Alphonsus Maria de Liguori is shown in this painting by an unknown artist. The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

Thy Will Be Done

St. Alphonsus de Liguori counsels how to find perfection of the soul through conformity to God’s will

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Alphonsus de Liguori’s short treatise “Conformity to the Will of God” numbers among the most focused and practical of his spiritual writings. In it, he provides his readers with a simple and straightforward explanation of the road to holiness: “All perfection in the love of God consists in the union of our own will with his most holy will.” This theme runs throughout the treatise, summarizes Alphonsus’ entire outlook on the spiritual life, and has great relevance for priests today.

Alphonsus’ Teaching

Alphonsus spends the first four sections of his treatise providing theological background for his doctrine of the conformity of the will to God. In the first section, he states that “the greatest glory … that we can give to God is the fulfillment in everything of his holy will.”

The perfection of the soul, for Alphonsus, consists in the fulfillment of the divine will. This conformity of wills produces an effect both inside and outside the soul: the soul is perfected; God is given glory and praise. Alphonsus warns his readers of the idolatry that takes place when a person worships his or her own will instead of God’s. He also draws an important distinction between “conformity” and “uniformity” of wills. The former, in his mind, signifies “the conjoining of our own will to the will of God”; the latter, desiring only what God desires so that “his sole will becomes ours.”

Through a series of illustrations taken from the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, Alphonsus, in the second section, points out the great importance of abandoning one’s will to God. It is easy to do this when events and circumstances go our way. It is much more difficult when they do not.

Alphonsus reminds us that, because of God’s permissive will, “we must not … look upon the troubles that befall us as happening by chance, or only through the fault of others; we must rest assured that everything that happens to us comes to pass through the divine will.”

For him, a person’s sanctity is measured not by the number of prayers prayed or ascetical practices performed, but by the degree to which his or her will is united to God’s. People can lead very nondescript, ordinary lives and actually be much holier than those who perform great ascetical feats. The litmus test of holiness is the extent to which a person acts out of love for God; it is determined not by external actions, but by how closely a person unites his or her will to God’s.

The main point of the third section is clear from the outset: “He who acts in this way does not only become a saint, but also enjoys, even in this world, a perpetual peace.” Holiness, for Alphonsus, has measurable effects even in the present life. The person who conforms his or her will to God’s is singularly content. This happiness is a consequence of that person’s resignation to God’s will. He or she accepts everything (but sin) as happening on account of God’s will. By wanting what God desires, he or she becomes happy because of the knowledge that for those who love God “all things work for good” (Rom 8:28).

Such a person is happy in every circumstance: “When cold or heat, rain or wind, prevails, he who is in a state of union with the divine will says, I wish it to be cold, I wish it to be hot; I wish the wind to blow, the rain to fall, because God wishes it so.” The same attitude extends beyond the elements to matters involving the human condition: “Does poverty, persecution, sickness, death arrive, I also wish (says such a one) to be poor, persecuted, sick; I wish even to die, because God wishes it thus.” In a word, conformity to the will of God gives a person joyful anticipation of the paradise that is to come.

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Treasury of Prayers

St. Alphonsus Ligouri has provided the Catholic Church with prayers that are still used today. Especially during Lent, many use his Stations of the Cross. He has also written meditations entitled “Visits to the Blessed Sacraments” and essays and meditations devoted to Mary, and many have used his act of spiritual communion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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All of this makes sense only because God loves us. That is to say that he is involved in our lives and that he actively pursues our own good.

In the fourth section, Alphonsus encourages his readers to trust God with the smallest details of their lives: “Find God, unite yourself to his will, bind yourself up with it; and you will be ever happy, both in this life and in the other.”

He reminds us that God sends trials into our lives for our own benefit. He encourages us to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands and to trust in his divine care. The goal, for Alphonsus, is for a person to have perfect resignation to God’s holy will and to have “no other desire than to fulfill whatever that may be.” He assures us that if we act in this manner, we will certainly become saints. Above all, he wants us to be “thoroughly assured and convinced” that God looks out for our good in a way that we ourselves could never do or even desire.

Practical Applications

Alphonsus does more in this treatise than just supply his readers with the theological background for conforming their wills with God’s. In a fifth section, he looks at the whole matter from a much more practical point of view. He considers seven key areas that everyone needs to be conscious of and take into account. These same areas can be adapted to today’s circumstances as follows:

Common Accidents. In the first place, conformity with the will of God means that we accept those things that happen to us from without, such as great heat, great cold, rain, scarcity, pestilence, etc., and from within, such as hunger, thirst, poverty, desolation and disgrace. In all such occurrences, our sole desire should be to do only what God wills. Even in imaginary cases, which the mind cooks up, our deepest desire should be to seek and to carry out the will of God for our lives.

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Questions to ponder

In practice, priests should look at themselves and ask if they see the Lord’s hand at work in the concrete circumstances of their daily lives. Do they really believe that all that happens to them is in some way tied up with God’s providential plan? Do they truly believe that God can bring good out of the evil that befalls them? Do they turn to him in times of need? Do they do so when unforeseen accidents occur, when they are confronted with their own imperfections and weaknesses, when illness assails them, when they lose significant people in their lives, when they experience desolation, encounter death, and when they do not receive the spiritual blessings they ask for?

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Natural Imperfections. After common internal and external accidents comes any natural defects of mind or body. Alphonsus tells us not to be upset by whatever natural limitations we may experience in our lives. Whatever it is — “a bad memory, slowness of apprehension, mean abilities, a crippled limb, or weak health” — we should not complain of our condition, and we should be grateful to God for the way he has treated us. We must never forget that there is only one thing necessary for salvation: conformity to the will of God.

Illness. After natural defects, comes illness. Alphonsus tells us to embrace our corporal infirmities “willingly, both in such a manner, and for such a time, as God wills.” He reminds us not to neglect the normal remedies for recovery since this, too, is the Lord’s will. If these should fail, however, we should resign ourselves to the will of God and unite our sufferings with Jesus’ passion. Alphonsus goes so far as to suggest that we should even thank God for our suffering since it is an instrument of our own sanctification.

Loss of Helpful Persons. There also comes a time when we suffer the loss of people who help us in either spiritual or temporal matters. Alphonsus reminds his readers that the loss of a temporal benefactor or a spiritual director does not mean that God has abandoned them. Sanctification comes not from these secondary aids, but from God himself. In the case of such losses, he recommends that we ask God to give us the strength to carry on without these helpful aids to our spiritual and temporal welfare. It may very well be that, without them, we will journey both higher and more swiftly along the road to perfection.

Spiritual Desolation. At times, God also takes from us the consolations of the spiritual life. Here, too, Alphonsus encourages his readers to resign themselves to the will of God: “There is no time better for exercising our resignation to the will of God than that of dryness.” Alphonsus points out that the ordinary condition of the saints was one of spiritual dryness. Such desolation, he goes on to say, is not always a punishment, but is sometimes for our greater good and given in order to keep us humble.

Death. According to Alphonsus, we must also unite ourselves to the will of God when we die, especially with regard to the time and manner in which it comes. In the final analysis, what matters is not how old we are at our death, the time when we die, or even how we die. What matters is only that we resign ourselves to God’s providential care and place our trust entirely in him. Death is a door through which all of us must pass before we can see God face to face. When it approaches, we should welcome it as an instrument of God’s love for us. It does no one any good to remain alive longer than God wills.

Spiritual Blessings. Finally, Alphonsus says we must unite our wills to God even concerning spiritual goods: “it is not right for us to go on to wish for any other degree of love than that which the Lord has determined on granting us.” God promises to give us what we need. Whenever we fall short, we should not lose heart, but humbly admit our faults, do penance and seek even greater assistance from God. What is more, if God does not desire to elevate us to a high degree of sanctity, Alphonsus bids us to conform ourselves to God’s will and pray for God’s mercy.

Insights

Priests today would do well to take Alphonsus’ spiritual insights to heart. Although what he wrote pertains to everyone, it has special relevance for priests, who are called to shepherd God’s people and lead them along the way of holiness. Walking that path means, first and foremost, uniting one’s will with God’s, so much so that the two can barely be distinguished one from another. The ultimate goal of the spiritual life is not mere conformity with God’s will, but actual uniformity with it.

Priests must lead not by word but by example: not by what they say but by how they live their lives. Those who take Alphonsus’ words to heart and put them into practice will do more for those under their pastoral care than the most eloquent of sermons.

Alphonsus’ treatise is a strong reminder that God is not a detached observer who watches history unfold from afar, but rather is someone who takes an active role in the lives of his children.

Given today’s climate of suspicion toward the Catholic clergy, the Church is in dire need of priests whose top priority is to walk the way of holiness. Alphonsus’ treatise offers today’s priests a helpful guide for finding their way to God. Alphonsus himself read and reread it often as a gentle reminder of his own call to holiness. Priests today would do well to follow his saintly example.

FATHER DENNIS J. BILLY, an American Redemptorist of the Baltimore Province, holds The Robert F. Leavitt Distinguished Service Chair in Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland.

 
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