• Try to love the questions

    In Washington tonight thru Sunday for the March for Life and Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network reasons. Rainer Maria Rilke, meanwhile, provides consolation in difficult moments:

    Be patient toward all that is unsolved
    in your heart and try to love the
    questions themselves, like locked
    rooms and like books that are now
    written in a very foreign tongue. Do
    not now seek the answers, which
    cannot be given you because you
    would not be able to live them. And
    the point is, to live everything. Live the
    questions now. Perhaps you will then
    gradually, without noticing it, live
    along some distant day into the

  • This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical concerning human life and the regulation of birth. Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this anniversary in this Word on Fire reflection:

    When I worked my first real job at The Philadelphia Bulletin in 2008 we published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The Bulletin, whose motto was “Philadelphia’s Family Newspaper,” went out of business by 2010. But I have a number of digital editions saved from those years, including that section.

    We can do all sorts of things with and to the human body and to the human person. The essential question is always, “Should we?” And equally as important is answering that having considered the immediate costs and longer-term consequences of our decision. Humanae Vitae remains controversial, but true things tend to remain controversial in every time.

  • Winter blues

    Gracy Olmstead writes on January, and how to brighten it:

    Many have talked or written about hygge: the Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” People associate hygge with mulled wine, warm blankets, hot stew, and brisk snowy walks—as well as with a more abstract conception of personal joy and hospitality, warmth and openness. The word and its meaning have grown in popularity here in the States, as many have realized the role such cozy rituals can play in cheering long winters.

    Atlantic reporter Kari Leibowitz spent a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, where the sun doesn’t rise between November and January. Despite the bleakness, she learned that the people of Tromsø have lower rates of seasonal depression than those in less dark and less cold climes. How is that possible? She traveled there to find out—and quickly realized that her assumptions surrounding winter were entirely incongruent with what she saw:

    “[I]n New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.

    “I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. … After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.”

    Much of this same positivity and coziness filled my childhood winters, winters that otherwise might have felt cold and dreary. We did our homework next to the fireplace in the evenings, and bundled up to play in the snow on weekends (and then enjoyed cups of hot cocoa when we came inside). We made wintry desserts like gingerbread and nutmeg-sprinkled sugar cookies. My grandmother mastered the art of hygge: the steaming cider and soups and pies that filled our holiday season, the soft hum of a football game in the living room, created a texture that enveloped our spirits with warmth. There were pictures of my father and his siblings proudly lining her walls, rose-embellished china on her counters and in her cabinets. Her bedrooms abounded with pillows and stuffed animals, beckoning to grandchildren with their comfort.

    Home can be a haven in January. It requires very little: a blanket, a candle, a warm cup of tea, a well-worn favorite book. But these little touches of comfort can help banish the emotional and physical cold we can otherwise feel throughout the winter.

    One of the things I like least about the American attitude is how easily we shift from “sharing” to “venting” to “gossiping/complaining”. I find January and February to be a particularly unattractive time to live in Pennsylvania, or to be in the Northeast in general. But this change of attitude, of attempting to see the light in things, and perhaps to speak a bit less if only to avoid the temptation toward banality or complaining, seems worth emulating.

  • Harrison Scott Key remarks to the 2017 St. Andrews Society of Savannah, Georgia meeting. This particular excerpt on qualities of a “real man” struck me:

    “Oh, those were simpler times,” I can hear you saying. “Back when a man could solve geopolitical questions with food.”

    But were the times simpler? My grandfather grew up amid lynchings. In his home of Tate County, Mississippi, he saw black men pursued with hounds by lawless mobs and hanged for crimes they did not commit. His neighbors across the fence-line were a black family, and when they were ill, he called on them with food and prayers, and when he or my grandmother were ill, they paid him in kind. How instructive for a young boy like me, from the very heart of American racial evil, to see this bold witness from his white grandfather?

    Of all the memories of Monk, I remember one most vividly, when my parents were out of town and he took my brother and me to the swimming hole.

    It was a wide sandy creek. You could see to the bottom in places, little bream darting in clusters. Monk fished upstream, as we played down. Soon enough, our horseplay turned into horse-fighting, when my brother and I attempted to express our fraternal love by drowning one another. Monk told us to cut it out, but we didn’t listen.

    “If I have to tell you boys one more time,” Monk said, “I’ll whip the both of you.”

    We had been whipped many times, at school, at home, never with fists or open palms, usually with items purchased at hardware stores, flyswatters, canoe oars, fan belts.  But Monk had never whipped us. He was the peacemaker, the Good Cop to my father’s Bad, and so we ignored him and commenced to murdering each other again, as quietly as possible.

    And then the water turned dark with his shadow.

    “Boys, get out,” he said, prying the leather belt off his trousers.

    I felt such grand shame, that our behavior had made Monk no longer the lover of mercy but the doer of justice. I said a prayer, and looked up to see a miracle: Just as he raised his hand to whip me, over his shoulder, poking through the leaves, I saw the face of an angel.

    No, not an angel.

    It was Monk’s son. My father, Pop. He stepped into the clearing.

    “We just drove in,” Pop said. “I seen the truck and reckoned you all was swimming.”

    Bird and I waited for Monk to explain our terrible malfeasance, but when I turned back to look at my grandfather, the belt was back in its rightful place, caged and quiet.

    “We was just fishing a little,” Monk said.

    We all drove back to the farm. Monk never said a word, from then to the day of his death.

    In that moment, so very long ago, the just act would have been to punish my brother and me, and then to tell our father what we had done. Monk probably wanted to drown us both just for ruining his fishing. Justice would have felt good to him. It often does.

    You read the papers, you check Facebook, and it looks as if today’s men want justice for others and mercy for themselves. But Monk did not choose justice. He chose mercy, for us.

    In the New Testament, Paul exhorts his readers like some kind of juiced-up ball coach, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong!” And then he says, as if in rejoinder to himself, quiet, calming, “Let all your things be done with charity.”

    At this point in my life, where I am statistically halfway between birth and death, I have finally come to see that being a man has much less to do with chopping your own firewood or growing your own tomato and far more with this impossible marriage of strength and compassion that Micah and Paul write about.

    Together, these impossible qualities are what made my grandfather a man, and all the good men who have come before us.

  • Pale Blue Dot

    Maria Popova reflects on living in turbulent times:

    When the Voyager completed its exploratory mission and took the last photograph — of Neptune — NASA commanded that the cameras be shut off to conserve energy. But Carl Sagan had the idea of turning the spacecraft around and taking one final photograph — of Earth. Objections were raised — from so great a distance and at so low a resolution, the resulting image would have absolutely no scientific value. But Sagan saw the larger poetic worth — he took the request all the way up to NASA’s administrator and charmed his way into permission.


    And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1990, just after Bulgaria’s Communist regime was finally defeated after nearly half a century of reign, the Voyager took the now-iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — a grainy pixel, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan so poetically put it when he immortalized the photograph in his beautiful “Pale Blue Dot” monologue from Cosmos — that great masterwork of perspective, a timeless reminder that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was… every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician” lived out their lives on this pale blue dot. And every political conflict, every war we’ve ever fought, we have waged over a fraction of this grainy pixel barely perceptible against the cosmic backdrop of endless lonesome space.

    In the cosmic blink of our present existence, as we stand on this increasingly fragmented pixel, it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment. It is worth questioning what proportion of the news this year, what imperceptible fraction, was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves — the single most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo. After centuries of knowing the universe only by sight, only by looking, we can now listen to it and hear echoes of events that took place billions of lightyears away, billions of years ago — events that made the stardust that made us.

    I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.

    I love Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin”, the Bulgarian folk song from Carl Sagan and Voyager’s “Golden Record”. That sort of folk song is something I can imagine our earliest ancestors being moved by, tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago. And someday maybe it will move others, too.

  • Warren Buffett is optimistic:

    I have good news. First, most American children are going to live far better than their parents did. Second, large gains in the living standards of Americans will continue for many generations to come. …

    We can be confident that births minus deaths will add no more than 0.5% yearly to America’s population. Immigration is more difficult to predict. I believe 1 million people annually is a reasonable estimate, an influx that will add 0.3% annually to population growth.

    In total, therefore, you can expect America’s population to increase about 0.8% a year. Under that assumption, gains of 2% in real GDP–that is, without nominal gains produced by inflation–will annually deliver 1.2% growth in per capita GDP.

    This pace no doubt sounds paltry. But over time, it works wonders. In 25 years–a single generation–1.2% annual growth boosts our current $59,000 of GDP per capita to $79,000. This $20,000 increase guarantees a far better life for our children.

    In America, it should be noted, there’s nothing unusual about that sort of gain, magnificent though it will be. Just look at what has happened in my lifetime.

    I was born in 1930, when the symbol of American wealth was John D. Rockefeller Sr. Today my upper-middle-class neighbors enjoy options in travel, entertainment, medicine and education that were simply not available to Rockefeller and his family. With all of his riches, John D. couldn’t buy the pleasures and conveniences we now take for granted.

    Two words explain this miracle: innovation and productivity. Conversely, were today’s Americans doing the same things in the same ways as they did in 1776, we would be leading the same sort of lives as our forebears.

    Replicating those early days would require that 80% or so of today’s workers be employed on farms simply to provide the food and cotton we need. So why does it take only 2% of today’s workers to do this job? Give the credit to those who brought us tractors, planters, cotton gins, combines, fertilizer, irrigation and a host of other productivity improvements.

    To all this good news there is, of course, an important offset: in our 241 years, the progress that I’ve described has disrupted and displaced almost all of our country’s labor force. If that level of upheaval had been foreseen–which it clearly wasn’t–strong worker opposition would surely have formed and possibly doomed innovation. How, Americans would have asked, could all these unemployed farmers find work?

    We know today that the staggering productivity gains in farming were a blessing. They freed nearly 80% of the nation’s workforce to redeploy their efforts into new industries that have changed our way of life.

    You can describe these develop-ments as productivity gains or disruptions. Whatever the label, they explain why we now have our amazing $59,000 of GDP per capita.

    This game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better “stuff” in the future. The challenge will be to have this bounty deliver a better life to the disrupted as well as to the disrupters. And on this matter, many Americans are justifiably worried.

    Let’s think again about 1930. Imagine someone then predicting that real per capita GDP would increase sixfold during my lifetime. My parents would have immediately dismissed such a gain as impossible. If somehow, though, they could have imagined it actually transpiring, they would concurrently have predicted something close to universal prosperity.

    Instead, another invention of the ensuing decades, the Forbes 400, paints a far different picture. Between the first computation in 1982 and today, the wealth of the 400 increased 29-fold–from $93 billion to $2.7 trillion–while many millions of hardworking citizens remained stuck on an economic treadmill. During this period, the tsunami of wealth didn’t trickle down. It surged upward.

    In 1776, America set off to unleash human potential by combining market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. This foundation was an act of genius that in only 241 years converted our original villages and prairies into $96 trillion of wealth.

    The market system, however, has also left many people hopelessly behind, particularly as it has become ever more specialized. These devastating side effects can be ameliorated: a rich family takes care of all its children, not just those with talents valued by the marketplace.

    In the years of growth that certainly lie ahead, I have no doubt that America can both deliver riches to many and a decent life to all. We must not settle for less.

    I share Buffett’s optimism for America’s economic growth, with the caveat that history would suggest that our meager birth rate might be a signal of a cultural malaise that could diminish economic growth. I also agree with Buffett’s point that the gains from wealth must start trickling down more than they have for most of the past half century. If they don’t, the next generation of Buffetts will (probably rightly) face pitchforks and torches.

  • Lady Hollow

    Lady Hollow

    As much as Hollow has been Michael and Ben Novak’s doggy, she has been and continues to be a familiar, remarkable, and much loved part of the town of Ave Maria’s community life. Born somewhere in the wilds of Colorado, found by a rancher, and rescued by Michael’s daughter Jana at the last moment at a shelter, Hollow always carried with her a bit of that Colorado ease and agreeableness that I see in my own family who live there. I think of her as basically wolfish in nature.

    Hollow’s an example of the sort of creature that one comes across only every so often in life whose essential nature, temperament, and characteristics are so basically reassuring and pleasant that she makes an impression without even trying to do so. Anyway, I’ve loved Hollow for years. And Ben Novak captured a bit of her spirit a few months ago when he shared this bit of poetry with me:

    Lady Hollow
    Ben Novak

    Hollow does not ask why
    Flowers grow or rivers flow
    Or mountains rise or a bird flies.
    Hollow does not know yesterday
    Or anything that came before.

    Though she remembers
    Who was kind and where she lives,
    What she likes, and who likes her.
    Hollow remembers well the box
    Her milkbones come from,
    And where her bones are buried.
    And where she likes to sleep,
    And what time to wake me each morn
    By crawling across the pillows at 6:00 am
    to nuzzle her snout against my face.

    At other times of day,
    Hollow remembers when it’s time
    To take me for a walk.
    She nuzzles my hand, or straightens up
    On her hind legs to paw my forearm till I stand up,
    And knows exactly where to go and what to do
    when I need to change clothes or
    Put on my walking shoes;
    She knows to jump up on my bed
    And crawl to the edge where I can pet her
    As opposed to lying near the pillows
    When she merely wants to sleep.

    Oh, she remembers it all for the next hour,
    Where I walk and where to turn and where I stop,
    Whether we take one route or another.
    She remembers how we cross the boulevard,
    Where she always stops beside my leg,
    And does not move till I say “Heel,”
    Though she has forgotten what it means to heel,
    And merely runs ahead.

    And she remembers where I am
    As we walk each morn and eve,
    Follows me or runs ahead and
    Rummages through the bushes,
    But always with an eye on me
    To run up from behind
    Or when she runs ahead,
    To stop, turn around and catch my eye,
    And wait till I catch up.

    She remembers when I sit down along the way,
    To come back and lie down nearby,
    And jump up when my rest is done,
    To continue on our walk.

    She remembers how I like to sit each morn,
    Usually just before dawn,
    And smoke a cigarette, or two, or three,
    On the stone bench by the fountain
    In front of the Oratory,
    Where she lies down nearby,
    And together we watch the sun come up,
    And the joggers run by,
    And the cars drive by
    On their way to early work.

    She remembers to walk with me
    Along the sidewalk all the way to where,
    We turn to go between the houses
    Back to the alley toward our home,
    Where she is free to leave me
    And run through the neighborhood
    To check out everything,
    Stopping at the lady’s house
    Who gives her a morning treat,
    And visiting the Campbells for her
    Morning slice of American cheese,
    And to be back scratching at my door
    Within ten minutes or so.

    And she remembers to eat daintily, like a lady,
    Who gingerly takes the treat I offer,
    Then drops it,
    Just like ladies in olden times
    Would drop a handkerchief
    To allow a gentleman to pick it up for her;
    Just so, Hollow drops her treat and looks at me
    To pick it up and offer it again
    So that she can, oh so lightly, take it
    As though she is doing me a favor.

  • Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity, one of my favorite books:

    If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.

    In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it. …

    So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom… But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now. Each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness. …

    When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.

    God is not a creature someplace “out there” in the universe. God is being itself, the basis for all contingent reality. When Watts writes that “you are this moment now” and not some separate constructed thing apart from the natural world you were born into, he’s advocating for recovering a sense of wholeness, and of an experience of reality as necessary for (wait for it) experiencing reality rather than simply trying to describe sensations. We are creatures in the world, which means we draw our liveliness, our existence, and our “beingness” itself, from whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

    There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

    To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. …

    The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.”

    But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. … To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected. …

    The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.

    To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

    To live in harmony with the universe means recognizing that we did not create ourselves, and that we as beings are tied to whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

  • Prudence

    Gracy Olmstead writes on three virtues, and in particular on prudence:

    Prudence might be the most underrated and misunderstood virtue. We’ve lost a full understanding of the word. Being called a “prude” is usually an insult, targeting a person’s attitude toward sexual mores only.

    But prudence is derived from the Greek word phronesis and describes the most central and vital of the virtues. According to Aristotle, virtues come with two corresponding vices: one of excess and one of defect. The virtue of courage, for instance, avoids the vice of cowardice on the one hand, and the vice of brazenness or foolishness on the other. It lies within two extremes.

    The virtuous person must know how to navigate and avoid these vices of extremity. Thus we need prudence: a person with phronesis is “someone who knows how to exercise judgment in particular cases. Phronesis is an intellectual virtue; but it is that intellectual virtue without which none of the virtues of character can be exercised.”

    Jane Austen’s Anne Elliott, the star of Persuasion, is perhaps one of the first literary protagonists who comes to mind when I think of prudence. She knows what to do in unexpected, uncertain circumstances—and usually serves as the sustaining backbone in every community or company she finds herself in. After her nephew dislocates his collar bone following a fall, for instance, Anne is the first to act: “It was an afternoon of distress,” writes Austen, “and Anne had every thing to do at once; the apothecary to send for, the father to have pursued and informed, the mother to support and keep from hysterics, the servants to control, the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe.”

    Throughout Persuasion, characters look to Anne for leadership, wisdom, and cool thinking. She helps guide important actions throughout the narrative, via both her own personal action and her advice, thus serving to prevent harm and encourage good.

    In this sense, too, Anne demonstrates the important particularity of virtue: she exercises her prudence within community, for the good and happiness of that community’s members. Hers isn’t (and couldn’t be) a displaced or isolated virtue. It’s contingent upon her place and the actions that happen within that place.

    Gracy’s reflection on prudence reminds me of some of the reasons I value Karen Laub-Novak’s “The Archer,” which I wrote about last year. Gratitude and mindfulness are Gracy’s two other highlighted virtues.

  • Oaks

    Brad Birzer writes on Oak trees as a symbol of free peoples:

    One of the most fascinating symbols of a republic in the western tradition, from the Romans through the Germanic Barbarians to the American founders to the American founders of the Republican Party, is the mighty oak. As noted in the previous essay on the history on the rise of the modern nation state, all republics must exist—by their very nature—as reflections of nature herself. They are, at essence, organic, necessarily experiencing birth, middle age, and death. How easily one might transfer this to the oak, thinking of its own stages, from acorn to prevailing gian, to corrupted and hollowed-out shell. …

    When the greatest of Roman republicans, Marcus Tullius Cicero, offered the world the first treatise on the natural law, On the Laws, began with the image of an oak, deeply rooted not just in the soil, but in the poetic imagination itself. “I recognize that grove and the oak tree of the people of Arpinum: I have read about them often in the Marius. If that oak tree survives, this is surely it; it’s certainly old enough,” Atticus begins. To which Quintus famously answers, “It survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.” Indeed, Quintus continues, this very oak might have been planted by the one god. Certainly, the name of the oak will remain, tied to the sacred spot, long after nature has ravaged it.

    In his History of Early Rome, Livy informs us that a consecrated oak sheltered the praetorium, a seat of waiting and contemplation for foreign guests and ambassadors from the Senate. Likewise, Suetonius reminds us that Mars, especially, favored the oak as a tree symbolizing the divine authority.

    The Mediterraneans, though, held no monopoly over a mythic understanding of the oak, as the Germanic tribes far to the north considered the tree the symbol of their god of justice, Thor. When the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians met to decide the fate of inherited and common law–which laws to pass on, which laws to end, and which laws to reform–they met as a Witan or AllThing under the oaks.

    Christians, knowing the oak to be so utterly rooted in the pagan tradition, knew not whether to love or to hate the tree. According to St. Bede, when St. Augustine of Canterbury called a conference of church leaders in 603, he did so at an oak, knowing the Anglo-Saxon fondness for the tree. There, at what became known as Augustine’s oak or Augustine’s Ak, the evangelist called for unity in proclaiming the gospel. Two generations earlier, Bede records, St. Columba had done something similar, building a monastery among the Celts known as Dearmach, “Field of Oaks.”  Even at the most famous of medieval monasteries, Lindisfarne, Finan built the church altar there not out of traditional stone, but, rather according to the custom of the peoples in that region, an altar “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds.”

    When St. Boniface, a century later, encountered a group of Friesians still worshipping the oak of Thor, he—with nothing short of awesome bravado–attacked the tree with his axe. According to the hagiographic legends surrounding Boniface, the oak exploded into four parts moments before the blade touched its bark. So astounded were the pagans at his daring, that St. Boniface seized the moment to begin proclaiming the gospel. Where the ruined oak stood, according to hagiographic myth, an evergreen grew in its place. As it was getting dark and Boniface continued to preach, his followers placed candles all around and upon the evergreen, thus creating the first Christmas tree. …

    If Boniface undid the oak as a direct representation of a god, he could not undo its importance to justice, as it remained a symbol of the law and of a free people. When the grand Christian King Alfred the Great met with his men in the late 800s to judge the inheritance of the common laws of the Anglo-Saxon people, they, too, met under an oak. Critically, Alfred and his Witan judged the laws. They did not create them, believing such actions illegal. A ruling body can only judge what it has inherited, not create laws out of nothing. Such a power belongs only to God and through his people only across time. …

    The symbol of the oak remained a powerful one in colonial America, especially as the various communities on the eastern seaboard continued their own observance of the traditional common laws and, especially, in their Declaration of Independence. Though not exclusively oak, oaks made fine Liberty Poles and Liberty Trees in the 1760s through 1780s, and newly-freed American communities regularly planted oaks to celebrate their independence from Britain. Pamphleteers, not surprisingly, used the symbol of the acorn and the oak as representative of America’s independence and hardihood.

    When Congress rashly passed the democratic Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854—a law that claimed that the enslavement of an entire people could be decided by mere majority vote—angry republican citizens of Michigan formed a third party, the Republican Party, in Jackson, Michigan, under, not surprisingly, a grove of oaks.

    Whatever one in the early twenty-first century might think of Jupiter or Thor, the oak remains a mighty symbol of a free people, a people ready to remember and reclaim what is rightfully theirs by the grace of the Creator and the created order. The oak reminds us of strength in the face of nasty and bitter times, returning us to the nourishment of what makes us strong and free, the duty to govern ourselves in a fashion becoming to God and nature and, equally important, to the dignity of the human person. Unlike oppressive governments who rely on cults of personality, the republic relies on the nature of nature and the nature (good and bad) of the human person.

    This perspective on Oaks spoke to me because the Sugar Creek Valley in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania is a home to White Oaks, and there are a number on the acres that my family settled there in the early 1800s.

    Trees matter.