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Finding Hope In Europe’s Most Atheist Country

Building the Benedict Option in the Czech Republic
Enjoying a cup of kindness and friendship with new friends in the Czech Republic

I am on the way home after nine days of traveling around Hungary and the Czech Republic, talking to audiences about the decline and fall of our civilization — and I could hardly be happier or more hopeful. I’m not kidding.

This requires explanation.

When I was last able to write something detailed here about the trip, I was in Prague, coming off a revelatory meeting with the family of the late dissident Vaclav Benda in his widow Kamila’s high-ceilinged apartment near the Vltava River. (See here for my account of that evening.)

The Benda family at home, Sunday March 11, 2018

The next morning, accompanied by my host Father Stepan Smolen — a young Catholic parish priest who is also one of team at Hesperion, a small independent publisher – I hiked down the cobblestoned street to a café inside a medieval courtyard. There I met a couple of journalists for back-to-back interviews.

The latter was Daniel Kaiser, a writer for the conservative magazine Echo, and author of what I was told by several Czechs is the best biography on Vaclav Havel (alas, not translated into English). After a stimulating conversation, we stepped into the courtyard so the magazine’s photographer could get some shots. Daniel pointed out to me that the building surrounding us — the New Town Hall (1348) — was where the first Defenestration of Prague took place.

It was not the first time I was startled by something historical in Prague, nor would it be the last.

Father S. and I met a well-known Czech public intellectual, a man of the Right, for lunch. I won’t mention his name, or, in this blog post, the names of anybody who said things that might be considered controversial. As I wasn’t officially interviewing anybody, and I don’t think it would be fair at all to attach their names to their comments. But I do want to tell you what I learned, while protecting their privacy.

Like every single public intellectual I met in either Hungary or the Czech Republic — and for that matter, every single person with whom I discussed politics — my lunch companion was preoccupied with Islam, the migration crisis, and the loss of European identity. He was personally cheerful, but gloomy about the future. He believes German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made a catastrophic error in admitting over a million Muslim refugees in 2015, and he deplored the refusal of the European media, academic, and governing elites to permit an honest public discussion of the mounting cultural crisis over Islam.

We briefly discussed Jean Raspail’s prophetic 1970s novel The Camp of the Saints. Yes, we agreed, it was racist, and even fascist in parts. Deplorably so! But we also agreed that in diagnosing the utter fecklessness of Europe’s virtue-signaling elites in the face of a migratory invasion (“Let’s face it, we are under an invasion here,” my lunch partner said), Raspail was deadly accurate.

What can be done about it now? Well, there’s the matter of regaining control of the borders. I pointed out that it’s necessary to close the borders and guard them, but not remotely sufficient. Europe may succeed at keeping out the refugees, but unless the rock-bottom birth rate in European nations rebounds, it will be futile.

My interlocutor, an older man, said that he and his wife had had a large number of children, all adults now. Know how many grandchildren he has? Four. Only four children from a brood so large you would have associated it with rural Catholic farmers or old-fashioned shtetl Jews.

“My children say they don’t want to have children, that there’s no point in it,” he mused. “They say Europe is eventually going to be ruled by Muslims, so they just want to live out their lives, enjoying what they can.”

I’ve been thinking about that all week. Later in the week, I spoke to a young Czech woman who lives and works in Italy, but who will be relocating back to the Czech Republic later this year to marry and start a family. “All these Italians my age, they don’t want to grow up,” she said. “They work hard, but all they want to do is spend their money on taking holidays and having fun. They don’t want the responsibility of being married, with children.”

Midweek, speaking in Brno, I mentioned my Monday lunch partner’s remark about his own family dwindling out in a single generation (though I kept his name out of it). Afterward, a cheerful Catholic granny who had turned out for my talk said, “In my family, it’s just the opposite. My husband and I have three children. So far, we have ten grandchildren!”

So, Monday afternoon, Father Stepan and I joined a colleague from Hesperion for a drive across the country to Olomouc (pronounced “olla-moats). I gave a Benedict Option talk at the Archbishop’s Palace that evening — my first in the Czech Republic — and was delighted to see that Archbishop Jan Graubner himself turned up to hear it. Unfortunately he had another engagement, and wasn’t able to stick around to talk after the lengthy Q&A period.

Listening to questioners, both during the formal Q&A and then informally, after the event, I discovered that there is a great deal of anxiety among Czech Catholics about both the future of Europe and the future of the Catholic Church.

I can’t claim that this is representative of all Czech Catholics, of course; liberals like the well-known scholar and priest Tomas Halik wouldn’t likely have come to my talk. I believe Halik is now in the United States, but he sent a forceful denunciation of the Benedict Option to my publishers when they asked him if he would like to debate it publicly. He called my book a sophisticated suicide note, or something to that effect. Monsignor Halik is an enthusiastic supporter of Pope Francis and his initiatives. I was given to understand that this negative view of the Benedict Option is easy to find among Czech priests and religious, insofar as they know anything about the book.

But at least two bishops — Graubner of Brno, and Cardinal Duka of Prague — while not endorsing it, said that the debate is an important one, and gave me a platform. For that I am grateful. It’s hard for me to see why a book calling on Catholics (and other Christians) to pray more, to study the Bible more, and to lead more spiritually disciplined lives in the face of de-Christianizing modernity, would be so offensive to certain Catholic leaders. But these are the times. Talking to some Catholic laymen in Olomouc, I heard for the first time themes that would recur with my audiences all week: that people are anxious and worried about Pope Francis’s calls to open Europe’s door wide to refugees, and they are anxious and worried about Pope Francis, period. Unlike neighboring Slovakia, which is significantly more observant, the Czech Republic is possibly the most atheistic nation in Europe. Some Catholics see their future as tied to the German bishops’ eagerness to embrace the pope’s liberal reforms. Others see this as making an already desperate situation for the Catholic remnant even worse.

As with my experiences in France, it was easy to see, and to see right away, why The Benedict Option resonates so deeply with European Christians (I was, by the way, thrilled to meet a Slovak couple in Olomouc who are Evangelicals homeschooling a big family.) Aside from the Poles, faithful European Christians have their backs to the wall in ways that it’s hard for Americans to grasp. The entire 20th century was a time of rapid de-Christianization for them — and for those who lived under Communism, a brutal suppression of the churches. They know what American Christians are only now beginning — far too slowly — to grasp: what it’s like to be Christian in a post-Christian society. In the US, we only face de-Christianization. In Europe, though, they face the prospect of Islamization and a broader de-Europeanization, as native European stock are replaced by migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

“It’s like the barbarian invasions all over again,” one man told me. And, he’s right.

One Czech Catholic told me, “There are people here who say that Muslims don’t have a culture. That’s ridiculous. They have an old culture, a strong culture. It’s a distinct civilization, but it’s not our civilization.”

Another Catholic, this one a priest, said in one of the Q&A periods that he sometimes thought that Muslims would triumph over Europeans because they still grasp the importance of patriarchy in sustaining a familial culture.

Anyway, St. Benedict and his monastic movement emerged out of the results of those earlier barbarian invasions, which overturned the spent Roman imperial order. It became very clear to me as the week went on, and I talked with more and more ordinary Czech Christians, why the Benedict Option matters. I suppose I ought to have guessed it, but I wrote the book as an American Christian for American Christians. It didn’t occur to me that the book would be published in Europe, and that crowds would come to hear me speak about it. But it makes sense. What’s so different about these European audiences is that unlike most American Christians, they do not need convincing about the reality and the nature of the crisis.

That difference came up in several conversations over the course of the week. Czech Christians who engaged me on this matter would make the same basic point, and they were urgent about it: “Don’t you Americans know how quickly things can change?!” One priest told me that St. John Neumann (d. 1860), the fourth bishop of Philadelphia and the only male American canonized saint, had emigrated from Bohemia to the United States because there were too many priests back home, and no place for him. Now the saint’s home country is a spiritual desert, and Christians are now faced with the very real possibility that the faith will die outright. I asked one priest I met what things were like in his diocese, in terms of vocations and the numbers of practicing Catholics. The news was so grim — I mean grim — that wondered to myself how this man found the inner resources to carry on. This is what it means to have faith, I suppose — but my God, what heroic faith!

I was party to one conversation in which a Czech Catholic of a certain age talked about having spent time in Boston in his youth, and again more recently. “It’s not the same place,” he said, referring to the hollowing out of the faith.

Still, compared to the extinction nightmare the Czech Christians are living through, we Americans have it very easy. I know that Czech Christians would love to have our problems. I pointed out in my speeches that American Christianity only looks strong from the outside. I shared with them the key findings from sociologist Christian Smith’s research about how theologically illiterate and frail American Christianity is, and how it has been thoroughly assimilated by consumer culture. For all our weakness, though, we still have vastly more resources with which to build a resistance to de-Christianization, and to prepare for the long run. But none of that will do us any good if we American Christians refuse to understand the severity and scope of the crisis and act decisively to meet its challenges.

One major theme of my conversations this week was political correctness and gender ideology, and the fear Czechs have of it coming to their country from the US and the UK. Every single day, at least one person asked me about Jordan B. Peterson. They see him as a hero, but they also want to know if it could possibly be true that the situation is as bad as it seems.

Here’s how it went this week: I would tell my audiences about one or two of the insane things that are being done in the name of transgender rights, and people would laugh. And then I would say some version of this: “You should laugh, because it’s absurd. But be careful: fifteen years ago, a lot of us were laughing, and couldn’t have imagined that it would come to this. But it has.”

The experience of Communism inoculated Czechs and other Eastern Europeans against the ideological madness of gender theory and political correctness. But this is not going to last forever. People are worried, because urban Czech elites look to Western Europe as the vanguard of progress. Plus, rich people like the billionaire George Soros are pouring money into the cultural re-education of Eastern European publics along liberal lines. The Czechs count on their people’s natural skepticism and common sense to protect them from ideological extremism, but I fear that they are fooling themselves in the same way that American Christians fool themselves that spiritual collapse can’t happen here.

About political correctness, over and over again, I received the same emphatic message from Czechs: You Americans need to wake up. This is exactly how Communism got started here. They start by taking away small freedoms for the sake of progress, and before you know it, they make you afraid to say what you really think, because they will destroy you.

I heard some version of this so many times this week that I quit counting. On my final night in the country, one highly educated Catholic woman at dinner said to me that she worries a great deal about the complacency of Americans regarding freedom of religion. “It was there in the beginning of your country, so you can’t imagine how it couldn’t exist,” she said. “You can’t take it for granted. You can’t! From over here, it looks like this is what’s happening in America. We think, ‘How can the American people tolerate this?’ We know how fast you can lose it.”

In fact, some of these analyses were so good that I wished I had been taking notes. I got some e-mail addresses from my various interlocutors. Maybe I can persuade some of them to expand on their comments for this blog.

In my speech in Prague, there was an Arab man in his 30s in the audience. After I spoke, he came to me and introduced himself. He’s a Maronite (Catholic) from Lebanon, married to a Czech woman, and now living in Germany for work. He’s eager to return to the Czech Republic. He said it drives him crazy to see how willfully blind Europeans are to the threat posed by importing large numbers of Muslim migrants. He said he more or less yells his head off trying to tell anyone who will listen what happened to his country, with its civil war. Europeans don’t want to hear it.

If memory serves, it was he that night who told me that Europeans fail to understand that Christian faith is the only force within Europe strong enough to stand up to the domestic challenge of Islam. He said that Europeans want to believe that secular atheism is sufficient, but it’s a dangerous delusion. I picked up in several conversations over the course of the week a grudging respect for Islam among Catholics: because at least Muslims still believe in something beyond themselves, and still believe in the family.

I don’t want to give you the impression that it was all maximum heaviosity in the Czech Republic — though I do want to give you the impression that the food there was precisely that. As it happens, I love heavy food, and boy, did I love what I ate in the Czech Republic. I have never been more grateful for the Orthodox teaching that when one is traveling, one can relax on fasting rules, and certainly one is never to refuse the hospitality of others. Honestly, trying to observe the Orthodox vegan fast in that country is an all but hopeless cause out of the home. One of my hosts told me that even when restaurants offer a vegetarian option, it almost always has cheese, and often has ham too.

Not that I’m complaining! My gosh, the dumplings, the beer, the sauerkraut soup, the cabbage, all of it. I did not have a bad, or even a mediocre, meal on the entire trip. The two best meals were from the mothers of my friends: Anna’s mom Judith made me chicken paprikash with spaetzli in Budapest, and Father Stepan’s mom Marie served duck, dumplings, and cabbage in Česky Krumlov.

Mama Smolenova serves us lunch

The less said about the food I ate and the beer I drank the better. Let’s just say that from here till Pascha, I’m going to be eating steamed vegetables, and no potatoes.

We met a prominent Czech conservative academic, Roman Joch, for lunch one day at a classic working-class Czech pub. He directs the Civic Institute, a conservative think tank in Prague. His specialty is American conservative politics. I could have talked to him all afternoon if we had had the time. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the menu, even though they brought me an English one, and ended up ordering some sort of latke thing, covered with grilled onions. It was greasy, heavy, and out of this world delicious.

And I was hungry, for sure. That lunch took place on Wednesday, the Feast of St. Benedict in the Orthodox Church. I had said that I wanted to go visit Vaclav Havel’s grave, and Vaclav Benda’s. Milan Zonca, Father S.’s friend and the Czech translator of The Benedict Option, found the cemetery, and told me that there was in fact a Russian Orthodox chapel at the heart of it, and that they were celebrating the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy that morning. This is what Orthodox Christians do every Wednesday in Lent. I told Milan and Father S. that I would like to attend the liturgy and to commune before visiting the graves. They agreed, and attended with me.

Orthodox chapel at the end of the road

It was a beautiful service, but inasmuch as it was in Slavonic (or maybe Russian; I don’t know), I didn’t understand a word of it. They seemed to take forever; the service was much longer than the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy we celebrate in my home parish. The liturgy took so long that we didn’t have time to visit the graves before heading off to meet Prof. Joch for lunch. It was just as well; I was famished. We cut through the cemetery across the street, an old one in which trees grew thickly among the graves. The effect was almost magical in its gorgeous melancholy. The mood was the same one that the Czech composer Leos Janacek evokes in his “On An Overgrown Path.” And then we exited the cemetery and walked among socialism’s greatest architectural hits.

Milan Zonca and Father Stepan Smolen, in Prague

Father S. and Milan showed me as much of Prague as they could have done in my short time there. It really is one of the most beautiful European capitals. It was undamaged by the Second World War, and therefore still retains much of its medieval and Renaissance character. The Prague Castle is enormous. I saw the balcony from which Vaclav Havel delivered some of his public addresses, and walked down to the Vltava, crossing the Charles Bridge. We did what I most like to do when I visit new places: wander. We ended up in Wenceslas Square, the vast rectangular public space where the Velvet Revolution overturning communism was carried out. At the top of the square, beneath the hill atop which sits the National Museum, I stopped to pray at the spot where young Jan Palach doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion the year before. Palach is remembered as a political martyr and hero.

The spot where Jan Palach set himself alight

An unusually wide modern road separates the museum and the spot of Palach’s self-immolation from the rest of Wenceslas Square. It makes no sense in terms of urban design. “That’s Communism for you,” Father S. said. “They decided that they needed to have a street wide enough to get tanks into the Square.”

Communist street cutting off the Palach memorial and the National Museum from Wenceslas Square

It is said that Communism was the only force capable of training Germans to manufacture crappy things. It may be that Communism was the only force capable of training Czechs to erect ugly buildings. But boy, did they in that period. Worse, they let the beautiful buildings they had decay. On Friday, we visited Vyssy Brod, a 13th century Cistercian monastery in far south Bohemia. The older parts were beautiful — the result of a post-1989 restoration. Half the monastery buildings are shockingly decrepit. Notice the contrast — a corner of a the restored part on the left, the unrestored parts on the right:

Father Stepan, who has been visiting that monastery for years, said that Communism left the entire place looking like the worst of it. The built landscape of Communism is an outward sign of its inward banality and deadness.

Take a look at this panorama I took from the parking lot of a Franciscan monastery in downtown Brno. The monastery is on the left. On the right is a building that I thought was being prepared to be razed. Nope. It’s some sort of cultural center, apparently; we could hear singers practicing something horrid and discordant inside. It sounded like they needed exorcism:

It’s not just the built landscape. Our little party drove on Friday afternoon from the Cistercian monastery down to the nearby Austrian border. We followed the Vltava River, through gorgeous countryside. Father S. told me he wanted me to see the difference that Communism had made in the landscape. The landscape south of the monastery is thickly forested, maybe a bit rough, but still lovely.

But when you cross the border into Austria, things change markedly. There the landscape has been cared for and cultivated over a long period of time. It turns out that under Communism, entire villages emptied out, and were reclaimed by the forest. The state did not want people living so close to the border, and besides, all the farmland was collectivized. Before Communism, the farms and hills and valleys of south Bohemia looked just like Austria.

We motored briefly into the first Austrian village across the border. The difference between that village and its Czech municipal neighbors was stark. Communism taught people not to take care of their places, and impoverished them so much that they couldn’t have done it if they had wanted to. In my week in the Czech Republic, I saw no reminder of the true nature of Communism as stark and as chilling as Budapest’s Terror House museum, but these other reminders were important in their own way.

Here’s a small one. We stopped in a South Bohemian town near the monastery to have coffee and dessert. Father S.’s sister, who was driving, chose a particular café for nostalgic reasons: it reminded her of her childhood (she was born just before the fall of Communism, and so spent her early years living amid the cultural detritus of it). This cafeteria had played host to elementary school field trips when she was a kid.

The dessert counter — well, it wasn’t ugly, but compared to the confections I had seen in Prague windows, it was more than a bit humble. I ordered some kind of traditional Czech confection, a sort of stuffed donut. It was edible. Father S. and his sister ordered a slice of white cake with Jell-O on top. It looked like it had been liberated from a school cafeteria. The siblings laughed at the crumminess of it all, but said for them, this was enjoyable as a reminder of their childhood — a kind of Ostalgie, as the Germans call it.

Here’s the point: It took Communism to teach Bohemians how to make the pastry equivalent of Trabants.

But there’s a ruin-of-capitalism point to be made here as well. Father S.’s hometown is Česky Krumlov, a medieval jewel of a village that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Take a look at this Rick Steves clip about the place. It is a wonderland — and it is overrun by tourists. Normal village life is difficult. Who would want to live in a place where on most days you can’t move down the street because of all the tourists? Where there’s nothing to buy other than gifts and souvenirs? It is entirely beautiful, this town, and almost entirely fake.

Cesky Krumlov

Father S.’s family lives in the decidedly non-medieval suburbs, but it’s an easy walk to the old heart of the town. Me, I was overwhelmed by its cobblestoned beauty, but Father S. said he longed for the 1990s, after Communism departed, but before the tourists discovered his town. Things were still pretty shabby there, and the medieval buildings looked really medieval, he said. Now, the only time the town feels like home is very early in the morning or late at night, when the buses have departed.

“How can you keep this from happening?” I mused aloud.

“Communism,” the priest replied, dryly.

He had a point, actually. Under Communism, the town was shabby and poor … but a real place. Under capitalism, the town is glowing and rich … and a Disney village. Obviously nobody longs for the return of Communism; Father’s point was that prosperity has taken away something precious from the people of the town, but that the only way to keep prosperity at bay is through forced impoverishment, which people want even less. It’s an impossible problem to solve.

I gave a speech in České Budějovice, a nearby university town, on Thursday night. Father warned me that they had only four people RSVP for the talk, and that I shouldn’t be upset if only a handful come. In fact, we had about 35, including the local bishop, who asked several excellent questions about the Benedict Option, and asked me to sign a book for him. When Father and I returned to Česky Krumlov, we drove straight to St. Vitus’s, the late 14th century town church, so he could say his daily mass. It was late, and we had to go to the rectory, from which Monsignor Vaclav Picha, the pastor, dispatched a seminarian to open the darkened Gothic vault.

I had been in the medieval church earlier in the day, but how eerie and wonderful it was to be there at night, in pitch blackness and late-winter cold. It felt like I was exploring a temple inside the Mines of Moria. Finally someone found the light, and Father S. retreated to a side chapel to vest and say a private mass. I remained in the nave, praying before the reserved Eucharist. I stood in the chilly vastness of the old church, praying for all the people I had met over the previous week, praying for the Christians of the Czech Republic, and praying for the re-conversion of Europe. I also said prayers of thanksgiving for these wonderful people, this beautiful place, and for the brave hearts who held on to the faith throughout the pitch-black Orwellian night, and who are still trying their best amid the blinding light of this Huxleyan brave new post-Christian world. It was the purest prayer I had all week. As cold and as dark as it was under the stone Gothic vaults that night, I felt at home, and loved.

Monsignor Vaclav doesn’t speak English, but he wanted to spend some time with us after the mass. So the four of us – the seminarian included — trundled down to a pub run by a Gypsy who is a faithful Catholic. He welcomed us in, seated us at a table, and brought out four big mugs of crisp local beer. It turns out that Monsignor Vaclav is a stout theological conservative who is a huge fan of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. Here he is drinking a toast to the Archbishop:

Monsignor Vaclav Picha

I love me some Monsignor Vaclav. He told me, through Father Stepan, that one day, he wants to make a pilgrimage to Philly to pray at the tomb of St. John Neumann, asking for the saint’s prayers to increase vocations in Bohemia. How lovely it was for me to be with that priest, even though we didn’t share a word of the same language. Father S. was an able interpreter, but somehow, Monsignor Vaclav and I understood each other anyway.

I can’t close this trip diary without telling you something about Father Stepan’s dad. Father Stepan said early in the trip, “In the Czech Republic, we’re all hobbits.” Man, I tell you, Mr. Smolen has Baggins down in his bones. When we got home late from the pub, he and Bobbik the dog — an unreconstructed Cold Warrior who apparently doesn’t like or trust Americans – were up waiting for us.

Mr. Smolen stood with a bottle of slivovitz and three glasses, and said something to his son in Czech.

“My father says, ‘Do you want a drink with him?'” said the priest.

“Well, it’s very late, and -”

“Yes. Yes, you do,” said Father Stepan to me, emphatically.

Ah. I see how this works. This was militant Slav hospitality – and boy, did I love it. The fruit brandy was strong and delicious, and it was a blast talking with Mr. Smolen, though we had to rely on the good offices of his son. It was like talking to my own dad. After a while, the hooch was making me woozy, and I excused myself to go to bed.

Mr. Smolen said something that sounded excitable and vowelless. Father Stepan smiled. “My father says that you have to slam the gate behind you.”

That is slang for “one more for the road.” He filled my glass one more time, and I slammed the gate behind me before the dwarves showed up.

On Friday, before we headed out, Mr. Smolen wanted to drink one last toast together. I asked him for a selfie. Reader, this is the only time I ever saw that happy, passionate man not smile:

Mr. Stefan Smolen and I

He sent me home with a bottle of store-bought slivovitz, a bottle of Czech apple moonshine, and two of his shot glasses, as well as a homemade jar of beer cheese cured in spices and olive oil. That there is a mensch. When Lent is over, I’m going to get in touch with my inner Bohemian hobbit.

On the last night, I stayed with a young Catholic family in a small town not too far from the airport. When I arrived, they gave me a bottle of locally brewed beer named after the Blessed Karl (Karel) von Habsburg, the final Austrian-Hungarian emperor, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II for his efforts to end World War I. I put it in my checked luggage along with three bottles of beer Milan Zonca had given me, from his hometown. I am hoping it survived the journey intact. I can’t wait to share it all with my son Matthew, the other beer aficionado in our family.

After seeing Father S. off, the mom and dad and I had an intense, moving conversation about the faith, and about raising kids these days. The mother told me that the confusion in the Catholic Church, and in society at large, was unnerving. She said she doesn’t know what to expect next, from this Pope or anything else. The velocity of cultural disintegration seems to be increasing, she said.

Naturally, I could not disagree. But we also talked about hope, and how much we need to build the Benedict Option, across ecclesiastical lines. “The crisis is not between churches,” she said, “but runs through the middle of every church.” I smiled at that; I had been using the same line all week, urging an ecumenism of the trenches. We talked about how important it is to build these Ben Op networks now, while we have the time and the liberty to do so.

Heavy stuff — and definitely not the kind of thing you talk about with just anybody. I told my hosts that I had been having deep, and deeply meaningful, conversations like this since Hungary. There’s something about the times we’re in that not only make them possible, but even force them. When you meet someone who sees what you see, and thinks what you think, about these issues, you don’t want to waste time with formalities.

I had to tear myself away from the conversation at table, and force myself to get to sleep. We had to leave for the airport at 4:40 am. Drifting off to sleep that night, I found myself almost giddy with gratitude – yes, gratitude. I was just concluding a week of lectures and conversations about the end of Christian civilization, and yet I felt, well, great. It was entirely about the people. Sometimes in my lectures, when I sense that I have freaked people out, I tell them about the Tipi Loschi, that merry band of Italian Catholic hobbits on the Adriatic. And then I tell them about south Louisiana, and how the people there — my people — have a way of celebrating the joy of living, even amid tragedy. As my Southern Baptist friends like to say, “God is good all the time.” I want to remind audiences that if what we say we believe is true, then the only right response to the times is, in Auden’s phrase, to “stagger on rejoicing.”

To me, despair is watching the world falling apart around us, and losing hope (e.g., not having children because you don’t believe in the future). Despair is also deliberately not seeing the world fall apart around you, because you cannot bear the thought of it (e.g., the happy-clappy church people, with their forced cheerfulness and therapeutic false messiahs).

Hope — real hope — is in the face of Christians who try hard to live in truth, including the hard truths that the world is sunlit despite its vices and that no matter what we are called to suffer, all things work for good for those who love God. Real hope is an awareness that grace manifest itself through sharing pints of cold beer with new friends; and eating chicken paprikash or duck and dumplings at somebody’s mama’s table. Hope is found in the stories of families like the Bendas, who were put to the test and abided faithfully through to victory.

Hope is children. Hope is in making new friends, and discovering that you and yours are not alone, after all. Hope is being able to stand in a freezing, dark, empty church in the most atheist country on the most atheist continent in the world, and praise God for all the blessings to be found there.

It’s hard to believe that only one year ago, The Benedict Option was published. Since then, I’ve done a lot of traveling, in the US, Canada, and Europe, talking about it. In every place I’ve been, I have been discouraged by the severity of the deepening crisis, but even more encouraged by the realism, the faithfulness and the joy of the people I’ve met. For example, this Father Stepan Smolen, the thin, modest young priest who was partly responsible for bringing me to the Czech Republic: this guy is a very bright light in the darkness. He is so smart, so deep, so wise, and so luminous. He will read this, and hate me saying it, but I heard his conversion story, and I spent a week with him driving around the country. He’s the real deal. As long as there are Christians — especially priests and pastors — like him in the world, we can be certain that God has not abandoned us.

Look, it’s terrible out there, but God is good all the time! We might be in a bad situation, but we are in it together. You might say that this sounds like sentimental churchy claptrap, and you might be right. I don’t care. I know what I’ve seen, and heard, and tasted. Now, it’s time to get started on my next book: one in which I talk about how we can all learn to see the Goodness that is everywhere present and filling all things, if only we have eyes to see.

I mean, come on, people, DUCK AND DUMPLINGS! Do I really have to explain this to you?!

Flight is boarding now in Charlotte, for Baton Rouge. I’ll be blogging about this trip all next week. That’s it for now. Glory to God for all things!

Father Stepan Smolen and Your Working Boy, overlooking Cesky Krumlov