Monday, August 24, 2015

Why Do I Remain A Catholic?

A few months ago, Elizabeth Scalia (aka the Anchoress) challenged fellow bloggers to “tell the world why you are remaining a Catholic in an era where doing so seems not only counter-cultural, but also counter-intuitive and even, perhaps, a bit risky.”[1]  Although a little late to the game, I hereby take up her challenge.

          In the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye philosophizes that every one of us, in our own way, is a fiddler on the roof – trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking our necks.  The key, he tells us, is to keep our balance.  Why do I remain a Catholic?  To keep my balance.  How does Catholicism keep me balanced?  I can explain that in one word – Tradition!

If I had to define tradition in my own words, I’d say that tradition consists of significant practices and beliefs that are passed on to us by our ancestors so we can live them in the present and share them with our descendants.  Traditions are the special things in life that are so important that our ancestors saw fit to share them with us so we can appreciate them and pass them along to future generations.  I love traditions.  Whether it’s baking date nut bread for Christmas (thank you Aunt Etta) or Easter Pizza at Easter (thank you Dad and Aunt Mary), buying a Christmas ornament at each place we vacation, or singing the Topnotcher song, traditions make my past a present that I can give to my daughters for them to share with their children.  On the seesaw of life, traditions balance my present with my past and my future.
    
Catholicism is filled with traditions, so much so that the Church teaches that Apostolic Tradition (along with Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church) is one of the means by which Divine Revelation is transmitted to us.[2]  Through oral tradition, Jews and Christians passed on the stories that their ancestors understood to be divinely inspired.  After they were written down, they were later codified into what we know as the Bible, relying, in part, on Tradition as a way to determine which books should be included.  Catholic liturgies, which have been passed down to us from the earliest days of the Church, are based on the Jewish traditions of prayer and synagogue worship complete with readings from Sacred Scripture and the breaking of bread.  Catholic Tradition has been preserved and passed on to us from the time of Christ through Apostolic succession – the handing on of preaching, teaching and governance from the Apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands.[3]  It gives me a tremendous sense of continuity, history and communion to know that my ordination at the hands of Bishop Bootkoski can be traced back through Apostolic succession to Cardinals McCarrick, Cooke and Spellman, to Popes Pius XII, Benedict XV, St. Pius X and Clement XIII, and ultimately back to an Apostle.
     
So how does Catholic Tradition keep me balanced?  Here are a few examples:

-          Catholicism requires that I rely on both faith and reason – “the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth”[4] – to understand God and the wonderful world he created; 

-          Catholic worship is the same worldwide.  I’ve attended Mass on almost every continent, always knowing exactly where we were and what was coming next, no matter what language was spoken;   

-          Catholic Tradition engages all of my senses to motivate me to engage with my neighbors from every walk of life: 

We see beautiful icons and images in Church that inspire us to see the face of God in our fellow man; we hear the tolling of bells that compel us to hear the cry of the poor; we anoint ourselves with holy water and the sign of the cross so that we can touch our neighbor with the sign of peace; we taste the elements of bread and wine as we receive our Lord in Holy Communion to strengthen us for our mission to bring food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; and we smell the fragrant aroma of incense that lifts our prayers for all who suffer in squalor and stench;[5]

-          Catholic Tradition connects me with my family, past, present and future – with my mother, my grandparents, my great grandparents and ancestors untold, all of whom knelt in the pews, prayed the prayers and received our Lord in Communion, just like I do with my daughters today and perhaps will do with my grandchildren in the future.

           The living transmission of the faith that we call Tradition is accomplished in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of counsel, wisdom, fortitude, knowledge, piety, understanding and fear of the Lord.  Armed with these gifts and anchored in Tradition, we have all we need to live as God intended us to live – loving God, loving our neighbor and eternally loved.  Catholic Tradition has given me strength, comfort and balance, especially in tough times.  Without Catholic Tradition, I’d be “as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”  That’s why I remain a Catholic.




[1] Elizabeth Scalia, Dear Catholic World: Why Do You Remain A Catholic? (June 3, 2015), http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church at 75.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church at 77.
[4] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998)
[5] Michael A. Meyer, It Just Makes Sense (August 9, 2015), www.ramblingsfromtheambo.blogspot.com.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

We Can Only Hope

I love to fish, which is pretty surprising since I never catch any fish.  By never, I mean never – the never-ever kind of never.  As a young boy, I fished off a dock at Lake Wallenpaupack with my grandfather’s fishing gear and got pretty good at landing sunnies.  In my teens, I occasionally trolled the wild waters of Verona Park Lake, where ginormous carp were the catch of almost any day.  Nowadays, I spend as much time as I can angling the icy rivers and streams that cascade down and around the Catskill Mountains and the deep-water reservoirs they feed.  They’re loaded with rainbow trout, brown trout and large and small mouth bass, or so I hear.  I’ve been fishing there for five years and haven’t caught a single fish.  It seems that somewhere between my teens and my forties, I lost my fishing finesse.  That is, until last week, when I hauled in eight – that’s right, count ‘em – eight mackerel in one day off the craggy shores of Spruce Point, Maine.  Perhaps my luck is changing.  We can only hope.

                Hope is an interesting emotion.  Google defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  I like this definition because it emphasizes that hope consists of both expectation and desire.  When we hope, we don’t just want something to happen; we expect it to happen, too.  Hope is an optimistic wish for future happiness that’s grounded in our steadfast belief that our wish will come true.  Hope carries us through disappointments and gives us the strength to persevere until we achieve our desired goal.  If “hope” doesn’t sum up my fishing career, I don’t know what does.

                This bipartite, secular definition of hope is useful in understanding the religious sense of the word as well.  For Catholics, hope is a theological virtue – a habitual disposition to do good that’s infused in the soul by God.[1]   While we usually think of virtues as good habits that we acquire through perseverance – habits we practice to make perfect – we can’t obtain the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) on our own.  They’re given to us by God.   The theological virtues are written on our hearts by God to animate our moral lives so we can merit eternal life.[2]  So it is with hope.  “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness.”[3]  Hope opens our hearts to the expectation of eternal blessing.[4]  Through the virtue of hope, we not only desire eternal happiness with God; we expect it.

                It should be no surprise, then, that people who live in hope of eternal life generally are happier and healthier than their areligious counterparts: they’re resilient; they overcome illness and setbacks quicker; and they’re calmer and more stable when adversity strikes.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes and experienced it for myself.  It’s no wonder that the anchor is the symbol of hope.  While the seas of life rise and fall around us, hope anchors us with the sure expectation that eternally fair skies and calm seas are always around the bend.

                A few weeks back, my youngest daughter asked me why I keep fishing when I never catch any fish.  I explained to her that fishing is an exercise of hope; if I didn’t go fishing with the desire and expectation that I would catch a fish, it would be pointless.  Now she knows that if I had given up on fishing during those dry years, I wouldn’t have had the thrill of catching eight mackerel last week.  It’s the same with life.  Without hope, life would be pointless.  Tremendous kindness, generosity and love run deep.  So as we cast our lines into the murky waters of life, we should always expect and desire an abundant catch of the wonderful things this life and the next have to offer.  We can only hope.


[1] See Catechism of the Catholic Church at 1803.
[2] Id. at 1813.
[3] Id.at 1817.
[4] Id. at 1818.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My Vocation Story

My pastor asked us to write down our vocations story to publish on the parish website.  Here's what I came up with.

June 12, 2010
               If you had asked me 15 years ago what I would be doing today, I would have told you that I would be running for President.  I became interested in politics in my early teens, and my family and friends often told me that I would make a good politician.  I never asked which characteristics of mine led them to that conclusion, and probably would rather not know.  I moved to Washington, DC for college and law school and focused my education and career on political science and public and private international law.  I had every intention of running for Congress and later for the Presidency. 


                My political aspirations began to unravel with two realizations.  As a new father, I realized that it would be unfair to subject a child to the indiscriminate mudslinging so often associated with politics.  With little consternation, I decided to postpone my political career until our children were grown.  The second realization was much more challenging.  A few years later, I realized that I really was not cut out to be a politician.  I am not very thick-skinned; I never have been.  I take all criticism to heart, and often brood over it for a long time.  Simply put, I was not tough enough for a political career.  I was confronted by my own limitations, and it devastated me.  Around the same time, we decided to move to New Jersey to be closer to family, so I was physically removed from the environment that was feeding my political aspirations.  I felt a calling to public service, and no longer had a plan to fulfill that calling.  I felt useless. 

                 We moved to Clinton Township in 2002 and become parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church.  ICC was the first parish I belonged to that was assigned a deacon, so it was my first opportunity to see a deacon (Deacon Bill Bauer) in action on a regular basis.  As I became more familiar with the role of the deacon, I began to think that the personal characteristics that led me to politics might also serve well in the diaconate:  I love learning; I love ritual; I love teaching; I love being with people; and, I will admit, I love talking.  I read every book I could find on the diaconate and began talking with priests, deacons and my spiritual director about the possibility of becoming a deacon.  I had considered the priesthood as a child and later in college, so my interest in the diaconate did not surprise me, but it definitely surprised my wife, my parents, my brother and sisters and my friends.  Once I explained why I thought I was called to the diaconate (especially the love of talking), they all accepted my calling as I heard it and were very supportive. 

                There was no one moment when I knew for sure that I would be a deacon (until the Bishop laid his hands on my head at ordination), but there were several confirming moments along the way – moments of clarity and reassurance.  One such moment happened on Good Friday.  As the clergy prostrated themselves before the altar at the beginning of the liturgy, I had a profound sense that I belonged there with them.  A second confirming moment happened when I overheard my wife explaining to someone on the phone why I would be a good deacon.  It was clear to me then that Jessica really understood and that I had her support.  A third confirming moment happened when I was really struggling with whether I would enter diaconate formation.  I was walking alone on the driveway of the Church near the cemetery, questioning what to do.  I turned toward the cemetery and said aloud, “What will people say about me when I’m buried here.”  Without a moment’s hesitation, the answer came to me:  “They will say that he baptized us, he married us and he buried us.” 


                If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be a deacon today, I would have asked you what a deacon was.  I thank God for leading me to the diaconate and for my family and friends who have supported me in this ministry.  My portrait may never hang in the White House, but I am perfectly happy to be remembered simply as a husband and father and as the deacon who “baptized us, married us and buried us.”

Sunday, August 9, 2015

It Just Makes Sense

          In the early 1950s, Dr. Donald Hebb, a professor of psychology at Montreal’s McGill University, studied the effects of sensory deprivation on the human condition.  With a $10,000 grant in hand, Dr. Hebb offered male graduate students $20 a day to live in small, bare chambers containing little more than a bed.  They wore tubes on their arms and gloves on their hands to limit their sense of touch; a U-shaped pillow covered their ears to block out sound.  Dr. Hebb planned to observe his subjects for six weeks.  None lasted more than a few days.[1]  It turns out that our senses play an important role in our physical and mental well-being.  So it just makes sense that our senses play a critical role in our spiritual well-being as well.  Today’s readings prove it. 

          Did you notice that today’s readings invoke each of the five senses?  In our first reading, Elijah is revived from the brink of death by the touch of an angel who gives him food for his journey to Mount Horeb to meet God.  Our psalm invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” and ensures us that the lowly will hear him and be glad.  In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul encourages us to be like Christ, a fragrant aroma pleasing to God.  And in our Gospel passage, Jesus teaches us that he himself, his very flesh that we can see and hear and touch and smell and taste, is the bread for the life of the world.  The invocation of the senses in Scripture calls to mind “the powerful immediacy of experiencing God’s beneficence.”[2]  God’s goodness is visible, audible, tangible, tasteable and olfactible (I had to look that one up – smellable just didn’t sound right).

          Scripture is filled with passages that invoke the senses because God communicates with us through every means possible.  The five senses serve as “the chief inlets of the Soul,”[3] gateways through which we connect physical realities with spiritual realities.  The senses offer us physical, mental and spiritual stimulation that help us experience the fullness of our humanity.  Through the senses we delight in God’s creation.  The senses help us discern God’s loving presence in our lives and in the world around us.  Our senses are the portals through which we receive the good things that God offers us.  They help us make sense of the interplay between the human and the divine so we can be in a loving relationship with our God.

          It should be no surprise, then, that Catholicism is a religion of the senses, the smells and the bells, if you will.  Just think about it, as Christians we believe that the world was created through God’s Word and that . . . [t]his same Word that holds the Father and Creation in communion has become flesh, visible, audible, and tangible in Jesus.”[4]  We believe in the One who gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, who touched the leper, fed the multitudes and washed the smelly feet of his followers.  Catholicism involves all five senses because Jesus’ life and ministry involved all five senses.  We see beautiful icons and images in Church that inspire us to see the face of God in our fellow man; we hear the tolling of bells that compels us to hear the cry of the poor; we anoint ourselves with holy water and the sign of the cross so that we can touch our neighbor with the sign of peace; we taste the elements of bread and wine as we receive our Lord in Holy Communion to strengthen us for our mission to bring food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; we smell the fragrant aroma of incense that lifts our prayers for all who suffer in squalor and stench.  Ours is a living, breathing, active faith that involves our bodies, our minds, our souls and all five senses. 

          It just makes sense that we should rely on our senses to find God’s loving presence in our lives.  God is present in every sight, sound, touch, taste and smell around us.  We see God’s grandeur in the gnarly mountain tops capped with snow.  We hear God’s voice in the persistent hum of cicadas on a hot August day.  We touch God’s face as we caress the time-honored hands of our parents and grandparents.  We taste God’s goodness in a favorite meal prepared just for us by a loved one.  We smell God’s enigmatic Spirit in the briny mist of the Jersey shore. 

Our humanity breaks down when we deny the reality of God’s presence in every aspect of our lives.  That’s why some of the wealthiest, most famous and accomplished people in our society are so miserable.  They have every physical stimulus available to them, but they suffer from spiritual deprivation because they refuse to taste and see and hear and touch and smell God’s loving presence in their lives.  When we tune our senses to God, we find him, and we live as God intended us to live – knowing, sensing with every fiber of our being that we are fully alive and fully loved in communion with God forever.

          After just a few days of isolation from nearly all sensory stimulation, Dr. Hebb’s volunteers couldn’t think clearly about anything for any length of time.  They showed signs of cognitive impairment and “experienced extreme restlessness, childish emotional responses and vivid hallucinations.”[5]  After just a few days of sensory deprivation, Dr. Hebb’s subjects were mentally and emotionally broken.  Well, it doesn’t take a $10,000 grant to figure out that the same happens with our souls.  When we deprive ourselves of God’s presence in our lives, we become restless, dissatisfied, hopeless, selfish, and we lose perspective on right and wrong.  We become spiritually broken.  To be mentally, physically and spiritually healthy, we need to feed our minds, our bodies and our souls.  We need to taste and see and hear and touch and smell all of the good things God offers us.  It just makes sense.

Readings:  1 Kings 19: 4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4: 30-5: 2; John 6: 41-51




[1] Michael Mechanic, “What Extreme Isolation Does to Your Mind,” Mother Jones (October 18, 2012) at 1-2, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/10/donald-o-hebb-effects-extreme-isolation.
[2] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007) at 118.
[3] William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (1790).
[4] John Shea, Eating With the Bridegroom:  The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Mark Year B (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2005) at 203.
[5] Mechanic at 3.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Good Messenger

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai
          The Japanese tell a story of an old man who lived in a beautiful home on top of a mountain.  Each day he took a walk in his garden and looked out at the sea below.  One day he noticed that the water was acting strangely – it appeared dark; it moved against the wind and drew away from the shore.  The old man knew exactly what that meant, and he knew that he had to warn his neighbors in the village along the shore.  He quickly grabbed a torch and set fire to his house.  When the villagers saw the flames, some said “Let’s climb the mountain to save our friend,” while others said, “He’s gone mad!  Why else would he set his house on fire?  Let him be.”  Well, the villagers who climbed the mountain to save their neighbor were themselves saved.  Those who remained in the village below perished in the tsunami that struck the shore.  That old man was a good messenger.  Today’s readings are teaching us how to be good messengers, too.

          In our first reading, Amos reveals himself as a reluctant prophet. He was perfectly happy living his life as a shepherd and dresser of sycamores (I’ll explain what that is after Mass), but when God’s call came, Amos left his happy life to take up the much more difficult life as God’s messenger.   In our Gospel passage, Jesus sends the apostles out two-by-two to bring his message to the people – to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick.  These readings remind us of the waters of baptism when each one of us was commissioned as a prophet, as God’s messenger, and they teach us what it takes to be a good messenger:  We have to know the message; we have to live the message; and we have to love our neighbor.
  
        I think we can all agree that a good messenger has to know the message.  “When the apostles went out to preach, they did not create a message; they brought a message.  They didn’t tell people what they believed and what they considered probable; they told people what Jesus had told them.”[1]  So it’s our duty as messengers to understand Jesus’ message.  How many of us can say that we can explain our faith comfortably to our children, to our colleagues at work, or to a member of another faith?  We have to know and understand what Jesus said in order to deliver his message.  We need to immerse ourselves in scripture and Church teachings; we need to plunge head-first into faith formation programs; we need to ask questions; and we need to plumb the depths of every resource available to us to find the answers (like what a dresser of sycamores is).    

But knowing the Christian message is much more than simply understanding the words.  To know the Christian message, we have to know Jesus.  Jesus is God’s Word made flesh.  God’s Word isn’t relegated to dusty pages sitting on a shelf.  It’s alive and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.  “It is the encounter with and dwelling with Jesus that creates disciples.  The apostles are able to represent Jesus because they know him and have lived with him.”[2]  We need to know him, too.  To know Jesus’ message, we have to develop a deep, personal relationship with him.  We need to speak openly and honestly with Jesus in prayer, casting our burdens before him and thanking him for saving our souls.  We need to fill ourselves with his divine love through the gift of the Eucharist.  We need to live as he lived.

Jesus’ message is meant to be lived.  It’s not a message sealed in a bottle that bobs aimlessly with the ebbs and flows of life.  It’s a tidal wave of faith, hope and love intended to flood the hearts of every person.  It’s a no-frills, take action kind of life.  In our Gospel “we see that the mark of the Christian disciple was to be utter simplicity, complete trust, and generosity.”[3]  It’s a great way to live because it’s a joy-filled life.  As Pope Francis Tweeted last year, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.”[4]  We have every reason to smile.  And smiles are infectious.  So the best way to deliver Jesus’ message is to live that message – to live a joyful life anchored in faith, hope and love.  “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction.”[5]  Good messengers live Jesus’ message in such a way that it’s irresistible.

Finally, a good messenger has to love his neighbor.  Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that “to love is to will the good of another.”[6]  That’s why when we have a good thing, we want to share it with our loved ones.  The Christian message is such a good thing that it flows right through us; love compels us to share it.  But love also requires that we honor human dignity by respecting each person’s God-given free will.  “Speaking the truth by no means guarantees acceptance, for the truth will be uncomfortable for some.”[7]  We can’t force Christ’s message on anyone.  Even the most compelling messenger, Jesus himself, was rejected.  But he loves us all the same.  So “when we bring the Gospel it must be with a spirit of humility.”[8]  It must be with a spirit of love.  A good messenger loves his neighbor, even when he’s rejected by him.

          That old Japanese man was a good messenger.  He read the message of the sea and he understood it.  He lived that message by taking immediate action to share it with his neighbors, whom he loved to the point of self-sacrifice.  His message was received by some and rejected by others, but he was still a good messenger.   We’re all called by God to be good messengers.  Are we?

Readings:  Amos 7: 12-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 7-13


[1] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible:  Gospel of Mark (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 166.
[2] John W. Martens, “Where Do You Live?” America, vol. 213, no. 1 (July 6-13, 2015) at 45.
[3] Barclay at 166.
[4] Pope Francis, Twitter, January 30, 2014.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Nov. 24, 2013) at 14.
[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 26.4, corp. art.
[7] Donald E. Gowan, “Amos,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996) at 412.
[8] Martens at 27.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Horror-scope

The Scream, by Edvard Munch
                For as long as I’ve been reading newspapers, I’ve checked my horoscope every day.  I don’t know anything about astrology – I won’t tell you that you’re behaving a certain way because you’re a Leo or a Pisces, and I won’t warn you not to marry a certain person because your signs are incompatible.  I don’t even believe that the stars under which we’re born can predict anything.  But I kind of like the idea of getting a short forecast of my future at the beginning of each day, whether accurate or not.  I just like reading my horoscope . . . well, until today.

                Here’s the horoscope that greeted me this morning:

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21).  You’ll serve, you’ll entertain, you’ll comfort.  You can’t help but wonder when your turn will come – not today, so don’t hold your breath.

What in the world kind of horoscope is that?  It reminds of a line from Shrek the Musical when Shrek’s parents are sending him away at age seven:  “It’s a big, bright beautiful world, with happiness all around.  It’s peaches and cream and every dream comes true . . . but not for you.”[1]  There isn’t even a glimmer of hope in that horoscope – not even an inkling as to when my turn will come.  I immediately called my sister (a fellow Sagittarius), and we commiserated in our best Eeyore voices:  “Not today.”

                Complaints aside (for now), I admit that this horoscope gave me a good laugh.  I actually laughed out loud when I read it, and I had to share it right away.  It made me laugh because it’s so real.  I’ll bet most of us, whether Sagittarians or not, spend a good part of our days serving, entertaining and comforting, occasionally wondering when our turn will come.  That’s basically how life goes.  We were created to love God by loving our neighbor; and loving our neighbor involves a whole lot of serving, entertaining and comforting.  Just think of the corporal works of mercy:  Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; bury the dead.

                So the secret to a happy life is to find joy and fulfillment in serving, entertaining and comforting.  Sure, serving, entertaining and comforting can be exhausting; and for that reason, we all need to be served, entertained and comforted as well.  But when we use our God-given talents to serve, entertain and comfort our neighbor, we’re fulfilling our God-given purpose.  That should make us very happy.  I’ve never met a parent who enjoys changing diapers and cleaning up vomit.  But I’ve also never met a parent who, looking back on his or her life, didn’t find tremendous joy, satisfaction and fulfillment in being a mother or father.  Happiness is a choice – so we can wallow in self-pity as we serve, entertain and comfort, or we can find great joy in the opportunity to fulfill our God-given purpose by helping others.
 
                Now back to my horoscope.  I didn’t think much about that horoscope until I sat down to write this post.  It made me laugh again because it’s so real.  How did I spend my day?  I served, I entertained and I comforted.  And I was very happy.  I wonder if tomorrow’s horoscope can top that.


[1] “Big, Bright, Beautiful World,” Shrek the Musical, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dependent Independence

Old Glory at the Washington Monument
Michael A. Meyer (1985)
          Last night, as I was perusing the musings of fellow Tweeps, I came across a 2011 CBS News survey tweeted by CARA, a social science research center affiliated with my alma mater, Georgetown University. The survey asked American adults: “Do you happen to fly the American flag on special days like the Fourth of July or Flag Day?” To my surprise, the results suggest a connection between religious affiliation and flying the flag. Of those responding “yes,” 71% were Catholic, 66% were Mainline Protestant (whatever that means), 64% were Evangelical Christians (apparently they’re not Mainline Protestants), 61% were other religions, and 55% expressed no religious affiliation. The connection escaped me, so I moved on to other tweets. But by the dawn’s early light, it hit me. The connection between religious affiliation and flying the flag stems from the fact that the United States is founded on dependent independence.

          “So Mike,” you ask, “what’s dependent independence?” Well, in establishing the Thirteen Colonies as independent states by severing ties with the British crown, the Founding Fathers didn’t expect that we would or could go it alone. There’s a reason why the Declaration of Independence invokes God four times:


  • Declaring that the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle us to assume our separate and equal station among the powers of the earth;
  • Establishing the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;”
  • “[A]ppealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions;” and
  • Firmly relying “on the protection of divine Providence.”

The Founding Fathers realized that our independence would always be dependent on God.

          Generally speaking, the Founding Fathers were educated men steeped in the classics. As such, they would have been well-versed in the sciences, philosophy and theology. They would have been familiar with Plato’s argument that humans can attain transcendent reality by using our reason to detach ourselves from the material world and to develop our ability to focus on transcendent “forms.” The Founding Fathers also would have known how Saint Augustine tempered that philosophical mouthful by arguing that while we can attain unity with transcendent reality (i.e., God), we cannot attain unity with God alone – we need God’s help. The key for Saint Augustine is humilitas – humility. “Augustine recognized, through his own experience, that it wasn’t what he did that brought him to union with God, but rather, it was what God was doing in his life.”[1] Union with transcendent reality, with self-evident truth, with God, comes from self-emptying, from the admission of need, from a declaration of dependence.

          So what’s the link between religious affiliation and flying the flag? Well, those with religious beliefs generally accept that that we’re created by a transcendent God, which means that all that we have and all that we need is provided to us by our Creator. In short, we humbly accept that we can’t go it alone; we need God. We need God for food; we need God for shelter; and yes, we even need God for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So when we fly the flag, we humbly acknowledge that our independence is a gift from God and that we cannot achieve or maintain that independence without “the protection of divine Providence.” By flying the flag we acknowledge, as the Founding Fathers did, that the only independence worth fighting for is dependent independence.



[1] Anthony Ciorra, The History of Christian Spirituality (Now You Know Media, 2012) at disk 1, track 26.