By Charlie Johnston
(This is an adaptation of a note I sent out to a group of friends and leaders last weekend. Several said they found it heartening enough that they thought I should submit it as a regular post. So I have. – CJ)
I find a lot of people, including the most knowledgeable, talking to me lately about how perilous the times are and what to expect. Understandable. North Korea is a tinder box, China is trying to provoke mischief, Eastern Europe is a tinderbox – and Western Europe, amazingly, even more so. Russia is making mischief, even as it tries to figure out a coherent strategy in a world gone mad. The Middle East is volatile, as is Northern Africa and Southeast Asia. Venezuela is a burning fuse in South America – and the USA is only a few steps away from open, violent conflict. The Church, traditionally the refuge in times of great crisis, is itself in great crisis, as too many Bishops think their job is to correct what they believe to be the many errors of Christ, with seeming encouragement from the top. Catholics gaze in wonder as abortion advocates, jihadists, radical population control advocates, homosexual activists and just about anyone who scorns Catholic Doctrine are welcomed at the Vatican and even appointed to Pontifical Commissions while Orthodox prelates are routinely and summarily dismissed and scolded.
As Our Lord said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). When every institution and nation is become as unstable as a crateful of nitro-glycerin loaded on a monster truck at an Oklahoma rally, something is going to blow. Yet Our Lord said that He is with us to the end of the age – and that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. Our Lady told us of all these trials – and more – at Fatima, but promised that in the end, her Immaculate Heart will triumph. I know that both of their promises are true. Now the hour of darkness comes upon the world. But be not afraid: the darkness will not prevail.
I have had much instruction since the Inauguration. Yet there is no use in speaking of specifics. In fact, it would just confuse the issue – kind of like the mirror of Galadriel near the end of the Fellowship of the Rings. (I am reading the trilogy again – and it could be useful for you, as well. There is MUCH wisdom in there, which I have come to appreciate intensely). Things are bigger than I had imagined – and simultaneously easier and more terrible. A key reason is that God is moving in a way that is completely different than He has before. That should not have surprised me: when little minds argue that something can’t be from God because He has “never done it that way before,” I always chuckle ruefully. God is always startling, fresh and new. If something happens in a way that God HAS done it before, that is usually (not always) a sign of inauthenticity – that it is not from God but merely one of the satan’s pale imitations. The good news is that God will intervene on an Old Testament scale. The bad news is that this will enrage many people, causing them to double down on their revolt rather than come back to Him. The truly tragic news is that some of those who will be enraged against God are among those who count themselves as defenders of the faith.
The very best news is that we will each get the opportunity to choose. I have emphasized that before, but it is more important than even I knew. We can choose to serve God and help rebuild the culture or choose to serve ourselves and perish. Your choice will be proven by what you do, not by what you say. We cannot change that the darkness comes, nor are we necessary for God to secure the victory. All of this is, in large measure, so that we are forced to choose. So most of this note is a meditation on how we are to behave so as to firmly choose God and please Him.
After my blunder on the Inauguration, a good friend who knew how much I loved the Jeff Bridges version of the movie, “True Grit,” called me and recited my favorite line from the movie: “Well, that didn’t pan out.” It was after Bridges mounted an attack that went south and utterly failed. I love it because Bridge’s character, Rooster Cogburn, did not even think of trying to shift blame, nor did he even think of giving up. He laconically acknowledged the blunder, then moved on to the next step to complete his job. My friend waited about a week, lest I be sensitive about it, but when she called and greeted me with that line, it was my first big belly laugh about the whole situation. This encapsulates, in miniature, what our disposition is called to be in these times. The very best of you, even given the best information, are going to come up with plans that just don’t pan out. It is the human condition – and we are called to remember we are servants, not masters…that God knows what He is about – and even uses our blunders to further His Divine plan to perfection.
It is worth reading the Books of Moses again. No one, except perhaps Abraham (and later, the Apostles) had as direct a pipeline to God as Moses. Yet they wandered the desert for 40 years. Look at a map of the journey involved. A generous estimate is that from beginning to end, it was maybe 1,500 miles, which should have taken around a year (again generous). But they wandered in circles…for 40 years. Yes, the Jews had seen a multitude of miracles. Even so, given that they knew that Moses had a direct pipeline to God, their frustration had a sort of point: “if God is showing you the way, why are we wandering so aimlessly for so terribly long?” God’s ways are not like our ways. While we want to take the most direct and quickest route, in God’s plan, the journey is every bit as important as the destination – for it is the journey which proves and purifies us – and makes us fit for the destination. Yet because we insist on overlaying our way of thinking onto God, we constantly insist His way makes no sense. God’s purpose is to get us to heaven, not to any earthly advantage or destination. If we could see the fullness of what that means, we would be much more docile to seeming setbacks. It is not God’s plan that is deficient, but our expectations.
You are all leaders, called to serve God by being a sign of hope to His people during times of extremis. You are called to live your duty faithfully, with docility, fortitude and initiative. It pleases God that, in this time of our scourging (which we richly deserve), seldom will we be given simple choices between right and wrong. More often our options will be bad, worse, and truly atrocious. How we choose under those circumstances will purify and enlighten us – if it does not destroy us. I told you sometime back that I was instructed long ago by the Lord, Himself, that I would be held accountable for every soul I could have given effective witness to but did not out of anger…and that I would be held accountable for every assault on the faithful that I could have stopped but did not out of fear or false charity. This is humanly impossible – and I am NOT allowed to not act. It can only be done with fear and trembling and complete trust in God, for I have made many mistakes and will make many more before all is done. Welcome to the club, all of you.
Your most important tools in this time are love of your neighbor, expressed through duty and honor in filial love for God. It is, in part, good not to see too much with clarity because that can become a seduction to you. You see something alarming and you want to go fix it – but you know not what God’s plans are. This a tough lesson, but one God is insistent on. I thank God that I was given many lessons in it from the earliest days in order to blunt this instinct. There were a couple of occasions over the last few decades when people I loved were in places where I knew a catastrophe loomed. Every nerve in my body screamed to warn them, but I was not given leave. Having had the experience on more than a few occasions when I was younger of intervening despite God’s strictures – and thus making matters worse…or even bringing on the ill I sought to avoid…I learned a stronger docility. I prayed intensely and constantly while going about my little duty faithfully. You will learn to do the same, though I hope by less harsh means than I did. The best thing you can do for anyone is to do the little duty right in front of you with love and fidelity. Do not worry whether it humanly seems great or small. That is God’s business, not yours. Besides, our perception is so deficient that often what seems great to us is a trifle to God and what seems a trifle to us is great to God.
Vanity is, by far, your deadliest enemy – and the means by which the noblest souls are taken captive by the devil. Whenever you get caught in a sterile argument seeking simply to prove you are right, step back. If your conversational partner merely wants to prove he is right – ignoring or evading those key points that must be considered, step back. In the first case, you are not arguing honestly. In the second, you are not arguing with an honest opponent. In neither case can good come – and in both cases it leaves opening for the devil. Yes, you must vigorously seek to find the truth, but when you have decided, you must cast your bread upon the water with both humility and fortitude. Not all discussion leads to truth – and discussion that can only lead to a brawl is best left behind as soon as it is indisputable that this is where it is headed. If you are charged with making the decision for a group, seek counsel. When you are satisfied you have heard all you can without going into vain repetition, make the decision firmly and without malice. To fail to make a decision leaves those associated with you rudderless and paralyzed. To make a decision without seeking counsel makes you an autocrat. Act with justice and prudence always – and when a decision must be made quickly, do so without looking back. Having made a habit of both taking counsel and acting decisively when you do have time, you will find those decisions you have to make when you don’t have the luxury of time are much better because of your habitual discipline. Now one could argue that I am often hot-tempered and combative. True enough, but those who know me best know that while I am often bold, I am rarely brash. Plus, there is another factor that most do not know. When it comes to my own interpretations or preferences, I am always willing to consider – and even eager – to get fresh insight. When it comes to something I am directed to from above, I do not cede anything. Often, when it appears that I am defending my own opinion, I am actually vigorously protecting those things that are prime directives.
The satan is very subtle in how he inflames vanity. Often, insecurity is merely a perverse form of pride. Stay away from self-absorption of all kinds. If you are constantly worrying where you fit in or whether your work is good enough, you are at the edge of vanity – for you put far more emphasis on your role in the unfolding drama and not nearly enough on the work itself. My mother was prone to this. She was ever uncertain about herself and how she was coming off – and was largely clumsy and ineffective because of it. But when her dander was up, when she got completely outside of herself for a cause, she was magnificent. I told her after our relations became very warm again that this was true. She pondered and agreed – but told me how terribly hard it was to get outside herself…that something had to be big enough for her to forget to think of or care what people thought of her for it to kick in. It is no wonder…she had some brutally tough things to deal with and ugly people when she was little. But I am grateful that after we spoke of it, while she could not call up at will the effortless competence that she had when her blood was up, she was able to act comfortably far more consistently. The devil uses our pride, our shame, our guilt and our uncertainty to hobble us. Stay focused on the work with humility and fortitude and all will be well.
Remember that there is no coercion in Christ. He calls us freely and respects our conscience. We gain converts by, first, the witness of our lives and, second, the persuasiveness of our arguments. That is not to say Christians should be milquetoasts. While we cannot force anyone to be Christian, we must also forcefully defend Christians from assaults by the enemies of the faith. We will not coerce anyone’s conscience neither will we suffer our own to be coerced.
I know many are dismayed by the strange doings in the Church. I count myself among them. I think of the Church as a great hospital for souls, founded by the Divine Physician, who commanded His followers to carry on and do likewise in His name. At times we have had “doctors” who were all doctrine and no pastoral care: who eagerly diagnosed the illnesses, but were so disgusted by the sick that they would do no doctoring. That is a betrayal of the Master – and they will be held to account for the arrogant tyrants they are. That is not the main problem now. Today we have “doctors” who, faced with a deadly disease, have no answer except to tell the dying patient he is okay just as he is while congratulating themselves on their mercy. Vain fools! Their “mercy” is to condemn their patients to death, merely soothing them in their misery. They are passive serial killers of the soul – and they will be held to account for their betrayal of the Master. In his magnificent new book, “The Power of Silence,” Robert Cardinal Sarah says that “Bishops who scatter the sheep that Jesus has entrusted to them will be judged mercilessly and severely by God.” But throughout the ages, the tares have always grown alongside the wheat – sometimes in abundance among the laity, sometimes among the consecrated. And in all ages, God has raised up just the sort of saints needed to protect His Church and defend the faithful. When Martin Luther began his dissent, there was just cause for dissent. Yet he was not content to call for reform of abuses. Had he just chased out the rats of abuse, he could have been a great reformer. But he chose to try to blow up the castle to get rid of the rats – and brought terrible divisions into Christianity. Let us resist the rats while carefully preserving the castle. In all ages, whether the bulk of corruption is found in the sheep or the shepherds – or both – we can always choose to be faithful…and the God of abundance takes those little seeds of faithfulness and multiplies them gloriously until the Church is renewed. Every period of fallow faith is merely prelude to a great new flowering. So we are called to be seeds of a great new flowering of the faith that we cannot yet see.
Recently, a friend on the team described my style of leadership as “Leadership by giving away leadership.” I like that a lot. God gives us each unique characteristics, with particular strengths. When we lead, we exercise our creative capacity – a fundamental way in which we are created in the Divine Image. If a group is led by one charismatic figure who insists it all be done his way, you unleash the creative capacity of one person. When all in the group take counsel with one another, but each is given deference in his own area of responsibility, you unleash the creative capacity of all. It is the difference between lighting a candle and firing up a great power plant. The creative capacity of all, working in unity (but not uniformity), is the nuclear power of human endeavors. So I say bear with each other and bear each other up, not just in matters of style, but in matters of judgment where the range of licit choices may vary. That is supremely important now when many choices will be between bad, worse, and truly atrocious. To insist that your conscience must be everyone’s conscience is to destroy unity for the sake of uniformity, barring of course, actual illicit means that are Magisterially forbidden in all cases. Let us not be a hand that condemns a foot because it is not a hand (1 Corinthians 12). Sometimes autocratic leaders give their subordinates leave until those subordinates make a blunder – then reassert control. I say anyone who makes no blunders is not doing enough. Support honorable colleagues at all times. Rejoice in their successes and bear them up in their failures. Cover their mistakes with your competence as you depend on them to cover your mistakes with their competence. You will thereby forge an unbreakable solidarity in good times and in bad. In these times, God calls forth a symphony of talented followers, no one-man bands.
Know that, if you are the most brilliant person in the history of the world, there is much more you don’t know than that you do. All the temporal knowledge, all the temporal power, all the money in history is a pitiful impoverished thing in the sight of heaven. The only thing any of these things is good for is how they can help us lead our fellows to Him who is all things – and for that purpose, they are great gifts, indeed. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas was absolutely right when, after receiving a vision near the end of his life, proclaimed all his writings to be so much straw. But it was straw that led people to Christ, so rich is his reward. He spun the straw of his words into the gold of souls gained to Christ. The richest, most powerful, most brilliant man who uses his gifts to aggrandize himself is a piteous eunuch. The simplest who cares for his brother and brings one to share in the joy of Christ is a great man. How often are those who are considered great on earth regarded with pity and contempt in heaven – and those despised on earth held in the greatest honor in heaven! Bear each other up, cover each other’s failings.
People often say I have a gift for conveying complex notions with vivid simplicity…and I suppose I do. But the truth is that one of my greatest frustrations is how poorly I am able to explain the true beauty of what I am shown with such tender clarity. If people could only see the goodness of the Lord, the tender and intense love He has for each of us, even a hint of the true paradise He has prepared for us, they would worry not at all about who has the biggest bucket in this little sandbox of our mortal lives. How I wish I could explain it with real convincing power, but I take consolation that, even in my clumsy way, I seem to have sparked some hope and love in some people these last few years. That we may be neighbors in heaven…now there is a worthy goal.
Make your case with vigor, act decisively in what you are responsible for, always leaving room for the knowledge that our ways are not God’s ways. I have long thought that Judas’ fault was not that he did not believe, but that he could not get beyond the bounds of his own limited perspective. I think he DID believe Jesus was the Messiah…but Judas only thought in terms of a temporal kingdom. He did not seek to betray Jesus, I don’t think, but to force His hand, to make Him reveal His supreme power…to get on with the business of restoring the kingdom of David. He substituted his judgment for that of God – and a great tragedy was that he could not even conceive that if Jesus was Messiah, that He could have a different, better plan than Judas. Let us not be Judases, eager to denounce what we have not the wit to imagine the scope of in God’s intentions. Trust Him even when we do not at all understand why He permits what He permits.
On a very bright note, Donald Trump gave a truly inspirational and noble speech in Poland. Of course, when a man speaks eloquently of faith, family, fortitude and freedom under God that gets right to the heart of what is most important to me. Even if it is not strong enough yet to forestall the darkness around us, I am grateful that we now have a core of people in government who are committed enough to those things that we can think in terms of preservation and restoration in America. This truly is global in its scope, but it is good to have something to build on.
If, somehow, this darkness fades away without the need for battle or confrontation, I will be deeply grateful and enjoy my retirement. But if as seems likely, it degenerates into a great struggle, I pray to do my little duty faithfully until the end, knowing that God will set all things right again in His good time and endeavoring to cooperate with Him in driving away the smoke that has obscured the glorious light of Christ in this poor, bleeding world of ours. You probably assume that I have reason for sending you such a long rambling missive. I don’t know exactly what is going to happen or when, but if it does, I wanted to share with you some of the mainstays of what guide me in hopes that some of it may fortify you whatever challenges come. If the “invasion of Poland” moment comes, I will probably vanish for a short time to make camp in the mountains, to pray and seek instruction in the silence. It will be brief, certainly not as much as two weeks. But should it come, I do not want you to think I have fled or been taken.
God bless all of you. You have different strengths, different characteristics, different charisms. There is no uniformity among all of us friends, but may there ever be the unity that will help us show the light of the world in all His glory! Defend the faith, hearten the faithful, defend the faithful: that is our charge, to the service of Our Lord under the banner of Our Lady.