It was a quiet, overcast, rather humid Sunday afternoon in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. I walked to a store nearby and bought the Sunday paper, The Boston Globe, and a large cup of coffee. Once at home, I sat comfortably to read it. Everything was silent, one could hear the hum of traffic from Massachusetts Avenue. I was concentrating on some article in the paper when suddenly I became aware of a presence. I thought some intruder could be in. I thought so, since someone had tried to break in only a few days before. I took a look around the small apartment. My quick inspection revealed nothing unusual and I returned to the sofa. There I had the same sensation again but this time I had the certainty that someone was there with me although I saw no one around. My visitor became more evident to my senses and I must admit I got scared. I can deal with a visible intruder but this was not some burglar. Before I could take control of my own fear, in that first second something spoke to me, not with words: “Do not be afraid” and the message was accompanied by a sensation that I would describe as the complete opposite of fear, as if “do not be afraid” would have been a command to my innermost being, one order I could not disobey. After that, I was treated to about a minute or less of absolute peace that blended perfectly with the quiet afternoon. Whatever that was, it was a benign, peaceful being, someone made of pure love.
I completely forgot the date of that encounter. I thought about it often but I dared not mention that to others, mainly because I could not quite define it myself. Various friends had warned me that living alone for so long was not good. I was a bit overworked but since I did not drink or consumed drugs, I thought my friends were being perhaps overprotective. That Sunday I went to bed thinking about that extraordinary experience. I concluded it was a visit from the realms beyond. At the time, the thought of a spiritual reality had some undesirable ramifications for me. I was happy with my material life, I had plans but those plans were not spiritual at all. I decided not to tell anyone but I was determined to find out more about the spiritual realm.
It was about that time that a neighbor moved out of the building. I helped her a bit and she kindly corresponded with a present. It was a book with selected essays by C. S. Lewis. I vaguely remembered Lewis to be a philosopher that J. L. Borges mentioned in a footnote. I may be wrong about this but I recall that work quoted was A Preface to Paradise Lost. The book I had just received was different. As I read on, it turned out to be essays mainly on theology. I devoured the book in a couple of days and re-read it several times. That lead me to find more books of the same author. At the time, I did not notice that something was gently nudging me to learn about Christ.
I started to read the Christian classics. It was about a decade of continuous exploration albeit a disorderly one. I read many things that were a waste of time but even the bad pages provided the opportunity to grow some critical skills, to develop some spiritual taste. I was in the middle of that process when one day, I caught the flu. It was an awful part of the winter spent in bed watching television while on a steady diet of Campbell’s chicken soup. At that time, I discovered EWTN and Fr. John Corapi’s series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I was hooked. Over a period of two years or so, I must have watched that series many times a day. I noticed that all the reading I had done the previous years was falling orderly in place. The arrow was pointing to the Catholic Church.
At that point all I had in my head was doctrine. As I delved deeper and deeper into Catholic Tradition and history I was surprised at every corner by a delightful sense of symmetry, a harmony that was so obviously of divine origin. At the time I did not realize that the human side of the Church was in the middle of a revolution. The Church was in the process of tossing aside those very things that attracted me so much to the ancient edifice of the faith. I entered the Church in that state of mind, unaware that I was jumping headlong into the crucible.
God protected me through the whole process. It’s been twenty years and I am still with Him in spite of all the awful things the “moderns” have bombarded me with. It is a fight and material losses are inevitable. God will make all things new in the end. We have to go through the crucible to be purified.
The very day I was baptized, the priest who had received me into the Church said very casually: “Oh, don’t worry about that! No one knows what porneia actually means!” I was quite surprised by that phrase but I thought he was talking about some technicality and I made a mental note to study that later. I should have been very alarmed by that creepy affirmation. As years went by, those alarming signs multiplied and the true state of the Catholic Church became more and more clear in my mind.
Through the years I began to sense a clear animosity from Catholics I met, not all of them thankfully but a good number. The episodes of subtle aggresion, envy, vicious gossip, and outright personal attacks became more and more frequent. For some reason I never felt hurt by that. A picture began to emerge of a Church that had jettisoned all the things that made her great, the weight of the glorious Cross was being replaced by a light version of the doctrine, something that could not compare to the beauty of the Church of the ages. I had fallen in love with a beautiful woman only to find out that her beauty was fake and her soul was rotten by the most awful vices. My first feeling was one of pity, contemplating the miserable state of what was once a great beauty but then I felt a wave of righteous anger at those who had perpetrated the crime.
The great miracle I experienced was evident only to me: I was swimming in the crucible. Just like the three Hebrews in the furnace whose clothes were never singed in spite of the terrible heat.
Twenty years into my Catholic journey I can look back and see the protective hand of God from the beginning. Jesus said once to his disciples “I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12 Douay-Rheims) Divine Providence invites us into the crucible of the faith without directly revealing the sufferings we have to endure to be purified. And yet, the crucible is only a temporary process to obtain the eternal product: the unpolluted soul. In time, our eyes are open and we learn not only to bear the fire but to desire it. At that point the faith is almost perfect. Sad is the destiny of the damned who end unwillingly into the eternal fire. The same flames purging the souls of the saints going to Heaven are the eternal punishment of those who refused the friendship of God and his purification.
Allow me to draw a parallelism here. My experience that Sunday afternoon was only a warning or perhaps an invitation. My soul could only tolerate that much, a minute basking in the glow of God’s fire. And then came a training adequate to the state of the pupil: lots of reading seasoned here and there with small painful lessons. When I was ready, I was invited to the trenches and so it went until today. I am far from being a seasoned soldier but I am no longer a fresh recruit.
The parallelism is here: we went through the pains of 9-11 and now we have COVID-19 with all the associated troubles. We’ve come a long way in the last twenty or thirty years. The sexual scandals, the unfortunate association of the Church with the world; the perfidious handing over of the Church in China to the Communist, an act that seems to prefigure the surrendering of the Church to the new global tyrants; the blatant desecration of the highest altar … all of that points at the emergence of that false church, the unfaithful spouse that God announced and condemned for centuries in the words of many prophets. We are invited into that crucible, we are called to be witnesses to the truth even when the princes of the Church cower and negotiate comfortable terms of capitulation.
What are you going to do? Do you see what is going on? Are you going to surrender and gently go downstream to that low sink of dissolution? Or are you willing to dive into the crucible to emerge purified on the other side? Many call themselves Catholic these days and have no idea of the battle raging around them. Those thread happily down the wide road ignoring the ancient advice of Saint Jerome: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!” And how ignorant we have allowed ourselves to remain!
This quarantine time is God’s invitation to learn more about him. For those who already know, this is an invitation to lead others to the light. Don’t worry about being branded a “proselytist” because that is exactly what Jesus called you to be, that is his Great Commission. No one can follow Christ and ignore that.
There but for the grace of God into the final crucible we go.
“Let us stand fast in what is right, and prepare our souls for trial. Let us wait upon God’s strengthening aid and say to him: ‘O Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations.'” — St. Boniface
In the Feast of Sts. Cletus and Marcellinus, Popes and Martyrs