Gratitude For Friends Far And Wide
On this Thanksgiving day, I’ve been reflecting on how much travel I’ve done this year. I began the year by going to Spain for the Benedict Option book tour. Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, Barcelona, and Zaragoza — I made good friends in each place. One of the greatest joys of my life is to go to a foreign country and meet other Christian believers who are walking the same pilgrim path as I am. Here I am in Sevilla with Manuel, Elena, and Scott (sorry it was fuzzy) before my talk there:
Here’s my Madrid host Eric Halverson and Self, at the Mercado:
After Spain, I made my first-ever trip to Ireland, to give a Ben Op talk in Dublin. Here I am enjoying a pint with Brian Kaller, author of the Restoring Mayberry blog.
After returning from Ireland, I reached a deal with Sentinel, the Ben Op publisher, for my next book. This meant I would spend the rest of the year journeying to former communist countries in what we call “Eastern Europe,” but which they prefer to call “Central Europe.”
My first stop was Slovakia, where I was headed anyway because I had a prior agreement to speak at the Hanus Days, an ideas festival. My Hanus Days hosts helped me tremendously with my book project, setting up interviews with members of the underground church, and others. For example, here are Jan Canigursky and Frantisek Miklosko, two real heroes of the anti-communist resistance. Jan, a lawyer, served in the first post-communist government of Czechoslovakia. He said, “They let me out of prison, and two weeks later I was sitting at the table with Havel, negotiating the handover of power with the communists.”
Here’s my interpreter, Viliam Ostatnik (whom I first met at the TAC Gala in 2018), with historian Jan Simulcik. They’re standing in a hidden underground chamber where Catholic samizdat was printed under communism. In this little room, faithful Catholics kept the faith alive under persecution. Jan, now a historian of the underground church, was part of the samizdat operation, though he did not know that the literature was being printed in that very room, until the fall of communism. That secret was too dangerous for most people to know:
I made friends with the Bratislava photographer Timotej Krizka and his wife Petra. Timo recently published a gorgeous book of photographs and interviews he made with elderly Slovak Catholics who had served prison time for their faith. I’ll be writing about it separately:
On that same trip, I took the train up to Prague, where I interviewed the amazing Benda family. Here’s a selfie inside their apartment, with matriarch Kamila on the left. The priest, Father Stepan Smolen, was my interpreter:
Later, I was off to Australia for the first time, for a series of Benedict Option lectures in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. I had never been to that country. It turns out that Aussies are just as kind and fun to be with as you think. Here I am with Paul Morrissey, my host, in Melbourne:
Anna Hitchings organized the press for the trip. Just before I arrived in country, she published an article in the Catholic press about how difficult it is to be single and faithfully Catholic. It went viral. We talked a lot about whether or not she should start a blog about the topic — and she did! It’s called Agony & Hope, and I encourage you to check it out.
The legendary Australian prime minister John Howard came to hear my final Ben Op lecture:
Over the summer, Julie and I took the kids to see friends in England. While there, I interviewed Sir Roger Scruton for my book. Here we are in his study. Sir Roger seemed much more subdued than I recalled from our previous meeting a couple of years earlier. He learned shortly after this meeting that he was suffering from cancer:
Later, on the same trip, I heard from James Orr, a professor on the Cambridge University divinity faculty. He saw from Twitter that we were in town, and asked if we could meet. Of course! He gave the kids and me a tour of the tower at St. John’s College; this photo was taken by one of my kids, on the roof of the tower:
We were only in Cambridge for a couple of days, but we got to spend time with the great John Shelton Reed, the sociologist of Southern life and a master of all things barbecue. This is my wife Julie and me, with John:
In July, I went to Poland for nine days, most of it spent interviewing Poles who fought communism. Here I am after my interview with Zofia Romaszewska, considered a Polish national hero. I wrote about that meeting here. To be in the presence of such a woman, knowing what she did for the cause of freedom, is to be humbled and inspired. That generation is passing away, though. We have to cherish them while they’re still with us!
Here’s my interpreter, Lukasz Kozuchowski, an inspiring young Catholic student who made everything work for me in Poland:
Here’s an American friend I made in Krakow. Ramon Tancinco is living the dream with his Polish wife and kids at their farm in the countryside:
In September, I headed back across the pond to Austria, where I gave a Benedict Option lecture at a Catholic parish festival. Here’s a picture of Self with Father Thomas Sauter, the pastor and organizer of the festival. I had just arrived, and gave him a tin of chocolate chip cookies that my daughter Nora baked for him:
I visited a Swiss family farm across the border, and met young Catholics who are struggling to be faithful in a time of apostasy. I was so moved by the courage and hope of these young people, who are well cared for by Father Thomas. Some Swiss Reformed pastors and theologians motored over to Austria to hear my lecture. Here we are enjoying a beer in the Gasthaus afterward; the tall guy in the t-shirt is Tobias Klein, the translator of the Ben Op into German:
I left western Austria for Vienna, where my Slovak hosts met me. As I arrived off the platform into the main station, I ran into my friend Eduard Habsburg, Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican. It was simply perfect to arrive in Vienna for the first time, and within two minutes meet a Habsburg:
For some reason I can’t find photos of the wonderful nuns and priests who hosted me in Nitra. It was a real joy to be with them. They sent me away with jars of their homemade apricot preserves. In fact, for breakfast this morning, I ate two spoonfuls on homemade cornbread.
I went back to Bratislava, and visited a monument to Father Tomislav Kolakovic, who was more of less the founder of the underground church in Slovakia. I am dedicating my upcoming book to him. In 1943, he escaped the Gestapo in Zagreb, hiding in Slovakia. He encouraged the Slovak Catholics by telling them that the Germans were going to lose the war … but told them that their country was going to fall to the communists. He worked to prepare the people, by building cells of committed Catholics, for the resistance. In 1948, his dire prophecy came true — but the Church in Slovakia was ready. Here are Timo Krizka and Juraj Sust with me at the monument:
On that same trip, I went down to Budapest to give a talk at a religious liberty conference, and to do a series of interviews with Hungarian dissidents for my book. Here I am with Maria Wittner, a national hero of the 1956 anti-Soviet resistance. This lady — and I say this with the utmost respect — is a badass. The commies didn’t have a chance up against her. Nobody would:
Before I left, I took this portrait on the street with my friend and translator Anna Salyi, her husband Ormos Molnar, and their beautiful little boy Örsy. Last week, a new little Molnar joined the family. Welcome, baby Pitroska Terez!
I also made some fun trips in the US, on which I made new friends, and renewed old friendships. Here I am with my new pal Coleman Jones, a manager at Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, a Dallas ice cream parlor that gives people with disabilities a chance to show what they can do. Watch this TV report about Coleman.
What brought me to Dallas that weekend was the birthday of my old friend and Orthodox godfather Vladimir Grigorenko, originally from Ukraine. Here he is at his party, on the right, with our old friend Misha Gladtskov, a native Siberian. You will not find two greater American patriots anywhere.
In a sign of the End Times, the G.K. Chesterton Society gave me its Outline Of Sanity Award at its annual conference. I’m convinced it must be a prank. Here I am at the afterparty with Dale Ahlquist, the American master of all things Chesterton:
I also flew to Cincinnati, where I was present to see my friend J.D. Vance received into the Catholic Church by the Dominican Father Henry Stephan, below:
In Massachusetts this fall, at a Ben Op conference, I met two extraordinary Anglicans: Nigerian Bishop Emmanuel Maduwike and his wife Anuli:
The last trip I took in 2019 was my recent journey to Russia, where I interviewed gulag survivors and others. Here I am with Father Kirill Kaleda, archpriest of a church built as a memorial to the New Martyrs of Russia — that is, those slaughtered by the Bolsheviks. It is thanks to Father Kirill’s advocacy that there is a national monument to 21,000 political prisoners, among them about 1,000 priests and bishops, massacred in a 14-month period on the Butovo shooting range, during Stalin’s Terror.
Here I am with Alexander Ogorodnikov, one of the most prominent Christian anti-Soviet dissidents. He spent a decade in the worst of the gulag for his faith:
With Father Alexey, a Moscow pastor:
Unfortunately, not all the photos I posted from Russia to this blog made it through the transfer to the redesigned format. I would like to show you images of the Russian Baptist Yuri Sipko, the Georgian filmmaker Vakhtang Mikeladze, and my indefatigable Moscow guide and translator Matthew Casserly … but the redesign swallowed them up. And, I have so many more photos from every place I visited. If I had posted them all, I would have been here all day. It was such a blessing to see those faces this morning, as we near the end of an extraordinary year for me. I thank you, dear friends, for your presence, and I thank God that He brought you into my life.
I will end with this. Father Kirill Kaleda told me the story of St. Alexey Michev and his son, St. Sergey Michev. Both were Moscow priests. Father Alexey died in 1923; Father Sergey was killed in the gulag sometime in the 1940s. I visited the church they had both pastored in Moscow. I was so deeply moved by their stories that I bought an icon there at the church, and have developed a real devotion to these fathers in the faith, who came home from Moscow with me. Glory to God for all things!
I am eager to read in the comments section what you’re grateful for this year.