Alphonsus Mary Antony John Cosmas Damian Michael Gaspard de’ Liguori was born at Marianella near Naples, on September, 27th, 1696. From his earliest years he distinguished himself by his intelligence, piety and persistence of purpose. He lived an extremely active life of the mind and of great faith. At the conclusion of his life, for about the last three years, he went through a “dark night of the soul.” He was bombarded with every temptation, terrible apparitions and the constant impulse to despair which made his final years a sort of living hell. Finally the peace of Heaven came upon him at the ripe old age of ninety in August in 1787. He was pronounced venerable in May of 1796, beatified in 1816, canonized in 1839 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1871. St. Alphonsus Liguori is known for freeing moral theology from the rigidity of Jansenism. He focused often of the practical problems facing pastors and confessors. He left a treasure trove of meek, measured and wise instruction including the following reflection for Palm Sunday.
St. Alphonsus’ counsel for this holy day is on the evil effects of bad habits. He begins with Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as he fulfills the prophecy from Isaiah repeated in Mathew 21:5:4.
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
In the words preceding this passage, Christ commands his disciples to “go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.” St. Bonaventure makes it clear that this “tied ass” is a reference to the sinner who is bound by his sins. The saint draws our attention to the wise man of Proverbs 5 who says “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is caught in the toils of his sin.” The symbolism is profound. Christ cannot dwell in the soul that is bound up by sin, so when the disciples loose the bonds, the this presents a clear reference to reconciliation and the power of grace to unbind the sinner. This unbinding must precede the indwelling of Christ in the soul of the sinner, and as such it is on Palm Sunday that Christ enters Jerusalem on the unbound ass as a sign of His great humility and great mercy towards us, first by commanding that we be unbound and then by allowing us to accompany him into Jerusalem.
St. Alphonsus vigorously entreats: “loose the bonds of your sins, which make you the slave of Satan. Loose the bonds before the habit of sin gains such power over you, as to render your conversion morally impossible.” The good Church Doctor imparts this advice accompanied by three points of consideration concerning the incapacitating effects of bad habits. In recognizing the full measure of what it means to be a slave to habits of sin, St. Alphonsus hopes that he may inspire us this Palm Sunday to a new resolve to become free from the bonds of inequity and their debilitating effects described by the three points below.
First Point: A bad habit blinds the understanding
St. Augustine explains that “the habit of sin blinds sinners, so that they no longer see the evil which they do, nor the ruin which they bring upon themselves; hence they live in blindness, as if there were neither God, nor heaven, nor Hell, nor eternity.” Could there be a more apt description of our age? Hollywood culture aided and abetted by the mass media and our public institutions have inverted the moral order. In making vices in to virtues and turning virtues into vices, we live in a destructive society whose habits of sin are blindly promoted as life affirming. The devastating consequences of our deadly habits are obscured by an increasing inability to see moral right and wrong.
St. Jerome points out that habitual sinners “are not even ashamed of their crimes.” It is a natural consequence of sinful acts to cause an appropriate shame and guilt, but this healthy impulse is increasingly diminished by the habit of sin. The prevalent attitude towards sinful acts today is evident in Proverbs 10:23 when the wise man reports that “it is like sport for a fool to do wrong.” In Proverbs 2:14 we also see an echo of the habitual sinners attitude described as those “who are glad when they have done evil.” St. Alphonsus compares falling into the habit of sin to falling into a pit. There is always hope of deliverance as long as there is an opening still at the top. “When the sinner falls into a bad habit, the mouth of the pit it gradually closes as his sins are multiplied: the moment the mouth of the pit is shut, he is abandoned by God. As the Psalmist says, “let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.” The habit of sin is a vicious cycle, the more it is done, the more blind we become to its harmful effects.
Second Point: A bad habit hardens the heart
Beyond blinding the sinner, the habit of sin hardens the heart. St. Alphonsus explains that the sinner’s heart is like an anvil. The anvil becomes harder the more it is struck. So as the sinner increasingly hardens his heart by sinful acts, “so instead of being softened by divine inspirations, or by instructions, the soul of the habitual sinner is rendered more obdurate by sermons on the judgment of God, on the torments of the damned, and on the passion of Christ.” These spiritual remedies end in further hardening the sinner’s heart. Confession is also of little avail to the hardened heart because even if they do give up a sin for a short time, at the first occasion of sin he will stumble back into the habit of sin weakened by the disorder of his will.
According to the Holy Spirit in Proverbs 22:6, a young man who acquires a habit of sin will carry that habit into old age. Those in the grip of an intractable habit of sin are known to give in at the hour of death. Concerning the mercy required to root out sin, God shows mercy for a time, but then hardens the heart of the habitual sinner. St. Augustine explains how God hardens the human heart in that He “does not harden the heart by imparting malice, but by withholding mercy.” This withholding of mercy is a privation of the graces necessary to properly order the heart pliable to God. Of course the heart hardened by habits of sin accompanied by the privation of mercy takes place over time. As the heart continues to harden it reaches a point which becomes very dangerous. St. Alphonsus explains that “even earthquakes, thunders, and sudden deaths do not terrify an habitual sinner. Instead of awaking him into a sense of his miserable state, they rather bring on that deadly sleep in which he slumbers and is lost.” The hardened heart left untreated can end impenetrable.
Third Point: A bad habit diminishes our strength
St. Gregory makes the point that “a person assailed by an enemy, is not rendered unable to defend himself by the first wound which he receives; but should he receive a second and a third, his strength will be much exhausted.” This is the way it is with sin. After the first consent to sin the soul is wounded, but still able to soldier on by the gifts of divine grace. If the sinner begins to fall into habits of a particular sinful behavior, each successive time he gives in will sap his strength further. If the habit sets in intractably he will not have the strength to fend off the slightest temptations. St. Alphonsus says that as soon as the sinner contracts the habit of sin he “yields and yields again to every temptation, with as much facility as a straw is moved by the slightest blast of wind.”
St. Chrysostom said that habitual sinners “become so weak in resisting the attacks of the Devil, that, dragged to sin by their evil habit they are sometimes driven to sin against their inclination.” The habituated sinner may desire not to sin, but because of the manifest weakness, he falls feebly into each successive temptation without a penchant for it. Just so, St. Augustine affirms that “a bad habit in the course of time brings on a certain necessity of falling into sin.” Sin to the habitual sinner becomes like breathing to the human. Imagine the effort to refrain from breathing. In one sense we are bound to breathing, in a similar sense the habitual sinner is bound to sinning, for he has not the strength to resist. Although, while being bound to breathing prolongs life, being bound to sin incurs slavery to the Devil and eventually death.
Harden not your heart:
St. Alphonsus advises the sinner mired in the bad habits of sin to act immediately. He implores us first of all to make a sincere general confession. He exhorts us to “go forth instantly from the slavery of the Devil.” Heed the advice of the Holy Spirit found in Proverbs 5:9 where we learn to “give not thy ear to the cruel.” St. Alphonsus asks us, “why will you serve the Devil, your enemy, who is so cruel a master, who makes you lead a life of misery here, to bring you to a life of still greater misery in Hell for all eternity?” Modern life and misguided forms of philosophy and psychology drag us away from the truths about the human soul and toward bondage to sin.
We must heed St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s wise words concerning the bondage of habitual sin and the effects that accompany it. It is by our free will that we blindly, foolishly, and weakly enter into sin as a free will contract with the king of lies himself. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to impart to us the necessary graces by our fervent acts of repentance. Let us be freed from the bondage of sin that we may clearly see the evil we have left behind and to which we ought never return. Let us have our hearts become softened and conformable to Christ by cooperating fully with the graces gifted by the Holy Spirit. Let us recover the strength necessary to persevere on the narrow path leading to the Promised Land for all eternity. Let us renew our commitment to sanctity unbound by the habits of sin as we accompany Christ triumphal as the unbound creature willing to carry Him into Jerusalem as we begin Holy Week on this glorious Palm Sunday.