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St. Alphonsus Liguori: Living in Friendship with God-Pt. 2

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In Part One, we saw how, though not without difficulty, St. Alphonsus left the potential power, wealth, and prestige that were before him, together with many “friendships” of utility behind, to pursue authentic and lasting friendship with God. We also discussed how, for Alphonsus, the first means of living in friendship with God is detachment. It is important to remember that detachment for Alphonsus does not consist in a flight from the world, but rather the right ordering of one’s loves in accordance with the twofold command of love. Living and growing in friendship with God thus becomes about learning how to live in a detached manner, and Alphonsus provides us with the means of doing so in his description of the second through fifth means of acquiring divine love.

The second means of acquiring the love of God in Alphonsus’ thought is meditation “on the Passion of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring it, 13). Alphonsus’ father Giuseppe himself had a deep devotion to the Passion of Christ, and so meditation on Christ’s saving work was something he cultivated within his children at a very early age (“Introduction,” 11-12). It is thus no surprise that the Passion of Christ was to be at the center of Alphonsus’ theological thought and pastoral work throughout his life. Pastorally, this is most clearly seen in that Alphonsus is the founder of the religious Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, more popularly known as the Redemptorists. The charism of the Redemptorists is labor among the poor, neglected, and spiritually abandoned, which as we saw in Part One, was a part of Alphonsus’ life from a young age as a member of the Congregazione dei Dottori. As such, by cultivating their charism, the Redemptorists become the presence of the Redeemer to those in need.

As a brief aside, this aspect of Alphonsus’ life and work very clearly highlights the importance of the life of prayer and lived spirituality in the Christian home. One never knows the impact of how we form our children will have in the life of the Church and on the world at large. What was simply part of Giuseppe’s own spirituality and which he instilled in his son Alphonsus, contributed not only to the holiness of his son, but all those who joined the congregation he established, which counts 17 members who have been beatified or canonized, and the countless individuals and communities which these religious have served throughout the history of their existence, now present in 82 different countries around the world (“Who are the Redemptorists”).

Aside from working to allow the life of the Redeemer to live in and through him and the lives of his confreres, Alphonsus dedicated one of his most well known works, The Passion and the Death of Jesus Christ, to meditation on the Passion of the Redeemer, and he recommends it as an aid for this practice to his readers (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 13). As a good student of St. Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus had learned from the Angelic Doctor that “Whosoever wishes to live with perfection should do nothing other than to despise what Christ despises, and desire what Christ desires. Not a single example of virtue is lacking from the example of the Cross” (Conferences on the Apostles’ Creed, 6.2). Among the virtues named by Aquinas in the same work is that of detachment (Ibid., 6.2.5). Aquinas and Alphonsus are so insistent on the importance of detachment because it is this virtue that enables the human person to live out its nature properly. And, it is on the cross that Jesus most perfectly reveals that at its very core, human life has been created to be nothing else than a complete response of love to the Love which called it into existence (see, St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Hominis, 8 & 10). For Alphonsus, meditating on Christ’s Passion awakens this love which is so natural to the human creature yet which lies dormant inside the sin addled soul. Accordingly, echoing the above-mentioned sentiment that God’s demands of complete love seem extreme, Alphonsus asks,

who, upon seeing a crucified God dying for our love, could resist loving him? Those thorns cry out too loudly, those nails, that cross, those wounds, and that blood, all seeking to make us love him who has loved us so much. Our heart is too little with which to love this God who is so in love with us. To match the love of Jesus Christ would take another God to die for his love” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 4.2).

Alphonsus is convinced that if the world does not love God, it is because the world has not spent enough time reflecting on the unspeakable love God has shown them in the cross of Christ (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 13).

It is here that the Eucharist finds its place in Alphonsus’ thought. Alphonsus refers to the Eucharist as the “sacrament of love” and the “pledge of love” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 2.3). For Alphonsus, this is an appropriate name for this central sacrament of the Church’s life, because it most perfectly displays and makes present the love of the Divine Groom for His Bride the Church. Just as the true lover never ceases to demonstrate his love for the beloved, so too, Alphonsus writes that Christ

could not satisfy his love by giving himself entirely to the human race by his Incarnation and by his Passion, dying for all people. He sought to find a way to give himself entirely to each one of us in particular; and so he instituted the sacrament of the altar in order to unite himself fully with each one of us: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (Jn 6:56)” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 2.8).

It is, of course, this sacrament which is also the source and summit of a life lived in friendship with God, for it unties us to the very life of God, giving us the strength to live a life wholly for God by inflaming “our souls with divine love” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 2.13).

Only the soul so inflamed with divine love in the Eucharist is prepared to put the third means of acquiring divine love into practice: uniting oneself in everything to the divine will. Echoing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Alphonsus writes that “the one who loves God perfectly can only will what God wills” (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 16). For Alphonsus, this means above all, in accepting whatever comes our way in life as taking place by the will of God, either because God directly wills it (active will) or permits it to happen (passive will) (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 16). Therefore, it is living by the firm conviction that “all things work together for good for those who love God” as St. Paul teaches (Rom. 8:28). Of course, the exemplar par excellence here, once again, is Christ, who on the night of His Passion prayed in the garden, “Father, not what I will, but what you will” (Luke 22:42). However, in the same manner, Alphonsus undoubtedly has the figure who is the subject of one of his other well-known works, Mary, the Mother of God. In Mary Alphonsus finds one who is a living fiat, as it were, demonstrated most especially at the Annunciation. In his Glories of Mary, Alphonsus writes that when the Angel Gabriel announced to her the intention of God for His Son to be incarnate in her, Mary, while acknowledging her nothingness in relation to the God Who IS, “yet all inflamed at the same time by the ardor of her desire to unite herself thus still more closely with God, and abandoning herself entirely to the Divine will, she replies, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’” (The Glories of Mary, Discourse IV). Alphonsus dedicated The Glories of Mary to his Redeemer, Jesus Christ, asking Him to “accept this little homage of the love I bear Thee and thy beloved Mother” (The Glories of Mary, “The Author’s Prayer”). In other words, this work itself was one of Alphonsus’ ways of echoing Mary’s fiat according to his own state of life.

Accordingly, what we see in this element of Alphonsus’ thought is central to his conception of what the human person has been created to be. In Part One we saw that detachment was central to living according to our nature as creatures created in the imago Dei, and above that it is Christ who reveals what living according to this nature entails most perfectly. Here, his theological anthropology gains a bit more specificity. The human creature, for Alphonsus, is meant to be a living fiat to God as exemplified by Jesus and Mary in the Passion and Annunciation, respectively. The five means of acquiring the love of God as articulated by Alphonsus has the formation of the individual into a living fiat as their aim.

In short, in everything we do from the most significant to the most menial tasks of our day, must be done so as to bring us into greater conformity with God by offering ourselves wholly to Him in imitation of His Son’s complete self-offering which embodies His “Yes!” to the will of the Father. This becomes clearest in Alphonsus’ thought in the fourth and fifth means of acquiring divine love. The first of these he calls “mental prayer” (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 19). The term is a bit misleading. What Alphonsus has in mind here is something like lectio divina, a meditation on the eternal truths at the center of the Christian faith, as communicated by Scripture and made manifest in the life of the Church and her saints. He writes that if we do not take time to meditate upon these truths, we will have great difficulty detaching ourselves from everything so as to “give all our love to God” (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 19). Meditation upon these eternal truths thus enables us to keep in mind the fabric of the universe and God’s ordering thereof, and our place and purpose therein in accordance with what has already been discussed.

For Alphonsus, however, living in friendship with God must never become an intellectual endeavor, it must be actively embodied. Thus, he insists that faith “makes us believe not just with the intellect but also with the will” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 15.2), and cautions those who spend a great deal of time in study that study alone cannot make one holy (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 8.23). The best way for continually living out our friendship with God for Alphonsus is prayer, which he names as his final means for acquiring divine love. As he sees it, prayer is absolutely necessary for salvation. This is the case for two primary reasons. First, Alphonsus writes that “Without the aid of grace we can do nothing good; ‘without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5)” (Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation, Ch. 1). We must pray unceasingly, as St. Paul teaches us (1 Thess 5:16-18), because prayer which is already God’s gift of grace to us, is the vehicle by which we obtain the grace to transform all that we say and do throughout the day into a spiritual sacrifice to God (A Way of Conversing with God Continually as a Friend, 29; cf. Rom. 12:1). Secondly, prayer makes it possible to stay in constant communication with God, and to share our day with Him.

His writings on prayer demonstrate that Alphonsus was a man whose mind was continually turned to God, and that it is by prayer that he lived in such a manner. How do we do the same? For Alphonsus it is really quite simple, it is only a matter of learning to see reality correctly. Once we do, everything we lay our eyes upon becomes a reminder to turn our thoughts to God in prayer. He writes this quite plainly, “try to turn your every sight and sound in to an opportunity of raising your mind to God or of glancing into eternity. For example, when you see running water, reflect that your life too runs on its course and that death draws near” (A Way of Conversing with God Continually as a Friend, 31). Again, describing God as the ultimate and relentless lover, Alphonsus tells us that when we look upon the beauty of creation we should think, “how many beautiful creatures God has created for me in this world that I might love him!” (Ibid., 32). When we see the rich and powerful, although we might be tempted to envy their place in the world, Alphonsus tells us that if they cling to their earthly status, we ought to see it as an occasion to imitate Christ and be moved by compassion for them. Alphonsus writes,

When you see the great ones of this world rejoicing in their wealth or rank, take pity on their folly and say: God is enough for me. ‘Some are strong in chariots; some in horses; but we are strong in the name of the Lord, our God’ (Ps 20:8). Let them glory in such emptiness. I wish to glory only in God’s grace and God’s love” (A Way of Continually Conversing with God as a Friend, 31).

The sound of birds singing should motivate us to give continual praise to the Creator and the sound of the rooster be a reminder that we too, like Peter, have fallen short of the love of God for which we were made (Ibid., 33). It is here, then, that we find one of the most beautiful aspects of Alphonsus’ thought. Remember that Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard, in Christ’s hands became the means of Peter’s growing closer to Him after the Resurrection, where on the shore of Lake Tiberius, he professed a threefold love of Christ (John 21:15-19). So too, for Alphonsus, each and every time we fall in sin, we must “immediately raise [our] eyes to God, make an act of love, and, confessing [our] fault, [we] may rest assured of pardon” (A Way of Conversing Continually with God as a Friend, 22). Alphonsus adds, “Say to God: ‘Master, the one you love is ill’ (Jn 11:3). The heart which you love is sick, is covered in sores” (Ibid.). If, in the hands of the Almighty, even our sins become the means of our healing and growth in holiness, there is simply nothing that cannot become the occasion for a prayer in Alphonsus’ mind.

See what he’s getting at here. All things are an occasion for lifting our hearts to converse with God because we were made for friendship with God. Just as we want to share everything with our intimate friends, good or bad, the mundane no less than the extraordinary, so our every experience ought to bring us into the presence of God to tell Him about it. To be sure, in a world so filled with noise, pain, suffering, disappointment in ourselves and in others, to live in such a way is no small task. Yet, as we have seen, such intimate friendship with God is precisely what we have been created for. Thus, we must also pray for the grace of prayer, the grace to be able to turn all that we see and hear into an occasion for lifting our hearts to God. Accordingly, Alphonsus bids us to go to God in all occasions with the utmost confidence. Not only has God created us for such intimacy, but when sin instilled the idea within us that God would have nothing to do with us, God sent His Son into the world. “In order to increase our confidence, God emptied himself, became nothing (Phil 2:7), humble to such an extent as to become human in order to converse with us like a friend (Bar 3:38)” (A Way of Continually Conversing with God as a Friend, 2). In this, God has made his desire to be on the most intimate terms with us in all things apparent. Therefore, if even our sins ought not keep us from continually conversing with God as a friend, then we ought to be no less confident about sharing every other single aspect of our days with him, the good and the bad alike. “Discuss all your business with God, your plans, your troubles, your fears—anything at all that concerns you. And do so with confidence, with your heart open wide.”  (A Way of Continually Conversing with God as a Friend, 8). We perhaps won’t find it too difficult to bring our concerns, anxieties, and troubles to God. After all, even the Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic conception of God is inclined to do so as was mentioned in Part One. Alphonsus knows this, and thus recognizes the irony that, while we will share with God our troubles, we are far less likely to share with God our joys. Thus, he writes:

When you receive some happy news, don’t act like some negligent people who run to God in times of difficulty but forget and ignore him when things are going well. You should be faithful to God as you would be to a friend who loves you and rejoices in your good fortune. Go to God and share your happiness with him, give him praise and thanks, recognize everything as a gift from his hands” (A Way of Continually Conversing with God as a Friend, 19).

This is perhaps the best indication that we are growing in friendship with God. Is there anything real friends like to share more than one another’s successes, triumphs, and joys? It is also here that we see how, contrary to the utilitarian type of friendships discussed in Part One, friendship with God has no utility. Rather, friendship with God finds its purpose in itself, and as the very aim of life, it transforms and orders all things to itself. Therefore, if we are to live in friendship with God, we must come to Him with our joys no less than our sorrows, knowing that He is the only source of the former, and our only consolation in the latter. By doing this we train ourselves for the life of Heaven, because, as Alphonsus reminds us, the saints in heaven occupy themselves only with God,” and in this they experience perfect happiness (A Way of Conversing Continually with God as a Friend, 38). Consequently, he tells us that while we are in this world, that we must strive to cooperate with God’s grace to make Him our only happiness, the only object of our affections, the only end of our desires and actions, until “you arrive at that eternal kingdom where your love will be entirely perfected and completed, and your desires will be perfectly fulfilled and satisfied” (A Way of Conversing with God Continually as a Friend, 38).

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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