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ST. PHILIP BENITI, C.
From the Annals of the Order of Servites, compiled by Giani, with the notes of Garbi, printed at Lucca in 1719, in two vols. fol.; and the notes of F. Cuper the Bollandist, Augusti t. 4, p. 654. Also from Paulus Florentinus, in his Dialogues De Origine Servorum B. Mariæ V. published in the Deliciæ Eruditorum, Romæ, 1754, t. 10; and Chronicon Rerum Ordinis Servorum B. M. V. a Fr. Mich. Florentino. Florentiæ, 1567. 4to.
A. D. 1285.
ST. PHILIP BENITI or BENIZI, the principal ornament and propagator of the religious Order of the Servites in Italy, was descended of the noble family of Benizi in Florence, and a native of that city. His virtuous parents were well persuaded that the right or wrong state of human nature depends as necessarily upon the education of children, as that of a plant upon proper culture; and that the whole of this art consists, not only in strengthening the body by suitable exercise, and opening and improving the faculties of the mind by proper studies, but above all by forming in youth strong and lasting habits, and inspiring them with the most noble sentiments of all virtues. Through their care, assisted by a special grace, Philip preserved his soul untainted by vice and the world, and daily advanced in the fear of God. Having gone through the studies of humanity in his own country, he was sent to Paris to apply himself to the study of medicine,* in which charity was his motive; and Galen, though a heathen, was a strong spur to him in raising his heart continually from the contemplation of nature to the adoration and praise of its great Author. From Paris he removed to Padua, where he pursued the same studies, and took the degree of doctor, which then was the same in that faculty as in Arts.1 After his return to Florence he took some time to deliberate with himself what course to steer, earnestly begging God to direct him into the path in which he should most perfectly fulfil his divine will.
The religious Order of Servites, or servants of God, under the special patronage of the Blessed Virgin, had been instituted in that country fifteen years before. Seven very rich merchants of Florence had laid the foundation of this institute, having by mutual agreement retired to Monte Senario, six miles from that city. They lived there in little cells, something like the hermits of Camaldoli, possessing nothing but in common, and professing obedience to Bonfilio Monaldi, whom they chose superior. The austerities which they practised were exceeding great, and they lived in a great measure on alms. Bonfilio Monaldi, the first superior of this fervent company, at the request of certain pious persons, founded a small convent near one of the gates of Florence, with a chapel under the title of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. St. Philip happening to hear mass in this chapel on Thursday in Easter week, was strongly affected with the words of the Holy Ghost to the deacon Philip, which were read in the epistle of that day,2 Draw near, and join thyself to the chariot. His name being Philip, he applied to himself these words of the Holy Ghost, as an invitation to put himself under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin in that holy Order. The night following he seemed to himself, in a dream or vision, to be in a vast wilderness (representing the world) full of precipices, rocks, flint-stones, briers, snares, and venomous serpents, so that he did not see how it was possible for him to escape so many dangers. Whilst he was in the utmost dread and consternation, he thought he beheld the Blessed Virgin seated in a chariot, calling him to this new Order. The next day Philip revolved in his mind, that great watchfulness and an extraordinary grace are requisite to discover every lurking rock or sand in the course of life in the world, and he was persuaded that God called him to this Order, established under the patronage of his Mother, as to a place of refuge. Accordingly he repaired to the little chapel where he had heard mass, and was admitted by F. Bonfilio to the habit, in quality of lay-brother, that state being more agreeable to his humility. He made his religious vows on the 8th of September in 1233, and was sent by his superior to Monte Senario, there to work at every kind of hard country labor. The saint cheerfully applied himself to it in a perfect spirit of penance, but accompanied his work with constant recollection and fervent prayer; and all his spare hours he devoted to this holy exercise in a little cave behind the church, where, inebriated with heavenly delights, and in ecstasies of divine love, he often forgot the care which he owed to his body. He most industriously concealed his learning and talents, till they were at length discovered; in the meantime those who conversed with him admired the heavenly prudence and light with which he spoke on spiritual things. He was charged with the care of a new convent that was founded at Sienna, where he undesignedly displayed his abilities in a discourse on certain controverted points, in presence of two learned Dominicans and others, to the great astonishment of those that heard him. The superiors of his Order were hereupon engaged by others to draw this bright light from under the bushel, and to place it on the candlestick. Having therefore obtained a dispensation of his Holiness, they took care to have him promoted to holy orders, though nothing but their absolute command could extort the humble saint’s consent to such a step. He was soon after made definitor, then assistant to the general; and, in 1267, the fifth general of his Order.
Upon the death of Clement IV., the cardinals assembled at Viterbo began to cast their eyes on him to raise him to the apostolic chair. Having intelligence of this design, in the greatest alarm, he retired into the mountains with only one religious companion, and lay concealed there till Gregory X. was chosen. He rejoiced to find in this retreat an opportunity of redoubling the macerations of his body, and giving himself up to the sweet exercise of heavenly contemplation. All this time he lived chiefly on dry herbs, and drank at a fountain, since esteemed miraculous, and called St. Philip’s bath, situate on a mountain named Montagnate. He returned from the desert glowing with holy zeal, to kindle in the hearts of Christians the fire of divine love. After preaching in many parts of Italy, he appointed a vicar-general there to govern his Order, and with two religious companions undertook an extensive mission, preaching with great fruit at Avignon, Toulouse, Paris, and in other great cities in France; also in Flanders, Friesland, Saxony, and Higher Germany. After two years’ absence he came back to hold the general chapter of his Order at Borgo in 1274, in which he used all his endeavors to be released from the burden of the generalship; but was so far from being heard that he was confirmed in that dignity for life. Indeed no one was more worthy of it than he who most sincerely judged himself to be, of all persons living, the most unworthy. In the same year he repaired to the second general council of Lyons, from which he obtained the confirmation of his Order, pope Gregory X. presiding there in person. The saint announced the word of God wherever he came, and had an extraordinary talent in converting sinners, and in reconciling those that were at variance. Italy was at that time horribly divided by intestine discords and hereditary factions, particularly those of the Guelphs and Gibellins.* Holy men often sought to apply remedies to these quarrels, which had a happy effect upon some; but in many, these discords, like a wound ill cured, broke out again with worse symptoms than ever. St. Philip wonderfully pacified the factions when they were ready to tear each other to pieces at Pistoia, and in many other places. He succeeded at length also at Forli, but not without first exposing himself to many dangers. The seditious insulted and beat him in every part of the city; but his invincible patience at length disarmed their fury and vanquished them. St. Peregrinus Latiozi, who was their ringleader, and had himself struck the saint, was so powerfully moved by the example of his meekness and sanctity, that he threw himself at his feet, and with many tears begged his pardon and prayers. Being become a perfect model of penitents, he was received by him into the Order of Servites at Sienna, and continued his penance in sackcloth and ashes to his happy death in the eightieth year of his age. So evident were his miracles and other tokens of his heroic sanctity and perseverance, that he was canonized by Benedict XIII., in 1726.
St. Philip made the sanctification of his religious brethren the primary object of his zeal, as it was the first part of his charge.† Nor was he a stranger to the maxim which the zealous reformer of La Trappe so strenuously inculcated,3 that a religious community in which regular discipline is enervated, and those who profess the Order are strangers to its true spirit, is not a harbor or place of refuge, but a shipwreck of souls. Scarce could a saint be able to resist such a torrent of example, or the poison of such an air, in which, as in a pest-house, every one is confined. Though gross crimes of the world are shut out, the want of the religious spirit, and a neglect of the particular duties of that heroic state, are enough to damn souls. To preserve his family from so fatal a misfortune, our saint never ceased to watch and pray. Judging at length by the decay of his health that the end of his life drew near, he set out to make the visitation of the convents of his Order at Florence, Sienna, Perugia, and other places. Arriving at Todi, he went straight to the altar of our Lady, and falling prostrate on the ground, prayed with great fervor, and said, This is the place of my rest for ever. The day following he made a moving sermon on the glory of the blessed. His disorder manifested itself by a sharp fever on the feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God. The time of his sickness he employed in admirable sentiments of compunction; and on the octave day, falling into his agony, he called for his book, by which word he usually meant his crucifix, and devoutly contemplating it, calmly expired. To give place to the octave of the Assumption, his feast is kept on the following day, the twenty-third of the month. He was canonized by Clement X., in 1671; but the bull was only published by Benedict XIII., in 1724.
In the lives of the saints we see the happiness of a rooted virtue, which, by repeated fervent exercises, is formed into strong and lasting habits of temperance, meekness, humility, charity, and holy zeal. Such a virtue is never warped by selfish views; it never belies, or is inconsistent with itself; it vanquishes all enemies, discovers their snares, triumphs over their assaults, and is faithful to the end. If ours is not such, we have reason to fear it is false, and unworthy of a crown.