St.Philip Neri fasted habitually, not only in Lent. He ate little and drank little. He did not impose his asceticism on others. He said that mortification of the razionale was more important than mortifying the body with excessive fasting and other forms of physical penance. Mortifying the razionale included submitting one’s will and private judgement to others, and obeying promptly without reasoning or questioning. Is there more to it than that? I think there must be. His own strange life helps us to understand what else it might include.
In the catacombs of St.Sebastian in 1544 Philip Neri had the strangest of experiences; a globe of fire entered his mouth and heart, with lasting spiritual and physical effects. Whatever that globe of light was, it led him to new heights of spirituality and enhanced cognition.
After that high strangeness in the catacombs he seems to have had access to (or been accessed by) a dimension of reality which only partly coincided with everyday existence. His daily life regularly included supernatural and preternatural phenomena. He commuted with ease between the world we ordinarily perceive with our senses and that other dimension of reality which Newman called ‘the Invisible World’. Perhaps it was not a case of commuting, but of residing concurrently in both realms – a dual citizenship.
In St.Philip the subjective correlative of his unearthly experience in the catacombs manifested itself frequently in non-ordinary phenomena such as ecstasy, levitation, clairvoyance, etc. But it also presented in normative Christian piety; Philip’s habit of prayer, his charity and purity, his daily exercise of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and his determination to resist any possible reputation for holiness. He preferred to be thought stupid – an unusual aspiration in a priest.
One way for us to mortify the razionale is by not investing in facile judgements about spiritual things which we ourselves do not experience or understand. This is the mental discipline of leaving strange things in question, rather than straining them into familiar but reductionist categories. It is the discipline of mortifying the rationalist urge to process and define whatever is apparently non-normal.
Why could this type of cognitive fasting be beneficial for us? For at least this reason: our increasing exploration of God’s creation is leading us to a greater awareness than before that the work of God’s hands is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. Creation reflects the awesome otherness of the Creator. Mortifying the razionale is one way among others of preparing for that searing moment when the veil of the apparent is finally removed, revealing the Almighty in all His divine and ineffable otherness.
When that contingent veil does fade away shall we not be dumbfounded in the face of a Reality whose unimaginable strangeness will either delight us or horrify us. Which it will be may well depend on how humbly and soberly we have followed St.Philip’s example in allowing ourselves to be opened up to the Lord’s transcendent otherness, during our brief terrestrial noviciate.