Exploring the Epic Moral Mastery of St. Alphonsus Liguori

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How do you define mastery? According to the dictionary, mastery is defined as “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.” It usually does not take long to recognize a master. Their works, knowledge, and performance clearly demonstrate them as subject matter experts. Michael Jordan demonstrated a clear mastery of basketball. Mozart displayed a clear mastery of music. Einstein displayed a clear mastery of physics. I had the privilege to read the work of a spiritual master—St. Alphonsus Liguori.

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his General Audience on Wednesday March 30th, 2011, “he (Alphonsus Liguori) was an outstanding moral theologian and a teacher of spiritual life for all, especially simple people.” Reading the Doctor of the Church’s The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ and Uniformity with God’s Will I quickly learned about the epicness of the 17th century saint. Let’s explore Alphonsus’ epic moral mastery together!  

Humility as Basis for All

St. Alphonsus pithily wrote, “The greatest glory we can give to God is to do his will in everything” (Uniformity with God’s Will). Early in his life, the Italian saint demonstrated great humility and obedience to God’s will. Growing up in a noble and prestigious family, Alphonsus followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a lawyer in his twenties.

Despite an almost impeccable legal record, he left that profession (even against his father’s will) and was ordained a priest in 1726. In Chapter 5 of  The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, the Doctor of the Church discussed how humility is the foundation for the spiritual life. Would you be able to walk away from the “perfect job” to pursue the will of the Father?

Morality Master

Another aspect of the life and works of St. Alphonsus Liguori is his comprehensive understanding of Catholic theology and moral teaching. He makes abundant references to the Scriptures and the Doctors of the Church who preceded him. It felt like Sts. Teresa of Avila  and Francis de Sales were mentioned every single page in  The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. In that book alone Alphonsus refers to Teresa of Avila (61 times), Francis de Sales (44 times), Thomas Aquinas (21 times), Bernard of Clairvaux (20 times), Augustine (18 times), John Chrysostom (11 times), and John of the Cross (10 times)! This is an epic amount of name dropping.

Alphonsus certainly was close both in mind and heart to those spiritual greats. His true greatness shows as his perfectly interweaves the thoughts of the earlier saints with his own about the spiritual life.

Adversity Tests Character

Along with following the will of God and demonstrating theological acumen, Alphonsus discusses in details and plainly the purpose of suffering in life. Spiritual consolation should not be the metric to gauge our devotion to God. Oftentimes God allows spiritual dryness to occur to rid us of earthly attachments. Alphonsusr reflects on this topic in Uniformity with God’s Will. “What greater consolation can come to a soul than to know that by patiently bearing some tribulations, it gives God the greatest pleasure in its power?” the saint wondered.

Even more plainly the Italian saint tells us that suffering is the litmus test of virtue. He says, “Sickness is the acid test of spirituality, because it discloses whether our virtue is real or sham. If the soul is not agitated, does not break out in lamentations, is not feverishly restless in seeking a cure, but instead is submissive to the doctors and to superiors, is serene and tranquil, completely resigned to God’s will, it is a sign that soul is well-grounded in virtue.” I definitely am not fully rooted in virtue as I tend to get cranky when I get sick or face adversity. St. Alphonsus’ writings help me confront my failings and realize adversity is necessary to progress in the spiritual life.

Clear and Plain Spiritual Advice

The final point I wish to touch on about the mastery of the patron saint of confessors is his ability to write for the simple. Alphonsus quipped, “I have never preached a sermon which the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand.” He carefully details without too bogging one down in technical jargon St. Paul’s theology of Jesus’ love as listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

Alphonsus’ spiritual advice not only advances your spiritual life, but also provides practical application in daily living. For example, he urges us to be calm when correcting others. “Meekness is also more especially necessary when we have to correct others. Corrections made with a bitter zeal often do more harm than good, especially when he who must be corrected is himself excite,” the Italian saint states (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, chapter 8). He uses very plain and concrete language in describing that ultimate fulfillment only comes from God. Alphonsus declares, “all earthly greatness is mere smoke, dirt, and delusion; that the soul’s only welfare and happiness consists in loving its Creator.”

Another instance of the clear and plain teaching of St. Alphonsus is him providing simple, quick prayers for us to pray in time of need.  In chapter 13 of The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, he informs us of the short prayer, “Incline unto my aid, O God, O Lord, make haste to help me!”

Learn from Liguori!

The simplicity of his teachings coupled with his comprehensive knowledge of theology makes St. Alphonsus Liguori one of the greatest master teachers of the Catholic Church. No other theological treatise have I ever read contains the amount of powerful and voluminous references to fellow Doctors of the Church as The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. I strongly encourage you to read this and any of his works. You will be sure to be put on the path of moral mastery following this spiritual master!

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