On the Road Again

Your usual bi-weekly Friday correspondent, David Warren, has run into what the Brits might call “a spot of medical bother,” described here. His recovery continues, as should our prayers.

No futile efforts here to echo David’s inimitable style and piercing insight, which often crosses into the prophetic. Tune in soon for more of that.

Instead, just a few observations about a recent excursion away from America’s “enlightened” coastal environs into the Dark Heart of the country’s systemically racist, misogynist, violent, insurrectionist, benighted, Judeo-Christian (I know I’m getting redundant) interior.

Places where the idea of a reality, a nature – moral, material, and always beautiful – created by God and not by us, still holds something of a purchase. A fading and confused purchase, perhaps, but still something.

In a hotel parking lot in a rural precinct, a man struggled to get his car through the piled snow into (or out of – either would do) a parking space. In an uncharacteristic moment of empathy, I asked if I could help. He happened to be Black, and I happen not to be.

Perhaps others of my flesh tone had approached him before at night in parking lots with motives in mind other than Lenten alms-giving (in the form of shoving his car). But he gratefully accepted my offer.

We pushed and hemmed and hawed, with some movement but not quite enough. Then appeared a third soul, who also happened not to be Black. In fact, Third Soul had all the characteristics, if one were generalizing, of what I would call a “redneck,” a term I use with respect, affection, and not inconsiderable familiarity.

With Third Soul’s able assistance, the car escaped the snow trap. Third Soul, who I gathered was not thinking about Lenten credit for do-gooding at all, then proceeded to use his imposing pick-up truck to clear a space so the formerly stuck driver had an accessible spot for the night.

I’m no idealist. Maybe the driver went off to his BLM chapter meeting while Third Soul headed for a Proud Boys hangout.

But it did occur to me that we have reached an odd moment when three people spending a few minutes solving a minor problem gave me something to write about on The Catholic Thing.

With the restaurants nearby closed due to the snow, I returned to the hotel grill for the cheeseburger special. My attention was drawn to a spirited exchange between a manager-waitress, who happened to be Black, and one of her regular clients, who happened not to be but bore some resemblance to Third Soul.

The language was saltier than I’m accustomed to in the suburban dining establishments I usually frequent. But the familiarity of the two was apparent, if only because the language brought not violence and a police cruiser, but laughter.

Both had difficult jobs, it seemed. And each seemed interested in helping the other get through another day.

These were not breakthrough moments in reconciliation. Neither would they have caught the attention of the coastal media.

*

I do not underestimate the real divisions in America and in what we once called the Western world. Both our editor and David Warren can testify to my Augustinian pessimism regarding the short-term prospects for the City of Man around us.

If anything, I believe the divisions are more profound than most people realize, hinging as they do on incompatible and irreconcilable notions of what justice is and what the human person is.

That kind of division makes political community impossible, and the best that can be hoped for is a less violent confrontation between the opposing understandings of reality.

But these episodes, right after a hard storm, showed a different side of what goes on in some parts of the nation.

Early the next morning, as I walked into the Adoration chapel of the nearby rural Catholic church, a woman lay prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament. Fearing either a heart attack or a moment of unbecoming melodrama, I watched for a short bit until she got up, apparently fine.

But she was crying quietly.

Suspecting a family tragedy of some sort, in an uncharacteristic moment of empathy (again, it’s Lent, and I have a lot of work to do), as I left I asked her if there was a prayer intention I might help with.

She thanked me and said, startlingly, “I’m just so sad for what’s happening in the Church.”

“You mean this parish or the whole Church?”

“The Church!”

I agreed: “It’s hard to see the Church and civil leaders converging in ways that go against Catholic teaching.”

“Exactly,” she affirmed.

Her tears and penance showed, I thought, a deep understanding of the greatest divisions that plague us, the divisions between the city of man and the City of God. And she was busy with the only solution that most of us have available this Lent.

If you take a rural drive like I did, especially if your route takes you through Appalachia, for musical accompaniment I heartily endorse the Hillbilly Thomists of Washington’s Dominican House of Studies. Their name comes from Flannery O’Connor’s self-description.

The music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven can transcend time and space. The HTs’ “Bourbon, Bluegrass, and the Bible” on their second album has a more immanent feel. But that rendition will be heard and requested as long as we “stare at death and it stares back.”

I trust I have given David’s readers good reason to pray for his speedy return to his keyboard in the High Doganate.

Postscript: Later along the way at another rural church of traditional orientation, several large families gathered after Mass. In the arms of a Caucasian adult, a two-year old girl rested cheerfully. She happened to be Black. I don’t know the details in this case. But what a wonderful choice her mother made, to give her child life, probably against great pressure. What a wonderful adoptive mother. A reminder that for some people, alms-giving is not just a Lenten pastime, and life is about self-giving.

 

*Image: Hunters in the Snow (Winter) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

Joseph R. Wood

Dr. Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.

  • A Face - Sunday, January 10, 2021