Independence Day, 2012

For Independence Day this year, I’ve decided to reproduce portions of some famous texts related to the United States’ celebration of the Fourth of July.  Many of us are familiar with the opening lines of these texts, but I’m offering portions of the texts which are far less known to most of us.   The first is the concluding paragraph of The Declaration of independence from July 4, 1776.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I find it interesting that while the authors of the Declaration appealed to God for the righteousness of their intentions, they also profess the belief that the power of government comes not from God but from the consent of the governed.  Government is man-made according to the Declaration, which disagrees completely with what St. Paul states in Romans 13:1-5.

I also note that not only do they seek not only the power to levy war but also to conclude peace. That is something governments and national leaders don’t always keep in the forefront of their thinking –  what would the concluding peace look like.

A great coincidence which is fairly well known, is that two of the five men who worked on the committee producing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who also both became Presidents of the United States, died on July 4, 1826.

The next text is the fourth stanza from “The Star Spangled Banner” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.  The poem was not written about a battle from the 18th Century War for Independence, but about another war the US fought with Britain, the War of 1812.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

It was a time obviously when lots of trust in God and praise for God’s help was still quite common in America.

Mt. Ranier

The third document comes from Katharine Lee Bates’ poem, “America the Beautiful” which was published on  July 4, 1895.  This is the second stanza:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Atlantic sunrise

Two phrases in this stanza really caught my eye.   First, that it asks God to mend every flaw in America.  Just the acknowledgement of flaws in any American patriotic literature is pretty amazing to me.  It is realistic, and humble, but I think unusual as it seems to me Americans rarely patriotically acknowledge that our country has flaws.  The second eye-catching phrase is the request that God confirm America’s soul in self-control.  Self-control is certainly popular in Orthodox Christian ascetic literature, but is not something I usually hear patriotic Americans singing about in our land of excess.    The last line of the stanza also has what I think is not a modern American thought:  that God confirms our liberty in law.  American’s today often equate ‘law’ with big government and restrictions on freedoms rather than as a way to measure our freedom.

I hope that for all of my fellow Americans that you had a safe and blessed Independence Day celebration.

Dayton, Ohio

What is Prayer? (VII)

This is the 11th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is What is Prayer? (VI).

In the previous blog, we encountered several different metaphors which St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) uses to describe prayer.  Here Chrysostom continues with more metaphors concerning prayer, and a note that a poor man who can pray is wealthier than the rich man who is deprived of prayer.

“Surely, prayer is a harbor for those caught in a storm; it is an anchor for those tossed by the waves; it is a staff for those who stumble.  Prayer is a treasure for the poor, security for the rich, a cure for the sick, a safeguard for those in good health.  It keeps our blessings inviolable and quickly changes our ills to good.

If temptation comes, it is easily repelled.  If loss of possessions or any of the other things which cause grief to our souls befall us, prayer is quick to drive them all away.  Prayer is a refuge from every sorrow, a basis for cheerfulness, a means for continual pleasure, a mother for our philosophy and way of life.  Even if the man who can pray with diligence is destitute of all things, he is richer than any other man.  Yet, one who has been robbed and deprived of prayer may sit on the very throne of a king, but he is poorer than the poorest man.”  (St. John Chrysostom, THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, p 209-210)

By using such rich and varied metaphors, Chrysostom helps us move away from imagining that prayer is but a technique.  Prayer is many things and accomplishes many things in our lives.  Prayer involves our entire being, it is not just something we say, but something we believe and a relationship with our Creator.

“Isidore said:

‘Prayer is a work of the heart, not of the lips.  For God does not pay attention to the words of the one who is praying to him, but rather to his or her heart.  It is better to pray in the silence of the heart than to pray only with words, without the mind paying attention.

It is useless to pray when trust and hope are missing.

Our spirit contemplates God perfectly only if it is not obstructed by earthly anxieties.’”   (Defensor Grammaticus – 7th Cent – in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 367)

We come again to the notion that prayer is a way of life, not just one activity in which we occasionally engage.  In prayer we are conversing with God, an activity that ought to be present at every moment of our lives for we are always to remember God and His saving deeds.  I think especially of Psalm 106 and Psalm 107.

“To describe it with the boldest expression, payer is a conversation with God.

Even if we speak with a low voice, even if we whisper without opening the lips, even if we call to him only from the depths of the heart, our unspoken word always reaches God and God always hears.

Sometimes, however, besides speaking, we lift our head and raise our arms to heaven.

In this way we are underlining the desire that the spirit has for the spiritual world.  We are striving with the word to raise the body above the earth.  We are giving wings to the soul for it to reach the good things on high.”  (Clement of Alexandria in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 366)

Next:  What is Prayer? (VIII)