Saturday, September 10, 2011

Renewing Patriotism

I just returned from the holy land --not Israel, but Gettysburg, PA.

Nearly a century and a half ago General Robert E. Lee brought his Confederate army north from Virginia into Pennsylvania with the hope of engaging the Federals in a decisive victory and bringing the war to an end.

His effort there can rightly be called "the high water mark of the Confederacy" and his loss there can rightly be called "the turning point of the war."

Last week a different Lee invaded Pennsylvania. The remnants of the tropical storm caused flooding along creeks and rivers in several east coast states. People had to evacuate, property was destroyed, a few lost their lives.

By comparison the misery caused by Lee the invader was worse than the misery caused by Lee the storm. By comparison the misery suffered by the flood victims was worse than the misery suffered by us fool-hardy, drenched-to-the-skin visitors to the battlefield --but either scenario gives a whole new meaning to "Lee's Miserables" (apology to Victor Hugo).

Even in the rain I enjoyed the opportunity (as General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain put it) to join generations of reverent men and women who will come "to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for ponder and dream."

Each visit (I have been there maybe 20 times) renews respect for the sacrifices made by the men and women of both sides. Each visit re-inspires patriotism, a love of country based not on some naive assumption that we are perfect but upon the realism that despite our nation's faults we share a land, a constitution and a heritage unparalleled in human history.

And this blessing requires work and sacrifice and occasional battles to preserve.

The attacks on our country on 9/11/01 at least momentarily woke the sleeping giant, and most citizens rallied and responded with demonstrations of sympathy for the victims, of respect for the police, firefighters and military, of our dependence on divine providence.

On a visit to Gettysburg, General Chamberlain recalled his experience of the battle and his perception of the field. He said, "In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls."

On his visit to Gettysburg President Abraham Lincoln denied that we could dedicate, consecrate or hallow this ground. Rather, said Lincoln, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."

And immediately Lincoln made an appeal to patriotic fervor, "It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly advanced."

I suppose it is in the light of the observations of Chamberlain and Lincoln that I think of the battlefield at Gettysburg as "the holy land."

But neither do I discount my personal experiences on that field. I have not seen ghosts. I have no relatives who fought there. But Chamberlain is right, something abides, spirits linger.

And if one is quiet long enough what he predicted for visitors proves true: "The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."

He continued, "This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of Christ, --to give life's best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal."

Patriotism is listed among Christian virtues. Pro Deo et patria --for God and country. It's why we go to Church, and why I go to Gettysburg.

1 comment:

  1. I too have been to this battlefield multiple times although far short of 20. I spent 4 days there with my grandson last year. While there, I met a wounded soldier who had just returned from Afghanistan. He was on crutches. After talking with him a short time, I offered to take him and his wife to dinner as a way of saying thank you and also on a private basis to allow my grandson to see and talk with a living soldier of today. He told us about his grandfather who had died in Vietnam and how his dad had kept that sacrifice alive with frequent trips to civil war battlefields. He also told us about his war experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He hopes to be able to heal and return to "see our sacrifice turn into something positive." He was kind of bitter about the changes since Obama has taken over as CIC. He said, "Our rules of engagment have continued to get ever more dangerous to the troops and to the innocent civilians. The delays in getting support seem to take ever longer and in announcing our departure, we have lost much of the support of the people who are now trying to make friends with those who will be staying so they will not be killed."

    The next day, as we toured the battlefield, my grandson asked our tour guide if the generals had fought with the same rules of engagement as today, how would it have been different. The tour guide without pause said "Lincoln would have lost the election, we would have come to some agreement allowing the South to leave the union, and the United States would be nothing like you see today.