In her first letter to Pope Eugenius III, St. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th Century Benedictine nun (and true polymath) who was named a Doctor of the Church under Pope Benedict XVI, was trying to describe the means of her staggering knowledge and output by telling a story. She wrote,
“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ‘a feather on the breath of God’.”
Hildegard made this perfect metaphor for the actions of grace on a soul surrendered to God sometime in 1148.
Nearly 370 years later Philip Neri was born, the son of a Florentine lawyer and his noble wife. Whether the man who would be called an “Apostle of Rome” had ever heard of Hildegard is unknown.
Nor can we know whether Elizabeth Ann Seton, herself born nearly 600 years after the German abbess’s death – and into a prominent family with little interest in the Roman church – ever knew of Hildegard.
It doesn’t really matter whether any of these saints, come to us down the ages, had ever heard of the other; whether they had or not, all three of them – in the eerie way that truth makes itself known and manifest through the fug of time and the obfuscations of history – created and established lasting institutions that, through centuries, have continually and positively impacted the Church and the world beyond its pews and doors.
The lives of all three of these saints, female and male, out in the world, or enclosed from it, or oddly in between, give spiritual insight and instruction on what it means to offer one’s whole self to Christ and his Church and then simply be lifted, blown and moved upon the breath of the Holy Spirit.
We see this very clearly in the life of St. Philip Neri who (for all of his perhaps over-celebrated playfulness), was every bit as impactful, bold, innovative, and spiritually necessary to the Counter-Reformation as his personal friends, Charles Borromeo and Ignatius of Loyola, and his Spanish contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila.
From Florence, Philip was blown toward the recently-sacked Eternal City of Rome, landing lightly in the narrow-pathed, somewhat dingy district of Campo dei Fiori, where he proceeded to earn his living as a tutor to students of all ages, and to study and pray. In the evenings he would stroll through the neighborhood, where he was called “Pippo Buono,” (“The Good Philip”) – a layman who shared the Gospel as naturally and casually as one might share a few slices of an orange with another while conversing before the setting sun. “Well,” he would ask as he encountered gatherings of bored or adventuresome young men, “when shall we begin to do good?”
Philip did much good, and in ways that would have likely met the approval of Pope Francis, who has famously called the Church to come outside of itself while conversely bringing people in.
Long before he was a priest, Philip would invite the neighbors to pack a bit of food and take a walk with him – little journeys around the hills of Rome that would include sharing stories and jokes, singing songs, discussing ideas – even political ones – and picnicking under the olive trees. Philip would bring the discussion around to Christ and the life of faith, and – it was inevitable – he would invite the group to make a short visit before the Tabernacle at each Church they would encounter. “Get out of the sun,” he would urge, leading them toward the Son.
These little pilgrimages would eventually become what we call the Seven Churches Pilgrimages, a relaxed and cheerful walking devotion that is still undertaken today, especially during Lent, by small groups in joyful community.
For all of his natural gregariousness, Philip also understood the spiritual value of solitude. For many years he would spend nights, or sometimes whole weeks living within the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, near the Appian way, in prayer and fasting.
It was there, about ten years after he’d arrived in Rome, that Philip had a mystical experience not unlike the transverberation of the heart endured by St. Teresa of Avila. He perceived a ball of fire entering his chest, enlarging his heart and rendering him so perpetually overheated that he would often leave the top of his tunic unbuttoned for relief. “No more, Lord, no more,” he would audibly plead to heaven, as though in intimate argument, often closing the prayer with, “Do not trust Philip!”
A decade later, his confessor more or less ordered him to pursue priestly ordination, which he did, hoping to be blown to the Far East as a missionary like his Jesuit friends. Instead, Philip-the-feather was to remain Rome bound, where, even before Holy Orders, he had established a hospital for the sick – especially for pilgrims who had traveled far and reached Rome in a miserable state – as well as soup kitchens and hostels, to alleviate the indignity of poor or homeless people going hungry and sleeping in the streets. After ordination, he would pursue his priestly duties with vigor, especially in the confessional, where long lines of the faithful would wait for a chance to tell their sins to a priest whose correction was gentle, and whose penances were both original and instructive.
Philip’s lasting legacy, however, compares and contrasts rather brilliantly with the feather-directed yet rock-solid legacies of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her community.
Elizabeth and her Sisters launched schools and hospitals and from them sent out into the world Catholics fit to further build up the Body of Christ; Philip constructed churches for the edification of that Body, and then brought in Catholics who, for various reasons, had stopped believing they were welcome, or that the Church had a place in their lives.
For Philip, this meant the establishment of the Oratory – a congregation of secular priests who, echoing his early practices as a layman (then continued in his priesthood), make a point of going outside the confines of the sanctuary and the rectory to find the sheep where they are feeding and then invite them inside – telling stories and jokes, discussing politics and the culture, and sharing food – while inviting them to stay and rest before Christ, who has been waiting, longing for their company.
In both Philip’s case and Elizabeth’s, the lasting and great work they dedicated themselves to seemed to grow almost organically from their natures. They were blown like feathers to where they were meant to serve, and rendered potent and powerful by grace.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
Image: St. Philip Neri by Sebastiano Conca via Wikimedia Commons