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Finding St Lou Liguori

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    The spiritual writings of St. Alphonsus Ligouri (1696-1787) are the focus of two new books by Dan Burke and Stephen Kokx. (Image of St. Alphonus: Wikipedia)

    When my wife and I moved our young family to Thailand almost ten years ago, the most obvious choice for our church was an English-speaking Redemptorist parish in downtown Bangkok, a stone’s throw from the U.S. Embassy, and thus attracting many American expats. I knew nothing about the Redemptorists, nor their founder St. Alphonsus Liguori. Yet it did not take long to appreciate the charism of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, as the Redemptorists are otherwise known. There was confession directly before (and during) every single Mass, meaning the penitent (if he so desired) could always receive the Eucharist, and the parish was admirably invested in ministering to the large asylum-seeker population.

    Once, at a parish used book sale, I noticed a lightly-worn copy of the selected writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori, costing the equivalent of less than two dollars. I devoured it every Sunday for months, a remarkable gem of spiritual and moral insights. Why, I wondered, is this eighteenth-century Italian Doctor of the Church so little known, even among devout Catholics, with the intellectually-inclined far more likely to be familiar with the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Therese of Lisieux? Why “Pints with Aquinas” but no “Coffee with Liguori”; a Thomistic Institute, but no Ligourian one?

    Thankfully some Catholics are seeking to rectify this sad disparity. Dan Burke’s Finding Peace in the Storm: Reflections on St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will and Stephen Kokx’s St. Alphonsus for the 21st Century: A Handbook for Holiness aim to bring the brilliance of St. Alphonsus to contemporary Catholics. Their efforts are long overdue, contributing to what I hope may in time become a broader movement promoting Liguorian studies, similar to the academic interest in Augustinianism or Thomism.

    There’s certainly good reason to study Liguori, who, besides founding a religious order, was a prolific writer, composer, musician, artist, philosopher, and theologian. He served as a bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti , where he addressed clerical abuses, sold his carriage and episcopal ring, and even suspended priests who celebrated the Mass in less than fifteen minutes! He was undoubtedly brilliant: before pursuing a religious vocation, Liguori was a successful lawyer, graduating with doctorates in civil and canon law from the University of Naples at age sixteen.

    Liguori was named patron of confessors and moral theologians by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The Church also bestowed upon him the title “Prince of Moral Theologians,” and gave unparalleled latitude to confessors to follow St. Alphonsus’s opinions in regards to morality and spirituality. There is plenty of Liguorian guidance from which to choose: the bishop penned more than one hundred works on spirituality, theology, and mariology (the Blessed Virgin reportedly appeared to him several years after he was ordained a priest).

    Dan Burke, a well-known spiritual writer and speaker in his own right, chooses Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will for further reflection, offering a commentary of one of Liguori’s most famous texts. Burke explains:

    My promise to you, dear reader, is this: if you read this treatise, meditate upon it, and make St. Alphonsus’s thoughts your thoughts, the wind and waves of the storms of life, rather than dashing you against the rocks of despair, will become the means of your ascent up the narrow way to union with God in this life and in the next; and in this life, you will surely know peace in the midst of the storm.

    Having just read Liguori’s short book via Burke’s helpful hand, I cannot attest to this promise, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of devotional literature.

    “The man who follows his own will, independently, of God’s, is guilty of a kind of idolatry,” writes Ligouri. “Instead of God’s will, he adores his own in a certain sense.” That may sound harsh, but is it not true? And this is accurate not only for those who dismissively deny the Christian faith as little more than antiquated superstition, but even for the faithful. How often, I wonder, have I prioritized my own will over Christ, not even necessarily by overt sin, but complaining over the frustrations He sends me, or simply avoiding Christ in prayer and meditation? “If, devout soul, it is your will to please God and live a life of serenity in this world, unite yourself always and in all things to the divine will.”

    What this means, as Liguori explains, is to “unite ourselves to whatever dispositions God makes of us.” It’s easy to purport to do this when most everything goes as we expected: we have a productive day at work, no appliances or vehicles malfunction, our conversations with friends and family are pleasant. But what about the days when we suffer even little inconveniences that unnerve us, or interactions that leave us angry and bitter? “It takes saints to unite themselves to God’s will when things go wrong and are painful to self-love,” observes Liguori. “Our conduct in such instances is the measure of our love of God.” That seems to cut to the heart of the matter.

    Though St. Alphonsus is never condescendingly shaming, his words have a blunt provocativeness that exposes our self-righteousness and sense of confidence. “While God does not will the sin, He does will our humiliation, our poverty, or our mortification, as the case may be.” It is so simply stated, but so obviously accurate: the events that occasion my weakness and brokenness are actually willed by God to bring about my repentance and self-surrender to Christ. “We must not, therefore, consider the afflictions that come upon us as happening by chance or solely from the malice of men; we should be convinced that what happens, happens by the will of God.”

    Someone who appreciates this candidness is Stephen Kokx, a Catholic reporter whose interactions with St. Alphonsus might very well have saved his life, as his book explains through personal testimony that connect with the writings of the saintly Doctor. Amidst debilitating physical illness and frightening spiritual warfare, Kokx encountered St. Alphonsus. “Where has this been my entire life?… Why don’t priests speak like this anymore? When did the Church stop teaching this?” Thankfully, she didn’t—we simply largely forgot about this treasure-chest.

    Kokx’s St. Alphonsus for the 21st Century gives the novice an idea of the breadth of Liguori, covering the saint’s writings on perfection, love, prayer, the Eucharist, the religious life, sin, and spiritual warfare. Kokx does a good job of sprinkling beautiful quotations throughout these topics. In his chapter of love, for example, he offers us this gem:

    The constant prayer of a Christian soul must be: ‘Jesus, give me Thy holy love; Mary my mother, obtain for me the love of God; my Guardian Angel and all my holy patrons, intercede for me that I may love my God with my whole heart and soul.’ The Lord is generous in the bestowal of His gifts; but He is especially bountiful in giving His love to those who seek it.

    It leads one to wonder: how often does our spiritual life suffer deprivation simply by refusing to show up and implore God and the saints for the grace to love Him?

    Yet Liguori is not all warm and fuzzy. He elsewhere warns that God has “determined for each one the number of sins to be pardoned him, which being completed, God will pour out His chastisements upon him and pardon him no more.” That’s enough to make anyone indulging in habitual sin to think twice! “He who sins and is determined to sin again and is not desirous at all of repentance is not at all worthy of God’s mercy. God bears our faults for a time but not forever.”

    Nevertheless, Liguorian spirituality, even when it engenders a certain bitter remorse in the conscience, is ultimately one of great hope, mercy, and wonder. In his reflections on prayer and the Eucharist, St. Alphonsus writes:

    It is not permitted in the world for persons of all ranks to speak alone with kings; but with Jesus Christ, the KIng of kings, both nobles and plebeians, rich and poor, can converse at their will, setting before Him their wants, and seeking His grace; and there Jesus gives audiences to all, hears all, and comforts all.

    That is great news, and a reason to run, with all speed and humility to Christ, whether in silent prayer, the Eucharist, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Would that all our parishes (and priests) would embrace that dogged determination to reconcile sinners to Jesus that I found in that Redemptorist parish in Bangkok. Perhaps a Liguorian studies program in our institutions of Catholic higher education or seminaries would help us appreciate afresh this ever-profound Italian Doctor of the Church. Burke and Kokx have already helped think through our syllabus.

    Finding Peace in the Storm: Reflections on St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will
    By Dan Burke
    Sophia Institute Press, 2023
    Paperback 143 pages

    St. Alphonsus for the 21st Century: A Handbook for Holiness
    By Stephen Kokx
    Saint Peter’s Press, 2023
    Paperback, 184 pages

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