Rod Dreher

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Crunchy Cons: Not Dead Yet

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It has been nine years since Crunchy Cons was published, and the thing still has legs. From an op-ed in New Statesman by Nigel Dodds, an MP from Belfast:

Justin Welby rebuts the idea “that if we fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will follow. This is a lie,” he starkly says. When opponents of this truth contend the churches shouldn’t “poke their noses into politics”, I, as a politician, say politics has done a lot of poking over the years and everyone else should feel free to poke back. A capitalism that conservative-minded Christians can live with is one that Rod Dreher, the American advocate of “Crunchy Conservatism”, has summed up very well. We’ve got to call greed to account; we’ve got to be as sceptical of big business as we are of big government; and all our hopes for any economic system should be rooted in humility and restraint. Mrs Thatcher, as she was in some other matters, was wrong about the Good Samaritan. What mattered was not that he had hard cash but that he had good intentions. The Archbishops have them too and conservatives of every stripe should listen and learn.

Thank you, Nigel Dodds! Yesterday I received this letter from a new reader of the book. I post it with his permission:

Hello, Rod. I don’t know how often you get mail from someone who has just discovered Crunchy Cons after all these years, but I just finished reading the book last night and wanted to thank you so much for a marvelous piece of writing.

I have been reading your stuff the last couple of years and have seen Crunchy Cons mentioned by others numerous times. My reaction was always, “Oh, that looks good; I should read it sometime.” Of course I never got around to it. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on distributism and Catholic social teaching, and at some point it hit me – “This is what Rod Dreher must’ve been talking about in Crunchy Cons!” And so I read it, and not only did I find that it resonated perfectly with the ideas of distributism that I’ve been learning about, but also with my own lifetime intellectual and spiritual trajectory.

I was raised in a rural, middle class home in Kentucky just one generation removed from agrarian poverty. My parents (a factory worker and school teacher) were Baptists and New Deal liberals. I grew up with their values, except that in high school I took on a much more radical stance after reading Gandhi’s autobiography and encountering Charles Greeley’s book, The Greening of America. By the time I entered college I was probably the youngest card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and spent a lot of time involved in various kinds of campus activitism. This was the late 1980′s and early 90′s.

My particular brand of socialism was extremly communitarian, even though I didn’t have that word to describe it at the time, or to articulate why the Left’s obsession with identity politics and the ever-expanding welfare state left me a bit cold. Their solutions were simultaneously too ideological and too technical. There wasn’t nearly enough of MLK’s “beloved community” in that kind of political milieu.

After going to work as a teacher in public schools in my mid-20′s, I became thoroughly disenchanted with big government solutions to our social ills, and my politics veered off in a decidedly libertarian direction. I liked to celebrate the linkages between some of the anarchist and other socialist radicals of the early 20th century, and the idea of creating meaningful (and more just) social structures through local, voluntary action rather than the coercive power of government.

Along the way I become a convert to Catholicism, but at first I held a very postmodern, cafeteria-style approach to my faith. It was after my wife and I started a family (our kids are 5 and 2) that I got much more serious about my faith life, and have come to really appreciate the wisdom and discipline of traditional Christian doctrine and liturgy. I started to think of myself as a conservative in the more classical, T.S. Eliot/Russell Kirk sort of way. The exuberant, life-is-all-about-personal-fulfillment ethos that my libertarian friends celebrate seems more of a grave threat to the way I’m trying to raise my children and lead my family.

The Obama years have led me to a place of real disenchantment with politics. This regime has demonstrated the outright hostility the modern Democratic party has for traditional values, and for genuine democratic processes, for that matter. The Tea Party has brought a kind of anti-establishment spirit that resonates for me, but still leaves me dissatisfied. My own senator, Rand Paul, says many things that I like but I can’t help but feel that tea party pseudo-libertarianism is still rooted in the same Lockean anthropology of political rights that feeds the narcissistic individualism of both the Big Government Left and the Big Business Right.

And then here we have the crunchy cons. It was so terrific to be affirmed in the things I’ve been struggling with and yearning for in recent years. Along with the distributist writers I’ve been studying, I can now see a logical and necessary connection between the kind of communitarian radicalism of my youth and the religious and cultural traditionalism I’ve embraced in my 40s. My intellectual and spiritual world has a coherence that I couldn’t recognize in the polarized, hysterical world defined by Fox News and MSNBC.

I’m trying to apply some of these concepts in my professional life as well as my personal life. These days I train teachers who aspire to be administrators in public schools. This is an awkward place to be since I’ve become extremely dissatisfied with traditional pedagogical methods that still predominate in both public and parochial schools. I’ve come to have a radical confidence in families and the communities they voluntarily populate to shape the learning experiences of their children, and I write about this sometimes on my blog: http://schoolleader.typepad.com.

For me personally this means that I’ll probably be sending my kids to the local Catholic school, at least while they are still young, but I’m also constantly reflecting on the possibilities of homeschooling them at some point, and how I could do that effectively, and that what means for someone who works within the institutions of traditional schooling. I don’t know if what I’m doing really qualifies as the Benedict Option, since I remain deeply immersed in the world of public schools, but it feels nevetheless a kind of prophetic calling to be in this world, but not of it, and witness to a different set of values and assumptions.

Sorry for the long message. I just want to say thanks for the book, and for the ministry of your writing in general. I feel like I know you and your family through your public writing and have a great appreciation that you have shared so much of your own personal journey with the rest of the world so that we might be blessed by it and find echoes of our own stories.

May God richly bless you and whatever comes next in your journey. I look forward to reading about it.

Gary W. Houchens, PhD

Dr. Houchens, your senator, Rand Paul, self-identifies as a crunchy con. He seems to believe that a crunchy con is a conservative who loves the great outdoors. It’s a lot more than that, but I’m happy to have Sen. Paul sign on.

How gratifying it is that the vision of that book still reaches people. Have you read it yet? Here’s a link to the Kindle edition.

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Juno Open Thread

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Hey readers in the Northeast, if you have power, check in here and tell the rest of us what’s going on with the blizzard at your place. Send photos if you like (rod – at – amconmag.com), and I’ll post them if I can. I’m going to be out of pocket much of Tuesday on business, but I’ll update the blog when I can.

UPDATE: That’s an image of Providence, RI, that Chris sent.

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How Stable is Saudi Arabia?

Crown Prince Salman, left, confers with King Abdullah in 2012. Now Salman is the Saudi king (Photo: Tribes of the World/Flickr)
Crown Prince Salman, left, confers with King Abdullah in 2012. Now Salman is the Saudi king (Photo: Tribes of the World/Flickr)

King Salman inherits a mess, says the WaPo:

No king of Saudi Arabia has ascended the throne amid more regional turmoil than King Salman, who was crowned Friday upon the death of his brother King Abdullah.

With war raging in Syria and tensions with Iran increasing, Saudi Arabia is threatened by a disintegration of the national government in Yemen across its southern border and by the Islamic State militants who are dominating the Iraqi desert just over its northern border.

Salman indirectly mentioned the threat of rising violence and regional instability on Friday in his first speech to the Saudi people, saying that “the Arab and Islamic nation is in dire need today to be united and maintain solidarity.”

Militants have staged four attacks inside the kingdom in the past six months, resulting in the deaths of eight civilians, 11 police or border guards and 13 militants, according to Saudi officials.

As in the recent attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket, most of the Saudi attacks have been carried out by homegrown radicals influenced or trained by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or other extremist groups. Saudi authorities said that they have arrested 293 people in connection with the incidents and that 260 of them are Saudi nationals.

Germany has reportedly just ceased selling hundreds of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia:

Germany has decided to stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia because of “instability in the region,” German daily Bild reported on Sunday.

Weapons orders from Saudi Arabia have either been “rejected, pure and simple,” or deferred for further consideration, the newspaper said, adding that the information has not been officially confirmed.

The decision was taken on Wednesday by the national security council, a government body that includes Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and seven other ministers, it said.

“According to government sources, the situation in the region is too unstable to ship arms there,” added the daily.

Military analyst John Robb continues to argue that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a lot more vulnerable than many of us seem to think. Excerpt:

  • ISIS is an aggressively expansionist fundamentalist jihad.  It kills, enslaves, or routs unbelievers, moderates, apostates, etc. wherever it finds them, which is the ultimate manifestation of Wahhabi fundamentalism.

  • Unfortunately for the KSA, this is the same belief system underlying the legitimacy of the House of Saud and the same fundamentalism the Kingdom has spent the last century beating into the heads of their subjects.

  • This means that ISIS is moral kryptonite.  A kryptonite built specifically to kill the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  A kryptonite that breaks down the moral cohesion that binds the KSA together.  A kryptonite that creates competitive centers of gravity that will rip the country apart.

    Did you know that half the Saudi population is 25 or younger? Did you know that the youth unemployment rate in the Kingdom is staggeringly high, with little realistic prospect of that changing? You can buy people off for a while, but they’re not going to be willing to live like that forever. It’s insane, of course, to think that an ISIS-ruled Saudi Arabia would be better for people than the fundamentalist al-Saud regime, but people don’t think rationally in these situations.

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Gay Bob & Christian Bob

Mike Cosper has a parable about tolerance and understanding between traditional Christians and the LGBT community:

There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is an evangelical Christian, the other is gay and agnostic. They’ve lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another’s mail when the other travels, hauling each other’s garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they’ve never really had a discussion about their differences.

One day, during March Madness, a stiff gust of wind knocked a tree limb into their power lines, and they found themselves without electricity, five minutes before the U of L game. They wandered out onto their respective porches and decided to go to a nearby pizzeria to watch the game.

Somewhere before the end of the game, this conversation began:

Bob 1: Isn’t it surprising that we’ve become friends?

Bob2: What do you mean?

1: Well, one of us has a rainbow sticker on their bumper, and the other has a Jesus fish. According to most folks, we shouldn’t get along.

2: Yeah, I’ll admit it’s crossed my mind once or twice. Does it bother you?

1: Does what bother me?

2: Well, that I am who I am?

1: Hmmm… I don’t know how to answer that. Does it bother you that I am the way that I am?

Read the whole thing to see how the conversation continues.  It’s a Rorschach test: which Bob is the gay agnostic, and which is the traditional Christian? Cosper’s point is that Bob 1 can be the gay agnostic, or the traditional Christian, and the same moral would apply. If you can’t see how either one could play either role in the conversation, perhaps you need to work on your empathy.

Interesting piece. Made me think of Pink John.

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Francis: Pope of the End Times?

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (Image by Zach Brissett/Flickr)
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (Image by Zach Brissett/Flickr)

John Allen’s report on Pope Francis’s apocalyptic taste in fiction is making the rounds. The media, Allen writes, focused so much on the “breed like rabbits” quote from his airplane press conference that they missed a couple of interesting things. Excerpts:

There were two other tidbits, however, that have been somewhat lost in the shuffle, both of which are important for understanding what is more and more a defining trait of this pope — his sense of urgency.

One of those nuggets is about a book; the other, a trip.

As he has before, Francis went out of his way to invoke an apocalyptic 1907 novel by an English convert from Anglicanism called “Lord of the World.” The novel lays out a dystopic vision of a final conflict between secular humanism and Catholicism, with the showdown taking place on the fields of Armageddon.

Author Robert Hugh Benson depicts a world in which Marxism and secularism have run the table, culminating in a charismatic “savior” figure, increasingly recognizable as the Anti-Christ, who arises to lead a one-world government. Attacks on Christian symbols and believers mount, and euthanasia is widely practiced.

More:

That’s not to say Francis believes doomsday is around the corner. However, his fondness for the novel seems to track with his belief that humanity is making some definitive choices today, from the economy to the environment, and that if we get those choices wrong, the consequences may be far worse than we realize.

Read the whole thing. 

Again, you don’t have to believe that there is any such thing as the End Times, in the Christian sense. But if the pope does, and if he believes they might be imminent, then that could explain some of the things he does.

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‘American Sniper’: Everybody’s Iraq War Film

John Podhoretz has a very fine review of American Sniper. I think he’s hit on why the film has been so successful. I hadn’t thought of it this way. Excerpt:

American Sniper bowls you over because it succeeds dramatically in making Chris Kyle’s story a parallel of the American experience in Iraq. The mission we see Chris embark upon is both practical and idealistic. The insurgents and their leaders are dreadful and monstrous and deserve their fates. The men on the front lines show resiliency and fortitude and immense seriousness of purpose. But the cause runs afoul of realities far above the pay grades of Kyle and his brethren. They did everything they were asked to do and more. Yet they would never taste victory.

This is the bitter truth about Iraq for all of us—whether you believe fighting the war was a mistake in the first place or you view the ultimate failure to have come about as a result of the political mishandling of the turnaround in the war’s fortunes after the 2007-08 surge. In this way, American Sniper is not only apolitical, but also antipolitical. It is the story of the effect of the war on the people who fought itand those they love—not on the country, not on Iraq, and not on America’s position in the world.

And that is one of the key reasons for the film’s astonishing and unprecedented success.

Read the whole thing. I dissent from its final line, not quoted here — and fair warning, readers: I’m not going to let the comments section on this post become another familiar argument about the Iraq War, neocons, etc. — but this review really does say something important about this movie — a film that both liberals and conservatives should see. There’s something in it to discomfit everyone, in the right way.

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The Dry Apocalypse

Well, here’s one for the misanthropy file: Chaturbate is an online service in which anyone of legal age can watch other people masturbate, or turn the camera on themselves and self-pleasure for the anonymous masses. Emily Witt writes about it for Medium (don’t worry, there are no strongly NSFW photos, though given the material, you probably don’t want to read this at work). Excerpts:

Chaturbate is a live webcam site that launched in 2011. It distinguishes itself from the many other live webcam sites by its democratic approach. It is free to watch — really free, as in no logging in or setting up passwords — and open to everyone of legal age. Its tabs offer “Females,” “Males,” “Couples,” “Groups,” and “Transsexuals.” To start broadcasting, a person has only to register a name and beam herself to the world, eating Chipotle. Total sexual anarchy is forestalled by a zealous volunteer police force of users, who operate along the lines of Wikipedia moderators, reporting and shutting down any performers who look suspiciously underage or who break one of Chaturbate’s few rules — the usual bans on violence, animals, and excrement.

Oh good, so there are some standards. Witt says she started looking into the site after an editor assigned her to do a piece on what people do in conditions like we have now, in which they have an abundance of sexual freedom. From an interview with one of the regulars on the network:

She called Chaturbate an “introvert’s paradise.” I asked her how it was that broadcasting her image to thousands of people over the internet could appeal to an introvert.

“I have complete control over the situation,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about it escalating physically. I can turn it off whenever I want. I can turn these words on the screen off whenever I want. I can kick people out. I make my own rules, nobody’s telling me what to do. Not that I’m necessarily a control freak but I’d never had that sexually. I’d never been in control of a sexual encounter until this, and I think it was something that I definitely needed.”

A Chaturbate woman named Wendy teaches Witt about the joys of “mass intimacy”:

“There’s this freedom, in that you don’t actually have to meet any of these people and they don’t actually know you,” Wendy explained. “You can be whoever you want to be. You can show them any part of yourself that you want. You can be totally open and bare and share everything without having to worry about people rejecting you or you can totally make up a new self and be someone different.”

I’d recently read an essay called “Times Square Red” by the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. Delany, a gay African-American man, had in the 1970s and 1980s frequented the porno movie theaters in Times Square, where he had hundreds of casual and anonymous sexual encounters with other men. He wrote that it was a shame that women suffered risks in the pursuit of similar experiences, but that also “What waits is for enough women to consider such venues as a locus of possible pleasure.”

He went on to describe the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrums of his sexual desire, where sexual experimentation happened entirely outside of narratives of love or emotional entanglement. His observations about sexual attraction consistently disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for burly Irish-American men, including two who had harelips.) Describing the importance of the anonymous sexual encounter, he wrote:

We do a little better when we sexualize our own manner of having sex — learn to find our own way of having sex sexy. Call it a healthy narcissism, if you like. This alone allows us to relax with our own sexuality. Paradoxically, this also allows us to vary it and accommodate it, as far as we wish, to other people. I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners and a fair amount of communication with them, at that, about what their sexual reactions to us are. (However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process, involving a social response.)

For women, the pursuit of wide-ranging sexual experience has always come with disproportionate risks and stigma. But online, in the context of what Wendy called “mass intimacy,” some of the women I spoke with were undertaking Delany’s endeavor with the risk of pregnancy, violence, and sexually transmitted infection minimized through the medium of encounter. Chaturbate and its ilk — everything from My Free Cams to the “Gone Wild” amateur porn thread on Reddit — could be the equivalent of the darkened porno theater of the 21st century, but places more welcoming to women, where women could go to consider their desires, where they could learn what attracted others to them and to discern and name what they found attractive.

So the Internet, plus the abundance of sexual freedom, is teaching everyone to live by the values of perverts who used to go to X-rated movie theaters to have anonymous sex. Wendy tells Emily Witt that to do it right, she needs to “objectify” the people on the other end of the electronic connection. One more clip:

Some people might look at Max and Harper, or anybody on Chaturbate, and disagree. They might think of clean sheets, a well-made bed, a clearly defined “partner,” and a closed door and think that they know exactly what sex is — loving, maybe; monogamous, probably; dignified by its secrecy; more authentic for not being shared; sacred because it’s not mediated through a cell phone. Spend enough time on Chaturbate and such a view starts to feel both rarified and unambitious.

Some people limit their internet sexuality to the private sphere of sexting or video chats with long-distance lovers. Others choose to meet their virtual partners in a semi-anonymous public forum. When mediated bodies can inhabit the same temporal dimension, the distinct purposes of porn, sex work, casual sex, internet dating, and social networking start to blur. Right now I see being sexual on the internet as a bold and risky form of performance. I anticipate that in the future it will just be thought of as sex.

I hope you will read the whole thing, though — trigger warning, for those who need them — the discussion, though anthropological, is fairly seamy at times. Why is it important to read? Because this loveless dystopia, this pornographic pseudo-world, is increasingly the world we live in, and in which our children are being raised. I think Witt is probably right: in the future, this will just be thought of as sex (though Witt doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with that).

Ordinary sexual love between partners as “rarefied and unambitious.” Philip Larkin got there first, with the bleak sarcasm of his poem High Windows, the opening of which I’ve redacted for use on this blog:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s f—ing her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly.

Our civilization is producing dead souls incapable of erotic love, only despairing hydraulics. This is what it most wrong with Chaturbate and the culture that created and sustains it. It’s not what it does to the body; it’s what it does to the soul, to the imagination, because of what it does to the body. From the opening chapter of Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, a novel about the total atomization of humanity in contemporary life:

The expressway back into Paris was deserted, and Djerzinski felt like a character in a science fiction film he’d seen at the university: the last man on earth after every other living thing had been wiped out. Something in the air evoked a dry apocalypse.

A dry apocalypse. Yes. That’s what we are living through. When I talk about the Benedict Option, I largely mean creating a stronghold of hope and love where the old virtues of civilization are lived and taught, and refugees from the dry apocalypse can take shelter from the chaos, and learn how to be human again.

 

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Worship Well or Die

Charles Featherstone sends in this fascinating essay by Kazimierz Bem, a Congregationalist pastor who says that churches are doomed if they don’t put primacy on how they worship. Excerpts:

The mainline Protestant churches have been declining for decades. This trend has now reached the evangelical churches, too. In a desperate attempt to stay alive, churches and their leaders are coming up with new solutions, new strategies and guesses.

New church plants are tailored for terribly busy people, giving them a brief moment of worship (with the stress on brief) “on the run.”

In one way or another, the refrain I constantly hear is: “The Church of the future is the Church of service.” It takes all shapes and forms, but it always boils down to the same thing: Don’t focus on worship — “do stuff” instead! So, a denominational leader blogs that the vocation of churches is to be local community centers, food banks, day cares, or places for diaper drives. New church plants are tailored for terribly busy people, giving them a brief moment of worship (with the stress on brief) “on the run.” Regular meals together are held where the leader says “Holy things for holy people” before the participants share their thoughts, and this is praised as new worship. My own denomination is experimenting with an online community called “Extravagance,” where people participate in worship online and then post their thoughts on Facebook. “The post was a part of her worship,” we are told.

As I read these emails, stories, and articles, I cannot help but think to myself that we should stop ordaining people to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and instead create an office of “Community Organizer (with Brief Prayers).”

More:

Before I became a minister in a small Massachusetts town, I was a lawyer and I worked in academia. This experience allowed me to meet people who worked in the areas of social justice, peace, and human rights. All of them went into their fields with enthusiasm, passion, and conviction. But I quickly learned that working on justice issues does not guarantee happiness, peace, or fulfillment — nor will you necessarily be working with nice and pleasant people, including co-workers.

One summer I worked for a boss who quickly turned my passion for refugees and refugee law into pure misery. Had the church I was attending that summer been a “community center” with a “community organizer” calling me to more “service,” I would have probably gone crazy. Instead, what kept me sane and grounded was what has been known as traditional worship throughout the centuries — prayers, hymns, sermons and the encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

Read the whole thing. Understand that Pastor Bem is not posing an “either-or” choice.

 

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What Happened to the Smoking Chimps?

We spent this warm, sunny afternoon at the Baton Rouge Zoo. It was the first time I had been there in at least 40 years. We stood at one exhibit, a large island separated from the pathway by a moat. There was a rhino on the thing. I told Julie and the kids that I believe this was the chimp island when I was a kid. That was a favorite exhibit, because people would flick their lit cigarettes across the moat at the chimps. Every now and then, one of the smokes would make it to the island. The chimps would scramble for it, and whoever got it would run around smoking it, completely delighting us kids.

Now the zoo is non-smoking, and there are no chimps there. The Seventies, man. It’s a wonder any of us survived. I guarantee you that Mama, smoking like a chimney with the window barely cracked, drove us to the zoo with Ruthie and me bouncing around the back seat of the Ford LTD, unbuckled, and fighting over who got to lie on the ledge under the back windshield.

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Good for You, Catholic Church

Just a short note to say what a great witness some local Catholics were to my Protestant niece on the bus trip to the March for Life. I just talked to my niece about the trip, and she was so excited by — well, she was excited about everything, but it was interesting to hear her talk about how much she enjoyed the catechetical talks on the long drive to DC. The group was almost entirely Catholic, but they were accompanied by an LSU student who gave basic talks on Catholic belief and practice, to make sure the kids knew their faith.

And they had “the coolest nun” on the bus, according to Claire: one of the Nashville Dominicans. 

I had such a good feeling about all of it when I left Claire. I often point out the failures all of our churches experience regarding catechesis of the young. But it sure sounds like whoever put this bus trip together did things right.

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