When I spent a lot of time hanging around the Toronto Oratory, lo! these ten years ago, I was always hearing from the good fathers about St. Philip Neri, his spiritual approach and his programme of the spiritual life. Five years of weekly spiritual direction later, and I can say that I at least remember a great deal of that Oratorian way of thinking.
At this time of year, all over the Internet, and especially on blogs and on Facebook, I see people talking about their intentions for Lent, and I recall the many times I was cautioned by an Oratorian, “Don’t lose the merit.”
This was one of the many little expressions that went to form a way of thinking about spirituality that I came to take for granted. It meant, simply, “Don’t talk about your interior life, or you will defeat the very purpose of your good works.” You will undo in your soul the work you are trying to accomplish. Keep your inner life — including your ascetical works — private. As private as the day-to-day intimacies of a marriage. As Gandalf said about the Ring of Power, “Keep it secret; keep it safe.”
In my time as an Oratory person I was immersed in it all. I was living in a house shared with other lay Oratory-adherents, working part time as the secretary of the Oratory’s north parish, St. Vincent de Paul, and all my friends were people who were also part of the Oratory crowd. It was like a little subculture, a place of refuge, really, from the painful, cacophonic and chaotic life of central Toronto. So we were all used to hearing Oratorian Things constantly and many of us started consciously trying to mould our thinking to be more like St. Philip’s, as it was conveyed to us by the Fathers.
“Don’t lose the merit” was an expression of one of Philip’s main platform planks, usually expressed as “amare nescire” – “to love to be unknown.” The idea, simply put, is that one keeps one’s spiritual life private, and one’s ascetic practices, fasting, penance, private prayer and alms-giving, secret. To talk about it is to lose the merit – the value – of your practices. It’s a simple idea really – once you have let the secret out, you have changed from uniting yourself interiorly with the suffering of Christ on the Cross to looking for plaudits from others.
Philip was well known for his desire to not be taken as a saint, even though he was well known during his life as a miracle worker and ecstatic visionary, curing illnesses and even raising the dead. But if he was asked about it, he would be as likely to make a joke out of it, or play a prank on you, or do his best to make himself look ridiculous. He was well known as for his sense of humor, and his reputation as a practical joker was as famous as his saintliness.
This is something I’ve always appreciated about St. Philip, and for which I felt great sympathy. As an English person, I can tell you there’s nothing more embarrassing, more excruciating and cringe-inducing for me than being asked to “share” my “faith” or my “prayer life”. I have often been asked why I will not participate in the kind of lay-led, extemporaneous “group prayer” that is so popular in Catholic organisations. I would always hide when it was “prayer time” in the office. For someone like me, there is perhaps no situation more awful than being trapped on a long trip in a car full of enthusiastic Catholics who want to start praying. For me, it feels like being asked to discourse on my most intimate and private interior life, something that is, I imagine, like a married person being asked to talk about his sex life in public.
Of course, as a Catholic one is expected to live in the Catholic world along with all the other Catholics. One goes to Mass and attends the weekly devotions with the parish. At the Toronto Oratory these included not only regular Mass-going, but an ordered programme of both spiritual and cultural life. Weekly benediction and solemn Vespers, Family Days of Recollection, Evenings at the Oratory where we would have lectures and end with Compline in the church. There were lots of groups for this or that; you could volunteer at the food bank, or with the Legion of Mary, and there was a get-together every month with the Chesterton Society. And there was always lunch with the gang after Sunday Mass.
I enjoy all of these sorts of activities. Indeed, I recently moved to a town where I could attend public liturgical prayer up to eight times a day, (should the mood strike at four in the morning… which it hasn’t yet.) But there is a huge difference between formal, public liturgy – what one of the Oratorian Fathers called with a wink the “bowing and scraping” – and what goes on “cor ad cor”.
And that latter is not for anyone else to see.
As fulfilling as the public kind of devotional and religious cultural life is, I complained to my Oratorian teacher that it was not enough. There was something missing. And in the five years I was there, I gradually learned to begin to cultivate this inner, secret, private and intimate life. External devotional practices – particularly the Sacramental life – were fine and necessary, but they have to be backed up with an interior life or they are essentially empty.
To love to be unknown is something of a watchword among Oratory people. And (you will perhaps laugh at this) it has also become one of the fundamental principles of my own spiritual life, thank God (and thanks Fr. Dan!). However public one’s exterior life may be, whether one is a movie star or politician — or just a journalist — one’s real life, the interior life, remains one’s own. Private, and even secret.
Medieval spiritual writers described this as a “walled garden” where one meets — trysts — in prayer with the Beloved. And this is something that no one else needs to know anything about. In the end, as holiness grows (so I’m told), the exterior ascetical practices become suffused with joy and eagerness. Fasting and penance become a kind of conduit of love and turn into exterior acts – gestures of this growing intimacy that would be unthinkable to talk about.
We have become a culture of exhibitionists, endlessly broadcasting everything about ourselves both interiorly and exteriorly. Someone on a spy TV show I like recently quipped about Facebook and Twitter, “We used to have to spy on people. Now they save us the trouble.”
Something good for us to do for Lent might be to mortify this urge. To learn to interiorize Philip’s most memorable axiom and learn to keep it secret, and keep it safe.
Originally published on February 23, 2015.