The real Christian task is to integrate our lives and our consciousness by the awareness of God, to overcome the compartmentalization dictated by our culture, and to sanctify all creation by the remembrance of God, awareness of His Presence. In truth, there is nothing that is not permeated by God, and there is nowhere we can flee from the Presence. We live, as it were, in the womb of God. It is not God who has absented Himself from our awareness. Rather, we have shut Him out and become forgetful of His Presence, intentionally oblivious to Reality Himself.
We must struggle, then, to bring our mind back to God and away from what is contrary to will – sin. The author of the book of Proverbs tells us, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is,” and our Lord similarly reminds us, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks” and warns us, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Thoughts, ideas, images (however they might come to mind) are not to be made light of or believed to be inconsequential. We must not fail to recognize where, in the spiritual life, the battle is fought. Research at the University of Minnesota has revealed that the average human being has about 4000 distinct thoughts in a sixteen hour day. More recent studies may modify this number (I have seen estimates from anywhere between 12,000 and 50,000) but this means that over a life span of seventy years a person has a total of about one hundred million thoughts. We are thinking beings, but the great spiritual writers, especially those who influenced St. Philip, remind us that perhaps the majority of these thoughts (often habitual) are negative due to our fallen state and that the mind is a battlefield. All battles are lost or won first in the internal dialogue of the mind. As John Milton wrote: “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and hell out of heaven.”
Once again, St. Philip Neri shows himself to be a great teacher in this regard. Guided as he was by his frequent study of the desert fathers, in particular John Climacus and John Cassian, he fostered the virtuous habit of constantly directing this thoughts and attention toward God. Like them, he made use of what have often been called arrow prayers or “ejaculations”; brief prayers or aspirations, often simply a line from the scriptures, to draw the mind and heart heavenwards.
Could the soul always consider the presence of God in all is actions, it would not only preserve itself unsullied by every stain of sin, but make great acquisitions of virtue, and lead a heavenly life whilst yet on earth. David attributed the gladness of his heart to this consideration of the Divine Presence when he said, “I set the Lord always in my sight for He is at my right hand, that I be not moved; therefore my heart hath been glad.”
St. Lawrence Justinian thought that there was no more effectual means of acquiring purity of conscience, making progress in virtue, and breaking through the indulgences of the flesh, which insinuate themselves into the soul as its enemies, than the walking in the Presence of God. Our Father St. Philip, as we have seen, had his mind constantly raised to divine things, always walking in the Presence of God. He so much insisted on this practice that he constantly said, when exhorting his spiritual children, “Think that you have God ever before your eyes.”
The holy Master himself gave the example, and it was followed by his disciples. In all our occupations, we must accustom ourselves to walk in the Presence of God, in imitation of the holy Father, who, whether he walked or conversed, could not prevent his thoughts from rising up to God, so that in the midst of company he was generally abstracted, and, even when engaged in business, could not help lifting up his hands and eyes and breathing a sigh, though he suppressed such acts as much as possible in the presence of others, as he wished to walk with God unseen by men.
And O, how admirably did the disciples follow their Master in this important matter! The Legend gives this record of F. Giovenale. If we should say that he prayed always, we should not be far from the truth, for, in the Process, it is deposed of him that his life was one continued prayer and a constant union of the mind with God. And this we may well believe, since he said, “Often raise your minds to God, for there is no greater joy that this.”
This truth was well known and practiced by his fellow-disciples. Baronius could not be diverted from the presence of God, but was often heard to repeat, “O eternity, O eternity!”, that being the frequent object of his thought.
It is related of Father Flaminio Ricci that he enjoyed so close and constant a union with God that it was visible even in his countenance, and could easily be discerned in his conversation.
The life of F. Pietro Consolini was one continued prayer, and a perpetual dwelling in the Presence of God.
It is said of F. Antonio Gallonio that by keeping his affection detached from all things human, he could easily raise them to the things of Heaven, and that he found such sweetness and facility in the exercise of prayer, that even in exterior occupations he never lost sight of the Presence of God.
F. Giovanni Matteo Ancina constantly walked in the Presence of God, enjoying the gift of a close and perpetual union of spirit with the Divine Majesty. Living as much as possible disengaged from active life, he was almost always reading and praying. Having first spoken by his example, he exhorted all to the fruitful practice of the Presence of God, desiring that at least everyone should raise up his thoughts to God whenever the clock struck, renewing the recollection of His Divine Presence; and he especially liked people, whilst raising their hearts to God at each stroke of the clock, to say, “O Lord, give me a good spirit.”
F. Agostino Manni often placed himself in the Presence of God, imagining himself to be in his last agony and making the last commendation of his soul to God with the most serious attention. He represented to himself the Most Blessed Virgin, whom he often invoked, as being present at that terrible crisis, saying, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” This good disciple was well worthy of imitation, for, besides this, he made use of all creatures to raise his thoughts to God. He encouraged himself in this devout exercise, saying, “O my soul, by the aid of these drops go to rejoin the fountain, and through these little streams extend thyself to the sea; stay not without, for the good which thou seekest abideth within.” Consequently, every exterior object served this man of God as a ladder by which to mount to the Creator, and he said, “What avails it to be a spectator of the whole Creation, if we find not within it the Architect who has framed it?”
He thought two things requisite for the practice of this exercise and for finding God in creatures: these were faith and love, with which two wings soared from the visible to the invisible, earnestly asking grace from God: “O Lord, let all things be to mine eyes as a mirror of Thy countenance, and admonish me of Thy Presence.” He used frequent ejaculations, (chiefly those given below) considering that they had been framed in the heart of our holy Master Saint Philip. It may also induce us to walk always in the holy Presence of God, to know that this practice, besides its great benefit to the soul, is also a preservative from bodily peril. This was exemplified in the person of St. Philip Himself, for, even once going with some of his spiritual children to the Seven Church in a carriage, and passing where, as was evident to those who passed near him, he must have been thrown over the precipitous bank, he met with no accident, which was attributed, as the sacred Legend states, to the Saint’s continual prayer.
As the holy Master Philip desired that a man should rise from prayer with satisfaction and a desire to return, rather than with exhaustion and weariness, he teaches us, especially when we cannot prolong our prayers, to raise the mind to God in ejaculations, and we may use some of the following, which were taught by Saint Philip himself.
Create a clean heart in me, O God; and renew a right spirit within my bowels.
O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.
Teach me to do Thy will.
O Lord, do not hide Thyself from me.
Lord, I suffer from violence, answer Thou for me.
I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, saith the Lord.
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.
O Jesus, be Thou Jesus to me; I do not love Thee.
O good Jesu, increase my faith.
Every mountain shall be filled, and every valley and hill shall be brought low.
The Word of God was made flesh, to deliver me from the flesh.
Lead us not into temptation.
O Lord, remember not my iniquities through Thy most Holy Passion.
When shall I love Thee with a filial love?
Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy upon us.
Enkindle in me the fire of Thy love.
O Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of Mercy, do thou protect us from the enemy and assist us in the hour of death.
Mary has been assumed into Heaven, the Angels rejoice.
My Jesus, I know Thee not yet, because I seek Thee not.
My Jesus, what should I be without Thy help?
My Jesus, what can I do to please thee?
My Jesus, how can I perform Thy will?
My Jesus, grant me the grace to serve Thee, not from fear but from love.
My Jesus, I would love Thee.
My Jesus, I distrust myself, and trust in Thee.
My Jesus, except Thou help me, I can do nothing.
My Jesus, I desire to do nothing but Thy holy will.
I have never loved Thee, but desire to love Thee, O my Jesus!
I would love Thee, my Jesus, but I know not the way.
I seek Thee, O my Jesus, but I find Thee not.
Did I know Thee, O my Jesus, I should also know myself.
What should I have done, O my Jesus, had I performed all the good in the world?
My Jesus, if Thou help me not, I shall fall.
My Jesus, if Thou wouldst have me for Thyself, remove all hindrances.
My Lord, I would learn the way to Heaven.
My Jesus, I know not what to do or say, except Thou help me.
Trust me not O my Jesus, for I shall never do any good.
My Jesus, I am ruined unless Thou help me.
My Jesus, grant that I may never offend Thee.
My Blessed Lady, give me grace to remember Thy virginity.
My Blessed Lady, give me grace ever to remember thee.
from The School of St. Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino
translated by Rev. F. W. Faber