Today is truly one of my favorite days of the year. In the old calendar, August 2nd is marked as the feast day of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church, Founder of the Redemptorists, and one of my dearest friends in all Heaven.
I hardly even know where to start in talking about St. Alphonsus; it’s almost like trying to describe to a stranger the person you have a crush on. There is just so much; so very much that he suffered, persevered through, and accomplished for the glory of God. There were his incredible intellectual gifts that enabled him to join the Neapolitan Board of Law at age sixteen; there was his writing, at which he was not only prolific and brilliant enough to become a Doctor of the Church but also the most published author in history; there was his decision to leave everything behind in response to a divine call to the priesthood; his patience, his labors, and the endless difficulties of setting up and cultivating his Congregation; the cross of his scruples as well as all his physical sufferings; his reluctant acceptance of a bishopric at an advanced age; his miracles, his preaching, his fathering of the Redemptorists, his love for the poor; and finally his greatest cross in his old age of being separated from the Congregation he loved so dearly.
I suppose when someone as stubborn as Alphonsus makes a vow never to waste a minute of his life, and then lives for ninety-one years, they get a lot done. I spent some of my senior year of high school reading a 300+ biography of this great Saint, written by two priests of his order (Fr. D. F. Miller and Fr. L.X. Aubin); there was so much information, so much time, so many people and places wound up in his life and in the work he undertook for the glory of God; I could write reams trying to paint a sufficient picture of his many years. But I honestly think that this very humble man would rather be remembered simply and briefly as a servant of God, a child of Mary, and a priest who gave himself entirely for the Church he loved so much.
“A great priest, who in his life propped up the house, and in his days fortified the temple;
as a bright fire, and frankincense burning in the fire.”
(Communion from today’s Mass)
But, you may be wondering, what brought me to befriend St. Alphonsus and love him so dearly?
Really, I believe it was the sweet Saint himself who befriended me.
A couple of years ago, I was stuck fast in the muddy, bloody, bewildering trenches of scrupulosity. If you’ve ever suffered scruples, you know what I mean; if you haven’t, I can only say that they are both an acute suffering to be offered and a spiritual threat that must be addressed. They were driving me (and I’m sure my poor family) absolutely crazy. I was constantly full of fear instead of love; everything, every thought, word, and action, needed scrutiny to make sure it wasn’t somehow displeasing to God; the strangest little things were suddenly potential mortal sins, and I had to grind and grind on them until I was sure they weren’t–or otherwise go to Confession right away. It may seem laughable to those who haven’t experienced it, but it can be a terrible state to be in. It was rendering every Holy Communion completely distracted with the worry that I might be in mortal sin; it made reading anything for school a torture because I might be somehow in danger of sin if there was something “bad” in the book somewhere; it absorbed so much of my mental and emotional energy I had very little left; it zapped my joy, stole my peace, and it kept getting worse. And in the midst of it, it was so very easy to think there was no one who was ever as crazy with scruples as I was. I needed help, but often I either wasn’t strong enough to hope and pray for it, or unsure if I should embrace it all as a cross and not pray for relief.
Then, into the midst of this chaos, insert my dear older sister (probably after one of our nightly scruple-help sessions) with a big, fat book of saints. “I read a quote from. . .St. Alphonsus, and I thought you should read it.”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, wherefore He hath anointed me:
to preach the Gospel to the poor he hath sent me, to heal the contrite of heart.”
(Introit of today’s Mass)
Deo gratias! Thanks be to God she gave me that book; it was the first time I met St. Alphonsus, met this great soul through whose intercession I would find the help I needed to overcome even my scruples. The quote read:
“Contradictions, sickness, scruples, spiritual aridity, and all the inner and outward torments are the chisel with which God carves His statues for paradise.”
Fascinated, I went on the read the short biography preceding the quote; and, as one does with the Saints, I fell in love with this holy old Bishop, whom I had seen a hundred times in picture books of saints (not knowing that his terrible arthritis was the cause of his bowed head, I thought he was just rather sweet and humble and thus bowed his head) but never met before. I was inspired by the description of his long life, filled with work and loving suffering; I was consoled by the description of his gentle confessions and simple preaching; and he had undergone two years of intense darkness, aridity, and scrupulosity just before his death. Here was someone who could help.
And then I realized that particular night was exactly ten days before his feast–just enough time for a novena.
So I took my journal (one of the seven hundred journals I’ve started and never finished) and penned a prayer. I prayed it every night, praying for the grace to please God and to get to Heaven with him. During that novena, he took me as his child–but to what I extent, I wasn’t to know until a little later.
As the scruples were worsening, Dad suggested us visiting a priest for counsel on how to handle this situation that was getting out of hand. And I thought of Fr. Leonard.
Apart from hearing a few of his homilies and going to Confession a couple of times to him, I didn’t really know Father Leonard; but the confessions were so very consoling, so gentle, so encouraging (sounds a little Alphonsus-like, doesn’t it?), that I knew he was the man for the job. On a Sunday when we happened to be at a parish where he was offering Mass, Dad had even asked him to give me a blessing to help me in my struggle with scruples, which he had of course gladly done.
Now again, when Dad contacted him about meeting with us to talk over scruples, he responded graciously and even enthusiastically, and so one evening Mom and Dad took me to have a talk with Father Leonard.
I still believe that, when we left for home that evening, I was happier than I’d ever been before. It wasn’t a sudden and drastic end to the scruples, but it was the beginning of the end. He was so gentle, so fatherly, burning with charity for the Lord and with the desire to see me free from the burden I was carrying. He was simple, clear, and eloquent; he said just what I needed to hear most; and I felt as though I could fly.
In the midst of our conversation, he asked casually, “Do you have any special devotions? Any favorite saints?”
“Well,” I said a little timidly, “St. Clare, St. Therese, and I love St. Alphonsus Liguori.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “You know, St. Alphonsus and St. Leonard were friends.”
I was about to burst to tell my parents on the drive home about the novena I had prayed, that had been answered in so loving and radical a way. I had been cared for by the compassionate heart of a Saint who knew what I was going through and wanted to help. And apparently, that saintly friendship is still going strong.
I know he was responsible, too, for bringing to our attention the book Scruples and Sainthood, the author of which evidently loved St. Alphonsus almost as much as I do, and which helped greatly in clearing up and calming the storm in my soul. And I was amazed yet again when, as Our Mother of Perpetual Help was beginning to invade my heart, I discovered the deep connection between her miraculous image and the Redemptorists, and the fact that the icon is now resting in the church of St. Alphonsus in Rome.
So that was how St. Alphonsus and I became friends. In him I experienced for the first time a glimpse of the love that the saints have for us, and their desire to intercede for the good of our souls. I know that, ever since that novena, he has been a faithful patron for me before the Throne of God. Now Father Leonard is my spiritual director, with whom I have an appointment this evening–very special. I know that, even beyond helping me through my scruples, St. Alphonsus has also helped me in my vocational discernment thus far and has shared with me his devotion to Our Blessed Mother. He is one of the Saints I literally cannot wait to embrace in Heaven.
I’m convinced that, just as in this life he labored zealously to waste no time but was afire with zeal to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, now he will use eternity just as industriously to pour out the burning streams of truth and charity that flow from the right side of the temple upon little souls like me.
“I remembered, O Lord, Thy judgments of old, and I was comforted; a fainting hath taken hold of me because of the wicked that forsake Thy law. I have not hid Thy justice within my heart: I have declared Thy truth and Thy salvation.”
(Gradual from today’s Mass)
And so, on this day above all others, I encourage you to turn to this generous and gentle Saint who, although he dwells in paradise with God, has not forgotten the lot of us still in exile; do not hesitate to go to him, and give him a chance to befriend you as lovingly as he has me!
O God, Who didst kindle in blessed Alphonsus Mary, Thy Confessor and Bishop, burning zeal for the salvation of souls, and through him didst enrich Thy Church with a new offspring: grant, we beseech Thee, that imbued with his saving doctrine and strengthened by his example, we may be able happily to come to Thee. Through our Lord. Amen.
(Collect from today’s Mass)
Dear St. Alphonsus, pray for us!