Arm Wrestling the World for God

The solution to the Church’s distress lies right before us. Will spiritual leaders and laity choose to see it—or reject it because of the cost?

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It’s mud season in flyover country, so the broad-shouldered men from South Dakota farms dragged the bottoms of their boots against snow piles and kicked at a concrete riser before walking into a recent Catholic men’s retreat. It was a bad morning to leave the farm. The weather was a sunny 29 degrees, sweatshirt weather—a production day. It was minus-32 in the open-prairie wind a week earlier, when farmers reached for udders with stiff fingers and crystals on their eyelashes.

There’s a chance a few men interiorly swore at the bad luck of the retreat falling on a rare warm winter morning, when greater volumes of work could get done; but God and commitment come first here. The un-mucked stalls, hog slaughtering, and blizzard of obligations back in Aurora, Bushnell, White, and Johnsonville could wait. 

All was forgotten anyway when Fr. Jeff Norfolk stepped down from the altar to move down the line of the quiet men with cracked hands—ranchers, mechanics, deer hunters, cattlemen, hog and grain farmers, linemen, marines, and the like—who had dropped to their knees to receive the Sacrament on their tongue like pheasants shot from the sky. The priest knows he can’t fake it here, these people know reality; so he’s surrendered his priesthood to Mary, where, like de Montfort, he’s become her slave in prisons, on poverty-ravaged Indian reservations, and at snakebitten farms.

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After a long day of prayer and talks—just before the post-retreat arm wrestling competition—Fr. Norfolk asked for prayer intentions. A man with rolling muscle beneath an untucked flannel spoke, “Moisture,” he said through a big beard. “It’s been three years. I could use it.” Men like these are vanishing in America. They are becoming like forgotten scarecrows in winter-dead fields. 

These farmers and those like them carry an unsentimental clarity of what is essential and what is not. They know the weight they carry and what is expected of them—like Christ at the base of Golgotha—so they just move forward for fifteen and sixteen hours, six days a week. 

The fix to the fallen world and the Church’s unraveling is here in flyover country, but because the solution is forged by quiet men in pickups, no one pays it much mind. The fix to everything, it seems, can be seen out here on the prairie; but when Manhattanites and D.C. frequent flyers pass overhead for business or a quick-hitter in Vegas, few consider the slow-moving dots moving across the fields below. It is the tractor in the grain field, the 8-year-old girl walking to the coop to collect the eggs, a cowboy herding livestock, men helping a farming neighbor mend a collapsed fence. 

These countless movements made by unseen men and women are the slow rotations of the kaleidoscope of Jean-François Millet’s mind when he considered how he would portray the humility and quiet grace of farmers at the close of day. These South Dakotans are the peasants of The Angelus. They are thousands upon thousands of oil paintings depicting order and quiet moral virtue. They are masterpieces of grit and resilient providers few will ever marvel over. These are the flyover people

This term is like America’s four-letter word for them; but happily, their disregard never even occurs to them. They’re just thinking of the work that needs to be done. These folks are caretakers of fields and souls, who tend to what God has provided for them. They keep their heads down and oblige the best they’re able.

One might imagine that if the Church abruptly pivoted from its ways—from new springtimes, interminable synods, strung-out revivals, parish restructurings, capital campaigns, and the like—and turned its attention to South Dakota, it would heal. It would see what A.D. 52 disciples of Christ resembled—men and women untethered to anything except their burden of work of proclaiming Jesus and salvation. 

Because of the many farming perils of blight, a dead bull, rainless days, etc., the farmer steps into things with firmness and urgency. At dawn, he leaves his porch for his frozen fields and uses moonlight to get him to his barn, unlit tool shed, and sleeping cattle. Across the starlit horizon, he begins long strings of prayers—a commingling of supplications, acts of faith, and thanksgiving that rise to God like vaporous wintertime puffs of incense. Lord, make the tractor turn over; let me see that the sickly calf made it through the night; make the margins work on the next load of hogs. He becomes as close to Christ as Beloved John in the Upper Room after sensing His unease. 

Emotions mean nothing here. Just grind-it-out fiats of surrender to God will do. The red-eyed boy who tilts his cowboy hat in such a way that covers his tears over the death of the newborn calf knows other calves will come around. A sentimental farmer, one who is comfortable, a talker, or a slow-moving planner—well, he just ain’t no good here. He’s a man unfit for the farmland. The unspoken word for his type is biblical. He is seen as leprous, a man who brings blight to his farm, family, and friendships because he spends more time thinking and planning than doing

Only an embrace of total sacrifice works here. When a farmer tries each day to resemble the Victim on the Cross, he has a shot. Sacrifice is the demand of his identity, so he’s always working to slaughter all comfort and worldly charms. If he sees a small moral corruption or bad habit creeping up in him, he’ll fight it off as if it were Satan. If he’s able to crucify his emotions, his farm might make it another year. He knows that it is only through death that there is any hope of life.  When a farmer tries each day to resemble the Victim on the Cross, he has a shot. Sacrifice is the demand of his identity, so he’s always working to slaughter all comfort and worldly charms.Tweet This

Barack Obama called them gun clingers and Bible toters. The Christian men here get it. They carry a Midwestern drawl and notch their belts with buckles the size of transistor radios. They slide on their best Sunday boots for weekend rodeos. And young men here take knees to the dirt under strung-up lights at barn dances, where they propose marriage to high school sweethearts in the fashion they remember Charles Ingalls doing it from the Ingalls Wilder book mom read to them at bedtime. 

Bruce Springsteen cut platinum albums off the backs of places like these. He and Mellencamp saw grit, iconic images of prairie simplicity, and a fibrous faith. The images carved into Springsteen’s soul poured out like Willa Cather poetry and earned him countless millions of dollars. And all he did was show what America once was. His songs just pointed to the right order of The Angelus—over and over and over. The simple notion made him into an American icon and one of the greatest rock stars in history.

When will the Church see what Springsteen did?

When the farmer turns his tractor back home at dusk, he often arrives caked in livestock feces and blood. Mud is spread thickly from the bottom of his boots up past the thighs of his trousers. His hair has often been urinated upon by ornery cows. He has fresh gashes on his hands and forearms. Farming stigmata. But after a shower, he sits around the dinner table and gives his wife and children the best of him. He gives them what he’s got. 

In observing these folks (I recently stayed with a South Dakota farming family), I saw TVs and technology turned off. No one dared bring a cell phone to the table. Children read books after dinner and roughhoused on the sofa cushions spread out on the carpet, where they laughed like hyenas. They gathered around the fireplace to pray the Rosary. For a while, I felt I had slipped into the skin of George Bailey, caught up in a differently-ordered wonderful life.

When will the Church see this sacred ordering? When will spiritual leaders strip themselves down, like these farmers, and crucify all of their comforts? When will they steel themselves for the nonstop work of addressing sin and reorienting lost souls? 

It seems too many bishops reside in what look like mansions or palaces. Some have chefs, chauffeurs, and housemaids. They do not track in muck with their loafers; feces are not caked onto their croziers. Their headdress isn’t a crown of thorns; it’s a custom-fit miter. 

And so what of their sheep? Do they stick around? No. Catholics flee from the Church today like the Israelites from Pharaoh. And many who remain are unformed in their faith, like antelope grazing in fields amid crouched lions. Many of these types are lay leaders in our parishes today.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said to the Pharisees (John 10:11).

Instinctually, the farmer knows what needs to be addressed and ignored. He rejects out of hand peripheral things because of the volume of his work. Were he a bishop for a day, he wouldn’t give Fiducia Supplicans or the Synod on Synodality the time of day. He would know to spend it with concrete things. He would leave his moonlit chancery and begin to chase down souls he thought might be headed to Hell. He would show himself as the face of Christ, as the Slaughtered Lamb, to the world. 

He wouldn’t be risk-averse in stepping into the societal madness and proclaiming the Catechism’s thornier teachings and fullness of the Good News of salvation. He’d emerge as a cassocked farmer at dawn’s purple twilight and go about the spiritual work of turning over, tilling, and trellising souls—the souls of his pasture—so that, when the haze of our wintertime of immorality lifted, the harvest could still be gathered. 

He would chase away the wild-eyed crows of lust, myopia, and disorder that encroached upon the unmarked boundaries of his diocese. He’d build up immovable barricades against the evils of Modernism with scattered holy water and blessed salt. They would become like rings of iron around every square inch of the perimeter of his diocese. 

With a blood loyalty to his purpose and duty to guard souls, he’d clear out the copperheads, mice, cutworms, earwigs, and moles from fields made barren by an infestation of the pandemic’s sacramental moratoriums and spiritual neglect.

Then the bishop-farmer would scatter the seeds of God—like a last breath pushed out into the world from the Cross—and beg that the harvest might come back.


tagged as: Catholic Living Church

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