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There are really two pieces here - Looking for San Filipi Neri  and  A comment on Miracles
I hope that each helps to explain the other.

Looking for San Filipe Neri

      When one is traveling, sometimes the most memorable experiences are the ones that were not planned, and they may occur in the most improbable ways.  This happened to me and my wife in April 2005 in Sucre,  Bolivia.
        We were traveling with a charitable group, Freedom from Hunger,   which among other activities supports microlending -- small loans to groups of village women in developing countries, with accompanying educational programs.  We very much enjoy travel with such charitable groups, which often puts us in closer contact with the people of the countries we visit than a more tourist-oriented program.  Given a choice, we’d far rather meet and talk with people than look at buildings and mountains.  On Tuesday we’d visited a local credit group in Sucre, in the high plateau of central Bolivia.  On Wednesday our group was to go on to Potosi, high up in the mountains and the site of an important colonial silver mine and mint.  I had a very high fever Tuesday evening and decided Wednesday was not the day for many hours in a bus at high altitude, so my wife and I stayed in Sucre.
       After a morning in bed, my fever broke and I felt  up to very limited exploration. Was there anything interesting a short walk from the hotel?  The map showed a church of San Filipe Neri, Saint Philip Neri.  Now, I’m Jewish, and not an authority on sixteenth-century saints, but I did once read some wonderful poems by Phyllis McGinley.  I remembered just a fragment about Philip Neri, 1515 - 1595, whom she described as “the merriest man alive” and said he “was made a saint, by holy wit.”
       So I wondered: would the paintings in the church reflect his reported taste for jokes? We set out in that direction and easily found the church.  Walking around it, we failed to find any unlocked door or bell to ring.  But the far side brought us within easy walking range of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the large church in the center of Sucre.  It is a large Spanish colonial cathedral, with ornate chapels,  and its museum was open.  The museum has a marvelous collection of local paintings and religious artifacts dating back as far as the sixteenth century. There are several rooms of paintings and statues of Joseph and Jesus, a theme that I find too often neglected in sermons, and one I feel strongly about since I have five stepchildren. The Museum seems to get only six or eight visitors a day. This yields  little money for proper conservation of the contents, some of which are visibly suffering.  Sucre is not on the international tourist circuit, except perhaps for dinosaur fans, but it deserves to be.  As well as delightful and well-preserved Spanish Colonial architecture, it has one of the largest areas of fossilized dinosaur tracks in the world, and an incredible eroded Badlands.

      We returned to the church of San Filipe Neri and tried again. Once more, all the doors were locked. But across the street we saw a few girls who looked liked college students.  Would they know when it was open?  We followed, but failed to catch them. However,  following them brought us suddenly to the campus of the Universidad San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca, the local public university. Trying to find a student there who spoke English got us directed to the Department of Foreign Languages, and we found the chairwoman of the English Department, Mrs. Noemi Baldivieso

       And there we stayed for hours, having a delightful conversation. We found many areas of common interest, and she was a vast store of information - on such diverse topics as the living standards of faculty and students, the national education budget, and the comparative bureaucracies of state educational institutions.  For example, her department has a library budget from the Bolivian government - but it must be spent in Bolivia!  Some books they need in foreign languages simply aren’t available in Bolivia - something that my wife and I could help out with, at least a little bit, by canvassing the German faculty at our university for books they could spare.  And the lady, it turned out, had a few years ago had triplets - which by necessity made her something of an expert on child and maternal health and child care arrangements in Bolivia. For one example, the city of Sucre had only two incubators. But if she went to a larger city like Santa Cruz, her social insurance would not pay the bills. So she had very interesting and detailed stories.  It was exactly the sort of visit that we hope for in a foreign country, but is so difficult to find.
      We never did get inside the Church of San Filipi Neri.  But it was one of the most memorable days we experienced during  our travels. I don't know how often Catholic saints pay visits to middle-aged Jewish men, but this saint did have an unusual sense of humor. Perhaps, up in heaven, Saint Philip Neri is laughing happily.

Edward Ordman

        A comment on miracles.

    As a mathematician I’m very aware that there are many things in the world that are unpredictable. However, it is exactly in the nature of unpredictability (I’m now making a precise mathematical statement) that you cannot ever prove an event was unpredictable.  You can’t prove that no one will later analyze it and find a scientific explanation.  So, if I want to believe something is a miracle, I cannot expect to be able to convince anyone else it was a miracle.  For that matter, maybe even things that can be explained can have miraculous aspects. [See more on this look   here.]

    That Tuesday evening in Sucre, Bolivia, I had a frighteningly high fever. Yes, my wife was there. She took very good care of me, and I thank God daily for her presence and our love. But nevertheless, I felt very very low Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in Bolivia. I really had wanted to go to the old silver mine in Potosi, a very important colonial site (although usually neglected in history as taught in the U.S.)   So I may be justified, perhaps, in feeling that there was something miraculous in the way the day turned out.

    Or, as I indicate above, events may have explanations.  But let me argue that even a plausible explanation, here, has something of the work of God about it.  Presumably it was Philip Neri’s faith in God that caused him to live as he did, in the 1500's.  It was how he acted that caused him to be named a saint.  It was because he was a saint that there was a church named after him in Sucre, and it was because he was a saint that Phyllis McGinley wrote a poem about him.  It was because I enjoy humorous poetry and thus had come to know the humorous religious poetry of Phyllis McGinley that I remembered a few lines including “From 1515 to 95, he was the merriest man alive/ And dying at 80 or a bit/ Was made a saint, by holy wit.”  Because of that, I was able to cheer myself up enough to go try to walk as far as that church.  And because of that, the rest happened.  So even if you do not want to think that Philip Neri himself had shown up to look after me, can you deny that that wonderful day was the result of the work of Saint Philip Neri, or the result of the inspiration of God?

(C) Edward Ordman  2009

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