Riding his bicycle on a country road in Northern Virginia, a man named Matt met Jesus unexpectedly this week.
Strangers found the 53-year-old man lying in a ditch with his toes still clipped into his pedals. Matt’s wife had gone up ahead, but when he did not catch up, she turned around and pedaled back to the horror of her life.
The police think he must have been hit by the mirror of a truck, but they are only guessing. They know it was a hit and run. And so, Matt met Jesus that day.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I read the story on the Internet because, being a cyclist, stories like that catch my eye. I thought it so sad and also recalled why I am so nervous riding on those same roads. But I did not recognize the man’s name. And then the connection was made when it went out on the Catholic jungle drums that the man lying dead in that ditch was Zippy Catholic, blogger extraordinaire.
I knew him: I tangled with him, and then broke bread with him.
Over a four-day period in February 2010, on The American Catholic blog, there was a rip-roaring, raucous, and rollicking debate about waterboarding. The immediate cause was a new book by writer Marc Theissen defending waterboarding; some were calling for bishops to refuse him the Eucharist as had happened with pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
I was new to the debate but considered then and now that it was a non-issue in our political calculations. I believed then and now that it was a tactic to separate faithful Catholics from the only viable pro-life party. I also questioned whether waterboarding was torture. So, in this debate, it was me against half-a-dozen guys when along came someone named “Zippy.”
His opening to me was, “You might want to browse my archives a bit before accusing me of being an Obama-supporter, by the way, or of being soft on abortion. And since my infamous nickname for the blog Vox Nova is ‘Debate Club at Auschwitz’—my reasons are also in the archive, and I continue to stand by them—you might want to do the stoppy-ready-thinky thing a bit before jumping to any conclusions.” Hilarious, right?
He scolded me for being late to the debate. He said I knew nothing and that the discussion had been going on for six years and that I ought to go to his blog and read up on the issue before I started to talk about it. He said, “But you just have no idea how clueless your posts sound: how completely, naively unaware of the most basic arguments operating in the domain.”
And Zippy got even more personal, “Just so you know, I’m a forty-something self-made multimillionaire and a staunch pro-lifer. I donate not insignificant amounts of money every year to Catholic causes. And you’ve accomplished something that that joke Vox Nova could never have accomplished: you’ve put C-FAM on the list of charities which will never get a red cent from me unless there are some serious public sackcloth and ashes from you on this issue.
“I mean, what are you thinking? Whatever private opinions you might have, dying in a ditch defending torture—torture!—is, as the kids say, nucking futs.”
I took particular umbrage at that and told him, “We have 15,000 individual small-check donors and don’t have to rely upon the whims of self-important ‘self-made millionaires.’ In fact, I do my best to stay away from self-important ‘self-made millionaires.’ I have found their money is very expensive.” You can see we were getting along like gangbusters.
At one point he must have put something up on his blog about me, and I charged him with attempting “to destroy my organization and several families who rely on my group for their livelihood…” I actually referred to his blog as a “hate site.” And then, like the gentleman that I found out he was, he took the offending things down.
I told him I took that as “an act of very good faith” and then added, “Here is my offer, Zippy. Let’s get together…” His response, “Expect an email.”
And so, we met for lunch. I do not remember that lunch. In fact, I did not remember that lunch until I researched this column. I had forgotten the lengthy debate at The American Catholic where we met.
After the lunch, Zippy wrote this on his blog, “My new friend Austin Ruse, and I had lunch yesterday in Washington, DC. It was just lunch. The following are impressions from lunch…. Mr. Ruse is a gentleman: warm, genuine, and smart, one of those guys who is really interested in people, their organization into formal institutions, and the activities of those institutions; the kind of guy who will wander around with you and introduce you to everyone he knows with handshakes and smiles and talk about all the various groups and programs and things going on in the community. A very likable man, with a great love of the Church and a passionate devotion to protecting the unborn.” He went on to say I was mistaken about waterboarding. No big deal.
In his comment box, I wrote, “I am touched and proud to call you my friend, Zippy. We have more friends to make in common, and I will be in touch on that score soon.
“As a brief message to everyone, one that I made yesterday to Zippy, is that we all should be about the business of making converts rather than punishing heretics. I say that as an old heretic-punisher myself! Coming under fire on this debate has taught me many things, and that is chief among them. If someone comes your way, even a little bit your way, run out to the road and hug him by the neck.”
And here’s the thing: Zippy and I never got together again. We never spoke again. I read his words and mine and realized there was an opportunity missed, a friendship lost. And now this good man has been taken away and I am deeply sad.
Given that I did not remember much of this, it is genuinely odd I was so drawn to his funeral which took place yesterday not far from where I live. I had to go.
What I saw was evidence of a short life beautifully lived. The Church was full of sobbing friends, family, and colleagues who will miss him terribly.
Zippy never wanted his audience to know his real name. His brother told me it’s because he wanted to protect his family and their privacy. And he also wanted to be known as just a regular guy.
His brother told me, “I have this little fantasy that 300 years from now a case will be made for the canonization of an obscure, devout, Catholic lay thinker who was known as ‘Zippy,’ for puncturing the bubble of unreality that we liberals now live in…and about which we have grown so confused. So, I would ask your readers to pray to Zippy for help in whatever trouble they may find themselves. He has always been a powerful voice, and he would want to be a powerful voice for them before God. And we’ve got some miracles to initiate.”
Farewell, Zippy. Farewell, Matt. Godspeed.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)