How prayer changes politics: A conversation with Kathryn Jean Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez and her latest book "A Year With the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living" (CNS photo/Tan Books)

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a Catholic laywoman who serves as a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, the editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is also a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor’s Newsweekly and co-author with Austen Ivereigh of the 2015 book How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. In January 2017, she made the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, later completing her certification to work as a spiritual director with the Cenacle of Our Lady of Divine Providence in Clearwater, Fla.

Ms. Lopez’s latest book, the leather-cover devotional A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living, came out in September 2019. On Sept. 17, I interviewed her by telephone about her ongoing drift from conservative politics to Catholic spirituality. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

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Since stepping down as the editor of National Review Online, you’ve moved from writing about Barack Obama to talking about Catholic spirituality, even making a 30-day silent retreat. Who are you and what have you done with the real K-Lo?

There was a time when I lived in front of the news and anticipated everything; for my entire life, I’ve watched C-SPAN, and my first crush was Peter Jennings when I was a 4-year-old watching the nightly news. I always wanted everyone to pay more attention to politics; I was a total political geek. But now we’re in a world where people watch politics like it’s the longest-running reality TV show and it’s not healthy. Looking back, I can see the way I was living wasn’t healthy either. People need silence—they need some time to reflect, to know who they are, to know who God is.

Because [National Review founder] Bill Buckley was a Catholic, and his faith was the lens through which he viewed the world, it wasn’t the craziest transition for me to make. I’m tremendously grateful for the opportunity to focus a little more on faith and culture, to focus on virtue as the real reason we’re here. The answer to every question is not legislation, but we forget about that.

What inspired you to write a devotional book on the mystics?

It’s the latest volume in a series that St. Benedict Press does. For years I had benefited from their “Year with the Saints,” “Church Fathers,” “Mary,” the Bible and the Eucharist books. I told them to do “A Year with the Mystics” and their response was that I should write it. To be honest, I was already lugging around all the Classics of Western Spirituality books from Paulist Press, taking these huge things on plane rides and commutes. They’re not easy to read; even one paragraph from St. Catherine of Siena or St. Bridget of Sweden is incredibly rich. So I had a bunch of stuff I was reading and sharing with people anyway; I really wanted a book to give people that had some of this stuff. If I could just give them my notebook, I would, but this book is a much more practical way to share some of the meditations that have benefited me.

How have the mystics influenced your own faith journey?

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When you pray with these writings, you really get a better sense of who God is. This is part of the grace of a 30-day retreat or any retreat where you spend time with God. You start to appreciate that God is with us all of the time and communicating with us all of the time. We need to take time in silence to hear him, but so many of us are so busy and there’s so much noise. The mystics have given me the ability to stop and see Christ in other people.

Though you were educated at Dominican Academy in Manhattan, you embraced Ignatian spirituality a few years ago, making the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in its full silent form. What graces did you receive from this retreat?

I remember one day during this retreat appreciating in a whole new way that Ignatius was a military man: The 30-day retreat is rigorous exercise. I appreciated in a new way how God providentially takes care of me. He’s been present during all of my life and I saw it anew when I started reflecting. I grew in thanksgiving for his gifts, I grew in sorrow for my sins—you can’t walk away from something like that and be the same. It’s hard not to give thanks and have sorrow when we’re aware of God’s presence, will and tremendous love for us.

It’s hard not to give thanks and have sorrow when we’re aware of God’s presence, will and tremendous love for us.

How do you pray these days?

I have to get myself in front of the Blessed Sacrament every day; there’s nothing like being present with Jesus in the Eucharist, so I try to make that part of my life. The more you do that, and the more you get yourself to Mass and confession, it starts to transform your life and much of your life becomes a prayer. I don’t pretend to be a perfect disciple, but I’ve found myself waking up every morning in a new way, loving God and thanking him for the opportunity to be his instrument. It changes the decisions I make.

After high school you studied politics and philosophy at Catholic University before taking jobs at the conservative Heritage Foundation and National Review, where you continue to write. Where do you see the greatest resonance between your politics and Catholic faith?

I remember years ago, Archbishop Chaput said he never used to think the Democratic Party would become the defender of legal abortion because there were so many Catholics in it. I think we need to take Catholic social teaching more seriously. No one is comfortable with a party label or ideology label. Right now there’s a fight going on about what the conservative movement is, but my understanding of conservatism is very much Bill Buckley’s conservatism where there’s room and freedom. Buckley brought people together and it was absolutely based in virtue. He often pointed to Bethlehem as foundational to who we are as a people and even as a nation; that religious component always has to be part of conservatism. You don’t need to be religious to be conservative, but you have to appreciate it.

Where do you experience the strongest tension between your politics and your Catholicism?

Obviously politics is crazy town right now; there’s frequently tension. I found myself surprised during the last presidential election and the early Trump years, not only by how quickly evangelicals defended him, but even by how some Catholics defended him. Supreme Court justices are important, but I do worry about the long-term effects of having Donald Trump as the most pro-life president we’ve ever had. I think Catholics should appreciate what’s good, but totally challenge things when necessary, and the border is one issue where Catholics have to get more involved right now—especially with refugees.

The idea that we’re not going to take any more refugees, especially at a time when the very existence of Christianity in the Middle East seems an open question, is just not acceptable. Those people deserve our support in more ways than one and we need to welcome them. The death penalty has also been a big sticking point with me and the Republican Party; but National Review is such a wonderful place and I’ve always been grateful to be there, as we have a great diversity of thought in which people are able to challenge each other.

You recently became a certified spiritual director. What prompted this move and how have your experiences as a spiritual director gone so far?

When I started writing more frequently about religion, people came to me more often with their questions about the faith and their prayer intentions. People I didn’t know contacted me by email, Facebook and Twitter, opening up to me about problems in their marriages and illnesses. I’m honored they were asking me to pray for them, but I also thought it was a little above my pay grade! I wasn’t well-equipped to answer their questions. During an Ignatian eight-day retreat one year, this idea of becoming a spiritual director came up, and Ignatius would say it was real because I wasn’t looking for it at all. So I went online and found the Cenacle; the next day I did a phone interview for their three-year program in Ignatian spirituality. I love that it’s affiliated with Franciscan University, that I’m Dominican educated and that I love Ignatius—we can all get along and share the treasures of our Church.

I’ve been a spiritual director for three years now. What I’ve found, talking to people regularly about their prayer, is that people don’t know what to do when God clearly communicates things. People think that any communication from God is rare. But God is communicating with us all the time. In this book, I have people like St. John of the Cross, but I also have Mother Angelica and a priest named Donald Hagerty who preaches at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. People right down the pew may be praying mystically and you don’t even know it; I hope this book demystifies mysticism a bit.

People think that any communication from God is rare. But God is communicating with us all the time.

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

If we’re praying and trying to make spiritual progress, it’s a constant journey. As a kid, I was probably on the pious side, but I went through many years where work was my priority. I had good intentions, but I wasn’t doing a holy hour or going to mass every day, and that’s certainly changed. The sacraments are now my spiritual oxygen; I can’t even imagine life without regular confession and daily mass. That wasn’t the case when I was writing about politics all those years.

How have your politics changed or evolved over the years?

I’ve always been a conservative. But what changes, when you take prayer seriously, is you can’t think of political issues as theoretical and not connected to people’s lives. Today I have a deeper appreciation that politics isn’t going to save everything; there’s no political savior. I think we have this bipartisan problem where we look to Washington for everything instead of looking closer to home. We debate about abortion, but how many of us know what’s going on in our own neighborhood and parish? Cardinal John O’Connor told pregnant women “come to the Church and we’ll help you,” starting the Sisters of Life to support mothers, and Cardinal Dolan has continued that work. But I often wonder if a pregnant woman grabbed someone in the pews for help, would that person even know what to do?

What changes, when you take prayer seriously, is you can’t think of political issues as theoretical and not connected to people’s lives.

As I alluded above, some people continue to call you K-Lo, a nod to J-Lo. Care to explain?

Years ago, my colleague John Miller started calling me “K-Lo” on our blog The Corner, where we had a familiar tone of joking around with each other. So he started calling me that and it stuck. I can’t tell you all the places where people call me “K-Lo.” It’s happened at the Vatican, the White House and other places where people I don’t know come up and say “you’re K-Lo!”

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

“Some of us American conservatives love you!” I think that might be it. One thing that strikes me about Pope Francis, whenever I read about him speaking on plane rides, is that the first thing he said to us was “pray for me.” I don’t think we pray enough for him.

Any final thoughts?

One reason I felt comfortable doing this book is that Bill Buckley, in his autobiography Nearer My God, quoted some writings of an obscure Italian mystic. He appreciated the passion of mystical writing. So in many ways, I feel I’m following in the tradition of Bill.

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