By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
Recently, I have come across the 18th century work of St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament and to Most Holy Mary.” Father Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R., having come from many years teaching in Rome and now teaching here at St. Charles Seminary, has published a translation of this classic – one that is fresh and accommodating to us 21st century readers.
The book is simple. Alphonsus gives us a month of visits to the Blessed Sacrament – 31 in all. But what has struck me is the way he takes seriously the gift of human affection – even God’s affection! The word is used so frequently: “O Lord, I give you all my affections, my desires … I unite my affections to the affections of your most loving heart … Let us approach Jesus with great confidence and affection.”
St. Alphonsus is convinced also of a very affectionate God and wants everyone to know the “tenderness of the love God bears for all people.” The more I began to think about this, I realized how this sense of God’s affection for us and our affection for God is rooted so deeply in our Catholic spiritual tradition.
Think of St. Ignatius. In his Spiritual Exercises, he gives us his famous “contemplation of the Nativity.” Ignatius has us place ourselves in holy imagination with Mary and Joseph and the Child Jesus. He tells us “to ask for the grace to know Jesus intimately, to be able to love him more intensely, and so to follow him more closely.” Think of the great “Theresas,” Teresa of Avila and Theresa of the Child Jesus. What intimate affection they manifest through all their writings! One could go on and on with all the saints.
Some of us moderns may have difficulties. The difficulties are understandable. There has been some loss of Catholic devotion over these years. Could it be that we have been a bit too cerebral in our approach to our Scriptures, to our Eucharist, to our prayer?
Yet, in invoking St. Alphonsus and others, I would not want to have anyone feel they have to force affection. We cannot be who we are not. We cannot pray in a way that may not fit who we are, psychologically, spiritually, historically. When reading of saints and people from other historical moments, we may even encounter certain faith difficulties. I am often consoled by the Gospel story. “Do you believe?” Jesus asks the man wanting to be healed. The man responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
If trying to pray with great affection begins to feel artificial, one should be at peace with where one is. St. Paul teaches that, when we do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays within us “with unutterable groanings.”
Over these recent decades, one could suggest that there are very special relational prayer modes that have become somewhat lost. We can regain them. Affections are not just about a unique historical time period of Catholic devotion. One thinks of the affections at the heart of the Scriptures: Love God, the scriptures say, “with all your mind, with your heart, with all your soul.” And what could be filled with more affection than the very Psalms themselves!
A word of thanks to Father Billy for refreshing our minds with the prayers of a very affectionate saint! May Alphonsus, Theresa, Teresa, John of the Cross, Ignatius, Paul, – all the saints and all the Psalms – continue to teach us how to pray with great affection!
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.