“No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,” according to Max Ehrmann in his prose poem “Desiderata” (from the 1920s), to which one was much exposed if one grew up in the 1960s, as I did. Author and poem hail from Indiana, not from the ancient Near East, yet in moments it seems that the wind still blows from there.
It is not a Catholic poem, but neither is it German Methodist, like Ehrmann, nor Hippie, as I first assumed. It is Modern, in the limited multicultural sense: it is compatible with almost anything, and potentially quite harmless; a thrilling call to inaction.
Compare, if gentle reader will, the “If –” poem of Rudyard Kipling, which, thanks to the illuminating skills of my paternal grandfather, has hung on my bathroom walls since childhood.
It is not Catholic, either, rather somewhat pagan in its beat. Unquestionably, it is noble in its advice for how to be a man. It also requires a certain aloofness, or disengagement of the reader. The world is as the world is, and one should quietly stand, free from its corruptions.
Both poems explicitly warn against the vanity of boastfulness, or shall we say “virtue signaling” to bring this up to date.
My father in his own modern way was very firm on this. Though not outwardly religious, and certainly not Catholic, he drove home the idea that “God is watching,” that “God is in the details,” that one should “go with God.” For, “In God we trust.”
In defiance of what he thought a culture of self-promotion, getting worse every year, papa proposed a personal declaration of independence – which is to say, declared only to oneself. Do things as ends in themselves, and not as a means to personal advancement. In the face of hardship quietly, stoically endure.
Be prepared, like a Boy Scout, but keep your preparations to yourself. When the time comes that something must be done, be ready-aye-ready for the trial, but not to make a show of it.
The North America that English-speaking people were born into was built upon such aphorisms. And from what I could detect as a schoolboy, the Latin-speaking Romans of antiquity were similarly equipped. Both “practiced religion” in its outward forms, punctiliously by disposition, yet neither was inclined to mystical religion. Unthinking rectitude was prized in both cases.
I am writing this on the 4th of July, as a latter-day United Empire Loyalist. To our view it was a civil war, that we lost, many fleeing into exile. Families were split by the politics. Brother turned against brother, but this did not change the fact that we were all Americans, with typically “Yankee” attitudes, that have lasted through the years. We all loved civil liberty, and hated being pushed around.
Recently, I proposed the alteration of an electioneering slogan to, “Make America Christian Again.” Some Catholic readers found this unsatisfactory, but as I had to explain to them, to “make America Catholic” would be no return to tradition, but a genuine revolution.
Except Quebec, the Catholic element arrived by immigration, generally poor, unwashed, and hopelessly ethnic. It assimilated to Protestant norms. In decline, many American Catholics strike me as more post-Protestant than post-Catholic in spirit, with just a tiny edge of old minority resentment.
Those not in decline represent a new departure. Again, I am observing from my own limited station, but I would say fairly boldly that the majority of faithful Catholics on this continent (excepting Mexico, but no longer excepting Quebec), are converts, or “reverts” from only nominally Catholic households. It is not, in the main, an ethnic phenomenon any more.
And where we buy into the old Protestant aphorisms, it is not from nostalgia. We were not the ruling class, and do not identify with the post-Protestant, politically correct, ruling class today. What we read into the old Desiderata, the old “If –,” are the common features of the broader Western Civilization that begat America among many other things.
It could be said that we are a minority of a diminishing minority; our numbers are decidedly not impressive. But writing as a Catholic I would point out that numbers have never been impressive. The world does not work that way. Those immovable in their faith have a power beyond any statistical analysis.
“Give up all you have and follow me” was no part of the American way, in my estimation. A wonderful generosity took its place, that the rest of the world is still inclined to notice, and whenever possible, to exploit. But the idea that it is “glorious to be rich” is as much a part of the “American dream” is it has now become part of Red China’s.
Take note of this. Sooner or later, there will be a test.
The old North American ethic embraced the “strong, silent” type, but did not make itself available to persecution. We have been, consistently, a proud people, and our patriotism is founded in – watch me go out on a limb, here – ultimately the same “Pride” now invested in the homosexual and transgender movements.
It is a universal trait, among fallen men: this demand to be celebrated, warts and all, to take pride even in one’s own perversions, to identify ourselves as the vanguard, the epitome of a good which we have legislated, a truth that we will define for ourselves.
Needless to say, this is rather the opposite of the Catholic leaning. (And what is “needless to say” should be said constantly, or it will be lost.)
This is what I find so interesting about the Catholic “revival” taking place in the most unlikely districts of America; both rural and urban. It is, as it were, so un-American, in its challenge to long-established secular ideals. Yet it is so very American in its sincerity and generosity.
It is as if God were somehow behind this, loving America as He does.
*Image: The Wall Project by James B. Janknegt, 2013. [Mr. Janknegt’s work is on display and available for purchase at his website.]