“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, hum-drum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalist, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendor is spilt on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all –
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate –
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
Christmas is past, but it need not be forgotten. How do we move forward from Christmas and carry it within us as we go? Chesterton hints at the answer here, I think: that it is to continually throw ourselves downward, as did God Himself in the Incarnation, in love, service, sacrifice, and humility. It is those who are afraid of falling who fall in the worst way possible; those who cast themselves into the downward rush of grace will find they have nothing to fear in even the farthest fall and the greatest humiliation. One of C.S.Lewis’s most powerful images comes to my mind, here, from The Great Divorce: that of the great waterfall in Heaven, thunderous and beautiful, which is more than just a waterfall, standing as one crucified, pouring himself over the edge in glorious self-giving.
That is God. That is Christmas. And that is how we ought to live in God long after the songs and nativities are packed away and out of sight: because His plunge to servitude and sacrifice doesn’t end with the season.
As the weeks go by, my hope for our nation in the upcoming presidential election is steadily eroding. We’ve narrowed the race down to two people who are known to lie and manipulate events for their own gain; one of them is, in my opinion, of significantly worse character and far more dangerous as a leader, but I honestly would rather have neither of them. I suppose the difference for me is that while I can find some things to respect about Clinton, despite my utter disagreement with her on abortion, I haven’t been able to find anything to respect about Trump. Being rich and marrying attractive women, his sole accomplishments in life, are not particularly worthy of respect in my opinion…
And the thought of Trump winning the presidency and representing my country on the global stage makes me blush with shame – to the point where I am tempted to abandon my country, flee somewhere else, attempt to build a new identity and integrate into a different nation, one that actually valued honesty, self-control, responsibility, and community. But these words keep coming back to me, the words of G.K. Chesterton that I’m sure I’ve quoted before:
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
What our country needs is not for us to wring our hands in fear, or throw them up in dismay, or give up in despair; what she needs is for us to love her and to labor for her restoration and beauty. It is a harder and a more painful task, especially when faced with the anger and resentment of so many who don’t love their country or their communities, but a necessary one if true and worthwhile change is to take place. And this is where the virtue of patriotism lies, not in praising our country or her leadership no matter what poor choices are made, but in loving her enough to care about even the poorest and least likable of her people, to make right the things that are broken and rotting in her systems and communities, to see both her beauties and her flaws and admire the one while acknowledging and working to change the other.
Well, the results for my state’s primary election are in, and I’m really not surprised by them. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised.
We’re known as a state that undervalues education, that struggles with racism, and that wrestles with substantial income inequality and poverty. Our national “face,” for a lot of people looking at us from afar, is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man who has faced accusations and lawsuits concerning abuses of power, racial profiling, election misconduct, and failure to investigate sexual crimes. So it’s not really a surprise that people who dismiss illegal immigrants as lawbreakers rather than understanding the dynamics of family ties and desperate need, who are okay with law officials playing racial favorites and coming down more harshly on Hispanics and Muslims, who harbor some nostalgia for the Wild West when might made right and the strong man was the honorable man, would overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump.
For me, who have always looked at my state in the best possible light, it’s a disappointment that’s hard to get over. Maybe my fellow citizens here aren’t as good as I thought they were, from the subset that I happen to know well. Maybe this isn’t such a good place to live and raise my family as I’ve always thought, if people are so incredibly welcoming of the dishonest and self-serving “leaders” who offer them satisfaction and validation.
But do I love my state because of its (actual or perceived) good characteristics, or do I love it because it is my home and I want it to become the best that it possibly can be? Chesterton wrote on this exact topic over a century ago, and here I’m going to replace his example city with Arizona:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Arizona. If we think what is really best for Arizona we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Arizona: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to [California]. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Arizona, for then it will remain Arizona, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Arizona: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. […] If men loved Arizona as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Arizona in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. […] Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I don’t know many people who love Arizona in this way (although I do know a few, and I’m incredibly thankful for them). So many people I speak to are using the state for what they can get out of it, and counting down the time until they can move away. College students come for the universities and then head out again, glad to be gone. Snowbirds come down for the golf courses and mild winters, but keep themselves apart from the permanent population and head back to the places they truly consider their homes each spring. People gripe about the job prospects, the pollution, the bad drivers, the housing market, the immigrants, the homeless, the transit system, the public schools, and (above all) the weather.
And I get that we have problems, a lot of problems, and some very serious problems. But this is my home. This is the place I love, the soil into which my roots have sunk deep, even if it is pretty lousy soil (clay or sand, take your pick!). I get angry sometimes, at work or on social media, about the constant cloud of Arizona complaints, even when they’re completely justified, in a similar way to how I get upset when someone casts aspersions on my children (I was angry at my brother-in-law for over a year because he made a negative comment about Rondel once… I’m not quite that bad about my state).
Am I going to let this love just be an emotion, or am I going to put it into action, working to transform my home into a thing of beauty and grace? I tend towards contemplation instead of action, but true love will, I think, result in both. I think of a pastor at my church who, after years of traveling and living across the world, has settled down here and devotes himself to building community, establishing relationships across lines of race and religion, and creating a literal oasis in the desert. He sees Arizona with objective eyes, but because he also sees it as his home, he has made it part of his vocation to labor for its betterment, instead of leaving or complaining. If there were more like him, maybe someday Arizona really could become “fairer than Florence” – and maybe then, we would elect politicians who displayed things like beauty, love, justice, and truth.