St Philip Neri fasted habitually, not only in Lent. He ate little and drank little. But he also insisted that mortification of the razionale was more important than mortifying the body.
Mortifying the razionale obliges us to flee from the futility of speculations such as the following, touted by the late media pundit Stephen Hawking: “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”
We in the Oratory often meditate on something both real and beyond the reach of the human mind, something from the life of our Glorious Patriarch. In 1544, in the Roman catacombs of St Sebastian, Philip Neri (the layman) had a bizarre experience shortly before Pentecost; a globe of fire entered his mouth and sank down into his heart.
The experience led him to new heights of spirituality, and also initiated enduring physiological abnormalities; inter alia, frantic shaking of the limbs, violent palpitations of the heart, excessively elevated body-heat, and the almost continuous shedding of tears.
The shaking and palpitating persisted for the rest of his life whenever he prayed and whenever he spoke of spiritual things. After his death his heart was found to be twice the normal size, and two of his ribs had been forced outwards, to the size of a clenched fist.
The transverberation of St Philip’s heart is a mysterious fact. That it happened is certain. Exactly what happened to him does indeed seem to be beyond the reach of human understanding, as are also the mystical phenomena which were so apparent in his life after 1544; ecstasy, visions, levitation, precognition, and clairvoyance, among others.
He never sought or recommended the exotic. He assiduously cultivated the normative Christian virtues. We see that in his charity, his habit of prayer, his daily exercise of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, his purity, and his zeal for bringing others to Christ.
Mortifying the razionale is not a flight from the real world. It recognizes that true knowledge is gained more by love than by rote. A proper reverence for the magnificent strangeness of God, and His creation, is easily degraded when we indulge in the earthbound lust for more and more raw information, as if reality could ever be adequately explained merely by the cloddish accumulation of brute facts.