How to Find Serenity Through the Will of God
BOOK PICK: ‘Finding Peace in the Storm’ highlights the wisdom of St. Alphonsus Liguori.
Finding Peace in the Storm
By Dan Burke
Sophia Institute Press, 2023
144 pages, $17.95
To order: SophiaInstitute.com
Over the past few years, some Catholic publishers have reintroduced classic spiritual writings to a new generation. That is a tremendous gift. Today, when so many of us Catholics seem inordinately focused on temporal affairs like politics, there is a need to refocus on the Last Things — and this can be well accomplished through spiritual reading.
Dan Burke’s Finding Peace in the Storm is a welcome addition to this category. His book not only polishes an old gem by St. Alphonsus Liguori, born Sept. 27, 1696, titled Uniformity With God’s Will, but guides a modern audience along the way.
To appreciate St. Alphonsus’ writing, it is helpful to understand his biography.
The prodigious Liguori received his law degree at the age of just 16 and began work as an attorney a few years later, but he abandoned his eight-year career as an attorney after he made a crucial mistake that cost him a case. This mistake served as the turning point in his life.
Alphonsus was crushed after the case and became virtually inconsolable, even to the point of being either unwilling or unable to eat. This caused him to deeply wonder and prayerfully inquire what God’s will for him might be outside the law. It was then that Alphonsus heard a voice proclaim: “Leave the world and give thyself to Me.”
The legal profession’s loss was the Church’s gain: Alphonsus immediately began his studies as a priest and was ordained three years later.
St. Alphonsus’ book was written after serving as priest for three decades; thus, he was well-positioned to wisely instruct others in the ways of happiness and fulfillment. He argues that these are reached by developing and nourishing a oneness with the holy will of God. Even in good men, there can exist a persistent temptation to believe that fully accepting God’s will means surrendering our personal happiness. After all, the logic would be that “no one’s will could make me happier than my own.”
St. Alphonsus answers this imaginary dichotomy between God’s will and our happiness with a formidable response: “Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God. Afflictions do not mar their serenity, because by accepting misfortune, they know they give pleasure to their beloved Lord: Whatever shall befall the just man, it shall not make him sad.”
While insisting on our own will leaves us subject to capricious winds, loving God and doing his will can get us through any and every storm.
Alphonsus highlights a point that should always be an ingredient of evangelization as well as conversion of self: God wants me to be happy.
St. Alphonsus reminds us, “God wills only our good; God loves us more than anybody else can or does love us. His will is that no one should lose his soul, that everyone should save and sanctify his soul: Not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance. This is the will of God, your sanctification. God has made the attainment of our happiness His glory. Since He is, by His nature, infinite goodness, and since, as St. Leo says, goodness is generous in self-giving, God has a supreme desire to make us sharers of His goods and of His happiness.”
Ultimately, God wills me — and you! — to be totally, perfectly, and perpetually happy with him in heaven by doing his will. And while that level of happiness can only be known in heaven, we can enjoy foretastes of this heavenly happiness.
As St. Alphonsus writes, “By uniting themselves to the divine will, the saints have enjoyed paradise by anticipation in this life.” In fact, this is the way of perfection. The saint explains, “Perfection is founded entirely on the love of God: Charity is the bond of perfection; and perfect love of God means the complete union of our will with God’s.”
St. Alphonsus further explains the distinction between mere conformity and uniformity of will: “Conformity signifies that we join our wills to the will of God. Uniformity means more — it means that we make one will of God’s will and ours, so that we will only what God wills; that God’s will alone is our will.”
We might see the distinction as merely doing versus being. Alphonsus writes, “He who gives his will to God, gives Him everything. He who gives his goods in alms, his blood in scourgings, his food in fasting, gives God what He has. But he who gives God his will, gives himself, gives everything he is.”
Many of us are eager to do God’s will, but when we undergo financial setbacks, sickness and other perceived misfortunes, we begin to question God. At the extreme, we might be tempted to question God’s love for us. But Alphonsus argues that God’s will allows us to undergo suffering for the salvation of our souls. Thus, he explains, “The essence of perfection is to embrace the will of God in all things, prosperous or adverse.”
Following St. Alphonsus, we might ask, “What soul in heaven laments his earthly suffering and difficulties that led him to paradise?” From the opposite end of the spectrum, Alphonsus also points out that many of the things we think are good for us are bad for us. He asks, “How many, on the contrary, who, by reason of poverty, infirmity, or physical deformity, have become saints and have saved their souls — who, given health, wealth, or physical attractiveness, had else lost their souls!”
Especially in consideration of the Last Things, it is not the misfortune itself that causes us lasting harm, but turning away from God’s will. As Dan Burke, founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, explains, “The choice to resist God’s will imprisons the soul in a dark, self-inflicted cell of torment, bitterness, anxiety, and separation from God.” As Burke further points out, entire industries seem devoted to this separation and anxiety. He writes, “The fear-porn industry — news — is all too happy to fuel this anxiety to keep you coming back for more.”
In this life and in the next, our uniformity with God’s will is a component of peace and happiness. Alphonsus draws a contrast here. The man who does his own will is the man whose “peace of mind depends on the prosperity or the adversity he meets.” The man who is in uniformity with God’s will is “constant in his serenity, no matter what happens to him” and “enjoys unruffled peace.”
Burke has done Catholics a great favor in bringing St. Alphonsus’ book to the spotlight. This is a concise and very readable text, with insightful commentary by Burke throughout.
But it is also challenging. As I read the book, I frequently asked myself deep questions about where my heart lies among my own will, conformity with God’s will, and unity with God’s will. Such introspective inquiries can only serve to benefit me, and I think that this book will have a similar effect on many readers. Especially for a series of Holy Hours, this will prove a wonderful resource as one wills to draw nearer to union with Jesus.
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