St. Philip Benizi (1233-1285) and the Servite Order of the Sorrows of Mary

Dr. Robert Hickson

7 March 2021

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

Chewing in exile his bitter cud of memories, Dante had plenty to say in The Divine Comedy about his native city of Florence. Even amid the splendours and alleluias of Paradise, he [Dante] permits the ex-troubadour Falco to flame suddenly into denunciation [from Heaven!] of the City of the Flower [Florence, Italy], the devil’s own weed, ‘planted by him [Satan] who first turned his back upon his Creator‘….

“Fined and banished [from Florence] under the pain of death in 1302,….the sombre poet [Dante, d.1321] neither forgave his city nor forgot. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he never deigns to mention, in the Commedia or elsewhere, a very noble and saintly contemporary with whom he probably brushed shoulders in the streets [of Florence] more than once. Born [in 1265] thirty-two years after Fra Filippo Benizi, who became the fifth General of the Servite Order and was canonised at length in 1671, Dante must, like any other Florentine of his day, have known the eminent friar [Philip Benizi] at least by sight and repute for some time [d. 1285].” (D. B. Wyndham Lewis, A Florentine Portrait: Saint Philip Benizi (1233-1285) (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1959), page 1—my bold emphasis added.)

***

There are saints in the calendar of many kinds, some born in sanctity in every century and some achieving it, in some cases after half a lifetime of storm and stress. The huge, rough, tough, violent-tempered soldier who became St. Camillus de Lellis, and has been called the father of the Red Cross and the field-ambulance, is an outstanding example at one end of the scale; examples of the ‘cradle-saint’ at the other end [of the scale] are plentiful enough. Saint Philip Benizi is one of these latter, clad through life in that invisible armour which the Enemy is powerless to penetrate. Prayer came naturally to him from the beginning. Hold Writ was his normal reading, and a special devotion to the Mater Dolorosa drew him inevitably into a new order inspired by it [i.e., the religious order of the Servites].” (D. B. Wyndham Lewis, A Florentine Portrait: Saint Philip Benizi (1233-1285) (1959), page 24—my emphasis added.)

***

“Many of them [these psychological and cultural theories] omit the point that Servite devotion to the Sorrows of Mary—which are the Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, the Loss of the Child Jesus in Jerusalem, the Meeting on the Way to Calvary, the Witnessing of the Crucifixion, the Taking-Down of Christ from the Cross, and the Burial [i.e., with the Feast of the Seven Dolours, now celebrated on 15 September]—is neither morbid nor morose. There will be few men of his age [the 13th Century] radiating a serener joy all his life than Fra Filippo Benizi.” (D. B. Wyndham Lewis, A Florentine Portrait: Saint Philip Benizi (1233-1285), page 25—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1959 a book was published in English on the Thirteenth Century in Europe, and especially on a lesser known saint in the Marian Servite Order—which is also called the Servants of the Sorrows of Mary. That modest saint was Saint Philip Benizi (1233-1285).1

My brief essay now proposes to accentuate Saint Philip’s good influence upon a wide variety of men and women, despite the abiding inattentiveness of one often bitter exile, namely his famous fellow Florentine: the poet Dante (1265-1321).

By way of contrast, our learned and sympathetic author, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, recurrently presents for us “that pre-eminently [Philip] Benizian blend of serene simplicity and holy obstinacy which foils the world.” (134-135—my emphasis added) We, too, shall now try to be more attentive and grateful, as well.

It is now fitting for me to select and present a few representative passages from the book which vivify the principles and character of Saint Philip Benizi, often with his older mendicant companions:

It is not difficult to picture them trudging very slowly along the dusty highroad in their black woollen habits shouldering their sacks. An hour or so after leaving Bologna they reached the site of a considerable portent, to which there is sufficient testimony.

At a point of the road near Castroleone, about five miles out of Bologna, a large solitary tree standing in the baking fields [in August of 1269] a little distance off the highroad offered the only shade for miles. A knot of figures could be seen already under its branches. In compassion for his two elders [of his Servite Order], now lagging and weary, Fra Filippo [the elected General of the Marian Order, as of 1267] turned of the road for a rest. As they approached the tree they were welcomed by raucous laughter and rude japes, and perceived that the group was composed of soldiers and women of the lowest type, possibly drunk. The roughest company was unlikely to daunt a medieval friar, who was well used to it, but this collection proved even worse than the tavern-company which waylays Glutton in Piers Plowman [William Langland’s fine and rhythmical 14th-Century long-line poem] on his way to confession….

Under a fusillade of obscenities and blasphemous raillery Fra Filippo spoke up, rebuking the offenders, firmly but without heat, in the name of Christ and His mother, and bidding them amend their language for their souls’ sake. They received the reproof with viler insults and louder and uglier blasphemies, the women doubtless being far more fluent than the men. As they bellowed and screamed and laughed a premonition came to St. Philip. “My dear brethren,” he said, facing them during a pause with tears in his eyes, “there are some of you here who, unless they repent, are due to die this very day. Almighty God is very kind and pitiful. Turn you to Him and He will have mercy on you—He has sent me even now to call on you for this. Be certain that if you turn to Him He will forgive, but if you refuse you may well tremble. His bow is bent, His arrows are sharp, the weapons of death are ready. Give up this vicious life and trust in His mercy who does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he may turn from his wickedness and live.

The words in their quiet earnestness had some effect. The majority sobered down in shame, as the typical medieval ruffian was always liable to do when so addressed; but a blackguard minority turned angry, belching horrid blasphemy and menacing the friar with consequences if he did not shut his mouth and go. Fra Filippo continued unmoved to plead with them. (63-65—my emphasis added)

The reader may now better appreciate further the provocations and responsive warnings that took place before “the Judgment of Castroleone” (65) condignly and fearfully soon took place (65-66).

Another set of revealing incidents occurred in Florence, and then in Pistoia, while Philip was still the revered General of the Servite Order, and it all started after the death of the Bishop of Florence and the resultant acclamations on behalf of Philip spontaneously:

Since the death of…[the] Bishop of Florence, in December 1274, the see had been vacant [and it would remain so “till 1286, the year after St. Philip’s death” (83)], and violent-faction quarrels even over the question of a successor were frequent. Preaching daily at the Annunziata Fra Flippo harangued his fellow-citizens, noble, bourgeois, and proletarian, with eloquence and point. If they were incapable of making peace for themselves, he cried one evening, they might at least unite in praying the Holy See to give Florence a bishop capable of settling their foolish and murderous quarrels.

This seems to have penetrated. As the preacher [Philip] continued, a buzz went around the crowd. The Annals preserve the gist of it. Vivacious Tuscan gestures and flashing dark eyes may be easily supplied in imagination. (82—my emphasis added)

As Philip Benizi heard the gathering acclamations to have him as their bishop, he slipped hastily out “and quitted Florence then and there for some refuge unknown, and probably Monte Senario, to emerge a week or two later at Pistoia.” (83)

He was to encounter further disorders at Pistoia too:

In Pistoia the citizens were brawling politically and socially as elsewhere—Guelf against Ghibelline….In Pistoia likewise the generosity of the municipality and private citizens towards religious orders, and the mendicants [such as the Servites] in particular, in the matter of alms for building and endowment, demonstrates that typically medieval blend of ungovernable passions and unstinted charity which is so baffling to the modern world. Guelf and Ghibelline, having listened to the same Mass and sermon and given alms in the same dish, would whip our their swords again outside the church door and resume the fight. In his exhortations from the pulpit Fra Filippo minced no words….The city [of Pistoia], like Florence and others, is an accursed and wretched Babylon and its citizens are men of blood, creatures with neither sense nor reason, sacrificing human lives and souls to the Evil One their idol; calling on the Lord only in blasphemy, inviting His terrible judgment. Yet if they will but seek peace, the God of Peace will forgive and be with them all. ‘Meanwhile we, servants of the Most Blessed Virgin, implore her to obtain for you from Almighty God the blessings of peace, unity, and concord….’ (83-84—my emphasis added; and Philip’s own words are, at the end, partly quoted.)

Once again we may see how Saint Philip’s own words have also touched the sincere hearts of some men, even bravos and ruffians:

His [Philip’s] words had considerable effect. Many conversions are spoken of by the early chronicles; many scenes of reconciliation between enemies, many returns to religion, not a few recruits to the Servants of Mary. Among these in Pistoia was a leading Ghibelline bravo named Vanni Buonaccurso, noted for impiety, ferocity, and bloodlust. Having heard a sermon by St. Philip, he followed him afterwards into the priory and fell on his knees, saying that God’s word had pierced his heart and begging to be heard in confession. Soon afterwards he was admitted into the novitiate of the Servants of Mary. He turned out as passionate in good work as he had been [passionate] in evil doing. The cultus [public veneration] of Blessed Bonaventure of Pistoia was approved in 1828.(84—my emphasis added.)

Now we may consider Saint Philip’s influence on a prominent Guelf in Florence:

A more gratifying reward than anything the Republic could offer had come to Fra Filippo. Among the chief disturbers of Florentine peace was a member of the leading Guelf clan of the Adimari, a huge, quarrelsome swashbuckler of immense strength named Ubaldo, now in his late thirties. Brought up from childhood in an atmosphere of flaming pride and vengeance, twice exiled with his fellow-Guelfs, he had long since become a formidable duellist and a portent in Florentine affrays. Equipping him instinctively with an eagle beak and fierce hawk-like eyes, one may very well see Messer Uboldo degli Adimari stepping with his lackeys across a piazza in his steel hauberk and bassinet and particoloured hose, had on sword-hilt, ready to spring as a tiger. He too was powerless against the arrow of grace. Accidental (as the world would say) contact with Fra Filippo Benizi during the late peace-negotiations changed Ubaldo’s life. Not long afterwards, having made all possible reparation to his enemies, Ghibelline and other, he took the Servite habit and, after many penances and vigils, Holy Orders. A few months after his elevation to the priesthood Fra Filippo took Fra Ubaldo for his confessor, which speaks sufficiently for his new character, and he remained one of the best beloved of disciples until the General’s [Philip Benizi’s own] death [in the Autumn of 1285]. After thirty-five years of religious life Fra Ubaldo died in the odor of sanctity. His impressive remains rest in the [Servite] chapel on Monte Senario, not far from the [seven holy] founders’ shrine. (88-89—my emphasis added)

All of the seven original 1233 Holy Servite Founders—Servants of the Seven Sorrows of Mary—were canonized together by Pope Leo XIII, in 1888.

The last portion of A Florentine Portrait memorably presents Saint Philip’s preparation for death, as well as his gradual farewell to his Servite brothers. One representative aspect of this depiction is worthy of our consideration now, with the hope that the reader might slowly read and savor the last thirty pages or so of the book.

Here begins, as follows, that one aspect of his life and farewell, as above proposed:

So Fra Filippo returned to Florence [after seeing, in May 1285, the Pope in Rome], to work and wait in prayer and patience as before…. It was while he was thus engaged that Fra Filippo was informed by an interior voice, one day or night during prayer, that he had not very much longer to live.

Thanksgivings for this good news offered, Fra Filippo [as the Superior General] at once set about winding up affairs in hand with the assistance of Fra Lottaringo, whom he had long since designated as his successor. This concluded, he retired for a space to the Monte Senario cave of former years [8 miles north of Florence] to equip his soul for the final journey….

Fra Filippo [then] had no other ties with Florence outside the Annunziata. He had, moreover, decided already where to live his last days. The smallest and poorest of all the Servite houses of Italy was the priory of San Marco at Todi of Umbria. Where could a General of the Servants of Mary, after a lifetime of evangelical poverty and humility, more fitly die? ….

Fra Filippo, with his two friars in attendance, took the road to Umbria, sighting the red-tiled roofs of Todi in the late afternoon of August 9, 1285. (109-112—my emphasis added)

Now we go with Philip in approach to Todi and San Marco:

There was a great bustle towards sunset in the streets of Todi. An exuberant populace was streaming down to the southern gate, carrying flowers and flourishing leafy branches…. Some horsemen passing St. Philip and his brethren on the road had announced their approach, and a spontaneous mass-reception was afoot….Having perceived, to his dismay and horror, that the crowd ahead was already strewing the road with leaves and flowers, as if he had been some person worthy of honour, Fra Filippo hoped to escape round the walls and take refuge in San Marco undetected. As he and his companion-friars made their way round to the Orvieto gate two women stepped out of the shadows at a lonely part of the way and accosted them. These were prostitutes, it appeared; but, they sobbed as St. Philip questioned them with compassion, unwilling ones, driven to this shame by hunger and despair. One of the friars carried a little unexpended alms in the common purse, just enough for three days’ bare subsistence. Handing it to the women, Fra Filippo implored them to leave off their trade for the next three days at least, and meanwhile to pray hard and commit themselves to God’s pity and providence. On their own accord they promised, weeping, to go to confession, and turned away. “What punishment, do you think, my brothers,” asked Fra Filippo indignantly as the friars went on, “has Almighty God in store for those of the heartless and hypocritical rich who drive the poor into slavery like this?”

As he spoke they reached the Orvieto gate, to be met by a considerable crowd surging out with cries of “Ecco Flilippo! Evviva il santo!” ….

The two penitent prostitutes encountered by Fra Filippo and his companions near the Orvieto gate [came again]. According to…an eye witness, these women came to San Marco next day to make their confession to St. Philip in person. At their second visit Fra Filippo recommended total withdrawal from the world…. and the women, destined to figure on the Servite rolls as Blessed Helena and Blessed Flora, took him at his word. (115-117—my emphasis added)

Such is another abiding presentation of the character and manner and sanctity of Saint Philip Benizi. Moreover, “the essence of St. Philip’s message for the Atomic Age [as of 1959], as for any other, [is expressed by]: love, humility, patience, compassion, self-sacrifice, self-effacement, the sharing of the sufferings of the Mother of Sorrows with the seven swords in her heart.” (133—my emphasis added)

FINIS

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1 D. B. Wyndham Lewis, A Florentine Portrait (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1959), 137 pages. All further references to this brief essay will be to this 1959 text, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of our comments for convenience.

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