It is always dangerous to attempt to condense a particular tradition or spirituality into a single word. But if we were to attempt to explain what St Philip set out to do, and what his Oratories try to do in our own time, we could do worse than to focus on the word ‘beauty’. It is through beauty that we seek to convert the world. Which is not as superficial as it might at first sound. All beauty in this world has it source and origin in God, so what comes from God can be used to lead us back to him. St Augustine touched God by contemplating being; many great theologians have reached God by searching for truth. St Philip taught his followers to follow the path of beauty back to its source.
In the first place, Philip did this by taking what is good and beautiful in the world and putting it to sacred use. Beautiful music well sung, art and architecture used to illustrate the history of salvation and the lives of the saints, all of this man-made beauty can and should be used to elevate our hearts and minds to God, which is our definition of prayer. A sacred space, especially one resonating with sacred music, helps to block out the distractions of the world outside, leaving us free to think about God alone.
But we mustn’t think that these aids to prayer are only available to those living in close proximity to a spectacular Roman basilica. From his earliest years, Philip also appreciated the natural beauty of the countryside around Florence. He chose the small chapel built among the cliffs of Gaeta, floating above the sea, to pray in when discerning his vocation. He would lead groups into the Roman countryside for sermons and prayers in the summer months. And in his later years, he had a loggia specially constructed on top of the Roman Oratory so that he could pray while gazing into the night sky.
Oratorian spirituality could be too easily classified in the same category as Carmelite spirituality, after the pattern of Teresa of Avila. True, both saints were alive at the same time, both promoted mental prayer, were part of the spiritual powerhouse behind the counter-reformation, and were even canonised together in the same ceremony, as we remember especially this year. But if we dig a little deeper, far greater differences emerge. St Teresa confiscated St John of the Cross’s crucifix, for fear that his attachment to it might come between him and God, whereas Philip had no such fear of people using art to help them to pray. Teresa promoted an austerity that shunned even what is good in this world, while Philip directed what was good in the world to the service of God. Both approaches have their merits, both have made many saints, and both are legitimate expressions of Catholic spirituality. But they are certainly not the same.
Philip would say, ‘Human language cannot express the beauty of a soul which dies in a state of grace.’ And it was the beauty of holiness for which Philip strove above all. He encouraged his followers to read the lives of the saints, to seek inspiration in the beautiful lives of God’s holy ones. He instructed the Fathers to preach about the ‘beauty of virtue, as opposed to the deformity of vice’. The idea being that good people have an attractiveness that runs far deeper than their appearance, while sin, when we think about it, is actually repulsive.
The faith itself has its own beauty as well, which is why in the daily catechetical discourses of the Oratory, he insisted that there be no rhetorical flourishes from the speakers. They were to preach simply and plainly, because the truths of our faith have a beauty that speaks for itself, without the need for artistic embellishments.
In using the arts to help with prayer, the Oratory has always followed the principle that only our best is good enough for God. This is true of all the ways in which Philip used beauty. Yes, the best art, architecture and music we can afford should be put to God’s service, but also our best efforts in striving for virtue, our best efforts in prayer and charitable service are what God deserves as well. We must not confuse ‘best’ with ‘perfect’. Our best efforts at prayer and virtue may still leave much to be desired and much room for improvement. But as long as we can honestly say before God that we have tried our best, then we will have also given him what he is owed by us with as much love as we are capable of. And no one can ask for anything more beautiful than that.
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