20 May 2024

St Felix of Cantalicio

From Fr Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints:

From the acts of his beatification, and from his life written by F. John Baptist of Perugia. See Papebroke ad 18 Maij, t. 4, p. 203. 

A. D. 1587.

ST. FELIX was born of poor but virtuous parents, at Cantalicio, near Citta Ducale, in the Ecclesiastical State, in 1513. For his extraordinary piety, he was from his infancy surnamed the Saint. At the time when in his childhood he kept cattle, and when afterwards he followed tillage and husbandry work, he was careful to sanctify his labor by a perfect spirit of penance. And he accompanied all his actions with devout prayer, so as even then to lead the life rather of a hermit than of a country laborer. He watched during part of the night in holy meditation, and to his painful life he added the austerity of rigorous abstinence and fasting. He contrived, without prejudice to his work, every day to hear mass, and he declined the ordinary amusements of those of his age. Oft in the fields, when he had driven his cattle into some solitary pasture, he would pray for several hours together, at the foot of some tree, before a cross which with his knife he had cut in the bark. At twelve years of age his father put him out to service, in quality first of shepherd, and afterwards of husbandman, in the family of Mark Tully Pichi, a virtuous gentleman who lived at Citta Ducale. In his tender years, before the faculties of his mind were sufficiently opened to qualify him for deep reflection and long meditation, his prayer chiefly consisted of the Our Father, Hail Mary, Creed, and Glory be to the Father, &c., especially of certain petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, which he seemed almost never to cease repeating in the fields with wonderful devotion. He was yet young, when he learned to habituate himself to the practice of holy meditation during his labor, and he soon attained to the perfection of heavenly contemplation, whereby the fire of divine affections is readily kindled in the heart by the least thought on God, as touchwood catches the flame; whereas holy meditation calls in the succor of reasoning drawn from the truths of faith, to excite ardent affections of virtue in the soul. It is a mistake to imagine that this exercise requires learning or sublime thoughts. Pious meditation is not a dry philosophical speculation. It chiefly consists in the affections of the will, and in profound sentiments of adoration, praise, compunction, humility, and other virtues. To be capable of this exercise, it is enough that a person has an understanding to know God, and a heart capable of feeling the power of his love. The most ignorant man can repeat often to God that he desires earnestly to love him, and always to glorify his holy name; he can bewail his ingratitude and sins, confess his weakness, and implore the divine pity and succor. To do this well, the most essential dispositions are humility and simplicity of heart; and to this holy art there is no greater enemy than that worldly science which swells the mind with secret self-sufficiency and pride. Even in a religious house this gift may be often denied to many who are distinguished by their learning or dignities,1 while an illiterate, fervent lay-brother, who by perfect humility, obedience, and self-denial, has crucified in his heart all self-love and inordinate attachments to creatures, finds wings continually to soar to God by high contemplation. Even in the world, our saint, while he followed the plough, attained this gift. The tractableness and instinct of the beasts, the painfulness of his labor, the barrenness of the earth accursed by sin, the vanity of the world, the blindness of sinners, the sight of the heavens, the obedience of all nature, the beauty of the verdant fields, the watered lawns, and hanging forests—every object served to raise his heart to the praise of his Creator, or excite him to deplore in his sight his own spiritual miseries, and his distance from Him. In God, in himself, and in all creatures round about him, he found a perpetual fund of pious thoughts and affections; but the sufferings of our divine Redeemer were the most tender object of his devotions; and he was never weary in contemplating that great mystery, nor in paying to his loving Saviour the homages of adoration, love, and thanksgiving, renewing always the most perfect dedication of himself to his service. He was most humble, charitable, meek, and always cheerful. He spoke little, shunned the company of those whose conduct appeared irregular, abhorred all murmurs, complaints, and impatience. No injury or insult could provoke him to anger; and if any one reviled him, he was wont to say, with an engaging sweetness: “I pray God you may become a saint.” The servant of God found all the means of perfect sanctification in his condition in the world; but God was pleased, for his greater advancement, to call him to a penitential religious state; to which grace two accidents contributed to dispose him. As he was one day driving the plough, at the sight of his master, who came up dressed in black, the young oxen started, and dragged the plough over his body; yet he received no hurt. Gratitude for this merciful deliverance inspired him with an ardent desire of consecrating himself to the divine service. And by hearing soon after the lives of some of the ancient fathers of the desert read at his master’s house, he became extremely desirous to imitate them.

The state of a lay-brother among the Capuchin friars seemed to him best to suit his design. He therefore petitioned for the habit, and was admitted to it at Citta Ducale. The guardian, when he gave him the habit, showed him a crucifix, explaining to him what our Saviour had suffered for us, and in what manner we ought to imitate him, by a life of humiliation and self-denial. At that moving sight, Felix burst into a flood of tears, and felt in his breast a vehement desire of bearing in himself, by the mortification of the flesh, the image of the sufferings of that Man-God, by which he might resemble his crucified master, and subdue in himself the old man. He performed his novitiate at Anticoli, and appeared already filled with the perfect spirit of his order, especially with a sincere love of poverty, humiliations, and the cross. He often cast himself at the feet of his master of novices, earnestly begging him to double his penances and mortifications, and to treat him with greater harshness and severity than the rest, who, he said, were more docile, and naturally more inclined to virtue. By this holy hatred and contempt of himself, he laid the foundation of so eminent a degree of sanctity that his fellow-religious usually called him the Saint. He was thirty years of age when he made his solemn vows, in 1545; four years after which he was settled in the convent of his order in Rome, and appointed questor, whose office it is to collect the daily alms for the subsistence of the community. This office requires a person of eminent virtue and prudence, and already perfect in the spirit of his order, who may be able to resist that of the world, which is that of covetousness and dissipation, capitally contrary to his strictest obligations.* But the frequent occasions of humiliation, contempt, and suffering which attended this action, afford occasions for the exercise of penance, humility, patience, meekness, and other virtues. In this circumstance Felix thought himself most happy for no ambitious man is more greedy of honors than Felix appeared to be of contempt, which, out of sincere humility, he looked upon as his due. His recollection suffered no interruption. He never spoke unless obliged by necessity, and then in very few words, and with an edifying prudence and humility. He walked with his eyes east down, but his heart was always raised to God by prayer. No objects seemed to turn his mind from heavenly things, because he restrained his eyes from curiosity or vanity, and considered God and his will in every thing. He was much delighted with acts of praise, adoration, and thanksgiving; and he often repeated to others the words Deo gratias, inviting them to join with him in thanking God for all things. With the leave of his superiors, who placed an entire confidence in his piety and discretion, he assisted the poor abundantly out of the alms which he gathered. He visited the sick with the most tender charity, and sucked himself their most loathsome ulcers. He admonished sinners, and exhorted all to piety, especially dying persons, with a most moving unction and prudence. St. Philip Neri often conversed with him, being wonderfully delighted with that excellent spirit of humility and piety which he discovered in his soul, and in his whole deportment. When St. Charles Borromeo had sent the rules which he had drawn up for his Oblates at Milan, to St. Philip Neri, begging him to revise them, St. Philip excused himself and referred the book to our poor lay-brother. St. Felix declined the commission, alleging that he was an illiterate person. But being commanded in obedience to hear the rules read to him, to speak to every part, and direct what he thought best to be altered, he obeyed; and some things of great moment he advised to be expunged as too difficult, with which St. Charles complied, expressing his admiration at our humble saint’s heavenly discretion.*

He always preserved his purity unspotted both in mind and body, guarding it by the strictest watchfulness over his senses, especially his eyes; and he never looked any woman in the face. He walked always barefoot, even without sandals, and chastised his body with incredible austerities; he wore a shirt of iron links and plates studded with rough spikes: and when he could do it without too remarkable a singularity, he fasted on bread and water: on the last three days in Lent he ate nothing at all. He privately used to pick out of the baskets the crusts left by the other religious for his own dinner. He watched a great part of the nights in prayer, allowing himself only two or three hours for sleep, which he usually took on his knees, leaning his head against a fagot, or lying down on the boards, or on twigs. At the least sign given him by any superior, he was always ready to do whatever was ordered him. He always called himself the ass or beast of burden, to serve the community, and regarded himself as one who was not to be ranked among the religious brethren. He thought himself unworthy even to converse with them; and on that account, when with them, he spoke very little. If any one contradicted him in indifferent things, he readily acquiesced in what they said, and was silent. When he ate alone, and thought no one saw him, he practised excessive austerities; but when he dined in company with others, he endeavored ordinarily to shun any singularity that could be taken notice of. It was his study to conceal from others, as much as possible, all heavenly favors which he received, and to avoid whatever might give them a good opinion of him. He disguised his mortifications under various pretences, and excused his going without sandals saying he walked more easily without them, but suppressed the inconveniences he felt in that mortification. In serving at mass, he was sometimes so overpowered by the abundance of his tears, and transported in ecstasies of divine love, that he was not able to answer the priest. The fire of divine love which burned in his breast, made him often sing short spiritual canticles, which it also inspired him to compose in a plain, simple style, but full of heavenly sentiments. In singing them he was often seen quite ravished and absorbed in God. He had the most ardent devotion to the passion of Christ, and in meditating on it usually watered the ground with abundant tears. The habitual union of his heart with God, made him often not perceive others near him, and sometimes he did not know who had been his companion abroad. When a certain brother in religion asked him how he could preserve so perfect a recollection amidst the variety of objects which he met in his office abroad, he answered: “Why, brother, every creature in the world will raise our hearts to God, if we look upon it with a good eye.” The extraordinary raptures with which he was often favored in prayer, are not to be expressed by words. He performed the office of the brother questor for his community in Rome forty years. When he was grown old, the cardinal protector, who loved him exceedingly for his extraordinary virtue, told his superiors that they ought now to ease him of that burden. But Felix begged that he might be shown no indulgence, lest by receiving earthly favors, he should be deprived of those which are heavenly; for the soul grows more sluggish if the body be too much cherished. Being seventy-two years old, he foretold his death to several companions, and to certain persons that lay dying. He soon after fell sick of a fever, and was comforted by a vision of the Blessed Virgin, accompanied with many holy angels. Shortly after this favor, he, in great spiritual joy, expired on the 18th of May, 1587. Many miracles were juridically approved, and St. Felix was beatified by Urban VIII., in 1625, and canonized by Clement XI., in 1721, though the bull of his canonization was only published by Benedict XIII., in 1724.2 His body remains in the church of his order in Rome.

St. Felix, though little in the eyes of the world and in his own, was great before God. The poverty of a Lazarus, abandoned by all, but suffering with patience, resignation, and humility, is something far more glorious and more desirable than the most glittering sceptres. God will condemn the renowned exploits of those false divinities of the earth who have filled the world with the sound of their name; but he crowns the least desire of a humble heart employed in loving him. A person who lives in the world is bound to make all his actions perfect sacrifices to God, and purity of intention converts the works of any secular calling into the works of God. But this can only be formed and maintained in a life in which a constant spirit of piety animates the soul, and a considerable time is reserved for exercises of interior devotion. Let no man take sanctuary in purity of intention who suffers the works of his secular profession, much less company or pleasures, to engross his soul, and entirely to usurp his time. A life of business, and still more a life of pleasure, entangle and ensnare the mind, and leave in it a peculiar relish which is incompatible with pure heavenly desires, and a value for those maxims of the gospel wherein true heavenly wisdom consists, or with a serious constant application to the mortification of self-love and the passions.

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