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St. Alphonsus Liguori: Living in Friendship with God-Pt. 1

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Last year, hoping to fill in a gap in current research, a group of psychologists from Columbia University and Michigan State University, sought to investigate the “cultural moderators of the link between friendship and important outcomes” (Peiqi Lu, et. al., “Friendship Importance Around the World”). These researchers found that valuing friendships was correlated to personal health and well being, and higher levels of happiness especially in countries which tended to be more individualistic, such as the United States. One might think that the reason for this being the case is that friendship makes us less individualistic, however, that’s not how these researchers approached the topic. Instead, what they were really asking is, what is friendship good for? For these researches, the conclusion was that, while some friendships can be destructive due to negative influence, friendship is mostly good because it has a utility. Friendship is good because it is useful for the individual. Thus, the same study described how friendship provides a “sense of companionship,” “mitigate[s] feelings of loneliness,” and contributes “to our self-esteem and life satisfaction” (Ibid.). In sum, friendship is useful for many reasons and benefits the individual’s experience of life in many ways.

This is how many think and speak of God today. It is part and parcel of what Christian Smith refers to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God is a friend who just wants us all to get along, for us to be happy, and doesn’t really put His two cents worth in to tell us what to do, but will intervene to help us when we face a problem (Christian Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Factor Religious Faith”).

In contrast to this utilitarian understanding of friendship, C. S. Lewis writes that friendship is basically useless. “Friendship is unnecessary,” he writes, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself” (The Four Loves, 71). Lewis, however, is not discounting friendship, he is rather acknowledging its intrinsic goodness. For him, authentic friendships are not about what benefits can be derived therefrom; instead, following Aristotle, friendship is rather the result of pursuing something else. Accordingly, he writes “that is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends” (The Four Loves, 66). This something else, for Lewis, is Truth (Ibid.). In fact, friendship is a tool of sorts for Lewis, but not for us. Rather, friendship is a manifestation of Divine Providence in our lives. He writes,

Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as revealing (The Four Loves, 89-90).

For Lewis, friendships draw us closer to God because authentic friendship exists among those who pursue God together. Accordingly, friendships give us a foretaste of eternal life. That is why Scripture speaks so sparingly of friendship with God. If it did so more often, we would be inclined to mistake friendship for the life of Heaven (The Four Loves, 88).

Lewis’ exploration of the love of Friendship (Greek philia) brings us to the doorstep of a central theme of the theology of St. Alphonsus Liguori. Of the approximately 110 works this Doctor of the Church has left us, one of the most celebrated is entitled “A Way of Conversing Continually with God as with a Friend.” As we will soon find out, while friendship with God certainly has the result of human flourishing, it is not because it contributes to a personal sense of self-satisfaction. Rather, this friendship, as Lewis describes, is really good for nothing. Friendship with God is about nothing else other than itself, and it is that Friendship for which we have been made and nothing less.

Alphonsus de Liguori was born in 1696 at his parents’ home “on the outskirts of Naples” (“Introduction,” Alphonsus de Liguori: Selected Writings, 12: The Classics of Western Spirituality Series). His father, Don Giuseppe Felix de Liguori was a commander in the Spanish navy, and his mother, Anna, was of the Cavalieri family, who could boast “a more authentic ancient lineage and nobility than the Liguoris” (Ibid., 11-12). Alphonsus was the eldest of eight children, and showed himself precocious in many areas as he entered school age. Don Giuseppe spared no expense on the young Alphonsus’ education. He hired tutors to educate Alphonsus in several languages, including Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as in “history, mathematics, and the rudiments of Cartesian physics,” philosophy and psychology. In addition, “competent tutors” were hired “to instruct his eldest son and heir in drawing, painting, and architecture, in all of which disciplines he showed considerable talent. But it was in music that Alphonsus really excelled” (Ibid., 13). Alphonsus’ love for music never left him. One of his compositions, Duetto tra l’Anima e Gesù Cristo con violino, can be found in the British Museum, and it is said that even up to the age of eighty, he still liked to spend time at the keyboard (Ibid., 13-14).

By the time he was thirteen, Alphonsus had completed his humanities studies under the direction of his father and at the hands of various tutors, and was registered as a first-year law students at the University of Naples (Ibid., 14-15). In 1713, Alphonsus graduated as a Doctor of Laws, still not yet seventeen years of age (Ibid., 16-17). From there, Alphonsus joined a very powerful legal establishment, and was well on his way to becoming the powerful and prestigious figure his father had formed him to be. During this time, he travelled in the circles of high Neapolitan society, a frequent attendee of the opera and the theater, and an avid card player (Ibid., 16). However, during all this time, Alphonsus spent a considerable amount of time with the less fortunate of society as well. He was a member of Congregazione dei Dottori, which among other things was dedicated to the service of the poor, especially in the Oratorian Fathers hospital, which served as a refuge “for the needy and outcast.” He did this for eight years, and “it was here that he first experienced the real happiness to be found in God’s service and it was here that his desire to become a priest developed and came to a positive conclusion” (Ibid., 17). Standing in the way of his vocation, however, was his father, Giuseppe. When Alphonsus did summon the courage to tell his father that he would be entering the priesthood, it was an experience that he never forgot for the rest of his life. So devastated and angered was Don Giuseppe, that he refused to be present at his son’s ordination.

Having mingled with the elites of society, Alphonsus undoubtedly knew a thing or two about the friendship described by the psychologists above, a friendship aimed at getting ahead in life and bolstering one’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, it seems as though his father had just such an idea of friendship with his son in mind during the early part of Alphonsus’ life. Accordingly, Alphonsus learned through experience the price that friendship with God cost, everything. In order to live in friendship with God Alphonsus left all of his early success, and prospective wealth and notoriety behind. He reports that as he hesitated to tell his father of his vocation, and while continuing to serve the poor, he came to see the vanity of the world “with startling clarity.” Continually the words of Christ from Matthew echoed in his mind, “what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul” (Mt. 16:26 & “Introduction,” 19). The hardest decision Alphonsus ever made eventually became the simplest, he was willing to leave worldly friendships behind because he could not stand the possibility of losing friendship with God.

As already mentioned, over the course of his life, Alphonsus wrote many works. Theologically, his best known work is his Moral Theology. He is known today as the patron saint of moral theologians due to his navigation of the tricky path between the school of Probabilism (which resulted in moral laxism) and the school of Probabliorism (which led to a moral rigorism) through the development of his own approach which came to be known as Moderate Probabilism or Equiprobabilism. The nuances of this debate and Alphonsus’ contribution to the development of moral theology with his own system are far beyond the scope of this discussion. Far more pertinent and of lasting influence in the life of the Church are his teaching on the day-to-day life of the Christian. Alphonsus knew that to be a saint meant to live in friendship with Christ. Near the end of His earthly journey, Christ had said to His Apostles, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). It is His making known everything to His disciples that makes friendship with God possible. Distinguishing the erotic love of Eros from the love of Friendship, Philia, C. S. Lewis wrote that “Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities” (The Four Loves, 71). This is what Christ had done for the human family in the Incarnation. He had laid bare the Personality of God such that now it was possible for the human family to enter into authentic friendship with Him. And it was precisely the facilitation of this friendship that stood at the heart of all of Alphonsus’ pastoral ministry and writing.

So how do we live in friendship with God according to Alphonsus? His massive theological output precludes anything approaching a comprehensive overview here. However, we can begin to get at how Alphonsus believes that we can live in friendship with God by using one of his shorter works as a guide and framework. During his time as bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths (in the Italian region of Campania), in 1775, St. Alphonsus composed a short work titled Divine Love and The Means of Acquiring It. In it, Alphonsus structures his discussion on five “means of acquiring the love of God.”

The first of these is “to detach oneself from human attachments” (Divine Love and The Means of Acquiring It, 8). In this section, Alphonsus writes that “there is no place for the love of God in hearts that are full of earth; the more there is of earth the less there is of the reign of love of God” (Ibid., 8). It is important to understand that while Alphonsus does have something quite radical in mind in speaking of detachment, he is not advocating a kind of flight from the world, or fuga mundi, spirituality. Rather, in a manner that foreshadows the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the universal call to holiness (Lumen Gentium, 39-42), Alphonsus had learned from the writings of St. Francis de Sales that friendship with God was to be pursued by all Christians in accordance with their state of life. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales compared Christians to a diverse garden of living plants, writing,

When he created things God commanded plants to bring for their fruits, each one according to its kind, and in like manner he commands Christians, the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each according to his position and vocation…Not only is this true, but the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person (Introduction to the Devout Life, 3).

St. Alphonsus echoes this plainly in The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, considered by some to be his “spiritual masterpiece” (“Introduction,” 39). There, he writes:

So it is a great mistake to say, ‘God doesn’t want everyone to be a saint.’ On the contrary, Saint Paul says, ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thes 4:3). God wants all of us to be saints, and each one according to his or her state in life: the religious as a religious, laypeople as laypeople, the priest as a priest, the married person as married, the merchant as merchant, the soldier as soldier, and so on, in every other state of life (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 8.10).

Thus, the Christian is to practice detachment as part of day-to-day life. What does this mean? Most basically, it means having rightly ordered loves, one must love God above all things and all things, including oneself and one’s neighbor, for and in God. Only by referring all love to God for St. Alphonsus does God remain the central focus in our lives. Again, in The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, Alphonsus writes that

those who truly love Jesus Christ lose all affection for worldly goods, and seek to strip themselves of everything, to be one with Jesus Christ alone. All their desires point to Jesus; they are always thinking of Jesus and sighing for him; and in every place, at every time, on every occasion, they seek only to please Jesus (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 11.24).

To live detachment in this manner, for Alphonsus, is the way that our nature as creatures created in God’s image and likeness flourishes. Thus, in Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, he rhetorically asks if God is being excessive when He “requires us to love nothing but himself.” To this, Alphonsus responds quite simply that “God, who is infinitely good and deserves infinite love, can rightly demand that he should have all the love of souls whom he has created specifically for the purpose of loving him” (Divine Love and the Means of Acquiring It, 10).

The question, then, becomes how it is that we learn how to live daily in this detached manner. We find his answer in the second through fifth means of acquiring the love of God, which we will discuss in part two.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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