It was no doubt my failure, a failure of imagination and faith. But I simply could not find anything of substance to talk about with my neighbors.
Until a few weeks ago we lived on a lovely block in Arlington, Virginia not far from the National Cemetery. My commute was simply heaven, 12 minutes without traffic and 25 minutes with.
The block had turned in recent years. There’s a natural rhythm in neighborhoods. Young families give way to older families, who give way to empty nests, who give way to the elderly, and back again. This block began the cycle a decade ago. Now there are seventeen children under twelve, a paradise for children, and lots of screaming play into summer’s dusky hours.
The families on the block are solid citizens, kind, cheerful, and helpful. But something was missing: real community. But how do you find it? We discovered it has a lot to do with children.
We decided years ago, before children arrived, that ours would never attend public schools. Too much harmful ideology, too open window to the culture. Who knew what would climb in through that window and into our children’s souls?
That decision and all that’s packed into it eventually drew us from my heavenly commute, the grocery store so close, and the passel of children racing around the yards. It did not happen all at once. It took years.
Some years ago, we heard about a Catholic Montessori School in Great Falls, Virginia, twenty miles away. I thought Montessori schools were left-wing. In fact, Maria Montessori was a Catholic who discovered a Thomistic way for children to learn, through all the senses; a way that respects the child’s free will and does not strap them to a desk learning lists of things.
When our children were old enough we sent them to the Siena Academy at St. Catherine of Siena Church. My wife took them back and forth every day for four years. And ever so slowly, our world shifted away from the people on our block.
I’m not good at small talk, and the small talk of men bores me the most. The men on our block liked to sit around bonfires, guzzling beer, smoking cigars, and talking about sports or other inconsequential things. They played poker. A few times they went to strip clubs. Nothing wrong with most of this, but none of it was for me.
And after sports, what was there? Politics and religion, two things we couldn’t discuss. We largely hid our politics, but not our faith. Folks knew who we were, though we never pushed it on them.
St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, VA
My wife was better than I was. She made friends with some moms on the block, talked to one about contraception, and taught another about guardian angels. Our children loved the neighborhood kids – and so did we. But still the larger culture was coming through. Even today our little girls sing a song they learned from a lovely older girl down the street, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young, we’re gonna die young.”
Still, we were not eager to uproot until we noticed something. At Saturday morning ballet class, our girls didn’t know anyone. They didn’t know anyone at gymnastics or even at Church choir. They were surrounded by kids who knew each other from their local school. But our girls’ friends, their best friends were in Great Falls. We drove them out there for birthday parties and such, but that is not the same as being in the warp and woof of daily life.
And so a month ago we bought a house only a few miles from the church and school. The transformation has been magical, not only for the children but for us as well.
Up the street live the Burkes who go to our church and school. Not far away are the Abelas, who go there, too. A little further on are the Rylands and the McCabes, part of the first wave of faithful Catholics out this way. And there are more, many more. Our friends the Hales call it a cloud of witnesses raising each other up.
The people we know here – and there are dozens – are mission-oriented Catholics attempting the same things we are; raising our children in a like-minded Catholic community, engaged with the culture, but in a critical way.
Within days of moving, we were welcomed like long lost family: turkey burgers on the grill one night, a potluck in honor of the new pope, and lots of talk about politics and religion. There is real community here not only for our girls, but also for us.
Tonight, you will find us at the Lenten fish fry at church. Afterwards, there are Stations of the Cross. We will know almost everyone there. Those we don’t know, we will meet, too. And our little girls will be off running around with friends they may know all their lives.
Did we fail those people in Arlington? Maybe we didn’t. Mark Ryland, one of our friends out here, tells the story of his days high up at a large and hip corporation. His colleagues never invited him out to carouse because they knew he was a faithful Catholic and a family man.
One of those guys just called Mark and said, “I really hated you in those days because you were such a goody-two-shoes.” And then the guy said he had just joined the Church and he wanted to thank Mark for his example.
I thank God for the community we have found here. And I ask Him to make me brave – or at least, despite my cowardice, always to give a good example.