Physical things–fixing, building, etc. I’m not one of them.
The other day I saw the cover of the current issue of the bourgeois
magazine GQ. There, smiling in all her blonde glory, was Jessica
Simpson. She was wearing camouflage army pants, if "wearing" is the right word:
they were unzipped and pulled down below her hips. Around her neck was a set of
military dog tags. The only other thing she was wearing was a tiny bikini made
from an American flag. She was holding up two fingers in a "V" shape, which in
this instance I assume stands for "victory" rather than "peace". The caption on
the cover read, blasphemously, "God, this is a Great Country: 75 Reasons to Love
America." I didn’t open the magazine, but I suspect most of the 75 reasons could
be left intact, the word "hate" substituted for "love" and fit right in posted
on a militant jihadist website. Indeed, my reaction was the same one I had
shortly after September 11, when Michail Jackson, Madonna, and Kid Rock all
appeared in concerts, literally wrapped in the flag: No wonder they hate
By chance, on the same day there was a story in the news about the American
House of Representatives, which had just passed a constitutional amendment
against the desecration of the American flag.
Now if this amendment goes on to pass the Senate, it will not result in the
arrest of Ms Simpson nor the editors of GQ; no, they will arrest anyone
who burns a flag in protest against whatever American policy the demonstrator is
The very etymology of the word "desecrate" indicates that only something
that is sacred can be desecrated. There are many flags that could be considered
sacred, as they incorporate sacred symbols: the cross of St. George on England’s
ancient flag, the cross of St. Andrew on Scotland’s. the crosses that are the
symbols of many other nations, from Greece to Sweden to Fiji. The ancient
French flag has the fleur de lis, symbol of the virginity of the Mother
of God. But there is nothing inherently sacred about the five-pointed star,
which is if anything an occult symbol, or about red and white stripes.
Well, then the earnest patriot will reply, it is the sacredness of the
ideas and principles which the flag represents which renders it a sacred
Oh, really? A democratic republic may be a perfectly acceptable form of
government, better than most, but it is hardly a matter of divinely revealed
truth. It does not come to us from the words of Christ, from Scripture or
Tradition. It is a human construct.
Chesterton famously said that America was a nation with the soul of a
church, and certain American writers have seized on this statement, but what
Chesterton meant was not that America was inherently virtuous, but that it is
uniquely founded on a creed, a set of principles. These principles are not for
the most part bad ones, insofar as they go, but if America is a religion it is a
Those familiar with my writing know that I am hardly a flag-waving
Americanist. I have long argued against a sanguine interpretation of America’s
founding principles and history, and have certainly argued against any messianic
illusions about America’s destiny. Indeed, I have been accused of being
anti-American. The charge is not true; it’s just that the thread of American
thought with which I have the most affinity- let us call it Jeffersonian
distributist populism- is hardly in the ascendancy.
But I was taught respect for the flag as a child. I don’t fly the flag
today, as I don’t want to be mistaken for a supporter of jingoistic centralized
imperialism -the thread of American thought which is in the
ascendancy- but I have long been repelled by the lack of respect shown the flag
in modern America, which is a sort of subspecies of the decline of American
etiquette in general.
I am old enough to remember the uproar when the 60s radical Abbie Hoffmann,
God rest his soul, wore a shirt made from the flag. All that seems long ago and
far away, in this age of flag hats, flag jackets, flag underwear, flag
handkerchiefs, and flags the size of football fields flying over automotive
superstores. The flag these days is often left out in the rain and allowed to
become frayed and tattered. For all my qualms about the American Thing, I teach
my children more respect than that.
There is a certain absurdity in outlawing the destruction, in protest, of
something which symbolizes, among other things, freedom of speech and
expression. It is odd that people who think nothing of sitting on the flag [flag
underwear] or blowing their noses on the flag [flag kerchiefs] would be outraged
about someone burning the flag. At least the flag-burner recognizes that the
flag stands for something. In his estimation it may stand for something that is
flawed or has been betrayed and must be burnt in outrage, but this is more an
act of respect than Ms Simpson’s bikini.
The flag amendment is yet another example of the politics of stupidity, the
substitution of sentiment for substance, a distracting sideshow of fireworks and
whistles, while freedom is further eroded in the name of patriotism.
and while I’m at it:
On the same day that I saw the magazine cover with Ms Simpson, there was
another story in the paper. The Supreme Court had expanded the rules of eminent
domain to allow governments to confiscate private property to allow private
This is a stunning attack on the rights of the individual and expansion of
the power of corporations.
Critics on the Right were quick to label it "Marxist," in light of the
government’s new power, but this is not quite accurate. There is a term which
more precisely fits: fascist.
The word "fascist," of course is vastly overused, or more exactly, misused.
It has come to mean "bad guy". However, it does still have meaning. Mussolini once said that fascism should properly be called "corporatism" as it
represented the convergence of the interests of the state and the corporation.
It is this same convergence we see in the Court’s ruling. Let us call it what it
is, and hope that an outcry that transcends the Right/Left paradigm will quickly
undo the harm it has done.
Among many interesting threads in progress over at Amy Wellborn’s blog is this one , which concerns the speed with which catechetics (among other things) fell apart after Vatican II. Rather than go off-topic on that thread, I thought I’d say here that I’ve long been astonished at how quickly many institutions fell apart or experienced a near-total loss of confidence around the same time.
I entered my teens in the early ’60s, in a world that was still basically that of the ’50s, and by the time I turned 22 in 1970 it had turned upside down. I think in particular of social and sexual life in colleges. When I was a freshman in 1966 the girls were locked up (literally) at night and it was extremely difficult, and a major violation of the rules, for either sex to get past the first-floor lobby of the dorms of the opposite sex. By 1971 or so all that had just been swept away and the dorms were for drugs and sex.
It was as if the young revolutionaries only had to blow at the structures of traditional mores and they just collapsed. I conclude that the people running the show did not really believe in what they were doing, since they abandoned their posts at the first sign of attack.
I think the problems of the Church were part of a greater psychological crisis in Western culture, and that in turn was an effect of the spiritual crisis. Part of it, I guess, was a needed sense of cultural self-examination, the confrontation of collective wrongdoing such as racial oppression. But clearly that self-examination lost all sense of proportion.
Another thread at Amy’s has this great quote from the Pope (Benedict): "The West reveals . . . a hatred of itself, which is strange and can
only be considered pathological; the West . . . no longer loves itself;
in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and
destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and
I believe one reason for this is that so many people–we, the masses–perceived on some inarticulate level that those great and pure things had ceased to animate the culture as a whole. Freedom, higher material standards of living, and all those things are wonderful in their place, but they will never suffice to make a culture cohere. Indeed, they militate against it, if they usurp the place of religion–especially in a culture that once had a faith. "And the last state of that man will be worse than the first…"
Note: Judy Bratten was a sometime contributor to Caelum et Terra, and hosted the
first of our summer Gatherings at her farm in eastern Ohio. She is a wife and
mother to three grown children and is the director of historic Ft Steuben in
Okay, this is better than the chain letters and "send this back or you will have bad luck" and attachments that take 15 clicks to open. (As a rule, I delete them without opening.) This is making me think about something other than Iraq, my children’s crazy decisions, lack of rain in the garden, and the politics at work: so here goes:
The number of books we own: Including my cookbooks (I’m a sucker for new recipes) and garden/handcraft books, I’d guess we have anywhere from 1500-2000. My daughters made us get rid of some of our Protestant charismatic books and I threw out the "end of the world’ books, and
we then had room for all the classics that the kids had collected as part of the Great Books/Honors program at FUS.
Last book I bought: Measuring America
by Andro Linklater (a fascinating account of how the invention of the Gunter Chain- a surveying device- determined the development of the US; related to my job as Director of Fort Steuben- an 18th century fort built to protect the surveyors of the Northwest Territoy; y’all come by and visit!)
Last book I read: Uh-oh; the secret is out. I relax with detective stories, usually the old ones (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Chesterton) and this one was loaned to me by a friend: Murder in the East Room by Elliott Roosevelt. Actually, it is hard for me to read a book these days; magazines are more in keeping with my lifestyle but I’ve had to cut back on those, too. My favorite: Greenprints.
Books I am reading now: All my life I have had a book in each room to pick up and read; I now have a stack by my armchair. Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters, God in the Dock (Essays by CS Lewis) edited by Walter Hooper, That Dark and Bloody
River by Allan Eckert
Books that were important to me: Now this is really hard. I will probably think of more later, but what comes to mind now are Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (helped me learn to see the world from a new perspective); Deliver
Us from Evil (I don’t remember the author- but it opened my mind to existence of evil as personified in the devil and thus prepared me to understand salvation and the need for a Savior); several books by CS Lewis which I read over periodically: The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, The Last Battle, That Hideous Strength; the Bible, various translations; If by Amy Charmichael; and the lives of the Saints – they were most instrumental in my conversion.
Five people I have tagged: Regina Schmiedicke, Ben Wiker, Bill Powell, Jim Gaston, Helen Valois.
Part 3 of 3 [click here to read Part 1 ]
I didn’t trust this Pope. He was too charismatic, too attractive. The media was enthralled, never a good sign. Wasn’t the Antichrist supposed to be the darling of the World? Even Debbie’s reasons for wanting to see the Pope had more to do with his superstar status than anything else.
When we got off the Metro a few blocks from the Mall it was quickly apparent that I had left the Evangelical subculture I had immersed myself in and had entered a different, very Catholic, world, one familiar from my childhood but rendered strange by my long absence. All around me people were praying the rosary (I learned later that it was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary) and statues of Mary and crucifixes abounded. Buzzwords like "vain repetition" and "Mariolatry" and "graven images" ran through my head. There were also vendors everywhere selling cheap papal souvenirs, adding to my growing distaste.
One of them caught my eye. Something didn’t seem quite right about him, something about the hair sticking out from under his hat. Looking closely, I saw the telltale wooden beads, like a choker, around his neck: he was a Hare Krishna devotee, in disguise, bewigged and in plainclothes, fleecing the
Now, I had never gotten on well with "Krishnas", the sole exception being Paramahansa, whom we called Ben, who shoed our horses when I lived in a commune
near the Krishna settlement of New Vrindavan in West Virginia some years before. He was a nice, easygoing guy, but I had always found the rest of them to be a nasty lot prone to being offensive in argument. I won’t go into the details of my confrontation with the guy, but I will tell you it ended with me becoming so angry over a crude remark he made about Debbie that I had my fist drawn back to
punch him, before coming to my senses.
This was totally humiliating. I had been a pacifist for years, since early adolescence with one short lapse into a more revolutionary attitude, and I had just come within an inch of committing a violent act.
I felt horrible about myself, horrible about all the Catholic stuff going on around us, and horrible about being there. I really wasn’t ready for this.
Then the Mass began.
We were on the outer edge of a crowd of perhaps a couple of hundred thousand people. Pope John Paul II, who was either the Vicar of Christ or the Antichrist, was a distant figure in a green chasuble.
I was familiar with the Mass, of course, and had recently become reacquainted with it by listening to John Michael Talbot’s album The Lord’s Supper, which is Talbot’s rendition of the texts of the Liturgy.
I was listening, in a critical mode, in my misery, to the words of the prayers, and to the readings of the day. Nothing wrong with any of this, I thought glumly.
Then the Pope began his homily:
Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, he began.
Delivered in his robust and thickly accented voice, this sounded more like a proclamation or a challenge than a greeting. This invocation of the name of Jesus Christ alerted me with its evangelical directness; he had my attention now.
In His dialogue with his listeners, Jesus was faced one day with an attempt by some Pharisees to get Him to endorse their current views regarding the nature of marriage. Jesus answered by reaffirming the teaching of Scripture: "At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one. They are no longer two but one in flesh. Therefore let no man separate what God has
My ears perked up. He is addressing a crowd of modern Americans and he’s going to preach against divorce?!
There was more:
I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life- from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God…If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment of in which he is first
conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order.
He went on.
The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort, and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish.
Whoa. He was talking like this to modern Americans? Didn’t St Paul say something about false prophets in the last days tickling the ears of their listeners? But this man, with his strong voice, was tickling no one’s ears. "Pleasure, comfort and independence" pretty much summed up American idolatry.
I listened incredulously as he affirmed again the indissolubility of marriage and affirmed Catholic teaching against contraception, especially denouncing the limiting of family size out of love of comfort and material affluence. He said that children are more enriched by brothers and sisters than
by material goods.
He built up to a sort of crescendo, a prophetic litany of sorts:
And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened.
When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no on ever has the authority to destroy unborn life.
When a child is described as a burden or is looked upon only as a means to satisfy an emotional need, we will stand up and insist that every child is a unique and unrepeatable gift, with a right to a loving and united family.
When the institution of marriage is abandoned to human selfishness or reduced to a temporary, conditional arrangement that can be easily terminated, we will stand up and affirm the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
When the value of the family is threatened because of social and economic pressures, we will stand up and reaffirm that the family is necessary not only for the private good of every person, but also for the common good of every society, nation and state.
When freedom is used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources and energy, and to deny basic necessities to people, we will stand up and reaffirm the demands of justice and social love.
I stood there like a man rudely awakened, a man transfixed. Surely the Antichrist would not speak like this. This man spoke with authority, and in my heart of hearts there was a sense of recognition. I knew by Whose authority he spoke.
Debbie eyed me nervously.
My mind raced to the logical conclusion: If John Paul is the Vicar of Christ, then the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, and I had to be united with it. The way to do that, I knew, was sacramental Confession.
I argued back that I wasn’t ready for this, but the conclusion was inevitable. I recognized the feeling of being compelled by the Holy Spirit, a sort of tightening fire around the heart.
I responded with a challenge.
I hadn’t seen a priest all day; they were up around the altar, by the hundreds, to distribute communion to this vast crowd (American-style lay eucharistic ministers were not allowed at papal Masses). Okay, If You want me to do this you have to find me a priest. I cautiously looked over my shoulder. There, a few yards deep in the crowd, was a guy with a Roman
"I’ll be right back," I said to Debbie, who now looked thoroughly alarmed.
I walked up to him.
"Are you a Catholic priest?" I asked.
"No, I am a seminarian. Do you want to talk to a priest?"
There was my way out; God had failed to find me a priest. The seminarian was staring at me, and I had the distinct feeling that he was praying for me.
"All right," I heard myself saying.
He disappeared into the crowd and re-emerged a moment later with my priest in tow. I saw immediately why I hadn’t spotted him: he was tiny, a Vietnamese guy, about five feet tall.
"Yes?" he said.
"Father, I need to go to confession".
"Well," I began, "it has been about twelve years since my last confession"
and I went on to broadly list my sins, "a lot" of this, "frequent" that.
When I was done he gave some brief words of advice and encouragement, then said "for your penance say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys."
Wow, I thought, all that sinning and all I got was three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys? Man, is God merciful!
I walked back to Debbie and told her what I had just done. Now she looked bewildered instead of alarmed.
For the rest of the Mass I was caught up in the Liturgy, and received my first valid Eucharist in a long time, consecrated by the Pope.
So. Now I was a Catholic once again. I still had a lot of work to do, doctrines to wrestle with, friends, now hostile, to answer to, but it all was done in light of the conviction I experienced that afternoon on the Mall, the conviction that the man John Paul, whom I would soon come to call John Paul the
Great, was the Vicar of Christ, the successor to St Peter.
Debbie and I would break up the next spring, over issues that had nothing to do with my return to the Church. Indeed, she soon entered the Church on her own and we remained friends for years.
I shortly discovered that once within the Church my journey had just begun, for the Catholic Church is rich in possibilities and a variety of spiritual paths within the One Way that is Christ.
Eventually I was brought to Byzantine worship and the painting of icons, which perfectly integrates my artistic and spiritual yearnings.
Through it all a love for John Paul has sustained me.
His death, rather than an experience of loss, has for me been one more of enrichment. This man, John Paul, whom I have long known and loved, now knows and loves me. He seems more my shepherd than ever.
Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us.