Rod Dreher

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An Orthodox Story Ends

Photo illustration by Rod Dreher, using Brushstroke
Photo illustration by Rod Dreher, using the Brushstroke app

Sunday’s liturgy was the final one to be celebrated at St. John the Evangelist Orthodox mission by Father Matthew Harrington. Note that I did not say the final liturgy. The mission is staying open for prayer and Bible study, with liturgies once or twice a month celebrated by visiting priests. St. John’s is not closing. But its founding priest and his family are moving this week back to their home state of Washington. We did not have enough members in our parish to support a full-time priest and his family. So, after three and a half years, this chapter in the life of the Orthodox Church and its members in one pocket of the South comes to a close.

Of course I’m sad, but I’ve done my mourning. We gave it our all, but it didn’t work out. I’m thinking now about how much the last three years of worship at St. John’s changed me and my family for the better.

This image, which I’ve published here before, says a lot:

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That’s my daughter Nora, who was six when this picture was taken, early in the life of the mission. She is bowing before the Holy Cross, which lays flat among flowers atop this stand. St. John’s was where my little girl learned to prostrate herself before the Cross. Don’t misunderstand — other Orthodox churches do this too. But this is where she learned it. It’s where I learned it too, in my bones. I’ve been doing this since I became Orthodox in 2006, but life in the mission made Orthodoxy real for me in a way that it had not been before.

If you read my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, you can glean the heart of this story. In essence, being in a small church where all hands were needed pulled me out of my natural tendency to stand outside and analyze. Without understanding what I was doing, before St. John’s (and before Orthodoxy), I had an essentially consumeristic way of living out life in church. True, I was aware that the “What can I get out of church?” attitude is wrong, and I don’t think that was quite my own sin here. Mine was more sophisticated. I was all judgey about people who took that approach, but I was pretty hypocritical, because I didn’t think about what I could and should be giving to the community, other than writing a tithe check.

You couldn’t do that at St. John’s. Even so, I was the least active of our flock, in part because our time there coincided with my chronic mono, which made me useless in working outside most of the time. Still, you showed up for liturgy and everything else, even when you didn’t necessarily want to, because the church needed you to show up, and because, let’s face it, you need to be there for your own sake. For me, this was the first church at which I have felt “all-in”. It’s not that no other church offered me that opportunity, but that for the first time in my life as a Christian, I was compelled to do what I needed to do to go all-in.

It’s no coincidence that the unanticipated failure of my prodigal son return to family forced me to embrace the church at a deeper level than ever before. The church became my rock. Father Matthew led me over some steep, sharp terrain in the confessional, as I came to terms with some hard truths. I came to love the things I found harsh at first. For example, our mission church is in ROCOR, the Russian church in exile (though now reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate). ROCOR has a practice of not giving communion on Sunday morning to one who does not show up for Vespers (evening prayer) the night before. Most other Orthodox churches, at least in this country, do not observe that tradition. For Father Matthew, it was non-negotiable.

Well, I just hated that. Who wants to go to church for 45 minutes at 6pm on Saturday night? It’s Saturday night! But if you wanted to receive communion the next morning, you had to choose. So we went to vespers. After a while, it was so normal that the weekend didn’t feel right without it.

These are the changes that take place within you when you put serving God in the life of the local church at the center of your life. I could have affirmed that intellectually before St. John’s, but now I can testify to it from experience. Heaven knows we were a far from perfect parish, but still, having lived Orthodoxy like this for three years, I can’t be satisfied with returning to what I was before St. John’s entered into my life.

I know I could not have written How Dante without St. John’s. To be honest, I don’t know what would have happened to me, spiritually, emotionally, and physically, without the grace and mercy that God sent to me through this parish family and the ministry of its priest. If the book I’m finishing now, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation, is of any use to the church in America, it will have a lot to do with what I learned firsthand at St. John’s, a tiny mission in Starhill, La., that punched far above its weight.

Father Matthew and his family came down to a town on the Mississippi River, cast a line in the water, but did not have a good catch. But who knows what God may do next with St. John’s, which, as I said, will remain open. I would be lying to say that I find it nothing short of tragic that an Orthodox priest as gifted as Father Matthew will be returning to civilian life, so to speak, because there are no parishes available. He is and always will be a priest, but back in Washington, he will have to do an office job to pay the bills.

Here’s how I will remember him, in a photo illustration I made from a shot I took during a liturgy. This is him at the altar, behind the iconostasis, praying the liturgy. This image looks timeless. Father Matthew was a priest, he is a priest, and he will be a priest again, in full-time ministry, one day. It’s so clearly what he was made to be. We were lucky to have had him, and so will the parish one day that calls that man to be their pastor.

Photo illustration by Rod Dreher, using the Brushstroke app

Photo illustration by Rod Dreher, using the Brushstroke app

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Amish On The Bayou

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How about that! Seven young Amish men drove from Pennsylvania to south Louisiana to help gut flood victims’ houses. That’s one of the Amish men having some lunch on the jobsite. More details — and photos — on the Facebook page of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary, La., where the Amish men served. The local folks call them the “Krewe of Samuel”. A “krewe” is a Mardi Gras club, and “Samuel,” because five of the seven men are named Samuel.

So many people from all around the USA are being so good to us in Louisiana in the wake of these devastating floods. Here’s a photo of Dan Christopulos and Alex Petrovsky, who were with an Orthodox crew gutting houses and helping folks these past few days. On Saturday, the IOCC team was working on a house in inner-city Baton Rouge, near to where Alton Sterling was shot, with a team from Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief organization. May God richly bless these good Samaritans from all over America who are coming to help us!

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The Crumminess of Pop Country

I was in the Nashville airport for a while on Saturday. The soundtrack in the airport is pop country music. I never listen to pop country. I’m not much of a country fan in general, but when I do listen to it, it’s alt-country and outlaw country, plus classics like Merle Haggard, Willie and Waylon, et al. It was awful, this pop country. Every song sounded exactly the same. Every one. I finally went to the airport bar and had a glass of Woodford Reserve and thought of Waylon.

My son Matt has the most eclectic taste in music of anyone I know. He likes alt-country, but hates pop country. I know this because I complained that pop country sounds so boring and monotonous to me. “That’s because it is,” he said.

Matt put me on to the mash-up above, saying it exposes how miserably formulaic mainstream country music has become. Not knowing any of these songs prior to hearing it, it’s really striking how interchangeable they are. Listening to that mash-up approximated two hours of sitting in the Nashville airport hearing the same song over and over. They could have put that mash-up on the tape loop and nobody would have been the wiser.

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No (Cis, Het) Men Need Apply

A reader writes:

So I’ve begun a program in healthcare in the south, and I have a few observations: first the institution has adopted gender fluidity and transgenderism at a basic level, in that much of the introductory campus material now ask about your sexual identity and your preferred pronouns and give mandatory teaching on how to avoid offending anyone and everyone over any minor details regarding personal identity. The students seem to be particularly ardent in imagining any potential violations of a patient’s gender identity and love to pounce on this. What really frightens me though, is what the constant ideological browbeating had done to the relationships between men and women. Normal male heterosexual behavior is seen as pathological. Many women are now only comfortable around gay men or other women. Sorry, but it’s true. Women seem capable at any moment of imagining you as the most vile creep and twisting your actions to fit this narrative. This kind of thing has especially taken hold on campuses and makes working with women who hold a certain kind of liberal attitude a potential minefield.

Is this consonant with your experience, readers? I’m curious.

Liberalism/progressivism is degenerating into one big nervous breakdown, in which mental pathologies are taken as signs of virtue.

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A Mighty Fortress Is Their Faith

The Norcia basilica by moonlight, from the piazza (Photo by Rod Dreher)
The Norcia basilica by moonlight, from the piazza (Photo by Rod Dreher)

The latest update from our friends, the Benedictine monks of Norcia:

Dear Friends,

This will be a shorter update since we’ve been very busy today responding to journalists and townspeople, politicians and bishops, all wanting to help us in their own way, and we are grateful to all of them.

Inspectors finally came and as expected declared the church and most of the monastery unusable. Only the brewery a few rooms, and our gift shop will be allowed to be used as they are nearest to the ground and suffered the least damage. As a result, we’ll be setting up a new base camp at our monastery outside the walls, the restoration of which has not yet been completed, but which offers us various fields for tents and temporary buildings and a local farm house where we can take our meals. Alas the Basilica will remain closed for some months, but over the next weeks we hope to be able to gain access to the crypt or an adjacent room for daily celebration of Mass.

Today we were also able to stop in and see a few families and businesses and assure them of our prayers. The Archbishop of Spoleto Norcia made an official visit with the inspectors of all the churches in Norcia (all will remain closed) and made arrangements with the Pastor of the town for Mass to be offered outside in a field this Sunday as aftershocks continue to make all the already damaged churches dangerous. The monks in Rome also continue to care for the people of Norcia through their particular monastic role of intercessory prayer on behalf of and for the people.

The monks’ primary role in the life of the Church is one of praying quietly and silently, often unnoticed and even forgotten. Thus, we continue to strive to support the local parish clergy, who are charged with the particular sacramental needs of the townspeople, with our spiritual intercession, and collaborate with them when they request need. We know by faith our prayers help sustain their work and all those suffering and assist in healing the sufferings of many all over our region in these difficult times. Your continued support has inspired us in our prayer and mission.

Pax,
Fr. Benedict
Subprior

Note: If you want to help the rebuilding process, you can give to the monks by visiting: http://en.nursia.org/earthquake-relief/

Well, at least they saved the beer. That’s something.

My dark humor is an attempt to deal with the grief I feel over what has happened to Italy in general — all the dead, and all the suffering — but particularly for Norcia. As you will read in my Benedict Option book when it’s released next year, those monks and their monastery are a lighthouse to the world. That the monastery and the church will be closed for some time is a tragedy. But maybe there is a blessing in it. The stability of the Benedictine life will become evident in a new way, with the monks continuing their daily prayers, Scripture reading, liturgy, and work in tents and mobile buildings. The rock of their faith, and the practices that make that faith come alive, will be evident to all in a way nobody could have foreseen or welcomed, and they will become a source of hope and inspiration to believers the world over.

The earthquake can destroy the church and monastery buildings — or at least make them uninhabitable for a period — but it cannot destroy the faith and the community of the monks of Norcia. I have no doubt about that. And if you have been to Norcia, and prayed with them, and talked to them, you know it’s true.

UPDATE: From Father Cassian’s reflection on the earthquake:

There are two symbols from this story that can provide important insights for us. First of all, the Basilica of San Benedetto and the altar of the saint were seriously damaged. The Catholic culture of Western Civilization is collapsing. We can see it before our very eyes. The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of St. Benedict in the piazza in order to pray. That is the only way to rebuild.

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How To Fight The Trans Cult

Hey, I’m in Nashville today at the Southern Baptist ERLC event, so please forgive the light posting. I want to bring to your attention an extraordinary letter from a reader who writes about how he fought the transgender cult that briefly seized his daughter’s imagination. He’s responding to a letter another reader wrote about how this thing has her child in its grips, and the local school authorities are fighting her, the mom, over it. I want to share it with you in case it is helpful to you in your situation. I have edited it slightly to protect privacy:

I wrote you a week or so ago about my experience with this sort of thing in [xxx] County. I absolutely know where this person is coming from and I feel her pain and frustration . The only thing I can tell her, if she has the stomach for it, is to get almost downright combative with the counselors in the school and any psychologist that her teenage daughter sees especially if she, the parent is paying for it. I would keep the pressure on these counselors and their bosses, principals and superintendent as well as school board members. I would usually do it in private and not in any type of open session. In my case it paid off on a few levels.

1) I got to learn how this all worked. How the policies were formulated and where the counselors were all coming from and what they were facing and why they were doing what they did. I learned that the counselors were being reactive more than anything else. They just wanted to keep the peace in the school and they wanted to avoid incidents like bullying, or self-mutilation. Apparently “cutting” was a big thing with a lot of these female to male tans-cultist types prior to their announcement that they were crossing over, or out and out breakdowns. I had one counselor tell me that the sexual tension, etc. amongst teens these days borders on the criminal.There are no more taboos.

2) I made a few psychologists’ lives nightmarish for essentially outing them for not following protocol on hormone therapy recommendations.It helped that I come from a family of physicians and as such I had a lot of physician family friends, including a professor of psychiatry. I was aggressive on this end. I would ask these psychologists who advocated hormone therapy if they understood any of the metabolic effects of introducing large amount of testosterone into a still developing female’s body, and if their recommendations took into consideration the long-ranging effects of this sort of thing, and if their malpractice/E&O insurance covered it. I told them if I found out that if (he) in anyway was going to help facilitate my daughter into any of this, that he would be hit with a lawsuit and possible criminal charges. It helped that another parent going through the same thing was a trial attorney.

3) You are going up against a very powerful lobby and their believers. Other trans types are very aggressive and are instructed to be by other transgenders as well as advocacy groups. I would get calls at my house at all hours of the night. I had my house egged, a window broken. I had an advocacy group threaten me and my lawyer friend/ally/parent with a civil rights suit until the lawyer said “put up or shut up” – that was actually fun, because we actually had a better case against them then they had against us.

Rod, I have been in the negotiating and deal making business since I graduated from college in 1991. I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve seen scams and scams that were nothing more than disguised attempts at negotiation. This trans cult to me smelled like a scam and a “thing” as my Wall Street friends would call trends, as soon as I experienced it and the more I learn about it.This parent though, needs to understand that she is in for a tough and wild ride. The recent convert is usually the most enthusiastic about their belief. She needs to stay true to her beliefs as much as her daughter is staying with hers for the time being.

She does not need to be combative [with her child], and there are even certain accommodations that you can make. In my daughter’s case, she wanted to start me calling her by her new male name because she said she would no longer answer to her given name. Instead of fighting with that, I made a counteroffer. Since her given name and the new male name both started with the same letter, I said “ Okay, I’ll call you ___, but I’m not going to call you by the boy name because, a) I really don’t like that name and b) I still don’t buy that you are a boy in a girl’s body.” When she agreed to that, as a negotiator, I knew that I had her compromise her “belief.”

Finally, at the end of last year she came to me on her own after coming home from her first semester in college looking like my daughter. She finally admitted that she was a girl. I did not press the trans issue with her too much. I needed to keep peace at home. I had two other kids, and I was not turning my home into a hot war zone. I pressured all of the so-called experts, made them try to defend their positions on established fact and gave them fair warning that any parenting interference, any advocacy of drug prescription or surgery that was not backed by sound medical evidence or need would make their lives miserable.

In subsequent correspondence, the reader told me that this trans thing is a much bigger fad than many adults realize. He mentioned family members in a particularly conservative Southern parish who told him it’s all the rage in the local public school.

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And Now, The Cajun Army

A great question. Look at what these amazing people are doing:

A new group called the Cajun Army is hitting the streets across South Louisiana, helping people with recovery efforts.

Similar to the Cajun Navy, who provided countless water rescues when flood waters were at their highest, the group offers a ‘more boots on the ground’ approach to help those in need.

Suzanne Foret recently enlisted and joined fellow soldiers to gut a home on Lake Avenue in Baton Rouge.

“It feels really good to get out there and help each other and help out other people and get this situation handled,” Foret said. “We’re taking care of each other. Louisiana takes care of each other and that’s what we’re doing.”

Volunteers are not just coming from Louisiana. The group started a week ago under the command of Chris King and two of his friends. Now thanks to social media and a walkie-talkie phone app, the force is now about 3,000 volunteers strong from all over the country.

“We’ve got people in Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida,” King said. “We got all kind of people that are connected with us working behind the scenes from computers.”

Join the Cajun Army here, for folks without boats.

Who said civil society is dead? Not here in south Louisiana. We’re poor in many ways, but richer than most folks in others.

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The Disaster in Denham Springs

This morning I drove out to Denham Springs, in Livingston Parish, where 90 percent of the homes were flooded. I had not been there since the flood, but tried to deliver my older son to a house-gutting crew (had the wrong address, apparently, and didn’t make the connection). My wife, who has already been there, told me, “Nothing you’ve heard prepares you for it.” This is true. I don’t know why it’s true, but it’s true.

We crossed Highway 190 over the Amite River, which caused all the flooding. We kept motoring into Denham, stunned by how high the water line was on businesses, even though we were quite far from the river. You get a real sense for what it means when people say, “It never flooded here before, so we didn’t see this coming.” Start at the riverbank and go east, and you keep going and going and going, and still, there was the water.

Then you turn off into one of the subdivisions, and it looks like a freaky tornado went through. All the insides of people’s houses are there on the curb in giant nasty mounds, taller than a man. But the house stands. It’s as if a twister went through and destroyed everything, but left the frames of the houses. If you think of it that way, you can better understand the magnitude of the destruction. Imagine a tornado had covered the entire state of Massachusetts, and pulled the insides out of every house in the state, but left the frame standing. That’s what we’re talking about in south Louisiana right now.

You don’t really get that sense from seeing still pictures of houses with piles of

Meredith Waguespack

Meredith Waguespack

people’s lives out front, or from watching brief clips of riding down streets showing this. You have to get into those neighborhoods and start driving, and driving, and driving. It’s the same thing, for miles in most directions.

Getting out there, I understood the irreplaceable value of the Cajun Navy. The water rose so fast that there was no way for many people to get out in time, or even to know that it was coming. Without the men of the Cajun Navy, the suffering of the people would have been immeasurably greater, as there was simply no way for public officials and first responders to get to everybody in time. The area of the disaster was simply too vast, and the speed with which it was upon us gave no time to prepare for rescues.

On the way back to Baton Rouge, I stopped by SFT, a local t-shirt maker, to pick up some Cajun Navy t-shirts. Meredith Waguespack (left) designed them and sells them online. You can buy one here. She says that $15 from every one sold goes to flood relief through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s fund to restore the Baton Rouge Food Bank, which was nearly wiped out by the flood. It’s a great way to celebrate the strength of Louisiana and its people, and to restore a local agency that feeds the hungriest in our city. Meredith says they’ve already raised $30,000 for the Food Bank through the online sale of these t-shirts.

I’m headed to Nashville tonight to the ERLC meeting, and will be proudly wearing my Cajun Navy t-shirt, and telling anybody who asks about the heroism and dedication of these men to our community.

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The Yahrzeit of Paw

Ray Dreher on his deathbed, August 2015 (Photo illustration by Rod Dreher)

Ray Dreher, days before his passing, August 2015 (Photo illustration by Rod Dreher)

It was one year ago today that my father died at 81.

May his memory be eternal.

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Hey Newton County, This Is America

This is ridiculous:

More than 600 people packed inside a Georgia court house for a three-hour town hall condemning a proposal for a new mosque — a marathon meeting filled with bigoted insults and reassertions of well-disproven myths.

The Monday night public forum in front of the Newton County Commissioners grew loud and rowdy as speakers voiced their concerns about terrorism and their fear of the Muslim-American community.

“We have already seen bombings and beheadings,” one resident said during her time in front of the crowd, according to WXIA. “Eight years ago, our U.S. government got a Muslim president who has put Muslims in power.”

President Obama is a Christian.

These Muslims bought their land fair and square, for the sake of building a mosque. This is America. They are Americans. They have the right to build a house of worship there. Those angry Georgians need to listen to Russell Moore (see above).

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