St. Philip Neri and the Wisdom of Holy Fools
The doorbell rang.
Most of the guests had already arrived. Rome’s elite filled a bustling main hall. Very powerful cardinals struggled to hear the very rich men to whom they spoke. The din died down, however, as a very pale butler announced the party’s very newest arrival:
A man missing half his beard. “Fr. Philip Neri,” the pallid butler proclaimed.
According to the people of Rome, the man was a living saint. According to the cultured, cultivated eyes of his onlookers, he was a lunatic. Moreover, there was no mistaking it for an accident. The famed priest had neatly trimmed his beard on one side of his face, and meticulously removed it on the other.
The rest of the night passed awkwardly, especially for the party’s host, to whom the preposterous priest assiduously attached himself until party’s-close. Upon leaving, most of the guests made two resolutions: (1) avoid that priest at all costs, and (2) never attend another party thrown by the host again.
At this point you might ask yourself: Why the beard-shaving?
It would be true for me to say that God gave St. Philip Neri the gift to read souls (to see someone’s virtues and vices), and that, when the party’s host had extended him the invitation to come, St. Philip had seen immediately that the man only wanted him there so that the Roman elite would see their host standing beside a reputed saint.
But that would not be the answer.
St. Philip Neri did not shave off half his beard and attend an A-list party simply to teach a prideful and vain man a lesson (though that it certainly did). He did it to look like a fool.
I imagine for most of us that’s an unsettling answer, but there it is. And St. Philip Neri wasn’t alone. The Church has a rich tradition of “holy fools,” men and women whose intense sanctity comes tied hand-and-foot to their extreme self-abasement. St. Simeon Salos was known to drag a dead dog behind him; St. David the Dendrite lived in a tree for three years; and St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent thirty years in a state of voluntary homelessness, sleeping among the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome.
What do we do with stories like these? What do we do with Saints like these?
I think we’re supposed to marvel at them. Scripture says that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Saints such as these give us shocking and abrasive opportunities to believe it. Purely human reason, purely human prudence, cannot comprehend the actions of holy fools. In fact, even for people with the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom (and that includes every Christian in a state of sanctifying grace) it can be tough to make out the divine reason behind the apparent folly. But the holy fools do make clear one thing: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8).
St. Philip Neri did a lot of things we can relate to: he gave young people wholesome alternatives to the lascivious entertainment of the carnivals; he invited musicians and composers to offer their art to God; he praised cheerfulness as a far more religious temperament than solemnity. But he also did a lot of things that, on a purely human level, we cannot relate to. And that’s OK.
In fact, it might well be those things that are the most important. The holy fools thought so little of themselves – lived lives of such awe-inspiring humility – that mere human reason cannot comprehend what that would be like.
And praise God for it. Because if we cannot wrap our minds around these holy fools, how much more will God transcend our wildest dreams?
This article was written by Br. Philip Neri Reese, who entered the Order of Preachers in 2009. He is a graduate of Dickinson College, where he studied philosophy and religion.