Opinion and Conscience by Monsignor Ferrarese

In discussing any teaching of the Church, one sooner or later comes up against the seemingly impregnable statement: whatever you say, I must follow my conscience. This retreat into the fortress of conscience seems to neutralize any part of the Magisterium or teaching of the Church, be it in dogma or morals: “Yes, I know that is what the Church teaches, but I have to follow my conscience even when it disagrees with the Church.”

This is a common fallacy that does not address two common mistakes we can make in deciding on a course of action with regards to our belief system. These are: firstly, the possibility of a malformed conscience; and secondly, the distinction between my conscience and my opinions.

With regards to the first we can turn to that great American movie “The Godfather.” In it, the most heinous and murderous actions are excused with the statement: “It’s only business.” The Godfather in the movie was convinced that he was doing right by separating his family, religion and morals from the nefarious business of organized crime. He created distinct compartments and felt he was being a good man by doing so. Was he right in following his conscience? Was it his conscience or just his opinions that he was following? What is the difference?

One can say he was ignorant. But there are two kinds of ignorance in Catholic morality: vincible and invincible. Vincible means that he could have defeated his false opinion by ordinary means. He could have gone to Confession and asked a priest whether he was doing right. Invincible ignorance is when there is no possibility to correct an understanding: say if he was a member of an isolated native tribe who has never heard of Christ and Christian morality.

Our conscience must be open to learning regarding the issue at hand. It must be open to inquiry regarding the Scriptural witness and the teaching of tradition in the Church. Furthermore, it must be truly open. It does not do to read about the issue to find arguments for one’s own position. A properly formed conscience is genuinely eager to do the right thing according to the will of God. It’s learning and struggle are based on this radical openness.

Take the issue of artificial methods of birth control. For many, this is not an issue, but a settled piece of modern opinion. One should use any means available to control one’s reproduction. Natural or artificial, it is all the same, for it is to be judged by effectiveness. Very pragmatic! But the fact that the Church forbids artificial means causes the honest, open searcher for the truth some consternation.

If the individual has only read the New York Times on this subject and never bothered to read Humanae Vitae (the Church’s Encyclical letter on the subject), it shows the extent of his closedness on the issue and his selective study of it. A truly docile and open inquirer after the truth will try to thoroughly research the issue in an unbiased way to come to the truth of what the will of God is. Notice I did not say “to come to the truth of what I can agree with.” For it may sometimes happen that what I agree with and what my study leads me to are two different things. So what do I do? What is the ultimate criterion for my search? It must be “what is God’s will for me.”

Even if I cannot accept the results of my inquiry and cannot find the intellectual humility and courage to submit to the teaching authority of the Church, that dissent must be rare and sadly accepted. The trumpeting of one’s own position in opposition to the teaching of the Church is a fruit of Pride and, therefore, a perilous sign of the wrong direction of my journey.

In any kind of dissent from Church Teaching, one must be very careful. It is not a disagreement with an individual. It is a dissent from the whole chorus of Tradition. Many intelligent and holy people have pondered the Scriptures and, over 2000 years of reflection and debate, have reached a living consensus about the meaning of a teaching of the Church. That teaching has proven wise and useful for countless saints over the centuries. Suddenly, one decides that all this is wrong and that they have the truth, missed by the sages, scholars and saints throughout the ages! As they say in Brooklyn: “Give me a break!”

It is preferable to simply say: “There must be something here that I don’t see.” One should consider themselves in need of correction, or at least further elucidation rather than to say: Everyone must have gotten this wrong. This takes a lot of humility. This is why spiritual writers have called the virtue of Humility the very basis of the journey of faith.

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Presence by Monsignor Ferrarese

When I say that I am in the presence of someone, it seems clear what that means. If I am in the presence of my friend, it is apparent that we are in the same room, physically. But we can infer certain weaker kinds of presence. When we get a letter from a friend and read it, they are present to us. When we receive a phone call and hear their voice, they are present to us. When after their death, we imagine them to be with us, they are also in a sense present to us.

We talk about the Real Presence (notice the capitals!) of the Holy Eucharist. I remember a professor in the seminary challenging us by saying: does that mean that when I pray in the silence of my room, Jesus is not really present? The varied stages and levels of human presence are magnified when we consider the Divine Presence. We must consider this category of Presence since Jesus was both wholly God and wholly man.

God is first of all present in His Immensity. By that I mean: nothing would exist without God being present. So God is all around us and in us and in every atom of our body and soul. But He is also distinct from creation. To identify creation and God is the heresy of pantheism.

Jesus is present in this sense too, since He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. So Jesus is present to us when, in the middle of the night, we turn to Him in prayer.

He is also present in all the Sacraments, since He is the true minister and giver of all the Sacraments. In Confession, Jesus forgives. In the Anointing of the Sick, Jesus heals. In Marriage, Jesus unites husband and wife.

But in the Holy Eucharist, something truly amazing happens. The Almighty uses the medium of food to make His presence physically real. While through the immensity of His Divinity Jesus is present everywhere, in the Eucharist He is present both in His divinity and in His humanity. The Eucharistic Presence of Christ is the closest one can come to the historical Jesus.

Even in this there are gradations, or better, intensifications of His Presence. The Church posits a difference between praying and adoring Him while the Eucharist is in the Tabernacle, and adoring Him when, in Exposition, the Eucharist is placed in a Monstrance (the word literally means ‘showing’). What is the difference? There is simply a further intensification of His Presence.

But that is not the end of this wondrous Sacrament and of the Sacrament’s intensification! As we process to the Altar at Mass to receive Communion, we make an act of Faith by saying ‘Amen’. Then Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, enters not just our souls but also our bodies. Even more intimately than the marriage bond, the Eucharistic bond unites us to Jesus completely Body and Soul, Humanity and Divinity. We are consumed by Him whom we consume!

This gradual intensification of Presence is a process that can only be approached by pure faith.

Now, this doctrine has had significant trouble throughout its history. Even while Jesus walked the earth before the glorification of the Resurrection and the Ascension, people could not accept the Real Presence of Jesus Himself in the Eucharist. Many of His own followers left Him as related in the sixth chapter of The Gospel of John. So many abandoned Him that He was left only with his closest friends: the 12 Apostles. Sadly, He looked at this meager remnant and asked: Will you leave me also? To which sturdy Peter responded: To Whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.

But it did not stop there. More recently in Christian history, many Protestant churches rejected this doctrine. They considered the Eucharist as merely a sign or a symbol. The great Catholic story teller Flannery O’Connor, when confronted by a group of lapsed Catholics who called the Eucharist merely a ‘sign’ of Christ’s presence, humorously voiced her chagrin with the remark: “Well, if it’s only a sign, to hell with it!” She was firmly grounded in Catholic teaching and would have nothing to do with watering down what Jesus clearly meant.

Without doubt, it is a doctrine of the faith that is very difficult to believe. But that does not mean it is not true. All of our faith is replete with mysteries difficult to believe: Three persons in One God; Jesus fully human and fully divine; Mary, Virgin and Mother. Christianity is not a religion that could ever be invented by human beings. It defies logic. But for those open to these realities, it makes deep mystical sense which is hard to explain to someone closed to the faith.

The Presence of Christ in our world is on many levels at once, and way beyond our powers of perception and understanding. The Cosmic Christ is omnipresent and yet deeply here and now with me at Mass and in Communion. It seems too good to be true. But it is. And that is the Good News!

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In All Things by Monsignor Ferrarese

One of the key insights in the theological thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is that we can find Christ in all things and through all things. Writing and preaching at a time when the dominant direction of Christian Spirituality was a rejection of worldly values, which is encapsulated in the Latin phrase Fuga Mundi (Flee the World), St. Ignatius taught his followers to try to discover the presence of Christ in all things. So the vast educational system of the Jesuits was born. Christ can be found in Science and in the Arts and in Politics. Being spiritually minded means, according to St. Ignatius, to find Christ in all things (except of course in evil and in sin).

This goes completely against the compartmentalization of faith that is rampant today. This is when we seek to find God only in the distinctly religious. In this misunderstanding of things, we think that we can pray only in Church and that our spiritual and religious life is exhausted just by going to Mass on Sunday.

The other 23 hours on Sunday and the other 6 days and nights of the week are ours to play in and God has little or nothing to do with that time (that is, of course, unless we need Him to do something for us!).

One can readily see the weakness of this understanding. Christ gives us as the first and all encompassing commandment: Love God with your whole heart [your whole self]. That means that we cannot love God partially or restrictively. It is all or nothing with God.

There are some interesting practical consequences to this theological understanding. While it is great to admire religious art and symbols, we can begin to see God in the many ordinary things of life: the smile of a child, the gnarled hands of an elder, rain falling down on a city street, the playfulness of a puppy, the resignation of a sick person, the courage of a firefighter, the beauty of a model, strains of a love song, the laughter of an audience, etc. The presence of God is not just in a distant heaven; it is also in the very marrow of our bones.

This is one of the reasons why there are so many cures of blind men in the Gospels. We are all blind to the presence and activity and communication of God all around us. This carnal trap of perception is the reason for many of the world’s problems. Because we do not see the incomparable value and beauty of God’s presence, we settle for lesser things and even begin to want things that are by their very nature destructive. The history of addictions clearly manifests this insane propensity to prefer enslavement to momentary pleasure, to the majesty of God and to the dignity of our beings. Blindness to the spiritual is a tragedy of incalculable proportions.

Another result of seeing God in all things is that we are immersed in the whole of creation and not just the parts that we have been trained by our own history to appreciate. Perhaps, for instance, God has shown us his presence in the beauty of a sunrise. But by being open to all of reality, we can also see Him in the meticulous precision of the scientist, and also in the taste and polish of the artist as he or she labors over a portrait being painted.

This advantageous use of our perception transforms our every minute of existence into a communication from God to us. Our lives are therefore really a dialogue with God who is continually revealing and communicating Himself to us, and we are either responding to or ignoring these self-communications. The preeminence of the Word of God as revelation is that it gives us the keys to recognizing this dialogue and the spiritual language to help us to respond to God. Study of the Scriptures, therefore, is necessary so that we can understand what God is saying and thus be able to continue the dialogue.

After a day in our ordinary pursuits (e.g. going to the store, cooking dinner, going to work, riding the Subway, etc.), we can enter a Church and appreciate its hallowed ground and the Real Presence of Christ in the Tabernacle because we have been in His presence all day! We do not go from absence to Presence in walking into a Church, but to an intensifying Presence that can overwhelm us with its reality precisely because we have been with Him all day.

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Newman and the New Man by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I was speaking with my Spiritual Director, whom I asked to lead our Parish Retreat this year: Msgr. Charles Fink. In discussing the subject of the retreat, “The Holy Cross of Jesus”, he mentioned that he would like to highlight the thought of John Cardinal Newman because he will be canonized by the Church this Fall. I welcomed the news because I always loved Newman’s writings and his general approach to Spirituality.

Like I often do, I asked myself why I had such a powerful positive feeling about this, and so I decided to take his writings with me as the chief input for my monastic retreat. It was an inspired choice! The depth of his writing and the minute way he analyzes the movements of the soul is amazing. An added and very welcome plus is that he actually wrote in English. With many spiritual writers like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Ignatius Loyola, you are reading a translation of their writing. The translator can be selective about the words he uses, and indeed he has to be selective. Thus something is lost even in the best translation. Newman, however, being British himself, wrote in English and was a supreme stylist of our language. His sentences are models of balance and clarity, thereby making things crystal clear. This is not always so in spiritual writing.

And so I began reading the texts of his sermons and, as I expected, I was deeply impressed by the depth and beauty of his writing and his insights. Here was an honest man who wrote about the mysteries of faith in a precise and pleasing way!

Newman grew up in the Anglican Church and became an Anglican Priest. He taught at Oxford in the 19th century and made the study of Church history, and especially the theological controversies of the early Church, his specialty. In studying the early councils and the correct, orthodox theology they produced, he saw that the road taken by the Anglican Church was wrong and that the true faith was found in the Catholic Church. This took great courage to admit since Catholics were hated in England at that time. He also saw the dangers to the Church of the heresy called Modernism that unfortunately has also affected our understanding of Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Many of the heresies of the past had to do with only addressing one side of a paradox that is uncomfortable to our intelligence. We attempt to resolve the paradox in a way that only protects one side of the truth. Such are the heresies involving the Trinity (Three Persons in One God) and the Incarnation (Jesus is fully human and fully divine). Heretical understanding is faithful only to one side of the mental tension, for example: Jesus is just a great man and not truly God (the heresy of Arianism).

But the heresy of modernism is different. It is a wholesale denial of the supernatural dimension of religion. It strips the Vertical (worship of God) from the horizontal dimension of faith, hence creating the conditions that negate faith completely. It is therefore an all-pervasive heresy.

It is also the most invisible of heresies. In this erroneous mode of thought, we think we are being rational and contemporary in striping away the basics of the faith, until what we are left with is just warmed-over Humanism. And even in that, it is a false humanism because, in purging the human person of his or her divine origin and divine destination, we make of the human being a purely earthly and material creation with a very short shelf life. Man goes in the direction of thinking himself to be a ‘thing’ in nature.

In a sense, this is nothing new. The so-called ‘Enlightenment’ which others have called the ‘Darkening’, laid the foundations of this heresy. Thomas Jefferson literally cut out of the Bible every miracle, thus writing his own “bible” called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.

We see the corrosive effects of Modernism when we witness the wholesale abandonment of the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is admittedly a difficult doctrine to believe in: that the wafer and the wine, after consecration, is Jesus; and that we can unite our very bodies, spiritually and physically, to the historical and real Jesus, both in His humanity and in His divinity. This is a lot to believe in! It is much easier to strip it all down to symbolism.

Our Diocesan newspaper ‘The Tablet’ recently reported on a poll of Catholics that said only one third (33%) believed in the Real Presence. A modernist would say: the people have spoken, change that belief! The New York Times is a herald of modernism, thinking the Church and the Pope can change the teaching of Christ simply because the majority does not believe it anymore! This is the peril of modernism and the reason why Newman fought so strongly against it. He found that the Anglican Church had been almost completely rotted away by it. So he became a Catholic because he felt that the Catholic Church still guarded the Deposit of Faith.

Given the pressures on the Church by media and those Catholics that give their faith over to it, I wonder what Newman would suggest to us today? Our faith must make of each of us a new man, or to be more politically correct, a new person. Soon to be Saint John Newman provides the map of faith to help us keep on the safe road of correct doctrine and not an expedient running after the ‘modern’ approach to all things.

Blessed John Newman, pray for us!

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Fooling Ourselves by Monsignor Ferrarese

It is amazing how easily we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing the will of God when we are really just doing what we want and canonizing our needs and our opinions with the words: it’s the will of God. And connected to this painful but freeing insight is the suspicion that the reason why I do good things is not because I love God, but because it makes me feel better or by doing it I am fulfilling the expectations of those around me and, hence, getting their approval.

One of the key insights of my theatrical experience (brief though it was!) was when in college we staged a production of T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.

In one key scene, he is in exile in France and wondering if he should go back to his diocese in England and face the wrath of the King. He is visited by three tempters whom he expected, and one who was a surprise.

The expected tempters were the ones who loosely correspond to the usual list: the world, the flesh and the devil. He got past them with flying colors.

But the fourth tempter was the trickiest. While the first three urged him not to go to England, the fourth tempter tried to get him to go, but for a reason that was lurking in the back of Thomas’ consciousness: to go there and accept martyrdom, because then he would become a great saint and people would light candles to him, venerate him, etc. He realized that this would be the worst thing that he could do, not because of the martyrdom, but because of his reasons for going. He was fooling himself. He already wanted to go, but his motivation was really because of spiritual pride and the desire to advance in his standing with God. In T.S. Eliot’s immortal words, “This would be the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Most of us are unconscious of our deeper motivations for the actions in our lives. We think that we are acting unselfishly, but we are just trying to do what we want and pinning God’s name on it.

More often than not, we do things with mixed motives. This is understandable given the complexity of our intentions and what the reality is that stands before us. It would be a mistake to refuse to act on something while waiting for a pure motivation for our action. If we do this, we may never act again! This kind of purity does not exist. We always do things from mixed motives. The question then becomes: what, on balance, are the proportions of the good motivations versus the not-so-good ones?

Take, for instance, if we want to say something affirming to someone who is an authority over us. To be more concrete, lets say the Bishop of a diocese does something that is very courageous, but very unpopular. One of his priests admires what the Bishop has done and would like to affirm him in his decision. That desire and motivation is very good. But there could be another thing going on that registers on a deeper, less apparent level of consciousness. Maybe the priest is really doing it to attract the Bishop’s notice and positive feelings so that there might be advancement in his future. Should he act and affirm his Bishop?

Sometimes the devil frightens us into inaction by overplaying the darker, but smaller, motives for things. In the example cited, I think the priest should step forward in courage and trust and affirm his Bishop since he really needs it. To refuse to do it because the motives were not so pure may be, in fact, an act of selfishness. The priest should be big enough to hazard the dangers and let God take care of the rest. Usually, one’s first instinct is right. There are times we over-think something. That priest should do the right thing. He can always refuse the honor if it comes his way later on. But the main reason for acting should be our desire to do good.

While we must always keep the negative in mind, it is a good to step forward in courage and doing the right thing!

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Learning About Life by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I had the good fortune to sign up for an intensive workshop on “writing Icons”. I was told by our teacher, a great Greek iconographer named Theodore, that one does not paint an icon, one ‘writes’ it prayerfully. The writing of icons is a spirituality that comes from the Orthodox world. Walk into any Orthodox Church and you will see dozens of beautiful icons: of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and many of the saints. There are no statues allowed in Eastern Orthodox Churches; nor are there stained glass windows. Icons fill the walls and individual icons are placed on stands where the faithful can venerate the image by kissing it. Each icon is a work of prayer, not of art. The believer prays as he or she ‘writes’ the icon. The work is considered holy.

So I was one of 18 people who took the 6-day workshop. We each wrote an icon of the Mother of God holding the Christ child. The icon was small: about 15 inches by 10 inches. But it took 6 days working nonstop (except for Mass and meals) for 8 hours per day. The use of individual colors (30 different colors went into the icon) were carefully applied, often with multiple brushes. It was very difficult and frustrating at times, but it was also a deeply rewarding spiritual experience.

But, like learning anything, it teaches you many things about life. For instance, we were beginners. Our work was hard and sometimes sloppy because we were still learning to hold a brush and understand the different ways paint is applied. We all expected to be DaVinci’s right away. But there are no short cuts to learning! Whatever it is: driving, golf, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language: we want to get it right away and be good at it. But it takes a long time to train the body, to focus the mind. You can’t just give up as soon as you begin! You have to keep working hard and long hours before making even an inch of progress. A noted author once said that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration!

The next thing I learned was that everything has its rules that must be kept exactly. One of the things our icon teacher kept saying is, “Look, look, look a long time at the model you are seeking to ‘write’ before you put any paint to the surface”. Once you paint the wrong way or the crooked line, or use the wrong color, it takes a lot time to correct your error and then you have to learn the right way to do it. How often are we impulsive in living our lives, when we should wait and size up the situation before we make a mess of things!

There can be a whole spirituality built on this insight of the importance of attention. Attention is a powerful thing. Sometimes I have seen parents being oblivious to their children because they are glued to their smartphones. But it doesn’t help that the kids are also glued to theirs! Kids crave attention because for them, at their young age, attention equals love. No attention, no love, no matter how expensive the toys or the schooling. Without attention, children shrivel up.

Often this ‘attention to attention’ is cited as Mindfulness. This is helpful, but as I said in earlier essays, as believers we must extend that mindfulness to the spiritual realities of our lives. Mindfulness or attention must be both fixed on external reality as well as internal, spiritual reality.

The reason why I think that these insights came to me so strongly during the Icon Workshop that I attended is that we have a natural propensity to float along without asking ourselves some basic questions. But when we are confronted by a new set of circumstances that challenge ourselves to look at things afresh, we begin to see things that are very basic in life, but that we just do not notice any more (if we ever did!). Entering the realm of the Icon, with its spiritual focus and the difficult techniques that it inspires and requires, taught me a lot about life and about ways that I can grow in self-knowledge and self -discipline.

This argues well for all of us in trying new things, especially things that challenge us. So, learn a new language, pick up an instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn to play and take some lessons, or ‘write’ an icon or two. The rewards of learning are far greater than what is actually accomplished. We may not become new Beethoven’s or Picasso’s, but we can better appreciate the art and ourselves!

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Solitude and Loneliness by Monsignor Ferrarese

When I speak to people of my love for monks and hermits, they look at me with a rather blank expression on their faces. Most people have had no interaction with monks or hermits and do not see the value of them. Still, when I speak of St. Anthony of Egypt (Abbate—like the street festival) or St. Bruno, I am filled with admiration and awe. They went into hermitages to be totally available to God and to prayer.

In previous ages, there was a certain positive mystique about ‘going into a hermitage’. One of the places I was most interested in visiting when I was in St. Petersburg was the world-famous museum called the “Hermitage”. I found out during my visit that it was established by Catherine the Great to house her (then) small art collection. She called it her ‘hermitage’ because she saw herself using it while communing with God in solitude. It was supposed to be her private place of recollection.

The Christian respect for the solitary vocation is an important reality of our Church. Unfortunately, few realize this. The hermit’s vocation is considered the highest in the Church because it shows purely the primal relationship that God must have with the human person. For a hermit, God is the most important person in his or her life. He proves it by spending his life with Him.

It also shows the Church’s belief in the power of prayer. A hermit prays night and day for us. We firmly believe that this has practical and amazing effects for the Church. I remember an older priest telling me when I was newly ordained that I could do more for my parishioners on my knees in prayer than any other work of mercy.

So in speaking of the hermit, we have a Christian who wants to be in constant contact with God and who believes his prayers will have the most powerful effects for the world, including those whom he loves. So he enters into solitude. Will that person be lonely?

He will definitely be alone in regards to human company. But, never lonely. Why? At the heart of loneliness is not the experience of being alone: it is feeling worthless, like I don’t matter to anyone. This is truly a horrible way of being. But, it is my contention that our hermit will not be lonely because he is with God at all times. And he knows that he matters since his prayers have special power and influence. Loneliness and solitude are found in different ballparks!

There is a long pedigree to the importance of solitude (giving quality time to God alone) that goes back to the early prophets and culminates with Jesus Himself. After the deeply religious experience of His Baptism, hearing the Father’s delight in Him and being suffused with the Holy Spirit, what did Jesus do? What was His first priority? If you said that He would go out and preach, you would be dead wrong. He went out into the desert, alone. Feeling the love of His Father and the love of the Spirit, He had to spend time alone with this Love. It was such a powerful efficacious experience for Him that He had to have time alone to continue to bask in that love and affirmation. But it also alerted the devil, since this was very dangerous for the kingdom of evil. One of the reasons people fear silence and solitude is that they leave us defenseless. All the distractions and evasions are not there in the desert. Only you and God. The devil knows that, and will reveal things that frighten you and challenge your faith. He knows our weaknesses more than we know them. He attacks where we are the most vulnerable. When Christ entered the solitude of the desert, the devil must have known that here was a person without the normal weaknesses, so he tried to twist the truth. “If you are the Messiah…” The devil always sows seeds of doubt and discouragement. He is also a consummate liar. As dangerous as he seems, he really is very foolish. Did he really think that Christ would fall for the ‘loaves to bread’ temptation? What are all the kingdoms of the world to the One who has the Father’s Love?

Once Christ experienced the joy and the trials of the desert, He was ready to preach and the first words out of His mouth were “Repent, the Kingdom of God is here!”

You can be lonely in a crowd. But the realization that God is always with us can be transformative and give us the confidence and the courage to look at our lives differently. God is always with us but the problem is we don’t notice it, we don’t believe it and sadly we miss the greatest opportunity of our lives. No wonder Jesus was constantly healing blind men. We are all blind to God’s love and unbelieving in the face of this great and glorious God. We need hermits, and more importantly the example they set, to remind us that God is enough.

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Auras by Monsignor Ferrarese

During my brief vacation in Russia, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the homes of two of the greatest writers who ever lived, favorites of mine. These great men were Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoyevsky. This was one of the reasons I wanted to see and experience Russia: to try to understand the genius of these particular writers.

I remember reading “War and Peace” when I was studying Spanish in Bolivia. I had plenty of time at night, after my studies and my conversations with my host family. All I had in the room was one light bulb. So I took out the huge book I lugged from Brooklyn and went into a completely different world than I had just experienced that day. I was in Czarist Russia in the wide expanse of history, Napoleon at the gates of Moscow, Prince Andrei and Natasha falling in love, Pierre the thinker musing on the meaning of life and love, surrounded by the forty or fifty well etched and gripping and believable characters that made up that world. I finished the book in two weeks! I could not wait to read his other books: “Anna Karenina” and “Resurrection”. I was permanently smitten by this great artist.

Compared with that, at first I hated Dostoyevsky. So deep, so conflicted, so much agony! It did not help that I was in high school when I was first exposed to his writings! Some books should not be read too early in life! When I reread “The Brothers Karamazov” in college, I humbly had to admit that I was wrong. I realized immediately after I finished that I had read the greatest book ever written. I am currently re-reading it for the fourth time, and thoroughly enjoying it just as if I was reading it the first time! In fact, a few years ago I finished a 10-year project reading every novel of Dostoyevsky while I read the 5 volume biography of him by the great literary critic Joseph Frank. I cannot say that I am an expert on him since I have not formally studied him, but I am sort of a ‘friend’ of his!

Because of my love and respect for these two writers, I made sure that, while I was in Russia, I went to their homes, both of which are kept intact to the minutest details.

Tolstoy had a number of homes. I went to his Moscow home: a sprawling house that sheltered Tolstoy, his wife and his 13 children! (This is not counting the 11 servants that took care of the estate.)

As I walked through the house and gardens, I could feel the aura of a man dedicated to the most minute of observations. If you read any of his works, you know that besides God Himself, no one had such an encyclopedic knowledge of human beings and the world at large. You would have to go back to Shakespeare and Dante to find noteworthy analogues. Something of his ‘aura’ could be seen in the tools he used to make shoes! Everything was interesting to him and he wanted to learn about so many things. He was a deep believer in Jesus, though an unorthodox one. He inspired Gandhi with his pacifism.

In St. Petersburg, I visited the apartment where Dostoyevsky lived with his wife and children. He died in that apartment. The clock was stopped at the moment of his death. A deeply religious man, he had beautiful pictures of Mary and Christ on the walls. But what captured an aura of his presence for me was the picture of his son Alyosha (the name of a great character in his novel “Brothers Karamazov”). Alyosha never lived in this apartment. The reason why the family moved there is that little Alyosha died at the age of 3, a blow so great that Dostoyevsky and his wife could not bear to be in the apartment any more, since everything reminded them of their beloved child; and so they moved. There, they had two more children. Walking through the home made me feel the honesty and the compassion of the man who could be both a person of faith and also so deeply sensitive.

There is something about people that transcend the facts of their lives: a deep greatness; the presence of grace that animates and guides them. This ‘aura’ teaches us never to reduce people to events and statistics. The person in the bed who is dying is an infinite being whose every moment has been filled with the Presence of God.

Walking through the living areas of these two great writers that used that mystery at the heart of things to teach us about humanity taught me a lot about myself and the people around me. We are all, in the words of the great poet Hopkins, “Immortal Diamond”.

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The Faith Triumphant by Monsignor Ferrarese

While vacationing in Russia last week, a place I had always wanted to see due to my love of Russian Writers like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, I had occasion to visit a very famous Russian Orthodox Monastery named St. Sergius. This monastery dates back to the 13th century. People come from all over the world to simply pray there. The Communists closed it, but, when Russia was declared liberated from Communism, it was reopened.

The amazing thing is that it is thriving. In fact, religion is slowly making a comeback in Russia! We used to pray for the conversion of Russia after every pre-Vatican II “Latin” Mass. It certainly paid off! Prayer works, if
you just give it time. In fact, after 70 years of active persecution, the faith of Christ is growing again in Russia!

At St. Sergius, for example, there are 300 monks! We have nothing remotely like that in the West. While there is certainly struggle with faith in Russia, there is a revival going on, especially in the contemplative and monastic life, which is the heart of the Church Universal.

There are many here who proclaim themselves atheists and perhaps this is still the majority. But the faith is never without effects where ever there are true believers to be found.

While we, in the West, do not have the sad history of outright persecution that they have experienced in Russia, we are still battling subtler forms of persecution in the Church. The most difficult negative ambiance that we face in America, and even more in Western Europe, is the apparent collapse of the infrastructure that supported our faith. When vocations were plentiful, religious orders staffed hospitals, schools, universities and missionary societies that had produced huge results. In the 50’s and 60’s, many of us remember how overreaching was the entire infrastructure of the Church. We were opening new parishes, schools, hospitals and other testaments to our faith. It was a growing Church when the seminaries were filled and the novitiates were bursting with numbers and activities.

Today, we are in the midst of many closures: parishes, schools, seminaries, etc. While there has been some growth in lay movements like Opus Dei and the Neo-Catechumenate, they have not yet produced the widespread results that can offset the aforementioned decline.

It is with great difficult that one confesses the Christian Faith in this environment. One is open to ridicule and even to the basest forms of unjust censure (e.g. The assertion that faith is against human flourishing even
though our whole culture has been formed by the key insight that we are made in the image and likeness of God—a key religious concept).

Our entire way of life has become thoroughly materialistic. Karl Marx may have theorized about this, but we have truly started living within that theoretical construct in the West. While the Communist theory collapsed by its misunderstanding of the human person and his freedom, the West has, through the media and in many other ways, put materialism at the very foundation of our philosophical edifice. Go into any nominally Catholic home and notice what is on the walls of the home, especially in the rooms of the impressionable young: superheroes, sport stars, singing idols (a very appropriate term!), and try to find the Crucifix, the Madonna, or a scene from the Gospels.

We have returned to the ways of the ancient pagans who at least believed in ‘the gods’. All that is needed now is for the persecution to begin. It may have already begun.

But I am far from despondent. Our faith has faced worse times than these. It has with in its very being the presence of the God who created all things. One seed of this Life can regenerate an entire forest that has become a desert of unbelief.

Meanwhile, we must be patient and do whatever we can to live a fruitful and loving life, knowing full well that the Lord is coming in all His power. All seemed lost that Good Friday night, but it only heralded the dawn of the new age of Grace.

This is what is happening now. We live in a long Holy Saturday awaiting the resurrection of our Faith; and when He rises, the Faith will indeed be triumphant again!

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God’s GPS by Monsignor Ferrarese

What did we do before we had the benefits of the GPS?

I remember pulling over on dark roads in New Jersey, and by the tiny light in the interior of my car, poring over a map that was so large that I needed the whole front seat to spread it out! And even then, I had to look for an open gas station and walk into a disheveled and grimy store to ask directions. Even then, who could follow the explanations: “When you see the third light make a left. If you see the Hess station, you have gone too far and you have to make a U-Turn!” It is a wonder I ever got to my destinations. (This was true not only in Jersey!)

Finding out how to get to a desired location is not only a physical, travel concern; there is a need to find a way through the massive territory of the human soul in trying to find our way home to God. We are lost. This is a fundamental and foundational insight of the spiritual life. All the advisory words of the prophets and saints are attempts to get us home to be with God. But this ‘soul country’ is vast and dangerous. Even with the benefits of Revelation, it is easy to stay lost or to be going in circles.

Things are not made any clearer by the fact that there is a deceiver afoot who is eager and motivated to give us the wrong directions. He wants us to stay lost or, even better, not to get home, but to enter another kingdom, his, where we encounter only suffering and slavery. The stakes are high.

The great saint Ignatius of Loyola gave some practical help in discerning who is speaking to each of us in the depths of our heart. Is it friend or foe?

The first rule is to be sensitive to what is going on inside you. What are you feeling within? When God speaks, we feel peace and go about our business with joy in our hearts. Even when we have to do something difficult, one encounters a serenity. Not so with the evil one. He brings agitation, turmoil, concern for appearances, and a feeling of excitement that leads invariably to more turmoil. God works gently and slowly. The devil is quick, loud and disturbing. For Ignatius, the devil’s way is like a drop of water hitting a stone. It is a splash and you can hear it. But when God speaks to us, it is like a drop of water falling on a sponge: quiet and imperceptible.

The action of God leaves us filled with joy even days after it happens. The devil can fake a little happiness, but not for long. Soon the disturbing turmoil returns.

While we were on our Parish Pilgrimage this year, we went to Loyola. It was in that ancestral castle that Ignatius discovered an important truth in the discernment of spirits.

He had just been seriously injured in war for he was a soldier by profession. As he recuperated from his wounds, he asked for some books to read. There were a couple of books about knights and their exploits, but also a book on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the great saints. He noticed that when he read the books about the knights, he was excited and moved, but he was also moved and excited by the life of Christ and the saints. However, there was one important difference: when he put
down the books about the knights and their fighting, he was depressed and bored again. But when he put down the books of the life of Christ and of the saints, his excitement continued and even grew! He was able to experience for the first time the discernment of spirits (feelings) that would become one of the foundation stones of his Spiritual Exercises. He had discovered God’s GPS!

God does communicate with us and prompts us as to what is best or worse for us. Unfortunately, so does the evil one. So we have to learn to train our spiritual senses so that we can perceive what God is moving us toward. Dante wrote in the Divine Comedy: “In His will is our peace”. It really pays for us to learn how to listen to God. It is counterproductive to remain deaf to His appeals.

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