If the Communion of Saints were a deck of cards, Saint Philip Neri would be the Joker. Born in Florence, Italy in 1515, Philip Neri is a saint who knew how to laugh . . . at himself.
Though he came from a poor family and lost his brother in early childhood, Philip didn’t let personal hardship steal his joy. At eighteen years old he arrived in Rome penniless but happy. He tutored to make money, wrote poetry for fun, and began studying philosophy and theology to grow in knowledge. However, Philip wasn’t your normal student; he was far more eccentric. When he got tired of learning, he sold all of his books and gave the money to the poor. Philip spent increasingly more time in prayer, fully embracing the life of a hermit.
Philip Neri’s prayer life is what kept him so joyful. His entire life became a prayer. He only ate once a day and, even then, it was only bread and water. Though he had a bed, he usually opted to sleep on the floor, without a pillow. He had few possessions, endured great spiritual attacks, and daily, during his intense prayers that lasted hours, it was not uncommon for him to experience ecstasies and visions.
Globe of Fire
During one such night of intense prayer, something miraculous happened to the jolly saint. He felt what is described as a “globe of fiery light” enter his mouth and sink into his heart. He felt great pain in his chest, which over time transformed into pure joy. Witnesses said that the side of Philip’s heart was so noticeably swollen that it looked as though there was a fist inside his chest.
In time, Philip wanted to interact with people, so he left his hermit lifestyle; he went out into the city streets and began to preach the gospel, to care for the sick, and to reach out to the poor. A true “do-gooder” in every sense of the word, Philip was funny and charming, and in a short time many people began to work beside him and follow his lead. Philip and his followers built and staffed a hospital with a meeting room where they would gather at night to talk, preach, pray, and listen to music.
At the age of thirty-six, Philip was ordained a priest and his burning heart gave him almost superhuman energy. It’s said that some days he’d hear forty confessions before sunrise. He was given the miraculous gift of reading souls, meaning he was able to tell people their sins before they even confessed them. When Philip prayed Mass, witnesses watched in amazement as his face radiated light; occasionally Philip would even levitate during the consecration in a state of ecstasy and sparks would visibly shoot forth from his eyes. In addition to these miraculous displays, it’s said that Philip could bilocate and was given the gift of prophecy through his many visions. He once converted a young nobleman by showing him a vision of hell. Philip joked about everything . . . except sin.
I Love to Laugh
Philip was determined not to let any one of these miraculous “abilities” affect his humility; he never took himself – or anybody else, for that matter – too seriously. Philip liked to keep people on their toes. It was not uncommon to see him walk out into public with his clothes on inside out or with half of his beard shaved off. He loved humor, played practical jokes on his fellow priests, and used unconventional methods to teach people about the love of God.
When Saint Philip died in 1595, an autopsy revealed an abnormally large heart. The spiritual ecstasy and vision that he had was not only proven true but gave miraculous, medical proof to God’s glory at work in the saint. If you ever feel like the faith is boring, if you’ve lost your joy, or if you worry that you can’t be holy and have fun in this life, ask Saint Philip Neri, God’s joker, to pray with you.
The only reason to take this life too seriously is if it’s your only one! Heaven awaits and Saint Philip is there waiting for you . . . bless his heart!
This story of St. Philip Neri is an excerpt from the book “Holier Than Thou” which you can find in the Life Teen Store.