Him Who Is Love crowds of sinners to be welcomed and washed clean. For sinners, foolishness was Pippo's hook. For himself, it was a penance.
If we take Pippo's life as a dramatic reading of Thomas' notion of joy, we can better see not only why Pippo lived as he did, but also how we have so misunderstood joy. Assuming that Thomas is correct concerning joy – and, of course, he is! – then we must admit that we've been “doing joy” wrong for quite some time. Like most of our traditional philosophical and theological vocabulary and grammar, joy has been stripped of its transcendental referent – de-transcendentalized, if you will. The modernizing project of the so-called “Enlightenment” demanded that our language submit itself to the grubby paws of naturalized reason and bow to the harsh judgments of empirical science. Any attempt to reach above human reason and grasp at the transcendent was ruled out of order. Rather than reinvent an entirely new language for the modern project, our Betters took the languages they had on hand – traditional philosophy and theology – and began re-writing the dictionaries to scour them clean of the natty influences of silly supernatural superstitions. The virtues were re-paganized into merely human attributes, laudable behaviors with nothing above them to strive toward and nothing beneath them for support. If the virtues suffered such a barbaric treatment, then their “ordinate and homogeneous acts” and effects suffered as well. Desire and joy as effects of charity – de-transcendentalized – became little more than human longing and momentary delight. Nothing above, nothing below. Nothing to move toward, nothing to stand on.
The current best definition of joy? “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” A feeling. Not an act of love or an effect of charity. But a feeling. A feeling of what? Pleasure and happiness. How defined? No idea. With nothing as a referent, pleasure and happiness are defined by nothing more than the individual expressing joy. Do the ISIS terrorists who are beheading Christians in Iraq feel joy? Sure, why not? If it makes them happy – and they certainly look happy – why not call it joy? Would Thomas and Pippo call it joy? Is beheading another human being in order to instill terror in others a loving act? Hardly. Yet we can rightly describe these terrorists – using our modern dictionaries – as joyful.
My purpose in rehearsing the fall of our traditional language is to bring into focus the depths to which we have fallen in allowing our words to become bastardized by nominalism. That is, by not challenging the underlying assumptions of the modern world's use of language, we immediately surrender the field to nihilism and chaos. When we use words in the way that our Betters demand we use them, we sign away our natural freedom to speak as Christians. Pippo may not have understood the problem of nominalism or even knew that the problem existed; however, he understood all too well the temptations inherent in allowing words and concepts to remain merely marks on a page. Over and over again in his sayings, his letters, his strange antics in the streets of Rome, Pippo acted out the fires of joy. Not simply speaking about joy but acting joyfully; loving sinners; acting as a flesh and bone avatar of joyful repentance. Turk notes that Pippo never gave a penance that he himself failed to complete. He was as demanding of himself as he was of his penitents. And in this way, Pippo embodied the joy that our Lord came to us to complete.
If St. Philip Neri embodies genuine Christian joy, then what does the opposite of Christian joy look like? Thomas tells us that desire and joy are the “ordinate and homogeneous acts” or effects of the virtue of charity. Sorrow is opposed to joy, and sorrow is an effect of the vice sloth. So, what is sloth? Thomas, referring to St John Damascene, writes, “Sloth. . .is an oppressive sorrow, which. . .so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing. . .Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work. . .a 'sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.'”5 He goes on to argue that sorrow – as an effect of sloth – is always evil because it is an intentional rejection of joy, or a refusal to experience the effects of love, especially divine love. That's the definition. But what does sloth, oppressive sorrow, look like in a person? We are quick in the 21st century to point out that sloth sounds an awful lot like clinical depression. And the two probably share some of the same observable traits. But we would miss the point of defining sloth if we simply shoved it into the clinical category of depression and left it there. Perhaps the difference that makes the difference between the two is that sloth – as a vice – is a bad habit. Not a condition or an illness or a psychic wound. But a bad habit. Sloth is the deliberate rejection of joy, the calculated refusal to allow the effects of love, esp. divine love, to touch the soul. This means that the slothful man has been shown divine love, received it as a gift, benefited from its promises, and yet refuses to exhibit any of its effects on him. In this way, sloth is the bad habit of ingratitude and the added sin of failing to bear witness to the generosity of Christ's gifts. What we normally think of as slothfulness arises out of this spiritual laziness: I can't be bothered to participate in the divine life except as it directly benefits me. The slothful man knows that he is obligated by baptism and his gifted share in the divine life to go out and proclaim the Good News of the Father's freely offered mercy to sinners. He himself as experienced this mercy. Yet! He refuses. That refusal, that bad habit of ingratitude and spiritual stinginess, produces an oppressive sorrow that only compounds and amplifies his sloth.
Pippo Buono stands against sloth by living joyfully. He bears witness to divine love by acting, speaking, thinking joyfully – all as the direct result of getting and receiving the Lord's mercy for his sins. And lest he become prideful of his spiritual gifts and take too seriously the accolades that cardinals and fishwives are heaping upon him, he dresses like a clown, dances around the streets of Rome, and tells corny Latin jokes in choir. And not only does he do all these silly things out of love, he demands that his penitents and followers do them as well. Why? Because the joy that love demands of us is best expressed in humble acts of apparent foolishness.
Joe is the sacristan at St Dominic's parish here in NOLA. He's in his late 60's, a very humble, hardworking man who loves the Church and cherishes his job in the sacristy. Joe is also Barber to the Friars. He buzzes Dominican heads all over the city. And he loves it. Joe also has a gift for making this particular friar (me!) feel just a little self-conscious, and that's OK because he does it in a way that perfectly reflects his charity. Every time I see Joe, he says, “Fr Philip! It's always so good to see you! You have the best smile and you always brighten my day! Just being around you makes me feel better about the world! You're the smartest guy I know and I hope those guys at the seminary know how lucky they are to have you!” And he goes on and on in this vein for quite some time, and then he'll pause and say, “But I don't want you to get a big ego, so I'm gonna stop.” All I can do during these moments of praise is smile, nod, thank him, and wait for the inevitable conclusion. Why do these praise-sessions make me self-conscious? Because I know something about me that Joe doesn't: I am not easily given to being joyful nor am I always ready with a smile. In fact, I can be quite cynical and prone to the temptations of despair. Thanks to Augustine and Calvin I make a natural idealist living in a world that will never meet my standards. Thankfully, that's my dark side, and it doesn't win out very often. But this is the Fr. Philip Show not the Dr. Phil Show, so why I am telling you all this? For one simple reason: I chose “Philip Neri” as my religious name not because I am like him, but because I need to be more like him.
Pippo exuded joy in his silliness. He wore humility like a crown, never taking it off. He was unafraid of being embarrassed; nonplussed by his social and ecclesial Betters. He took formal social events as an opportunity to remind himself and others that we are all going back to dust someday. Pippo understood the need for social order and formality and he respected authority as any good priest would; however, he never allowed any of that to overwhelm his ultimate goal, his final end: union with God. And he never allowed bella figura – good form – to ruin a chance to show sinners God's freely offered mercy. In fact, he wholeheartedly believed that his joyful silliness was the best way to reveal our Lord's mercy to those most in need of it. Pippo's antics made it easier for sinners to approach the throne and receive the gift from his consecrated hands. What he did over and over again is what all priests must be able to do when necessary: he made the Lord directly accessible when he seems to be at the most inaccessible.
Joy – real joy, the effect of divine love and our charity – makes the Lord accessible to others through us. More specifically, your joy makes the Lord accessible to those whom you serve. And they need the Lord more than you will ever need your self-defined dignity.
Our people live in this world, but they are not of it. This world demands constant sacrifice, constant praise. It harangues us to pay attention, spend, consume, waste, hurry up, demand, complain, be outraged, and whine. It demands that we do and say whatever it takes to Get Mine and hang on to it into the grave. Our sacrifices to the gods of this world can never be enough because they – the gods – know that they are finite creatures just pretending to be gods. If they ever get their fill of our misery, they will have to confess their finitude and abdicate their altars. So, to perpetuate their reign, they multiply our miseries and await our offerings. Unfortunately, our people will stand in line to make the proper sacrifices and then turn to us and wonder why their lives are a mess. And when they turn to you, hoping to see the Lord and some way out of their misery, who or what do you show them? (Your answer to that question will define your ministry). What do they see when they turn to you? A way into a life of grace? Or just another obstacle to overcome? Do they see a means of achieving freedom in Christ? Or a man too deeply committed to his clerical role to bend down and help? They could also see you as an easy source of cheap grace, or as a mark upon whom they can perpetuate a spiritual fraud. Maybe you're the one who will eagerly tell them what they want to hear, thus relieving them of a cross they choose to carry. Or maybe you will be the priest who agrees with their dissent and gives them permission to sin.
What will they see when they turn to you? Better yet: what should they see when they turn to you? To answer this question fully would require me to start and finish a lecture series in pastoral theology and practice. I'll leave that burden to Fr. Krafft. Instead, looking over at my patron, Pippo Buono, I'll offer a short answer that requires some unpacking. A priest of Christ – lay or ordained – should always and everywhere appear to those in need as one who embodies and lives out that great Catholic ideal: veritas in caritate. That low groan you just heard came from the seminarians of second theology who are currently enduring my homiletics practicum. Veritas in caritate will populate their nightmares until the Reaper comes for them! Nonetheless, I would argue that this simple phrase – packed as it is with portent – should be engraved and gilded on the doors and walls of every rectory, priory, convent, monastery, and Catholic home on the globe. It contains all things necessary for carrying out one's ministry as a bearer of the Good News. It also has the distinction of being the adage that Pippo Buono lived out in all of his humble silliness. If you want to know why Pippo was so successful as an evangelist in Rome at a time when ecclesial corruption and licentiousness ruled, think: veritas in caritate.
Earlier I noted Pippo's affinity for the Dominicans of his time. He was especially fond of Savonarola, the friar who ruled Florence and ended his life on a pyre as a heretic. Pippo admired the friar for his skillful preaching and zeal for the conversion of sinners. Savonarola went to deadly extremes in carrying out his program of reform, but Pippo nonetheless saw in him a soul burning with a desire for the truth of the faith to prevail., Pippo took to Savonarola's severity and, along with his knowledge and appreciation for Friar Thomas, tempered both with a practical wisdom that pushed him out into the streets to gather in the Lord's sheep. Without wavering from the truth of the faith, he cared for God's people in whatever way they needed. Because he loved, he clung to the truth. And because he clung to the truth, he loved. In Pippo, there wasn't a sliver of difference between preaching on the damning evils of sin and immediately absolving sinners in confession. When he needed to confront sinners on the street, he did so in way that brought them into the confessional – with genuine love for their souls. He was never above begging for others – food, clothes, jobs. Nor did he place himself below any man because of his station. To Pippo, all men and women were equally sinful and equally forgiven. And all of them deserved the attention of his Lord's servant.
Embracing the phrase veritas in caritate as your pastoral motto can only lead to one, glorious effect: joy! Charity, as a virtue, produces both desire and joy. Desire and joy are effects of charity. If you preach, teach, and minister veritas in caritate then you will experience and exude the fires of joy, drawing to yourself those who most need to hear the Good News. But there's a significant danger here, one Pippo himself brushed against more than once. With great joy comes great temptation. After Cardinal Cusano had the relics of Papias and Maurus transferred to the Chiesa Nuova in 1590, Pope Gregory XIV tired to sneak a cardinal's biretta onto Pippo's head. Pippo leaned forward and whispered something in the pope's ear, persuading His Holiness to hold off making him a cardinal.6 Pippo endured and resisted many attempts of this kind to elevate him to the episcopate and even popular movements to declare him a living saint. A large part of his antics were meant to dissuade others from seeing him as a man of classical saintliness. The danger here, of course, is pride. At a time in the Church when hierarchy, station, money, and power were the daily currency of Rome, Pippo knew too well how easily it would be for him to be entombed in the layers of silk, brocade, silver, gold, and jewels. He wanted no part of an imperial Church. Whatever work he had left to do would be done as a beggar or a clown. . .not as a Prince of the Church.
The dangers we face as priests and ministers in the 21st century are not exactly the same, but they rise from the same cardinal sin: pride. Success in ministry – successes like the ones Pippo managed – would draw the attention of the world. And with the world comes applause, prestige, wealth, and even power. How many bishops and priests have we seen in the last fifty years fall because they forgot to embody veritas in caritate? Books, speaking tours, websites, CD's, interviews with the press, requests for comments on current events – all fine in themselves, but also ways for pride to inflate the ego and the ego to become to a god.
Even if you were to become a god only in your own mind, you would still fall into idolatry. How long would it be before your bishop becomes a meddling fool? Your brother priests jealous clerics? Your parishioners whiny know-it-alls? Looking back on your days at NDS, you would see the deep and cavernous flaws in your professors and formators. Safe to discard all that nonsense now. Because before you would be a wide-open road and clear-blue sky just waiting for you to make your next astonishingly brilliant move. And the only thing holding you back would be the drudgery of daily parish ministry and all those whinging sheep who can't seem to wash themselves more than once a month. You have a career to build! Important people to meet! Important meetings to attend! A golf game at 3 and drinks with the mayor at 5. . .OK. OK. You get my point. I hope. Being a successful spiritual father opens you up to the particular temptations of fame and fortune. So, the truly successful spiritual father never allows himself to forget that he is first and foremost a father. And a father cares for his children by telling them the truth in love. And by making sure that he himself is told the truth in love. Even when that truth stings.
Shifting gears a bit. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” What is this? What did Jesus say to his disciples so that his joy may be in them and their joy may be complete? Right before this statement, Jesus was giving his disciples a metaphor for how he sees his relationship with them: the vine and the branches. He is the vine; we are the branches. As long as we remain with him, we will grow and thrive, producing much good fruit. Then he says, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” How is his joy given to us and our joy made complete? By bearing much fruit and becoming his disciples. More than that, actually, he adds, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Then he promises to complete our joy. But what does “complete our joy” mean here? We do all these things and then we find our joy complete. If joy is an effect of divine love, then our completed joy is an effect of completed divine love; that is, perfect divine love. In other words, if we remain in Christ, loving as we ought, bearing much fruit, and following the Father's commands, we will receive the effect of perfect love called perfect joy. We will find ourselves gazing upon the Beatific Vision.
Pippo knew this well, so he lived his life as if he were always, already in sight of the Beatific Vision. What we might call his silliness was a means to an end: humility. Others saw his humble silliness and rightly identified its source: his joy. And Pippo knew the source and summit of his joy: his love for God and his Christ. In every way that matters, Pippo's ministry to sinners was an expression of his love for Christ and Christ's love for him. Without guile or boasting or weariness, he gave himself – sacrificed himself – to the holy cause of making known to sinners the Father's freely offered mercy. He died May 25, 1595 firmly attached to the vine of Christ.
1 Turks, Paul. Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy. Alba House, 1995, 99.
2 Ibid, 99.
4 Turks, 13.
6 Turks, 99.
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