Ultimate Concern by Monsignor Ferrarese

In my last essay (Faithful, 12/09/19), I spoke about the importance of faith. Nothing is possible without it. Since it is the foundation of the spiritual edifice, there can be no discussion without it. It is the first of the Theological Virtues given to us at Baptism.

We see the importance of faith as we do the importance of the third Theological Virtue: Love. Of course, this virtue has nothing to do with romance or Eros. It is Christian Love, or in Latin: Caritas — the total giving to the Other who is God wishing nothing in return but God’s Presence Alone.

But so little is written about the middle Theological Virtue: Hope. Why?

I believe the answer to this question lies in how basic this virtue is. How can one have faith if one has no hope? How can one love if one is in despair? Hope is the foundation necessary so that the other virtues have meaning and purpose. Without the direction that meaning and purpose gives, there is no point in doing anything; it is all useless and futile.

The great poet Dante put the centrality of hope in a terrifying way. When Virgil begins to escort Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, they stop before the gates of Hell. Over the gate, on the arch, are the chilling words: “Abandon Hope All You Who Enter Here”. Hell is a place where there is no hope; it is all over. There is nothing left but continual pain, regret and the absence of God.

When someone loses all hope and enters the area we call despair, we are in the region of the damned.

One of my favorite writers is the French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos. In his masterwork entitled “Diary of a Country Priest”, he has a brief but chilling description of Hell: those in Hell would warm themselves at the embers that we call despair. Wow! That is truly a frightening sentence.

Hope is the kind of virtue that is often in the background of our lives. It is presupposed in the daily concerns and decisions that we make and are part and parcel of what are the ordinary things of life. When someone loses hope, he or she enters on painful and very dangerous terrain. The climbing rates of suicide speak volumes about the importance of hope in a person’s life.

The three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love are further intertwined in that a loss of Faith in God and a failure to Love in a Christian way undermine the foundations of Hope. Living in a godless universe and living without Love will deliver a person eventually to the gates of Hell where there is no Hope.

This is where it is important to state that we have the freedom to decide to live in Faith, Hope and Love. These virtues are gifts given to us in Baptism, but they must be freely accepted and used by us for them to take effect.

In trying to explain the importance of cooperation with the grace given in the virtues, especially to children, I have used the example of the muscles that God has given us. If we never exercise and use our muscles, they remain weak and non-compliant with the needs of the body. In fact, the non-use of the muscles also affects the joints of the body as well.

If a person exercises each day, he or she will develop their muscles to such an extent that they look differently: he or she is stronger! We have all seen people who are in great shape. Their muscles are visible through the layers of skin! They are strong and supple and, well, healthy. But a person who does not develop their muscular structure, say by being a couch potato, can do very little because their muscles are flaccid and weak.

So it is with the graces of the virtues, particularly the theological virtues. Many people have been given them through Baptism and the mercy of God, but they remain unused and weakened.

Many people lose the strength and the resiliency of Hope because we seldom flex and build-up the virtue through daily use. What a tragedy it is! It is like starving to death while you have food in abundance in your refrigerator! What good does it do to have a four-course meal awaiting us if we never eat it?

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The Second Sunday of Advent

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

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Faithful by Monsignor Ferrarese

It is a truism today that commitments don’t hold for very long. If something better comes along, you simply renegotiate things. One’s word is just that: a word, which can be changed by another.

Traditionally, when one gave one’s word or made a commitment, it was something sacred. One’s whole self-image and the trust that people have in you was dependent on your fidelity to your word.

We see the fall off of this idea in the realm of marriage.

With our reliance on ‘falling in love’ and the personal choice of our spouses, it is very easy to rely on our feelings to determine our true love. The problem with this model of marriage is that it is dependent on feelings that come and go according to circumstances. The experience of ‘falling in love’ can lead to the feeling of ‘falling out of love’. In both experiences, the person is completely passive before the forces of attraction and repulsion that determine one’s direction in life.

In the past, when marriages were arranged, it was the parents who determined the partners. One had to learn to love the other. Remember that heartfelt exchange between Tevye and his wife in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. They never ‘fell in love’, but they made a decision to love and kept that decision throughout their lives. In the musical, they discover that they do love each other and it was proven true by their many years of being there for each other and sharing their lives with each other.

The problem with a feeling-based way of looking at things is that one’s faithfulness is based on circumstances and not a firm decision that we will love no matter what. Keeping one’s options open is a way of hedging our bets about something. But when we take our vows at Baptism (really renewing them as adults) or our marriage vows, we take our lives in our hands and, in this risky world, say that I will be true to this decision I am making. This is what faithfulness is.

When we move into our relationship with God, then the full power of faithfulness shows forth. We often separate the experience of having faith in God from the faithfulness or fidelity that we have to a friend or loved one. But this faith in God is the same reality as our fidelity to a friend. Otherwise, we merely have faith in propositions. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

Over and over again in the Gospels, whenever someone expresses thanks to Jesus for a miracle wrought by the Lord in that person’s life, Jesus refuses to take the credit. Rather, He says: “Your Faith has saved you.” This is not faith in doctrine. On the contrary, Jesus is helping the person to realize that he already has a deep fidelity to God in even asking for the miracle and expecting that Jesus could do it. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus accomplish a miracle when a person expresses disbelief in God or in Him. A great example is the woman who tried to ‘sneak’ a miracle out of Jesus without His knowledge or approval: the woman with the 14-year hemorrhage.

In a more negative incidence, we read that when He went back to His hometown of Nazareth, the peoples’ lack of faith there distressed Him and, thus, He was not able to perform miracles because of their ‘lack of faith’.

Faith is so important that the woman who suffered for 14 years could draw out His power without His willing it, and then in Nazareth, where He presumably wanted to perform wonders, He was prevented by the people’s disbelief.

This personal fidelity to God and the willingness to risk being wrong is essential to anyone’s spiritual growth. We have to dare to believe.

This is not easy. Witness the anguished prayer of the father of the possessed child: “Lord I do believe but help my unbelief.”

Faith is essential in the spiritual life. It is its foundation. To be consistent, to say what we mean and mean what we say in this realm of belief, is a sine qua non of the spiritual journey. There can be no progress without it. In fact, we cannot even begin the journey without it.

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The First Sunday of Advent

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

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The Season of Advent

The Season of Advent

The season of Advent is an important season in the Liturgical Calendar. The season of Advent encompasses the four weeks prior to Christmas.

The word Advent derives from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”; this refers to the next season, Christmas.

Advent serves two purposes in the Church, two of them are:

  • Advent begins the Church year.  The First Sunday of Advent is the New Year’s Day of the Church’s liturgical year.
  • More importantly, Advent is the liturgical period of preparation and penitence for the Christmas Season.  It is not nearly as somber as Lent, but it does call us to reflect upon the impending mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming human.

As the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains about Advent “…is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas. The final days of Advent, from December 17 to December 24, focus particularly on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas).”

Are there any activities that an individual or a family can perform performed during Advent?

  • Advent calendar – a popular way to count down the days until Christmas, especially in families that have small children.
  • Advent wreath – a wreath made of evergreens, usually. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple ones lit on the “penitential” Sundays and a pink one for Gaudete Sunday, the joyful third Sunday in Advent.
  • Jesse Tree – the Jesse tree tells about Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. The tree can be made on a poster board with the symbols glued on or use an actual tree.

How can a person make Advent a more meaningful season?

We can do many things that can make Advent much more meaningful on a personal, family and a communal level:

  • Attempt to pray the Divine Office on a daily basis.
  • Attend daily Mass so that you can hear Scripture read and examined or interpreted.
  • Try to do readings from Scripture that associate with the theme of the season.  Read from the prophet Isaiah, for example.  Look in the missalette for the daily Mass readings.
  • Have the youngest child in the family, on a daily basis, read a passage from Scripture that reflects the Advent calendar.
  • Celebrate an Advent wreath ceremony on a weekly basis.  There are many available prayers and hymns found on-line that could accompany this ceremony.  See the list below.
  • Use these Lectio Divina guides to meditate, contemplate, and pray on your spiritual preparation for Advent and Christmas.
  • Lectio Divina for the First Sunday of Advent
  • Lectio Divina for the Second Sunday of Advent
  • Lectio Divina for the Third Sunday of Advent
  • Lectio Divina for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent Resources

Blessing of an Advent Wreath – http://usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/sacramentals-blessings/objects/blessing-of-an-advent-wreath.cfm

The Religion Teacher – http://www.thereligionteacher.com/advent-activities/

The Biblehttp://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM

Divine Officehttp://divineoffice.org/

Inclusion of these sites does not mean that I and/or the parish endorse any view promoted by the website.  Some of these websites offer materials for purchase; please do so at your own risk!

Bibliography

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops http://usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/advent/index.cfm.2016.Web.Nov. 20, 2016.

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A Tragic Loss by Monsignor Ferrarese

One of the things that I love to do is read. Ever since I was a kid, I looked at books as magical doors into amazing adventures. One of my favorite places in East New York, where I grew up, was the local library on Arlington Avenue. It was a big old mansion surrounded by greenery. In it was a whole world of knowledge and possibility. I can still remember the smell of the books as you walked into the entrance. There was a hush and a real respectful silence there. I could wander through the stacks of books, take some out, sit in comfortable leather chairs, and read to my hearts content. And if I found a book that was really worthwhile, I could take it home by the power granted to me by my library card.

When it rained, playing with my friends was not possible. Since I was an only child of elderly parents and therefore had a lot of time alone on my hands, there was always the library to go to, and the books, my companions, ready to share their knowledge with me. In those pages, there were stories about my faith, scientific books about minerals and rocks, adventure stories filled with dangers and narrow escapes—all kinds of subjects ready to open doors of enjoyment for me! Rain also kept people away from the library so that I often was quite alone in that mansion with only the quiet librarians! In more than one way, I felt like a rich kid with lots of great and interesting time to play and to learn, surrounded by these friends of mine—the books.

When I think of the riches of reading that, even today, fills my leisure times, and then hear that people have stopped reading except in the spurts that the computer allows, I feel that this is a tragic loss!

Sitting in front of a computer is a very different kind of experience. But all this is done in small bursts. There is so much to do there: emails, texts, Amazon, browsing, etc. Scientists have proven that this ‘small burst learning’ and the constant motion that the computer requires has changed the way our minds work. We have difficulty now staying with something for an extended period of time; we are always restlessly moving. Our attention span is very short. Staying with one thing becomes boring and we fear that it is preventing us from things that are happening online that we should be aware of and involved in. And so we keep moving.

Contrast that with settling into a comfortable chair and opening Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ (well over a thousand pages!) and getting lost in a complex, entertaining, and richly described plot that mirrors life in a far-off land and in a distant time, yet seems amazingly familiar and intimate to our lives! This is the power of a great story. It does not reveal itself in little gulps of time. It is immersive and enriching. It is well worth the time and effort. It can only be achieved by doing it, and that requires time and discipline. There is no other way!

Any educator will tell you that few are the students in their class, on whatever level, elementary, high school or college, who regularly give themselves into the experience of extended reading.

This is nothing short of tragic!

This lack of discipline in reading extends to other things. Great Art requires discipline, learning and patience. Whenever I have tried to introduce someone to a great opera, film, painting or play, I have found them sometimes not willing to meet the work of art on its own terms. They rush to judgment with that most terrible pronouncement: it’s boring!

If one encounters, say, a symphony by Beethoven, and half way through it gives it a thumbs down, is that the fault of Beethoven? Did the person try to learn about the symphony? Were they patient with it? Would they be willing to hear it again? Usually, not.

Great art needs open and humble hearts, as does great reading. Just as discipline is needed in learning to play a sport or mastering a trade, so discipline is necessary to enjoy a great book and a wonderful, but difficult, piece of music.

But it is never too late.

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It’s Not the Same Thing! by Monsignor Ferrarese

Halloween is over and done, and for many of us, thank God!,  what started out as a Vigil for the Roman Catholic Feast of All Saints (All Hallows) has become a commercial monster. Even the Catholic custom of dressing up like different saints has morphed into a celebration of horror and killing and evil. Now, I know that it is fun to get dressed up. But to take our Feast and use it as an opportunity to party and to celebrate what we see as evil: devils,witches and the dead (undead?), is another matter.

This sort of takeover does not limit itself to Halloween. Take that other vigil celebration from Catholic Spirituality: Mardi Gras. It was a way to celebrate and have meat (Carnival means goodbye to meat and Mardi Gras is from the French for Fat Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday and the meatless days of penance. In New Orleans, the Archbishop often has to issue Pastoral Letters to try to control the excesses of Mardi Gras, which is no longer confined to one day but stretches out for months before Ash Wednesday!

How did Halloween and Mardi Gras so far surpass the holy events that were meant to follow them?

There is so much life in the life of faith that the secular void, which is empty of this life, takes away to suit its own purposes. It takes religious concepts like Feasts and strains out all the ‘fantasy’ to leave only what it can accept, which is, for us, sometimes more fantastical! Christmas is another example of this: In order to help our economy, the ‘holidays’ are times to show love by buying, buying and more buying! Stripped of Christ, we have a snow holiday with the remnants of Christian love (as long as that love does not impinge on my right to have a good time!).

Even beyond Feasts, instead of fasting we talk of dieting. Instead of Holy Days we speak of holidays. Prayer, that most intimate form of communication between God and Human Beings, becomes navel-gazing types of meditation.

The modern world is intent in banishing the religious instinct and leaving only the remains of celebration.

Unfortunately, even Catholics surrender to this. Take the range of Holy Days of Obligation in our Liturgical Calendar. First off, how can a Holy Day in which we celebrate a mystery of salvation be made a legal thing that says if you don’t go to Church, you go to Hell! How can one throw a party and then force people to come?

So now the Churches are virtually empty on these Feasts and Bishops admit defeat and place them on Sundays. (This does not happen in New York State, where we have the strange dichotomy of strong Feasts that are always obligatory and weak ones that evaporate when they come near Sundays!).

We can see this principle of the removal of the religious center of the things we celebrate by many of the things we do at Christmas. The very word is both a shadow of the original ‘Christ-Mass’ that firmly grounds the feast in the Liturgy. Some spend an exorbitant amount of money and time to put up lights, decorations, and get gifts at Christmas. Do those who do so, who admire the shining beauty in the night, even have an inkling of the original purpose of this custom? They are meant to celebrate Christ as the Light of the World who shines in the darkness of our age!

One can go through all the customs of Christmas (the cards, the gifts, the carols, etc.) and come up with silence when asked for their origin and their meaning.

This principle of ‘extraction’, by which the visible celebration (Christmas) or the preparation for the celebration (Halloween and Mardi Gras) is extracted from its religious meaning, is a nefarious process by the secular state of removing the very meaning of the ‘Holy Day’ by making it a holiday, as if it were just another time for vacation.

There have been attempts made recently to take Christmas Carols, that often have real theological content, (e.g. ‘Earth and Heaven reconciled’ from Joy to the World) and put non-religious lyrics to the familiar tunes so that we can return Christmas to the pagan Solstice celebration! Christmas (apologies to Irving Berlin!) is not about snow, it is about Christ.

This is a sneaky attempt by our society to banish the religious from public discourse. In the supposed interest of ‘inclusivism’, we remove God from the equation. This has disastrous consequences for our worldview and for the future of our society.

As Catholic Christians, we must resist this theft of meaning that is happening all around us.

Keep Christ in Christmas. Keep Christ in Halloween. Keep Christ in Mardi Gras. Keep Christ in everything.

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Turnstile Forgiveness by Monsignor Ferrarese

The Sacrament of Confession is a key part of the sacramental system in Catholicism. It has developed over the centuries to this present form. Today, one can receive this Sacrament as often as needed; it is available everywhere and there are no rules about it’s use except the idea of ‘Easter Duty’, that is, the obligation to go at least once a year during the Easter Season. (This, by the way, fits in very well with the emphasis today on Baptism in the
Easter Season. The Sacrament of Confession is the living-out of our Baptismal Commitments.)

But outside of Easter Duty, there is no rule about its use, and certainly none limiting it. But this was not always so.

In the early Church, it was a very serious thing to become a Christian. For one reason, it was against the law and punishable by death. Secondly, you became Christian by an adult decision. Thirdly, you entered a training period that could last a few years. Since Baptism forgave all sin, there was no need for Confession. It was expected that once you were Baptized, you were done with sin.

Any Christian therefore who was guilty of a mortal sin (Murder, Adultery or Apostasy—denying that you were a Christian) was cut off from the community of the ‘saints’. Later, it was decided to forgive them, but only once in their lifetime and only after a public confession of their sin and a long period of public penance that could last years.

As one can imagine, this system was not popular with the people. What happened, therefore, was that people delayed Baptism to their deathbed so that they could take full advantage of the complete forgiveness of all sinfulness without the necessity of telling anyone their sins. The Emperor Constantine took this path.

Another form of Penance developed in the monasteries of Ireland. A younger monk would confess his past sins with an older monk and the older monk would give him a Penance to perform so as to “correct” the sinfulness of the past. The advantage of this form of Confession was that it was private and could be received more than once. As the monks of Ireland traveled through Europe preaching, they brought with them this new form of Confession.

At first, the Church condemned this innovation. But, once again, the people spoke with their feet and started to abandon the older form and accepted this new way of confessing.

It is important to realize that the monks did not impose easy penances. There were no, “Say 3 Hail Mary’s as a Penance.” We have the books that they used to assign an appropriate penance to the sinner, and it was not easy! But it was private and more of a process.

In our own time, we have developed a religious ethos that strives for the easy way to do everything. This has spawned a habitual laxity in our living of the Christian Life and an underlying vice of presumption in our approach to sin and conversion.

The Sacrament of Confession must involve a deep and interior attitude that indicates and nourishes a real change within the person, both psychologically and experientially. While one can have such an intention and still sin again, what is important is the willingness to get up and try again to eradicate the sin completely from our lives. When it is a habitual sin, it requires continual effort and a fierce commitment to following the Lord no matter what.

Even after the sin is removed from a person through repentance and Confession, we still must experience a desire to heal the world we have disrupted by our sin. This is the whole area of reparation and satisfaction that is largely ignored today; but, it is essential. We must try to put aright what we have disrupted in the divine order of God’s Commandments.

As you may see, even venial sins have a destructive impact on our lives and the lives of the Church, even when they do not prepare us for the more serious mortal sins.

We have the ability to receive Confession as often as we need it to help us in this process of reordering, always with God’s assistance, the creation of God and the moral unity of Christian life.

As you can see, Turnstile Confession, where you say your Hail Mary’s and you get cleaned up for Mass, is an emaciated view of the Sacrament and the whole process of moral regeneration that is the Christian call to Metanoia, or true repentance.

It requires a real effort to model our life on Christ and a refusal to compromise our moral vision.

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Anger Management by Monsignor Ferrarese

One of the most common spiritual problems that people talk about in Spiritual Direction sessions is their struggles with anger. It is a very uncomfortable emotion, and even in its milder forms it seems to be uncontrollable and hard to handle. It appears to have a direct line to the tongue (another dangerous human instrument) and also to the more violent responses in our natures.

The connection between anger and violence contributes to the fear that this emotion unleashes in us. We think that to be angry is to be violent and we don’t want to unleash that potential within us.

While anger can lead to violence, it does not have to be that way. Anger can have an important function in our lives, provided it is used in a correct way.

Anger has been described as “the God-given alarm system within us” that alerts us to the fact that an important boundary of our lives has been breached and that we need to defend ourselves. There is an underlying note of self-preservation in an angry response to any given situation.

Another positive aspect of anger as an emotional response is that it helps us fight injustice. When we see someone being attacked, whether physically or verbally, our instinctive response is to protect. The energy of this motivation comes from our sense of justice and fairness being violated when an innocent person or someone close to us is being hurt or disrespected. The anger in us motivates us to go to their assistance and defend them. The armed response of nations to being attacked and overrun by an enemy is the communal version of this defense of boundaries and the protection of the innocent.

All this is well and good; but from whence comes this discomfort we feel with anger, this view that it is a sin?

There is a difference between the experience of the emotion of anger, which is immediate and beyond our choice (think of someone accidentally stepping on your toe!), and an anger which is held onto and which is nurtured. This is a resentment that festers, causes us to hate the other, and even perhaps plan revenge later on (vengeance is a dish best served cold!). This is clearly done with the free choice of the person. It is also stupid and self-defeating. For instance, let’s say someone slaps you in the face. There is an immediate emotional anger! But one holds onto it, and thinks about it and imagines it happening again and again. The slapper slapped once, but the slapped has lived through it a hundred times. But the slapper was responsible for doing it once and the slapped for 99 times! Insane? Yes, and profoundly self-defeating.

So the first thing that we have to ask ourselves when the ‘self-monitor’ inside us tells us that we are angry is: “Is this the emotion of anger that flares up automatically and is gone just as fast, or is it the sin of Wrath in which we hold onto the anger and think about getting even?”

We find out, for example, that someone has said something mean about us behind our backs. The alarm system of anger sounds, alerting us that we have been slandered. This anger is a natural result of the sinful action of another who freely and willfully tried to tarnish our good name. Their action was sinful. My reaction was natural. But what do I do with it?

There are three solutions:

Solution A: I could call them up and give them a piece of my mind! This is not a good response, just an automatic reaction that will further destroy our relationship.

Solution B: I could let it go and continue as though nothing had happened. This could be a good response if we know the person to be irascible and a request for clarification would blow up in our faces.

Solution C: We could pray about it and speak to the offender in person, asking if it actually did occur and, if it did, ask the other what was the purpose of the unkind remark and can we deal with that and move on in the relationship. This could be a good move provided the other is capable of truthfulness and correction and if the relationship we are in is important enough to us that we are willing to clarify and reconcile with the other.

Of the three solutions, Solution C is the best use of the energy of justified anger since it seeks to correct and amend a relationship, restoring it to a level of grace.

Anger is a fact of life. It can be a good or an evil depending on our free choice in how to respond to it. People who simply react usually make matters worse. There is a difference between justified, positively-used anger and the destructive vortex of wrath, resentments and vendetta. The choice, I’m afraid, is ours. Anger will not go away. But we can use it or be used by it. We can either manage anger or it can manage us.

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