By Saint Alphonsus Liguori
This is an incredibly useful compilation. It is a very compact yet comprehensive guide to progressing in the spiritual life. As the title suggests, it provides a brief yet thorough programme to achieving holiness, and by extension, salvation. Presumably, everyone reading this review is extremely interested in attaining those things, and thus should be keen to utilise this book to its fullest.
The contents are distilled from the voluminous collection of St. Alphonsus’ writings. And even though it is a little book, with only 198 small pages – not counting the short biography of St. Alphonsus and the Preface – every page is densely packed with meaningful and wonderful advice. It is actually quite astonishing how extensively the subject matter is covered in so few words! This is achieved by breaking down the material into the following chapters:
Faith – Hope – The Love of God – Love for Our Neighbor – Poverty – Chastity – Obedience – Meekness and Humility – Mortification – Recollection – Prayer – Self-Denial and Love of the Cross
Each chapter is broken down further into subtopics, such as Chapter 8, “Meekness and Humility” after an introductory portion, has sections titled:
Pride an Abomination to the Lord – A Source of Blessings – Humility of the Intellect – Humility of Will – Meekness – Meek Correction – Our Saviour’s Meekness – Meekness Towards Oneself
Every section of the book provides precise and beneficial information. For example, in the section “Humility of Will” we find the words: “Humility of the intellect, as we have seen, consists in acknowledging that we are nothing and deserving only of contempt. Humility of the will consists in the desire to be despised by others and in the pleasure such contempt affords us. Humility of the will Our Lord had especially in view when He said: ‘Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart.’ (Matt. 11: 29).” Then a concrete example is provided in the section, “Meekness” as follows: “St. Teresa says that she seemed to experience a more than ordinary love for those who spoke ill of her. In the acts of canonization we read that by injuries one could obtain her love in an especial degree. To such meekness we can never attain without deep humility, a humble opinion of ourselves, and a desire to be treated with contempt. Pride is angry and vindictive because of the high opinion we have of ourselves and the craving for honors that we think we deserve.”
Even more gems are presented in the section “Meekness Towards Oneself” such as, “Should we have the misfortune to commit a fault, we must exercise meekness even towards ourselves. To be angry with oneself after committing a fault is not a sign of humility, but of secret pride; it shows that we do not regard ourselves as the weak and wretched creatures that we really are.” Then further on, “'Never,’ says St. Francis de Sales, ‘permit anger to enter the soul under any pretext whatsoever; for once the violent passion has found lodgement in the heart, it is not in our power to banish it.’… It is a practice with the saints during prayer and meditation to bring to mind all the annoyances and obstacles they were apt to encounter in the course of the day, and to prepare themselves in advance to endure them with meekness and humility. Thus they were enabled to put into practice the counsel of their gentle Saviour: ‘Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.’”
Working through this book is like embarking on a journey – one which we perhaps think we have been on for a long time already (which I expect many of you have) – yet it is like starting anew, going back to basics in one sense, yet progressing and delving more deeply than we might have done prior; when we get to the end of it, we realise how much we needed this “refresher course” complete with an “expansion pack.” It truly brings light to the soul and would be a great resource for those times when we feel the need for a kick-start or rejuvenation for our approach of pursuance of sanctity.
The final chapter, “Self-denial and Love of the Cross” like every other, is simply groaning with its weighty burden of priceless truths. Here is a short list of some of the inspiring and thought-provoking quotes, presented in order of their occurrence in the text:
- The patient man is better than the valiant: and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh cities. (Prov. 16: 32)
- We are in this world to gain merit; therefore this earth is not a place of rest, but of work and suffering. Merits are not gained by repose and rest, but by labor and constant effort.
- When we try to avoid a cross that the Lord has sent us, we often meet with another, and a much heavier one. "They that fear the hoary frost," says Job, "the snow shall fall upon them."
- “If everything goes well," says St. Augustine, "acknowledge the Father who caresses you; if you have suffering to endure, acknowledge the Father who chastises you."
- When St. Eleazar was asked by his saintly spouse Delphina how he could bear so many insults from boorish men, without resentment, he replied: "You must not imagine that I am not sensitive to these insults; I feel them very keenly; but I turn to Jesus Crucified and continue to gaze upon Him until my mind is quiet, and a balm is laid upon my wounded feelings."
- “If we only knew what a treasure we possess in hidden sufferings," said St. Vincent de Paul, "we would accept them as gladly as the greatest benefits."
- “Learn to suffer for the love of God" says St. Teresa, "and don’t be anxious for everyone to find it out."
- In the writings of St. Teresa we find these remarkable words: "He who strives after perfection must be careful never to say: someone has done me a wrong. If you are willing to carry no other cross but that which you deserve, you have no claim to perfection.”
- It is a common fault of our fallen nature that in everything we do, we seek our own gratification.
- Oh how dear to the heart of God are acts of confidence and resignation in the midst of the darkness of spiritual aridity. Let us, therefore, place our unbounded trust in God, who, as St. Teresa says, loves us more than we love ourselves [For some of us, I would venture that would be an awful lot!].
It closes with what could be considered rather astounding, and perhaps even confronting, to our current perspective, yet well worth pondering: “Listen to what the Venerable John of Avila says: ‘If our soul is only in a moderately good condition, we should desire death, in order to escape the danger of losing the grace of God.’ But you may say: I have not yet gained any merit for my soul; I would like to live a little longer and do some good before I die. Who gives you the assurance that if your life is prolonged you will not be even worse than before, and perhaps be eternally lost? ‘Why do you desire to live?’ says St. Bernard, ‘when the longer we live, the more we sin?’ If we truly love God we must have a desire to see Him face to face in Heaven and love Him with an endless, unchangeable love. But death must open the gates to eternal life, and therefore St. Augustine, aglow with love for his God, cried out: ‘O Lord, permit me to die that I may come to see Thee face to face and enjoy Thee forever “where eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man what things God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Cor 2:9).’”