THE ROMAN SOCRATES [ST. PHILIP NERI]
Louis Bouyer
What place has Philip in such a garden as this, where even the loveliest flowers smell of brimstone? [ Reference is to Rome in the Renaissance.] The call from his peaceful retreat at San Germano to the turmoil of Rome was unquestionably a call to the apostolate.

On arriving there he set himself at once to win back the youth to Christ, but what weapons was he to use against the old pagan magic?

He did not seem attracted by any of the more ancient Orders; though he was still friendly with the Dominicans who had brought him up, he was no more likely to join them than he was to yield to the invitation of the monks of Monte Cassino. Nor did he feel drawn to the Capuchins ... He sent so many recruits to the Jesuits that Ignatius called him 'The Society's Bell', calling others to enter while remaining outside himself.

The rigorous methods of the saintly Spaniard, says Newman, had the same effect on this free Florentine as Saul's armor had on David. He preferred to go forth to meet the subtle attractions of the new Paganism armed only with the more powerful attractions of purity and truth.

It was not that he condemned any method, old or new; let those use them who made them; for his part, he could never adapt himself to them; he was too simple, too spontaneous, too direct, perhaps even too lively, to place any armour between himself and the world he planned to conquer. Though this involved the loss of many resources both in attack and defense, it did away with anything which might have hindered direct contact with the souls he sought; as it was, everyone could find immediate access to his mind and heart.

His tactics were entirely spiritual and none could avoid his influence except by avoiding him altogether; and there he was, like another Socrates, with apparently nothing else to do but wander about the Roman streets joining in every kind of group quite freely ...

This unusual apostolate, depending for its effect on personal influence alone, on simple friendship in which a soul's whole life may be transformed, is typical of the Oratorian method, in so far as the Oratorian has any method ...

There is no doubt that it was dangerous to go out against the new paganism with no other arms save love, and just as dangerous to expose his apparently vulnerable simplicity to its disturbing influence, yet his outrageous method made him the victorious apostle of neo-pagan Rome. To understand this victory we must consider another side of his personality, and in doing so we come face to face with a disconcerting paradox ...

To start with, what did he live on? Nothing, or almost nothing. [His position as the tutor of two boys] earned sufficient to satisfy his needs: a corner of the Custom-House to sleep in, a clothes-line for a wardrobe, and his food, a daily handful of corn and olives. ...The Charwoman who used to watch him

eating his ration every morning in the corner of the court-yard nearest to the wall could have enlightened those learned critics who later described his spirituality as a mysticism without asceticism.

At the end of his life the last spiritual book he had read to him was The Fathers of the Desert, a book he always considered a manual of perfection. ...

Philip's Nocturnal Solitude Balances his Daylight Sociability

The church holds now no other presence save that guarded by the flickering flame. Alone with the Blessed Sacrament, Philip lingers in silent conversation.

The night is well advanced when at last he rises to his feet, though it is not the need for sleep that draws him away—there must be no mistake—this has been merely the beginning. He makes his way without hesitation through the familiar darkness to a flight of crumbling steps down which he plunges to an even darker night.

What draws him is not a mere crypt, but a secret kingdom which, led by an instinctive attraction, he has been one of the first to discover.

The steps lead to a network of galleries through which he passes as one who knows his way. The taper, lighted perhaps from the sanctuary lamp, serves to help him to re-discover cherished carvings and inscriptions, rather than to guide his feet; its light falls now upon the fish, now upon the lamb, and now on the dove. And on the <loculi>, partitioned off like the cells of some huge hive in which eternal life awaits the burgeoning of everlasting spring, it lights these words constantly repeated in letters of the same dark red,.—<'In Pace'>.

This strange buried world still holds intact within its shrine of silent night and secret freshness, the early vanished life of Christian Rome. In this kingdom of the Dead, which his faith sees as a buried garden of God ready to burst out again in blossom upon the kingdom of the Living, Philip is as much, if not more, at home as in the sun-drenched streets where all we see is his gaiety.

Here, surrounded by the symbols of immortal life he more than makes up for the sleep he has denied himself, by prayer in which the invisible world stands clearly revealed to his inward eye. He can no more dispense with this solitude thronged with spirits, a solitude denied him during the day, than could the monks of old whom he admired so much. Like them, he wishes to plunge himself, forgetful of time, deep into that absolute silence in which alone the Heart of God can speak to the heart of man.

From the young men who came to make their confessions to him, Philip quickly picked out those who could give God more than the minimum service and he never found it hard to get them to come back sometime in the afternoon when they were free. So it was that they formed the habit of gathering daily in his room before going out for the customary Roman saunter in the cool of the evening.

At first, on account of the smallness of the room, the number must have been fairly small, not more than seven or eight; nor could anything be less formal than these meetings....

At first it seems he spoke in the same simple way as had been the custom at Persiano Rosa's, but soon he had to adapt his material to a more educated class of people, to minds more lively and brilliant. He would use a book, perhaps one of the Gospels, St. John for preference, or the writings of some mystic, though he was always careful to avoid mere speculation, as such, or anything which his young audience might find unreal. After reading a few pages he would put the book away and his explanation of' what had been read would lead quite naturally to an exhortation, though he preferred to encourage immediate discussion by asking a sudden question. In either case he tried to avoid doing all the talking and encouraged the group to work things out for themselves. The evening's stroll in no way interrupted their talks, rather the opposite....

The extension of his work [to include greater numbers], compelled Philip to abandon something of its original spontaneity; mere conversation was no longer sufficient and so Philip would invite one or another of the small nucleus of his disciples to prepare an address, always expecting that it would be concrete, and never allowing it to become a scholastic or academic discourse. ... What appealed to Philip most of all, however, was his original 'talk on the book', as it came to be called, and it is interesting to notice the texts he was accustomed to use: most of them were taken from early spiritual writers such as Cassian or John Climacus, or from some of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages, Gerson, Denys the Carthusian, Richard of St. Victor, or St. Catherine of Siena. Any of the lives of the saints were popular but Philip seems to have shown a marked preference for the lives of the Desert Fathers. ...

Philip, avoiding the slightest didactic tendency, enlivened the discussion on such books with amusing or profoundly spiritual remarks which were always practical. He liked the conversations to be interspersed with music and the meetings to be brought to a close by some singing, so that the evening was filled with harmony.

The program of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of some saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did.

He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench before the gathering. ...


<The Roman Socrates> pp. 23-25; 27; 28-30; 31-33; 49-50; 52-53


This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.


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