By Charlie Johnston
I rode a train from Washington, D.C. to Charlottesville, Virginia. I don’t care for buses, but I like Amtrak. Riding a train offers the cozy intimacy of coming in the back door of an old farmhouse you know well. It is kind of like seeing America from the back porch.
I am rarely charmed by a house when looking at it from the front. That is the formal, family portrait view – it is usually pleasant, but offers little insight to the character of the household. On a train, you see mostly backyards – backyards with their benches, garden tractors, toys here and there, maybe a pond. You get a sense of the life lived in those houses. Similarly, businesses always seek to put their best face forward. From the front, they show what they would like you to think they are. From a train, you simply see what they are – certainly the arches and signs, but the dumpsters and gritty alleys as well.
Most evocative for me, a train cuts through large swaths of woods, forests, fields and meadows; across brooks and rivers. It is how I saw much of the country when I walked my pilgrimage. On a train, you see clearly that the interior of the woods are rarely dense and overgrown. That is largely confined to the borders. It is something I discovered while walking. Duck into the densest woods and I rarely had to go more than 15 feet back before it got much easier and less overgrown. The train ride so hearkened me back to my fondest memories of my pilgrimage that I yearned for a backpack, bag and tent with which to duck into the woods and take a nap. If you want the closest visual equivalent of a pilgrimage you can get, take the train.
What you won’t get from a train ride, though, is the clear view of the great heart of Americans, which despite the polarization of our cynical politics and public debates, beats strong and true. I have always had a more optimistic vision of people’s hearts than most, but my pilgrimage confirmed that optimism in ways that astounded me. People’s hearts desperately want to reach out to each other. I often tell stories of
these episodes in my presentations. The atheist in Alabama who plaintively expressed the hope that there is a God after we spent an hour and a half over coffee talking about everything except God…the homeless man in Ventura, California who gave me his spot for a night and offered to give me several days’ worth of cans he had collected to take to the recycling center if I was short of cash…the gangbangers in Baton Rouge who, taking pity on an old man walking, got a bag full of snacks and juices at a convenience store and gave them to me…the young homeless woman in San Antonio who burst into tears when I asked her to pray for me, telling me many had offered to pray for her but I was the only person who had ever asked her for prayers…the woman in the convenience/liquor store in Mississippi early in the morning who held my hand and prayed for my protection when she realized I was walking for God…the Mexican man and his little daughter who, seeing me resting in the shade of a tree in Colorado, fried me up two burritos and brought a can of orange soda across the street to refresh me. So many people invited me in to share a meal with them or stay the night. I found that people are not just willing to be generous, but hungry to be generous while wanting not to be played.
I have often said that if you scratch the surface of a cynic, nine times out of ten you will find a disillusioned idealist looking for a reason to believe again. We live in cynical times but, oh, how our hearts long to cast off that cynicism!
My missionary journeys of the last two years have confirmed the great heart I found on my pilgrimage. Far from the madding public debates, spread all throughout the country, unnoticed by the chattering classes, are people living the simple Gospel messages every day. When I am on the road, I meet two or three times a week with groups of Nuns or Priests who are joyfully working to bring the loving light of Christ to those around them.
I first fell in love with an order of nuns in Opa Locka, Florida, where I met the Marianitas. Living in a tiny monastery house, they gather food to provide 300 families a month with a month’s worth of food.
They do this from poverty, themselves, relying on their social security checks and food stamps to make up the shortfall of what they can collect. Yet they do it without even a hint of self-pity or worry, always joyfully confident that the Lord will provide. I spent an afternoon joking and laughing with these dear ladies, completely taken with their infectious enthusiasm and joy. It was by no means the last order of nuns I fell in love with.
There is the Society of Our Mother of Peace near Springfield, Missouri. Srs. Fidelis and Regina lead a small contingent of nuns who offer little trailers back in the woods for solemn retreats – and spend all year knocking on doors to evangelize people and gather support for the neediest in the community. I was tickled to learn on my last visit that the dear sisters have been practicing riding bicycles – in full habit – so they might get around more easily.
At Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, California, right in the heart of the Silicon Valley, they have
Daily Noon Masses that routinely get 700 people during the lunch hour. The heart of Christian faith may be hidden from the bully babies who rule the Silicon Valley, but it beats strong, nonetheless, hidden from those who would fire a Christian for being a Christian.
The New York-based Sisters of Life, only founded in 1991, is a young, vibrant, joyful order of nuns completely committed to the culture of life. I visited with some of them over the course of a week while they were making a retreat in Colorado. Theirs are not strident voices in the culture wars, but prayerfully ministering to pregnant women and rescuing babies from the clutches of the abortuaries.
In Willey, Iowa an entire community of people – Nuns, Priests and laymen, is rising on the prairie under the leadership of Sr. Marie Hesed – a visionary and practical nun as part of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Mission (SOLT) where people can find “…peaceful solitude with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, fellowship in community life, and work in sustainable agriculture.” Sr. Marie is one tough, strong-willed woman (she has to be – she spent some time working in poverty and formal oppression in Communist Cuba). She has all the toughness of the Mother Superior from the classic Sidney Poitier movie, “Lilies of the Field,” though her heart and her gentle smile give immediate welcome to all.
I could write endlessly of the many nuns who are laboring with great love all throughout this country. I tell you, they are closer to you than you know, completely unheralded by the media. Find them and help them. In doing so, you will find joy.
I have met with so many Priests, Deacons, and Protestant Pastors, completely committed to their work, completely in love with the souls entrusted to them. They, too, are confused by the strange divisions and strife that engulf us today, yet they soldier on, determined to be a sign of hope to their little flocks. If you saw how tenderly so many of them care, how they agonize to find what is right and how to live it, how to
spark gentle hope in their spiritual charges, it would fill you with confidence in the future of the faith. It has done so for me.
I find laymen actively searching out people and communities they can open their hearts to, helping with projects both little and big, all with an emphasis on the dignity of the human person, rather than just treating people like pets and engaging in social work as an exotic form of animal husbandry. Almost always, it is fueled by regular prayer meetings, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
The only thing people want for itself is happiness. Alas, many have completely lost their way in how to find it! People have ended up chasing after things rather than ends – and like a drug addiction, the initial pleasurable sensation leads to obsession that becomes a nightmarish plunge into the abyss. They keep trying the things that got them there in the first place in a desperate attempt to get out of the abyss…and keep getting deeper. Physical addictions, if not checked, lead to early physical death. Spiritual addictions, if not checked, lead to despair, bitterness and a consuming malice that mutilates the heart and the soul. When lust replaces love, when greed replaces the work, when manipulation replaces ministry, darkness
overwhelms. When the substitution of means for ends becomes culturally supreme, the world becomes a boneyard. No wonder there is such enthusiasm for zombie stories in modern life: our whole society has become filled with the walking – and mindlessly malicious – wounded. They lash out at the people who criticize their drug of choice: lust for power, money or casual sex – as if those people are the cause of their unrelenting misery. Just a few more shots of that drug will make everything okay, they think. So they attack the very people who are trying to rescue them from the misery they have created.
Happiness does not come from relentlessly indulging one’s appetites. In fact, that is a sure formula for misery and despair. It comes from fully engaging with your family and fellows, living your commitments out of love, restraining your appetites in order to live full fellowship with them – to see in everyone the fullness of the dignity of their person – and to respect that dignity. It is the Lord, Himself, who gave us the way to happiness, the precepts which gave rise to western civilization – which gave rise to real human liberty, rights and prosperity. The rise of Christianity is the rise of Western Civilization is the rise of human liberty and innate dignity. A great irony of our times is that those who call themselves modernists would toss this all overboard to return to the very primitive brutish tribalism that brought only misery and suffering.
The good news is that people across the globe are reconsidering this brave new world. Millions, mostly laboring in quiet obscurity, are dedicating their lives to caring for their fellows. I know. These last few years I have spent a lot of time with them – and they never complain of microaggressions or how painful it is to have someone disagree with them. Millions more have checked their own spiritual addiction and begun to rediscover the happiness that comes from living the simple virtues – and denying their excessive appetites. I know. I have met many of them, too. Fr. Mitch Pacwa of EWTN reports that eight million Muslims converted to Christianity last year – and that for the first time in a long time, Africa has become a majority Christian continent. The bad news is that the spiritual addicts are reacting like any unrepentant addict does when his supply is threatened: threatening violence in a screaming, bottomless rage. When there is such a large cohort of addicts, the threat of petulant violence is very real – and gets more perilous the closer we get to the loss of the anti-God progressive authoritarian state they thought they had secured. Many of the Christian converts from Islam have had their conversion motivated, in part, by the institutionalized doctrinal brutality of their former faith. Isis, in order to stop it, only knows how to double down on what drove the converts away in the first place. Kind of like the bully babies of the American left who, having driven ordinary Americans away by their toxic condescension and bullying, think the way to win them back is more of the same.
Throughout the world, we seem poised for the eruption of a series of irrepressible conflicts. I see little chance of avoiding all of them. But I want you to know that if this terrible conflict must come, it is not the collapse of civilization, but the death throes of those who have so long assaulted the very idea of civilization. When I tell you that the way forward in all things is to acknowledge God, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope to those around you; to live the ordinary way in the present moment at all times, I am not just giving you a motto to live by. I give you a summary of the Gospels, the way to find happiness, and the meaning of life.
Things are going to be scary for a while yet. I cannot tell you different. But the key to everything is the people’s hearts, their commitment to their family and friends. I can tell you these last few years (and during my first pilgrimage) I have seen the heartbeat of America. It beats strong and true. You don’t see it in the media, you rarely see it in official pronouncements. But it is there, strong and true – and the assault of those who would eliminate it are just the fireworks heralding the restoration of Western Civilization – and Christianity. Every assault will make that great heart grow stronger. Your job in this next year is to collect cynics – by becoming their reason to believe. Be not afraid: God truly does call all men to salvation.