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 them...to 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.