Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A heart of fire

This Pentecost marks the 470th anniversary of the miracle when St Philip Neri's heart was inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

St Philip and his heart

It was in the catacomb of S. Sebastiano - confounded by early biographers with that of S. Callisto - that St Philip kept the longest vigils and received the most abundant consolations. Still a layman, and in his late twenties, he was living an austere and devout life, seeking his path and direction in life. In this catacomb, a few days before Pentecost in 1544, that the well-known miracle of his heart took place.

His second biographer Bacci describes this miracle thus: "While he was with the greatest earnestness asking of the Holy Ghost His gifts, there appeared to him a globe of fire, which entered into his mouth and lodged in his breast; and thereupon he was suddenly surprised with such a fire of love, that, unable to bear it, he threw himself on the ground, and, like one trying to cool himself, bared his breast to temper in some measure the flame which he felt. When he had remained so for some time, and was a little recovered, he rose up full of unwonted joy, and immediately all his body began to shake with a violent tremour; and putting his hand to his bosom, he felt by the side of his heart, a swelling about as big as a man's fist, but neither then nor afterwards was it attended with the slightest pain or wound."

The cause of this swelling was discovered by the doctors who examined his body after his death in 1595. The saint's heart had been dilated under the sudden impulse of love, and in order that it might have sufficient room to move, two ribs had been broken, and curved in the form of an arch. From the time of the miracle until his death, his heart would palpitate violently whenever he performed any spiritual action. A consequence of this was that he was concious of the heat and avoided wearing too may layers of clothing, and is often depicted with the top of his cassock unbuttoned.

Pentecost 1544 fell on 14 June by modern, Gregorian reckoning,  but in 1544 it fell on 1 June by the then uniformly used Julian calendar. If the miraculous incident occurred a few days previously then it must have almost coincided with the date of St Philip's death over half a century later on May 26 1595. I wonder if this was a reason for his very clear premonition of that being the time of his death, that he was concious that this the anniversary of the remarkable sign of his closeness to God.

Next year July 21 will be the 500th anniversary of his birth, and may 26th the 420th anniversary of his death.

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