Today, Friday, Aug. 1, is the feast day of St. Alphonsus Liguori, spiritual writer, theologian, and Doctor of the Church. The following is an excerpt from Dr. Robert Stackpole's latest book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press):
St. Alphonsus Liguori
We now move forward approximately one hundred years to consider the writings of a saint who had a powerful impact upon the whole Catholic world in the 18th century — reviving, sustaining, and summarizing the mainstream tradition of Catholic spirituality in the midst of a rationalistic age.
1. THE LIFE OF ST. ALPHONSUS
Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was a Neapolitan who founded the Redemptorist Order of priests, a congregation dedicated to providing parish missions, especially to the poor in rural areas. His spirituality was both affective and active, centered above all on the Passion of Jesus Christ as the principal sign of our Savior's love for us. Saint Alphonsus also encouraged an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ through frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, a book of meditations that he originally wrote for his Redemptorist seminarians entitled Visits to the Blessed Sacrament went through dozens of editions and was used all across Europe, remaining a popular guide to Eucharistic devotion to this very day. Saint Alphonsus was also devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a sign and symbol of Christ's love, and in 1758 he sent a copy of his tract "Novena to the Sacred Heart" directly to the Pope in support of an (ultimately successful) petition to obtain approval for the establishment of the liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart.
In short, St. Alphonsus' spirituality was strongly Christocentric — centered on the Passion, the Eucharist, and the Heart of Jesus.
Saint Alphonsus was a master of spirituality in other respects as well. For example, his book The Glories of Mary earned him the official ecclesiastical title of "The Marian Doctor of the Church," and he insisted that the Redemptorists defend and promote the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception long before that doctrine was infallibly defined as an article of faith by the Magisterium.
In his famous book Moral Theology, St. Alphonsus instructed confessors to be gentle and compassionate with their penitents, to manifest the merciful love of Christ in their mildness of manner and in their willingness to dispense absolution for sin, even in response to the "imperfect contrition" of many of their penitents. As a result of his influence, people began to make confessions more often and to receive Holy Communion more often — another development that St. Alphonsus strongly encouraged. By experiencing the love of God in frequent confession and Communion, St. Alphonsus believed, Catholics would come to love Jesus Christ more intimately and follow Him more devoutly in the practice of the virtues. In one of his last books, entitled The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, the saint gives us detailed guidance on the Christian virtues and the love of Christ that moves us to practice them.
Clearly, the whole of St. Alphonsus's spiritual teaching centers upon the compassionate love of the Redeemer for sinful humanity, whether that love is expressed through His passion and death for us, through the Eucharistic gift of Himself to us, through sacramental absolution administered compassionately to us, or through the prayers and example of the Blessed Mother that He gave to us. All of His love for us is summed up and symbolized in His Sacred Heart.
In 1775, St. Alphonsus published an essay as an appendix to a book on divine providence. That appendix was entitled "Motives for Confidence in Divine Mercy." This little known work now has been translated into English and published in the book Alphonsus Liguori, from the "Classics of Western Spirituality" series by Paulist Press. The essay seems to have been provoked by a letter from someone who was troubled by the teachings of the Jansenist heretics, a group that promoted an extreme Augustinian version of the doctrine of predestination. Saint Alphonsus responds to the anxieties of his correspondent by listing all the reasons he can think of as to why we can trust in God for our sanctification and salvation, and how we can receive all the spiritual mercies that God wants to pour out upon us.
Saint Alphonsus begins by reminding his anxious friend that the New Testament does not teach that God arbitrarily or inscrutably predestines some people to everlasting damnation. He cites 1 Timothy 2:3-4, "This is good and pleasing to God our Savior, who wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth", and 2 Peter 3:9, "He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." From Scripture passages such as these, St. Alphonsus concludes:
From all this can you now have any doubt that God wishes to save you? From this moment onward never dare to utter again: "I wonder does God wish to save me. Maybe He wishes to see me damned on account of the sins I have committed against Him." Get rid of all such thoughts, once and for all, since you must now realize that God is helping you with His graces and calling you insistently to love Him.
2. LIST OF "CONSIDERATIONS" ON GOD'S SPIRITUAL MERCIES
What follows is a selection from St. Alphonsus's list of "considerations" on God's spiritual mercies, and how we can receive them. They are listed below in order, in the saint's own words, but without the extended explanation that he provided for each one.
1. The necessity of obedience to your confessor.
2. When you suffer misfortune of any kind, endeavor to accept whatever comes as coming to you from the hand of God. ... Say simply, the Lord has permitted me to bear these sufferings not because He dislikes me but because He loves me. And shall I not therefore accept them with resignation?
3. The Lord is full of goodness to those who seek Him. No one has ever trusted in the Lord and been rejected.
4. When souls seek to love the Lord, He finds it impossible not to love them in return.
5. Souls who love their crucified Lord in the midst of their own desolation grow closer to Him in their hearts.
6. To advance in the way of holiness it is necessary above all else to concentrate one's efforts on loving God.
7. In your prayers do not neglect to offer yourself to God unreservedly. From your heart say: "My Jesus, I give myself to You without reserve. I wish to be wholly Yours."
8. When you experience great aridity of spirit, be sure then to rejoice unselfishly in the bliss your God enjoys in heaven. This is an anticipation on earth of that perfect act of love of the blessed in heaven, since they do not so much rejoice in their own happiness as in the infinite happiness of God Himself. They love God much more than they love themselves.
9. As regards your prayers and reflections, never neglect to meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ. There is no other subject more calculated to elicit our love than the thought of the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
10. Place yourself on the Hill of Calvary, where you will find your Lord dying on the Cross, consumed with sufferings. Seeing Him in this terrible condition, is there any way you could refuse to undergo willingly all types of suffering for a God who dies out of love for you?
11. I recommend prayer to you above all else. When you can say nothing else, simply say, "Lord, help me, and help me without delay."
12. When you ask for graces from God, make sure you ask them in the name of Jesus Christ. ... So when you fear that God will send you to hell, think for a moment how could it be possible that one who has said to you that whatever you ask Him [in His name] will be granted, would send you to hell!
13. How is it that you think you are not pleasing to God when you suffer desolation in spirit? Rather than being worried you should feel reassured, since God is dealing with you in the very same way that He treats His most intimate friends.
14. Keep on praying to Him with love and tenderness and have no anxiety that He will abandon you. Say in the words of the apostle ... [nothing can] separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).
15. When you are oppressed by fears for your salvation or by desolation of spirit, do not neglect to have recourse to Our Lady, who has been given to us by God as the Consolatrix of those who are afflicted.
16. The more trust we have in the Lord the more we receive from Him. He Himself has declared that He rewards those who trust Him.
17. The Lord has declared that His great joy is to be with us: "And I found delight in the sons of men" (Pr 8:31). ... This thought alone should encourage us to pray to God with all confidence.
18. My God, why is it that scrupulous and anxious souls treat You as if You were a tyrant who demands nothing more from Your subjects than fear and trepidation? The result is they think that God gets angry at every thought that passes through their minds and at every word that slips involuntarily from their lips and wishes to cast them into hell.
19. God's infinite majesty certainly deserves all our reverence and submission, but He Himself prefers to receive from souls desirous of loving Him their love and confidence rather than fear and servility.
20. Frequent reception of the sacraments [St. Alphonsus here directly opposes the teachings of the Jansenist heretics, who demanded near perfect contrition for sin before a soul could dare to go to confession and receive Holy Communion].
21. Your love should be centered above all else on the two great mysteries of our Lord's love, the Holy Sacrament of the Altar and the Passion of Jesus Christ. If the love of all human hearts could be concentrated in one heart it would not approach in the slightest degree to the greatness of the love which Jesus Christ has shown us in these two mysteries. And so, in short, concentrate all your efforts for the future on love for God, and confidence in His great mercy.
[Quotations from St. Alphonsus' essay "Motives for Confidence in the Divine Mercy" are taken from Alphonsus Liguori: selected writings, New York: Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality series, 1999. This list carries on through number 26, but the remaining ones are of minor importance, so we will not record them here].
Although the word "mercy" is only rarely used in this essay, the concept is implied throughout, for this whole treatise by St. Alphonsus is about trusting in Divine Mercy in every circumstance, and calling on His mercy with confidence at all times, in the light of our Lord's infinite compassion for the human race.
However, there are several significant omissions from this
list of "considerations" on Divine Mercy.
First of all, one would think that one of the principal ways of nurturing confidence in God's merciful love would be the simple counting of one's blessings from Him every day: life and health, wholesome food, clean clothes, a cheerful residence, good companionship, the beauties of nature — whatever blessings He has granted to us in His providence each day. Unfortunately, St. Alphonsus does not mention simple Christian thanksgiving as an antidote to lack of confidence in God's mercy (although such thanksgiving is certainly a central theme in the opening chapters of his book, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ).
Second, it seems rather bold to claim that the "two greatest mysteries" of our Lord's love for us are the Passion of Jesus Christ and His gift of Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. Certainly, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is integrally related to both mysteries. Without the Resurrection, the Cross never would have been seen as "good news," nor would Christ's Real Presence and self-gift in the Blessed Sacrament even be possible. Moreover, behind the Gospel mysteries of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus lie the even deeper and more fundamental mysteries of the Incarnation — manifested so beautifully in the Nativity of Christ — and the Blessed and Holy Trinity: the mystery that God in His own nature is love given, love received, and love returned from all eternity.
That is why the New Testament can say, on the one hand, that God's love was especially manifest in that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8), and yet also say that the love of God was especially manifest in the whole mystery of the Incarnation, in which the divine Son loved us so much that He came down from heaven and shared our human condition, for it is the Incarnation which made His whole human life and death for us possible: "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, that we might live through Him" (1 Jn 4:9). The Passion of Jesus Christ certainly shows us the depth and extent of Christ's merciful love for us through His incarnate life, but the Cross is only an extension to its ultimate limit (so to speak) of the Incarnation, the mystery that God Himself descended into the very depths of our human condition in order to win us back to His Heart, so that we might share in His eternal Trinity of love (see Phil 2: 6-11).
Happily, in other writings St. Alphonsus goes to great lengths to unfold and celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation; indeed, he probably wrote more meditations of the Nativity of Christ and on the Incarnation than any other saint in the history of the Catholic Church. His essay on "Motives for Confidence in the Divine Mercy," therefore, does not even begin to exhaust the riches of his theology of the merciful love of God.
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Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.