Egg Stand, Anniversary, Williams Ephs, and America

VMFA egg stand

Granted, the desire to spend an hour in a museum, gazing at 18th- and 19th-century English silver table settings, qualifies as a highly unusual mood.  But if such a mood never overcomes you, when will you ever encounter an egg stand like this one?

I experienced just such a mood yesterday afternoon, during a brief sojourn in Richmond.  The Gans Collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also includes this exquisite chalice from the 15th century:

VMFA chalice

…Speaking of lifting up the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord:  fifteen years ago yesterday, St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, a lot of other people, and I all took part in Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Square together.


We Washington seminarians had traveled with new-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s consistory pilgrims.

John Paul created Jorge Bergoglio a Cardinal at the same consistory.

I think it’s safe to say that, on that day, only the Lord knew how new-Cardinal Bergoglio would one day become Pope Francis.

Ad multos annos, Holy Father!

…A tempest has erupted in the teapot of one of my alma maters.  Williams College rescinded a speaking invitation, and the campus free-speech fighters of the world find themselves up in arms.

The speaker has published his canceled talk on-line.  The man may very well be a hate-filled bigot.  But the talk he has published does not give evidence of that, and it raises questions that I myself have often wondered about.

What does “being American” mean?  Derbyshire eliminates the possibility that American identity arises solely from agreement about particular ideas.  He shows that even the Founders did not envision it that way.  They believed in common English ancestry among American “patriots” (even though that belief was, in fact, inaccurate.)

In my own personal reflections on the question, I have come to the conclusion that the only genuinely distinguishing factor we can use for “American” is the land itself.  If we live in the United States of America, if we exercise our social nature as human beings on this particular expanse of earth, then we are Americans.  (And, of course, we owe each other–everyone with whom we share our beloved land–respect, good will, and mutual support.)

If you have been reading this little weblog a long time, you know that one of my “issues” is:  I don’t find much use in ideas like Church/state separation and the First-Amendment religion clause.

I think the early-21st-century “crisis of identity” is far too profound for such ideas.  The dream of “American freedom of religion,” when removed from the far-deeper foundation of belonging to the Christian Church, does not have any content.

I think the dream of American freedom and individual autonomy has become a dangerous chimera, in fact.  Imagining that I can serve as an ultimate authority on moral and religious matters only cuts me off from the basic elements of human identity.  Because I belong–to a family, to the family of God–I can know how to live a decent life.  Without that belonging, I’m lost.  And that belonging comes at the price of my autonomy–there is no way to get around that.

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a Christian or not.  I don’t consider it any of my business.  (I continue to think that his immigration-policy proposals fall well beneath the loving kindness that Christian solidarity with our neighbors demands.)

Also, I certainly do not consider it any of my business to judge whether or not Pope Francis should accuse Mr. Trump of neglecting Christianity.

But this much I will say:  The idea that no one has the right to declare whether or not I am a Christian, other than me:  that idea sounds like the dream of “American religious freedom.”  Thank God it isn’t true.

No prelate should lightly proclaim that any individual abides outside the flock of Christ.  But: a world in which no shepherd has the authority to make such a declaration is a world of hopeless isolation.  It is a world in which the one “identity” we all need–redeemed children of God–has been lost.  Because we become redeemed children of God precisely by becoming members of His Church.  The only known means of divine adoption is:  Holy Baptism, according to the rite of the Church.

This is a fact I think we have to face:  To be the Americans we want and need to be–that is, loving and responsible social animals in our beloved land–we need to belong to the Church first.  And belonging to the Church means that we submit to authority.  We submit to authority precisely in matters that pertain to my most-intimate relationship with my Creator.

Which means that the late-20th-century American ideal of individual religious self-determination is simply impossible.

Magnificent Place to Catch a Train

We cannot let this anniversary pass unremarked. This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of Union Station in Washington, D.C. (The grand opening was October 27, 1907, but the building was not yet finished then.)

The building was designed by Daniel Burnham. It was built as part of the McMillan Plan for beautifying the capital city of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant had, at George Washington’s request, laid out a beautiful design for the city a century earlier, but L’Enfant’s ideas were not fully realized. The McMillan Plan, conceived at the turn of the twentieth century, brought L’Enfant’s original design to fulfillment.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, these two great teachers of right living list magnificence as one of the virtues of an upright man. Only those who are in charge of large public projects are able to practice this virtue. In order to execute such responsibility well, someone who controls large sums of money for the public good must attain magnificence.

Public money is spent well when it produces something not merely useful, not just efficiently put-together. Rather, something built for the public must possess elevating beauty. It must lift us up to the true dignity which the human race possesses.

We could catch trains in little demountable depots, as we did here in Washington through the 1980’s (after the failure of the ill-conceived National Park Service Union Station Visitor Center, which attracted more pigeons than people). It is not necessary for us to catch trains in a 100-foot-high double vault of marble and steel with coffered ceilings, Italian statues, and sculpted water fountains.

It is not necessary to have such a place for the catching of trains–but it IS magnificent to have one. It is fitting for a noble race, an upright people, a nation of grand ideals.

This fall is also the twentieth anniversary of the grand re-opening of Union Station after it’s decade of decrepitude. My father was very excited about it back in 1988, but I was too distracted by being a freshman at a New England College to pray much attention.

Then I had a pivotal experience of life. I came home from college on the train for Thanksgiving. Four months in the foreign territory of western Massachusetts had me miserable. Nobody there believed in God, and the sun went down at 3:00 in the afternoon.

But then, when the train arrived in Washington, I did NOT emerge into the graffiti-covered construction site that had been our train station for almost as long as I could remember. No: I stepped out into the newly re-opened Union Station, in all its pristine splendor.

I could not believe my eyes. The splendor of Rome itself had come to my hometown train station. I thought: This is where I belong. This grand city is my home. You can have Williams College.

Not long after, I told one of my Williams’ buddies: “You know, if some celestial power offered me a choice at this moment, either to live out the rest of my days on earth within the confines of the District of Columbia, with no opportunity ever to leave it, OR to have the freedom to go anywhere in the world–except into the city of Washington–it would take me all of one second to make up my mind. Give me my home turf.”

My days in New England were numbered. Before long, I was a student at the Catholic University of America. The rest is more or less a Washington-D.C. history. (I am allowed into the suburbs.)