Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rising Above Adversity: St. Alphonsus Liguori's "unruffled peace"

Have you ever heard of a person starting an organization only to be kicked out of it? Well, this is what happened to St. Alphonsus Liguori; whose memory is celebrated by the Catholic Church on August 1st. One of the testaments to his outstanding character is that adversity could not hold this man down!

In 1839 he was canonized a Saint and in 1871 was declared to be a Doctor of the Church. Yet, he was a man who experienced many defeats in his life. One such defeat came in 1723 when, as a lawyer, he suffered a humiliating loss in the courtroom. It was said that he did not eat for three days. But that setback would prove to be quite useful in God’s plan.

That same year, as he was visiting the sick in the hospital, he experienced the presence of God in such a way that would change his life forever. According to Benjamin Mann, “he saw a mysterious light, felt the building shake, and heard the voice of God asking him to ‘leave the world’ and place himself totally in his service.” (EWTN News/CNA) This transforming experience inspired his vocation to the priesthood. Later, in 1762, he would be ordained a bishop of Naples, Italy.

As indicated, St. Alphonsus founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (The Redemptorists). From its beginning in 1732 the Redemptorist order struggled with division from within. It even was met with hostility from the State. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Naples, Bernardo Tanucci, tried to strip the religious order of its privileges. And towards the end of his life, “at the hands of the Pope who would later declare him venerable, Alphonsus was cast out of the order he founded.”

Nevertheless, whatever confronted him- good or bad –St. Alphonsus took it in stride.
Oh! How many Saints encountered what seemed to be hopeless situations?! Failures in the eyes of the world, they were men and women whose life was used by God to bring about great accomplishments. It just so happens that sometimes the Lord needs what appears to be a misfortune to work some greater and lasting good.

This great man learned to accept the peace of God through the various trials of life; not to mention the many infirmities he had to endure. He believed that whatever situation or condition God allowed to transpire in his life- good or evil; health or sickness; honor or disgrace –was part of an intelligent design no less wonderful than the creation of the universe.

As Pope Pius XI wrote in his letter against Atheistic Communism, “Man has a spiritual and immortal soul. He is a person, marvelously endowed by his Creator with gifts of body and mind. He is a true ‘microcosm,’ as the ancients said, a world in miniature, with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos. God alone is his last end, in this life and the next.” Even in concentration and labor camps under totalitarian regimes during the twentieth century, many heroic Christians found meaning in what seemed to others as senseless suffering. That's right. Even from the horrors of concentration camps the Almighty, from the vantage point of eternity, can compensate for such unimaginable pain.

Returning to St. Alphonsus: Although his prolific writing career did not begin until he was fifty years old, he would write one hundred and eleven books. According to R. J. Miller, “St. Alphonsus had published 7,000 more editions of his works than Shakespeare by 1961 even though Shakespeare had over a century and a half head start.”

Arguably one of his greatest writings was Uniformity with God’s Will. In it he wrote, “Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God. Afflictions do not mar their serenity, because by accepting misfortune, they know they give pleasure to their beloved Lord.”

This is an important part of knowing God’s peace and his joy. God Almighty either positively wills something to happen; such as loving him above everything else and serving the poor. But he also allows evil to take place so that some greater good may come of it. Such is his passive will. Therefore, the belief of St. Alphonsus- as well with every canonized Saint –is that whatever happens is either willed or permitted by God. As such, whatever circumstances unfold in our lives is part of a great design whose author is none other than the Lord himself.

But as for those whose happiness depends on favorable circumstances, he writes the following: “Because his peace of mind depends on the prosperity or the adversity he meets; he changes with the changes in the things that happen to him.” “The just man,” on the other hand, “is like the sun, constant in his serenity, no matter what betides him. His calmness of soul is founded on his union with the will of God; hence he enjoys unruffled peace.”

This is the key to St. Alphonsus "unruffled peace." And it is the secret to the happiness the Saints enjoyed while they were on earth.

Note: St. Alphonsus Liguori's "Uniformity with God's Will" is posted in its entirety under the Spirituality, Social and Church column on the righthand side of the page.