Pater and pietas

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes:

The word “patriotism” comes from the Latin pater (father) and patria (homeland, native soil). As with any human father, the nation-state is not a little godling. It can never require our worship. It can never demand that we violate our religious identity and beliefs. But properly understood, patriotism is a virtue and a form of filial love. We’re sons and daughters of the land of our birth. It’s natural and deeply human to love our home and be faithful to the best qualities in our native land.

The word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, meaning humility and a devotion to the gods. Pietas was the highest Roman virtue and a powerful force in shaping early Roman life. It’s no accident that Rome’s ancient poet Virgil, in his epic work The Aeneid, described Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, as pious Aeneas repeatedly.

Aeneas and his piety are pertinent for this reason. One of the great scholars of the last century, the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, demonstrated that all great human civilizations have started from some form of a religious founding. And as the essence of that founding is lost, illness of the soul sets in.

Humans are addicts for meaning. We’re also inescapably mortal, which means we instinctively look for purpose outside and higher than ourselves. The “God question” matters because God made us. Thus in our own country, from the very start, biblical language, belief and thought have provided our moral meaning. The more we discard these precious things, the more alien we become to ourselves and to the nation we were meant to be.

Worth reflecting on at this time of year in advance of Independence Day, when we celebrate the founding of not simply a great nation with incredible power, but a great nation reliant on incredible piety.

Bill Buckley on skeptics

William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 2005 contribution to NPR’s “This I Believe” is one of my favorites: “How Is It Possible To Believe In A God?” It’s a good example of fides et ratio—faith and reason working together to point toward truth:

I’ve always liked the exchange featuring the excited young Darwinian at the end of the 19th century. He said grandly to the elderly scholar, “How is it possible to believe in God?” The imperishable answer was, “I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop.”

That rhetorical bullet has everything — wit and profundity. It has more than once reminded me that skepticism about life and nature is most often expressed by those who take it for granted that belief is an indulgence of the superstitious — indeed their opiate, to quote a historical cosmologist most profoundly dead. Granted, that to look up at the stars comes close to compelling disbelief — how can such a chance arrangement be other than an elaboration — near infinite — of natural impulses? Yes, on the other hand, who is to say that the arrangement of the stars is more easily traceable to nature, than to nature’s molder? What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?

The skeptics get away with fixing the odds against the believer, mostly by pointing to phenomena which are only explainable—you see?—by the belief that there was a cause for them, always deducible. But how can one deduce the cause of Hamlet? Or of St. Matthew’s Passion? What is the cause of inspiration?

This I believe: that it is intellectually easier to credit a divine intelligence than to submit dumbly to felicitous congeries about nature. …

Since at least Einstein, we’ve hoped for a unified field theory—a “theory of everything”—to unite disparate fields of research that might explain all of this. We want to reconcile fields like quantum theory with classical physics to explain all natural phenomena.

How can Buckley’s faith and reason work together on behalf of God in our world? We know that the universe is intelligible, so why shouldn’t the God of faith also be the God of creative intelligence, the creator through which all we know holds together?

Another way to put it: a unified field theory for Why Reality Functions may one day be discovered, and a unified field theory for the underlying question Why Reality Exists To Function is what we call God and what we understand in Christ and his revealed love.

(You’ve got to listen to Buckley’s voice to really experience this, by the way.)

Listening to the rain

We seem determined to let no part of nature remain truly natural—for no part of the environment to remain truly untouched by our hands. Even our natural spaces are increasingly tamed and managed and planned, which means they’re not really natural spaces any longer. So I thank God that we still have the experience of rain showers to provide a sense of the natural and timeless and lovely amidst our landscapes.


Fire this gentle

It’s been a while since I shared poetry I’ve liked, so here’s Las Animas by Dana Gioia:

Fire everywhere, soft fire of brushwood, fire
on walls where a faint shadow flickers
but lacks the strength to imprint itself, fire
in the distance rising and falling across the hills
like a bright thread through the spreading ashes,
fire in flakes from the trellised vines and branches.

Here neither before nor after its proper time,
but now that everything in this festive,
sad valley exhausts its life, exhausts its fire,
I turn back and count my dead,
and their procession seems longer, trembling
leaf by leaf from the first felled tree.

Grant them peace, eternal peace, carry them
to safety—far from this whirlwind
of ash and flame that twists choking
through the ravines, wandering the paths,
spinning aimlessly, then disappears.
Let death by only death, nothing other
than death, beyond struggle, beyond life.
Grant them peace, eternal peace, appease them.

Down there where the harvest is thicker,
they plow, they roll their barrels to the spring,
they whisper in the quiet transformations
of each hour. A young dog stretches out
in the corner of the garden for a nap.

A fire this gentle is barely enough, perhaps
not even enough, to cast light long
on this life’s undergrowth. Only another fire
can do the rest and then more—
to consume these remains, to change
them into light, clear and incorruptible.

Requiems from the dead for the living, requiems
in each flame for the living and the dead.
Stir the embers: night is here, the night
that spreads its pulsing web between the mountains,
now the eyes fail, but from the heat,
from the darkness, they know what remains.

(From the Italian of Mario Luzi)

Suspension in Ave

A few years ago I shared one of my favorite E.B. White passages from Here Is New York, his great public diary of the city. I want to share the same passage again, because I was out on a walk in a light (but steady) rain after midnight in Ave Maria, Florida not too long ago, and a particular trees branches created a sort of curtain of vibrant green and electric light that immediately called to mind these words:

In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language.

The context for this is below. This is one of the gifts of reading; the ability for a simple thing like a solitary nighttime walk to transport you in spirit or transfigure a simple, unremarkable moment into one that bursts with an enchanted feeling.

It is seven o’clock and I re-examine an ex-speakeasy in East 53rd Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed). How dark, how pleasing; and how miraculously beautiful the murals showing Italian lake scenes—probably executed by a cousin of the owner. The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation. From the next booth drifts the conversation of radio executives; from the green salad comes the little taste of garlic. Behind me (eighteen inches again) a young intellectual is trying to persuade a girl to come live with him and be his love. She has her guard up, but he is extremely reasonable, careful not to overplay his hand. A combination of intellectual companionship and sexuality is what they have to offer each other, he feels. In the mirror over the bar I can see the ritual of the second drink. Then he has to go to the men’s room and she has to go to the ladies’ room, and when they return, the argument has lost its tone. And the fan takes over again, the argument has lost its tone. And the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin.

Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. Overhead a plane passes dreamily, its running lights winking. On the bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes…” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins—the Queen Mary announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro; they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of the girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.

Restoring a crucifix

A few year ago I connected with an artist named Matthew Szczepanowski at the Conservation Studio for Art in Philadelphia to restore a family heirloom. Specifically, it was a crucifix that’s been in the family for nearly a century. I liked Matthew immediately, and he did tremendous restoration work. Before/after:


The crucifix was is pretty poor shape after so many years, and was literally coming apart at the seams. I particularly like that the cross itself was returned to its natural wood color, rather than its original black paint.


Matthew is a tall, almost imposing man with a quick smile and a friendly nature. He’s worked on many restoration projects for Catholics in Philadelphia over the years, and religious art is a speciality of his.


The restoration of the Christ figure was most impressive to me, since there was extensive damage to his right arm in particular and chipping and fading in general.


Matthew told me of a pilgrimage he was taking (leaving the next day) across Poland to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. I forget which city he was leaving from, but excitement lit up his eyes as he told of the 10+ day journey across the country, hundreds of miles.


I grew up seeing this occasionally underneath my mother’s bed. It was stored there for years, in need of repair. I hope it will live for at least another century in our family now that it’s restored and an active call to prayer again.


Where this crucifix came from is a story in and of itself, and one that I’m sharing partly for public enjoyment but mostly for any family members who might be interested in it in years to come…

At some point in the early years of the last century (after the Spanish-American War but before the 16th Amendment instituted taxation on earnings and paved the way for Prohibition to be financially feasible) a craftsman-salesman arrived on the stoop of a row home in Mayfair, Philadelphia and knocked on the door.

Grace Roth, wife to Charles, answered the door. A first generation American, and specifically a German Catholic, she was a likely buyer. The large and elegant crucifixes this man was selling became somewhat common in her time—many Catholics Philadelphians came to have one, though few have survived to the present.

Little is known about the man, about what motivated Grace’s purchase, or even particularly when the crucifix came to hang in Charles and Grace Roth’s home. But it has survived through time, and as long preserved objects tend to, become an heirloom in my family—because Grace turned out to be my maternal great, great grandmother. After Charles died in the 1920s she lived with her daughter (my great grandmother Nana) in Philadelphia. She came to adore Phillip Bruce, her daughter’s husband. Phillip was a city policeman and well-liked provider, but met an untimely, tragic death in a collision while responding to a fire. Stunned, elderly, and wracked by grief, Grace died within a week.

Her crucifix, and its having been passed down through time to her daughter and to my grandmother and now to me, has had the effect of creating an enduring gift and a point of memory in our family. It’s an heirloom because it connects us across time; connects us to those who came before us and points toward those who are yet to come.

A year later, another visit

A year ago today I spent the afternoon at Hollywood Beach while I waited for friends to join me for a visit to Ben Novak in Ave Maria ninety minutes west. And a year later I’m back where I was, having flown into Fort Lauderdale and enjoying a beautiful day. This weekend I’ll be in Ave Maria with Ben again, along with Alex Smith from Philadelphia and Kevin Horne from State College. I sat beneath a palm tree, leaning against its truck and drifting in and out of sleep for a little while; woke up at one point to capture this scene:

A visit to Old Heidelberg is in the calendar for this evening.