Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Natural Law Fails Again

I encourage you to read two articles published recently by the Thomistic scholar Steven A. Long of Ave Maria University. His two articles point out yet again how the New Natural Law scholars have caused confusion in regard to moral theology. The topic that Dr. Long addresses is their failure to properly understand the question of cooperation.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Prudence: Our Missing Virtue

Prudence: Our Missing Virtue
Matthew J Bellisario 2012

Do you ever wonder at the end of a long day if you should or should not have said, written or done something you should not have? Perhaps you spoke out of emotion or sat down and wrote a scathing email just after you have read something upsetting on the internet. Maybe you did not speak when you should have spoken? As Catholics, we should understand that we are always at war with our passions. Our emotions and our intellectual weaknesses are always pulling at us causing us to act, or not to act, not always irrationally, but  lacking in spiritual wisdom. Let me explain.

Although our intellect and emotions plays a huge part of human makeup, so likewise does our soul. After the fall of Adam and Eve, the order between our bodies our intellect and our soul has been turned upside down. Which means that our human passions often usurp our soul’s desires, which should ultimately be turned towards God. Although I could go through all of the seven deadly sins and the virtues that subdue them, one virtue that is often ignored is that of prudence. I will be bold enough to say that most people are often lacking in this most important virtue. The internet websites and blogs clearly demonstrate this fact. There is no shortage of ad-hominem attacks and character assassinations posted many times by notable Catholic apologists and writers. What we all must be concerned with is the virtue of prudence. The virtue of prudence falls under the category of the moral virtues. Father Garrigou Lagrange calls it, “The charioteer among the virtues...” Why is this virtue so important? This is the virtue which properly guides all the moral acts of man. Father Lagrange says, "What separates the wise from the foolish is the wise man's care, the caution with which he judges his options and chooses actions that avoid extremes. Our faith calls this practical ability Prudence, which the Catechism defines as "the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it"

The difference between acting boldly when one ought for example, or running like a coward when one should act, is governed by prudence. Likewise, the difference between remaining in humble silence, or running off at the mouth, is likewise governed by this exalted virtue. How do we acquire this virtue? Like all things with God, we must begin with long hours, weeks, months and even years of prayer and mortification. It is most always good to begin by saying little until one has spent much time being faithful servants of God, which means struggling daily with sin, going to the Divine Liturgy at least once a week, going to confession at least once a month and maintaining a strong prayer schedule at home. As one spends time with God in the Sacraments and prayer, one begins to be given prudence by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We then begin to do God’s will rather than our own, and this is of the utmost importance.

Why is it that we often times get on the internet and write scathing articles or retorts to someone who has offended us? The short simple answer is pride. We all like to make it seem as if we are governed by righteous anger. After-all we all love to tell the story of Jesus overthrowing those crooked moneychangers in the temple. Most of the time however we do not possess this righteous anger. When we act upon our pride, prudence is absent. But how is it that prudence is further developed? Yes, we must start with prayer for their is no substitute for this needed bond with God. But what else does prayer and God’s grace bring us? It also brings us other virtues such an understanding of justice and temperance for example. Prayer is the primary vehicle which makes us one with God, and this "oneness" is made evident by the virtues.

It is crucial to understand also that it is through our intellect that we understand the teachings of the Church, which also govern our understanding of right and wrong. For example, one would not have the tools to council a good friend using contraception if one were not informed that the action was not a licit one. How can one understand the things of God unless one has been instructed? But knowing the teachings of the Church is not enough for someone to be a counselor in these important moral affairs. This is often the problem we see today in the realm of popular Catholic speakers and writers. Many, though certainly not all, think that by studying the Catechism, reading some theology books and pursuing a college degree qualifies them to lecture the public on the Catholic faith and the moral dilemmas that people often face. This is simply not the truth. This is often why the Fathers of the Church often said that this virtue was often lacking in the young, because they did not have time to cultivate it. This is likewise similar to new converts, as I have said before in previous articles.

Garrigou Lagrange gives us some insight into my point. “Prudence cannot command unless the will and the sense appetites are seasoned in obedience.” This means that holiness, and the subjection of the will to God is just as, if not more important than, our book knowledge. In fact, an immense amount of time oriented to book knowledge can often steer us dangerously off the path to self obsession, which not only endangers the soul of that person, but also the others counseled by him or her. Remember, we must understand that counsel is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift must be cultivated under much labor and struggle to lose ourselves in God. This is something that I have come to realize more clearly over the past year or so, and as a result you can see that I now try to stay away from more polemical writing these days.

Prudence is something we should all strive to cultivate in our lives. We can start by learning to control ourselves in conversation, remaining silent until we have gone to God in prayer for our counsel. I cannot tell you how many times I have written a blog post with fire coming out of my nostrils responding to something that offended me only to regret it about 15 minutes after publishing it. Even if what I had written had been factually correct, it did not always mean that it needed to be written or publicly aired. This demonstrated a complete absence of the virtue of prudence. Likewise the same can be said of conversations with others where we may get perturbed by some public outrage made by a high ranking bishop of the Church. Oftentimes our passions get the best of us and we end up going into an all out attack on that bishop rather than just acknowledging the comment, remaining silent, and then taking our concern to God in prayer.

In closing, I must reiterate that prudence determines when we must act and when we must not act. It also governs in what manner and the proper time in which to act. This makes all the difference between being an instrument of God, or an instrument of the devil. If we rebuke someone out of our own pride rather than love for the other person, then prudence has been suppressed. Our words will only be only our own, not God’s. Again, even though factually we may be correct in what we say or write, and we may present the hard cold facts to someone, it will often do little good because it was not communicated in love through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we are often doing our own will, not God’s. One other practice to help guide us on our struggle towards the virtue of prudence is to always examine what we say and do, understanding that every word we speak and every action we do, we will have to give an account for in eternity. In other words, we all need to make sure that what we say and what you do, that we are prepared to stand before the judgement seat of God to give an answer for. If we are unsure of whether or not our words will withstand the judgement of eternity, it is probably better to remain silent. Of course this is easier said than done, but by the grace of God may He grant us all this most necessary virtue.

Let us now turn for a word of wisdom from the Saints and Fathers of the Church to help guide us.

Let everything be regulated by prudence which should be the rule in all our actions.”
(St Pio)

“...imprudence denotes lack of that prudence which a man can and ought to have, and in this sense imprudence is a sin by reason of a man's negligence in striving to have prudence.” (St Thomas Aquinas)

“Blessed the one who does not speak through hope of reward, who is not always ready to unburden himself of his secrets, who is not anxious to speak, but who reflects prudently on what he is to say and the manner in which he is to reply.”
(St. Francis of Assisi)

"My brother, wisdom is not found in much learning and many letters; rather, as the Holy Scriptures say, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and prudence the desire of the Holy; indeed, it is good to know the law of the mind. This is correct, for faith in God engenders a good mind, and the good mind is a river of living water; he who has attained it will be filled with its beneficial and life-bearing waters...Neither wisdom nor prudence can exist where there is not fear of the Lord, because the wealth of wisdom is to revere the Lord, to whom belongs all glory" (St. Ephraim).

Let us employ the gift of reason for actions of prudence. Let us learn now abstinence from what is wicked, that we may not be forced to learn in the future. Let us employ life as a training school for what is good; and let us be roused to the hatred of sin. Let us bear about a deep love for the Creator; let us cleave to Him with our whole heart; let us not wickedly waste the substance of reason, like the prodigal. Let us obtain the joy laid up, in which Paul exulting, exclaimed, 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?' (Rom. 8.35). To Him belongs glory and honour, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen. (St Clement of Alexandria)

From the Life of Saint Pambo of the Desert

St. Pambo excelled most other ancient monks in the austerity of his continual fasts. The government of his tongue was no less an object of his watchfulness than that of his appetite. A certain religious brother, to whom he had applied for advice began to recite to him the thirty-eighth psalm . I said I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue. Which words Pambo had no sooner heard, but without waiting for the second verse, he returned to his cell, saying, that was enough for one lesson, and that he would go and study to put it in practice. This he did by keeping almost perpetual silence, and by weighing well, when it was necessary to speak, every word before he gave any answer. He often took several days to recommend consultations to God, and to consider what answer he should give to those who addressed themselves to him. By his perpetual attention not to offend in his words, he arrived at so great a perfection in this particular, that he was thought to have equalled, if not to have excelled, Saint Antony himself; and his answers were seasoned with so much wisdom and spiritual prudence, that they were received by all as if they had been oracles dictated by heaven...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy

My Thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy
Matthew J Bellisario 2012

In the past I have posted some information regarding reading material or videos which are of Eastern Orthodox authorship. Some have written me thanking me for the information that I have given them. I believe that the material I have recommended has been material that is of some benefit to faithful Catholics. That being said, I do not think that I have given a full explanation of my thoughts on Orthodoxy, and how it relates to living an authentic Catholic life. While my attention is focused on this topic, I wanted to give a more full explanation of my thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy so that readers of this blog will understand my previous posts more fully.

To start off, I will let it be known that I am a convert from Orthodoxy, which occurred in 2003. I was a member of a small Ukrainian Orthodox group established in Canada. So I do have some experiential knowledge of Orthodoxy and its teachings. I will say from the start that many Orthodox clergy and laity alike are fiercely opposed to the Catholic Church. They often misrepresent the Church’s teachings concerning the Holy Father, Our Blessed Mother, Original Sin as well as many other doctrines and dogmas. I experienced this first hand. I have listened to talks by an orthodox priest who falsely claimed that Catholics make the sign of the cross with five fingers instead of three because we believe that Mary and the Pope are equal to the Holy Trinity.

Secondly, if you hang around enough of them, especially converts, you get the impression that anything that ever came out of the West is from the devil. They go out of their way to make sure that they can differentiate anything they can between the East and the West, even when there isn’t even any substantial difference. For example, they act as if they have an exclusive claim to deification. These and other misrepresentations often paint the Catholic Church in a radical negative light, which I now tend to just ignore rather than get bent out of shape about. I guess I have experienced it enough to know that these people are sad cases of a form of fanaticism.

Finally, I must acknowledge their lack of ability to maintain any kind of stable moral theology. They simply do not have the tools to examine modern ethical situations and come to any united moral standing on them. They often waver back and forth on the contraception issue, often leaving it up to the individual and their spiritual father. They malign marriage and the vows made between a man and women to which Our Lord tells  once they are made cannot be broken. Their radical contempt for the Holy Father and the brilliance of Saint Thomas Aquinas has crippled their ability to maintain any unity on a variety moral issues. There are also some dogmatic issues of which are of concern which I will not cover here which readers should know about such as the Filioque, Purgatory and so forth. All this being said, we can indeed learn from some of their writings and publications if we are well studies and grounded in the Catholic faith.

The most beneficial aspect of reading their publications is that of Eastern Spirituality and monasticism, which has all but lost to the West. Even in our Eastern Catholic Churches the establishment of Eastern Monasticism is sparse to say the least, and are often modeled on later Western monasticism rather than that of the Desert Fathers. I long for the reestablishment of Eastern Monasticism in the US. There are only a few small communities that exist at this time in the US, and none of them really have any substantial publishing arm to communicate to the general Catholic population. There is much wisdom in the Eastern writings which contain advice on prayer and spiritual practices which are hard to find elsewhere. Unfortunately since most of these practices are abandoned in the West most of the written material on the subject is written by Orthodox monks and elders. This is an unfortunate reality that we must recognize.

‘The Jesus Prayer’ or the ‘Prayer of the Heart’ is one example of many spiritual practices that has been long lost to the West. It is however part of our Catholic heritage that needs to be reclaimed, being that the Desert Fathers and Eastern Church Fathers often spoke of this practice. I have found much benefit to practicing this form of prayer to strengthen me throughout the day, and to keep me focused on Christ rather than worldly things. LIkewise, I have found their explanations on spiritual warfare to also be of immense help.

Secondly, we in the West can tend to over-intellectualize things, and if we are not careful we turn theology into an intellectual rather than a mutually spiritual enriching practice. This is not an inherent flaw in Catholicism, but in our modern Western mindset which seeks to understand everything down to the tiniest detail. If we are not careful we often put God in a box, and when things don’t add up in the system we have created in our minds it often effects us in a negative manner. Having some acquaintance with the Eastern Fathers and Eastern spirituality can help us stay balanced.

Finally, I enjoy reading about some of their Saints and elders through which God seems to have enriched those around them, at least to the level that is available to them through their valid Sacraments and valid apostolic succession. The Catholic Church has maintained that the Orthodox are rightly called “Churches” because of these divine realities, something that is not found in any form of Protestantism. Again, I will repeat a warning to those who want to read these types of books; know your Catholic faith well and do not get sidetracked by some of the anti-Catholic stances they take. Some authors are more pronounced in these matters than others and many times I will not even come across anything that is opposed to the Catholic faith. For example I just finished reading a great little book published by the Coptic Orthodox on the spiritual life titled, ‘Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers.’ However this is something you need to be aware of because sooner or later you will come across anti-Catholic prejudice and you will have to be prepared to dismiss it.

In closing I will say that reading Orthodox material is not for all Catholics. With the confusion going on today in the Church it may even be harmful to some people, so let me be clear that I am not saying that everyone will receive enrichment from Orthodox publications. I often visit Orthodox churches and I am prepared to engage in defending the Catholic faith when having conversations with them. I remember having a heated debate a few years back with an Orthodox priest in South Carolina who went ballistic when he found out I was a convert to the Catholic Church. These types of encounters do not bother me and I am usually more than happy to engage such people. In fact I believe that our attempts at true ecumenism should be more oriented in their direction. At any rate, if I run across a good Orthodox book that I have found to be spiritually enriching, I will certainly put up a post about it. I just wanted to clear the air on the subject so that those reading my blog do not think that I see no problems or differences with the Eastern Orthodox. I do not want to come across as supporting indifferentism between our one true faith in Catholicism and the schismatic problems inherent in Eastern Orthodoxy. I also do not want to dismiss some of the spiritually enriching material that many Catholics can benefit from and seek to reintroduce into their Catholic heritage. It is my hope that we will see a resurgence in the publication of Eastern spirituality and practice from the many Eastern Catholic Churches. There is one website that you can find Eastern Catholic publications that I would recommend checking out. May God bless and keep you!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Protestantism and Catholicism- Core Difference of the Heart

Protestantism and Catholicism- Core Difference of the Heart
Matthew J. Bellisario 2012

There are many theological differences between the Protestant sects that arose out the 16th century, and the ancient apostolic Church that Christ established through his apostles. As I spend more time in prayer and in reading the ancient Fathers of the Church, one core principle comes to the forefront of what divides these sects from authentic Christianity. It lies in the difference of what we actually believe about Christ and how He interacts with mankind. The basic synthesis of Protestantism lies in the false notion that after one’s “conversion” Christ now ignores the sins of the convert, and now covers the convert in a type of adoption by profession. In other words, most Protestants hold an idea that depicts Christ as dying to cover up the sins of man.

The true Christian faith does not adopt such a shortsighted view of Christ’s sacrifice. No, Christ’s sacrifice goes much deeper to the core of a person’s heart than a mere “covering up.” Grace is not a cloak which now hides and excuses the sins of man, but it seeks to transform the heart of man so that sin actually dies and is replaced by the love of God, which in turn makes man a partaker of Christ in e very real and concrete way. When we understand the Scriptures properly, which tell us that man was made in the image and likeness of God, we understand this to mean much more than an ideal image that Adam and Eve once held before the fall. We see the image and likeness of God coming truly into focus only after Christ became incarnate and gave Himself for the salvation of mankind. This was not done so that God would once again see man in his former glory days before the fall, but it was done so that man would be truly healed. This healing was not only a healing which would change man to be as he was before the fall, but to deify man so that he will attain an even higher level of life in God. Saint Maximus tells us, "A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man's sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically when he says, '…that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness of His grace' (Eph. 2:7)

The grace that man is given through Christ and His Church allows man to actually participate in the divine life of God. (Psalm 82:6) We will be like God as the scriptures tells us, and yes,we are even to be transformed not only to cease sinning, but to do His will. Jesus told us that unless we do the Father’s will we cannot have eternal life. God’s will being done by us is not some abstract idea that falls under a cloak of ignorance or even a divine edict. We do His will because God actually comes to live in us as we struggle through our life in living our faith in Christ. This transformation sometimes takes many years but it must happen one way or the other in order for God’s work to be completed in us. In reality, the true Christian becomes perfected in a very real way. St Theodoros tells us, “Now the purpose of our life is blessedness or, what is the same thing, the kingdom of heaven or of God. This is not only to behold the Trinity, supreme in Kingship, but also to receive an influx of the divine and, as it were, to suffer deification; for by this influx what is lacking and imperfect in us is supplied and perfected. And the provision by such divine influx of what is needed is the food of spiritual beings.”

In dialoging with our Protestant friends we eventually always arrive at the “faith and works”, “man’s will vs God’s will” controversy. As we well understand, there is no real controversy at the heart of these realities. Faith without works is dead, and work without faith is blasphemy. These two ideas are married at their core, and they cannot be separated. An authentic theological approach to these two truths never separate the two. This false “faith works” controversy was only brought forth in any real capacity with arrival of the Protestant rebellion. Likewise we see no clash between man’s freewill and God’s sovereignty. Man is only saved by the grace of God, and yes, God approaches man first through no work or merit of his own. Yet God grants man in a mysterious way to exercise his freewill in accepting and struggling to accept God and the transformation He seeks to bestow upon him. (Philippians 2:12–13) Again, the true Christian accepts this mystery of God and sees them as being part of the same reality, while the heretic seeks to divide these two realities as he seeks to divide the Body of Christ.

The true Christian seeks and is given transformation in his or her life by the grace of God. God did not come to us merely to cover our sins, He came to radically eradicate the sin of man and give man a portion of the divine kingdom. As the Scripture say, Christ came to change the old man into a new man. We do not pour the new wine into old wineskins. This idea of God’s grace merely covering the old man was never taught by the Church Fathers. The change of man was not viewed to be a symbolic change, just as they did not view Christ becoming present on the altar as being symbolic. They viewed these as a stark realities which transformed their lives in a very tangible way. This change happens through believing what Christ teaches us through His Church, which leads us to participate in the divine life of the Church, in her sacraments, in her liturgical life, and in our life of prayer and penance.

If we read some of the ancient fathers we see this living theology cemented in their lives. Notice, they were not theologians who sat behind desks and wrote long theological treatises. They were quoted or wrote themselves out of an authentic life in Christ. They knew full well that the true theologians were the ones who lived the true spiritual life, which transformed them to become like Christ. One’s mere education obtained by merely reading books or studying scholarly sources did not constitute one’s ability to be a true theologian. Likewise they did not view just going to liturgy on Sunday as being enough to attain salvation. They understood that what we received in the Sacraments must be cultivated with diligence outside the walls of the church in their private lives. If we view the climate today in the Catholic Church, this seems to be the key that is often missed.

Converts to the Catholic Church often write books on apologetics and their stories of conversion to the Catholic Church on an intellectual level. They write and talk about how and why the Catholic Church is the true Church, which can be of some benefit to people. Yet most never engage in truly helping anyone to become transformed and attain salvation once they come to the Church. Many remain stuck in the Church’s externals and never find the pearl of great price that lies at the center of it all. Many so often wonder why they go to confession so may times and are never changed. They go to Mass weekly and go to confession frequently but so many never spend any significant time in prayer and penance at home. They do not practice the virtues of silence, penance and other aspects of the spiritual life. Hence this true transformation sometimes never takes place. This being said, do not take me in a negative way here. Let us be patient in our transformational journey and let us not be discouraged when we fall. We must continue on to examine Christ and our lives more thoroughly. We should read the Scriptures, the Church Father, and then not stop there for mere knowledge of what they believed, but put it into practice in a very real and tangible way. As we slowly but surely spend more time prayer, penance and the practice of the virtues we will cultivate that which is given to us within the walls of the church in her sacraments. Deification, our transformation in Christ is not an abstraction, it is not a figurative idea, it is not something that we read about on paper. It must be a reality for all Christians of the true faith.

Let us now turn to the Holy Fathers for a word to enrich our souls.

Saint Nilus of Sinai tells us that, "It is impossible for a believer to be saved, or to receive remission of sins and be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, unless in fear, faith and love he receives communion of the pure Mysteries of the Body and blood of Christ."

As we receive these gifts of grace in our churches the great St. Chrysostom tells us that we must pray. "Do not estrange your heart from God, but abide in Him and always guard your heart by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted in the heart and it ceases to think of anything else. may Christ be glorified in you... Every man when praying converses with God. Each of us understands how great a thing it is, being man, to converse with God; but I doubt if anyone can express this honor in words, for it is higher than even the station of angels... Prayer is a doing common to both angels and men; and no wall divides the two kinds of being in this doing. Prayer separates you from those who lack the Word and unites you with the angels. A man who strives all his life to practice praying and serving God, speedily becomes akin to angels in life, honor, estate, wisdom and understanding...Prayer is the cause of salvation, the source of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, the unassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects us in the work of righteousness... Prayer is a great weapon, a great protection.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Noise of the Internet

It has been quite awhile since I have posted on this blog. I never intended to go so long without a post. I moved into my new home at the end of July and I chose not to have high speed internet connected when I moved. It turns out that this is one of the best things that has happened to me in recent years. I know it probably sounds strange that I have used the word "noise" to describe the internet, but after not having it for awhile, it seems to be a good description. There have been several benefits to not spending hours surfing around the internet. For starters I spend much more time praying than I ever have. Instead of snooping around the internet to see what everyone is saying or doing, I am able to focus on my own spiritual life, which as it turns out, needs a ton of work! Spending more time in prayer is essential to living an authentic Christian life. Someone once said, "If you pray a great deal you have a great chance of receiving eternal salvation, if you pray a little you have little chance, and if you pray not, you have no chance." Spending more time praying has allowed me to truly reflect on how I live, or do not live the spiritual life. As a result God has shown me where the problems are. By avoiding hours snooping, reading the news, watching YouTube, or shopping on the Net, I have received an immense blessing from God.

The second great benefit is that I now read much more than I used to. I have been engaged in several books on the Desert Fathers, and have been trying to implement many of their time tested strategies to come closer to God. As a result, I seem to now care little of what goes on in the crazy world of heretics, charlatans and apostates that seem to lurk around every bend of the internet. The Mark Shea's of the world are now of little concern to me. I find myself more at peace, although it has been a bit of a rough ride at the house! One project has turned into many, many projects, and there have been a ton of things wrong in the house that I did not know about. It seems that me and the house have a ton in common! Between the troubles with the house, and an intense hard look at my spiritual life, I have certainly been tested. And that has been a good thing. 

The third benefit of not having the high speed internet at my home is that I sleep more! I used to spend hours looking things up late at night, not getting to bed until all hours. Now after I pray and read a bit, when I am tired I turn out the lights and go to bed. What a revelation! I have found other ways of using the internet when I need it. I go to a coffee shop or a cafe for breakfast and I use the internet to download spiritual talks or to look things up briefly. Aside from that, I am able to check my email through my work computer. So all in all, getting rid of the high speed internet has been a great blessing from God! I still intend to post here every so often, when I have something useful to say. Otherwise I am content to spend more time reading and in prayer. May God bless and keep you!