“Holiness lies in the space of three fingers” – Neri

In 1979, on the feast day of St Philip Neri, Pope John Paul II visited the Church of CHIESA NUOVA and made some very insightful remarks about the great saint. Consider that this was John Paul II’s first opportunity as Pope to celebrate the feast of St Philip Neri at the place of his burial (he was elected in 1978). Three paragraphs really jump out at me as pertinent to academia and the cultural malaise of our day.

In fact, a fundamental danger is the pride of intelligence. St Philip saw it flourishing in a frightful way in that independent and rebellious age, and therefore he laid particular stress on the humility of reason and on interior penitence. Intelligence is a gift from God which makes man similar to Him; but intelligence must accept its limits.

Intelligence must reach the necessary and absolute Principle which governs the universe; recognize the historical proofs which show the divinity of Jesus Christ and the divine mission of the Church; and then stop before the mystery of God, who, being infinite, always remains obscure in his nature and in his operations. Intelligence must accept his law, which is a law of love and salvation and abandon itself trustfully to his plan, which, being eternal, transcends every human perspective ontologically.

St Philip emphasized this sense of humility before God. Putting his hand to his forehead, he was accustomed to say: “Holiness lies in the space of three fingers!”, meaning that it depends essentially on the humility of the intelligence. [The entire message may be found here.]

The “three finger” remark was a fitting challenge to renaissance Rome and continues to challenge the intellectual arrogance of our day. Mystery is banished, God’s existence denied, the life and message of Christ disdained. We have made our cranium the measure of all that is. A mere three fingers. Perhaps we could turn this in to a “three finger” test; it could be done at home, in the laboratory, or in the office. Hold three fingers up to ones forehead. Ask oneself, within this span of my cranium can I claim to have mastered and exhausted the entirety of reality?  It is as preposterous as it is arrogant. In a way, we could say Nietzsche used a version of the three finger test as a criticism of the bloated claims of the Hegelians. He mocked Hegel’s claim to have brought together all of reality in his little skull and to possess a total mastery of the very idea of God:

History understood in this Hegelian way has been contemptuously called
God’s sojourn upon earth,–though the God was first created by the
history. He [God], at any rate, became transparent and intelligible inside
Hegelian skulls
, and has risen through all the dialectically possible
steps in his being up to the manifestation of the Self: so that for
Hegel the highest and final stage of the world-process came together in
his own Berlin existence. (from On The Use and Abuse of History)

Conveniently, all of the world’s processes and evolutionary developments culminate in the life of the  professor from Berlin (or fill in the blank with Cambridge, Oxford, Austin, Boston et al). Neri and Nietzsche beheld the pitiful pride of the professor. So perhaps our present day deniers of God could apply the test, either the Neri version or the Nietzsche version. Get a grip, Dawkins, Hawking and all ye rationalists. Reality is bigger than your skulls, your words, your methods. 


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