America, I Gave My Best to You – A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).

Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.

The song begins in this way:

All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Of centuries
Have brought us to this day

We begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.

Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.

The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:

What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.

Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.

Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.

As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.

For those who think
They have nothing to share
Who fear in their hearts
There is no hero there
Know each quiet act
Of dignity is
That which fortifies
The soul of a nation
That never die
s

Heroism is a highly visible virtue, but it is also the quiet, hidden acts of love and prayer that fortify the nation. Only if these daily acts are never dying can the soul of a nation hope to survive. It is the bigger and smaller things together that win the day: getting married and staying married, living virtuous lives, teaching our children well, working hard each day, contributing to the common good, forgiving yet also insisting, being patient yet also persistent. St. Augustine said, “A little thing is just a little thing, but to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing” (De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35).

On this Memorial Day, for us and all who love our Church and our land, may this be so:

Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

America
America
I gave my best to you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: America, I Gave My Best to You – A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism

On the “Memorare” of Memorial Day

Memorial Day for many means the beginning of summer. To others, it is a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of this country. Here are some thoughts based on two words that arise on a day like this: “memorial” and “monument.”

The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, an imperative that means “Remember!” Therefore, Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present to our mind and heart so that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different because of it.

This is a day to remember that there are men and women who died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.

In a secondary sense, we can also honor today those who currently serve in the military because they also place their lives on the line for our security and peace. On Veterans Day we will have a second opportunity to thank those in the military who are still living.

God bless them all and may the dead rest in peace. We must remember that freedom is not really free—others paid the price for our freedom.

The second word is “monument,” which comes from the Latin words monere (to warn, remind, or advise) and mens (mind).  Hence a monument exists to admonish or advise us to remember the dead and/or what they have done. Not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to our fallen soldiers, but we must also hold in our memories all they have done for us.

There are many memorials and some monuments as well honoring our fallen soldiers. Here in Washington, D.C. and in most cities, there are memorials to the soldiers who died during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. Soon enough there will be monuments to the fallen from the Gulf War and to those who gave their lives in other wars. The Tomb of the Unknowns is a poignant monument to the many fallen who remain unknown to us. And who can forget the deep impression that the rows of white crosses in a military cemetery make?

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).

The Lord Himself makes it plain: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

We must never forget the price that others have paid for our freedom. Pray for our fallen soldiers from every generation and for their families.

Here is the text of the song “Mansions of the Lord”:

To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord

No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
Eternal light,
In the Mansions of the Lord

Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord

Perhaps you might use the following video as a way to meditate on the sacrifices they have made:

Remember! On Memorial Day

memorial-dayWhat is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated, but what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something heavy. Hence, to honor someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.

For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it’s a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of our country, those who carried a great burden so that many of us did not have to.

Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that we can live more freely and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.

War remains controversial (as well it should). But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be faced, an injustice to be ended; and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson is one of those who went north during the Korean War and did not return. He carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.

The love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).

The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Second World War, entitled simply, “The War.” It remarkably depicts the suffering and cost, and the burdens carried, especially by the soldiers. But it also shows the sacrifices made by many back home who scrimped, saved, and went without. Some endured the loss of loved ones. Some were detained in camps.

Each episode of the documentary begins and ends with the same beautiful and haunting anthem and can be heard in the video below. Its basic theme is “America, I gave my best to you.” The full text is as follows:

All we’ve been given by those who came before
The dream of a nation where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

Let them say of me I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received.
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.

Each generation from the plains to distant shore
With the gifts they were given were determined to leave more.
Battles fought together, acts of conscience fought alone:
These are the seeds from which America has grown.  

For those who think they have nothing to share,
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there.
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that will never die.

America, [America] I gave my best to you.

The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, which is an imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.

This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.

Here is the song and video from “The War” by Ken Burns.