The Grace Note

[1] A remembered chapter-title from a now all but forgotten high school history text lives in my mind with the vitality of a banner whipped by the wind! This is the title, “The Promise and Hope of American Life”. Phrases have a way of sticking, or gathering up into themselves over the years multitudes of vague ideas, gaining positively symbolic power to excite and evoke images, give precise articulation to our discontent and restlessness. There have been days in this city when I have been swept along with Chicago’s burly and relentless life – lighted by neon, directed by roars, whistles, and blinking spots, smelling of exhaust gas, and bright with the fever of directionless vitality – days when I have muttered this phrase to myself almost like an incantation.

[2] The Promise and Hope of American Life! One must know this country well and love her deeply to respond to the magic and the judgment of that phrase. Thomas Wolfe both cursed and cherished his America, and in one of his books has a moving paragraph that echoes the line from my history book, “. . . it was America with its almost hopeless hopes, its almost faithless faith- America with the huge blight on her of her own error, the broken promise of her lost dream and her unachieved desire; and it was America as well with her unspoken prophesies, her unfound language, her unuttered song. And just for all these reasons, it was for us all our own America- with all her terror, beauty, tenderness – with all we know of her that never has been found, that has never yet been uttered – the only one we know, the only one there is.”

[3] We are all, at the moment, concerned about our country, her problem, her potency, and her possibility. We ponder her history and ask after her future. We enquire, with a new depth and anxiety, if America will be able to release and discipline sufficient moral force to preserve her never yet unfolded promise and to realize her destiny. And in such questioning we ask again the old question about love of country. Patriotism we call it; but what is patriotism? Here all precise definitions fail and most talk is fatuous. There is, however, a climate of patriotism, a way of coming at its most primitive meaning which can bless us with passion to preserve and power to change our country. When one digs down through all the layers of the obvious, one discovers with surprise and refreshment that true patriotism is a grace! God the creator has not only placed man in the fair garden of earth, but has invested both man and his other creation, earth, with the gift to respond to each other in love! Man not only loves the earth; he has added grace whereby he is attached to and lovingly related to his own corner of God’s creation with a peculiar pathos and affection. Patriotism, so understood, is a disposition that grows out of a man’s organic relation to his own land as plain lovable geography! – as a complex of trees and rivers and streets, of stacks and railroad yards and municipal dumps and the monstrous repeated pattern of the city.

[4] Abstract esthetic factors have nothing to do with patriotism. A lad in Korea can look up at the silent sky and dream of dismal Camden with the same love as the lad in the next fox-hole dreams of Colorado. It’s the concretion of the love that counts! – the fact that this love in our dreaming takes on a local habitation and a name. Before the word America can set a man thinking or planning or resolving or defending, it ought to set him dreaming and remembering! And out of this dreamed procession of America as a concrete place will be poured the ingot of a tough and true patriotism. Have you who read these lines never gone inwardly a-wandering among the myriad impacts of this magnificent land? – the sprawling, opulent south, she of the stark red earth and the blithe and lazy skies; the tragic, lonely beauty of New England, her neat white houses and her stone fences, so proper to her prim certainty; the sweep of the middle west with her little towns set astride ten thousand main streets that become white concrete ribbons that stretch or cure across the countryside of incredible fertility and scope; the terrible distances of the western states where farmer’s families of a Saturday night “run into town” – eighty miles! – with insouciant ease; and the fabulous west coast, majestic at the top where Rainier sparkles, rich and worldly-wise at the center where the land enfolds in long arms the lovely bay, and the fantastic glitter and brashness at the bottom where sprawls and brawls the city of the angels!

[5] Our American lives are impoverished if they lack a sense of identity with the country around them and are ignorant of its written and anecdotal history. The rootlessness of American life has here a part of its cause, we sit lightly to places and people; we are in large part a migrant population. Frontier psychology has persisted beyond the disappearance of the frontier. We belong to a lot of things; not many of us retain a sense of belonging to a place or pattern of life. No wonder then that a corporation chartered in Delaware, doing business in Ohio, directed from New York, can airily transfer members of its staff from New Jersey to Illinois without batting an eye over the human dislocations involved.

[6] Loving, personal identification with one’s own land has never been a breeder of arrogant nationalism. That would seem to be the logical result, but it isn’t. For a man’s love for his own land is the practical and earthy ground for respect for other men’s love of their land. Just as he who has convictions alone knows the meaning of tolerance, so he alone can assess at right value the land-loves of other people who knows and deeply loves his own.

[7] There is a grace in that gift of God whereby a man loves his particular country. Because we are severed from dear remembered places, and because our feet seldom touch the earth save at its concrete or asphalt surfaces, something has happened to man’s spirit which constitutes an actual barrier to God’s common grace. A too-little known English poet has caught it; and with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur we can, perhaps, realize the intention of this little essay.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

[Joseph Sittler] Unsigned. The Chicago Lutheran Seminary Record 56, no. 2 (April 1951): 2-4. Reprinted by permission of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.