God writes straight with crooked lines, so the saying goes. I think the life of St Alphonsus Liguori is a testament to that.
In his youth, Alphonsus’ short-lived legal career made him famous, at least in his home town of Naples. But fame lends itself to public humiliation. At the age of 27, after an eight year winning streak, Alphonsus lost a high-profile court case in spectacular fashion. The fault was entirely his own: his ingenious and eloquent case quickly unravelled when the opposing counsel noted a single oversight on Alphonsus’ part, a clause which proved the case for his opponents.
Alphonsus was mortified, and uttered to himself — so his hagiographers claim — “false world, I know you, and have done with you.” He made a silent retreat of three days and resolved to enter the seminary. As it says in Universalis, “God is not proud, and accepts people even on the rebound: Alphonsus became a priest.”
Like me, Alphonsus was 30 when he was ordained. Unlike me, he vowed to always use his time well, which it behooves me to imitate. (Something to bring to next week’s retreat I think!) Alphonsus was singularly successful in keeping this vow — at least in his latter years. He was 49 when he wrote his first book, and 83 when he wrote his last (his spiritual director forbade him to write more). In those 34 years he published sixty volumes, which is an average of two books a year.
Very many of these books were written in the half-hours snatched from his labours as missionary, religious superior, and Bishop, or in the midst of continual bodily and mental sufferings. With his left hand he would hold a piece of marble against his aching head while his right hand wrote. Yet he counted no time wasted which was spent in charity. He did not refuse to hold a long correspondence with a simple soldier who asked his advice, or to play the harpsichord while he taught his novices to sing spiritual canticles.
John Gilmary Shea, Pictorial Lives of the Saints (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1887), 339.
Alphonsus was 66 when he became a bishop, under his protest, but at the Pope’s personal insistence. Twice he tendered his resignation on the grounds of ill health, and twice he was refused. He advised Pope Clement XIV that he was unable to make the parish visitations required of a bishop, and so should relinquish his position. The pope was not swayed: one prayer from Alphonsus’ bed of pain would be more worth than a thousand visitations and disciplines to blood.
Alphonsus is probably most famous for two things. Firstly, he founded the Redemptorists, who have had a profound impact on the Church in Australia, and whose local provincial happened to be Fr Paul Bird CSsR, until he became Bishop of Ballarat (announced one year ago today). Secondly, Alphonsus was a renowned confessor and moral theologian, for which he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. Alphonsus carved a golden mean between the extremes of laxism (too soft) and rigorism (too hard).
Ironically, Alphonsus himself was afflicted with scruples for most of his adult life, which was once treated as a spiritual affliction, but which modern diagnostics associate with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Universalis makes the following claim, which I have not seen repeated in any other source:
After his retirement Alphonsus had to try to make peace within the congregation. Unfortunately his old failing returned and he signed a new Constitution for the Redemptorists without reading it properly (though, to be fair to him, he was 80 and in poor health at the time). The result was that the Redemptorists split into two separate congregations, both of whom rejected Alphonsus: peace was not restored until some time after his death.
If this is true, it only confirms my point that God writes straight with crooked lines. If it is not true, I think the case still stands on Alphonsus’ providential legal blunder, his physical ailments (in his final 7 years he was unable even to offer Mass), and his scruples.
Despite it all, Alphonsus was a great man and a great priest, and now he is a glorified saint and Doctor of the Church. God writes straight with crooked lines — or, to paraphrase St Paul: we should be content with humiliations, insults, hardships, persecutions, and most of all, we should be content with our defects, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness . . . When we are weak, then we are strong. (2 Cor 11)