Blog 36: A Prayer for All Saints Day

At the end of last week most of us participated, in one way or another, in Halloween festivities. This week I want to reflect on the origins of Halloween, namely that it is the eve of an important feast of the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day. In fact, the term derived from the original “All Hallows Eve.” I am indebted to Wikipedia for several paragraphs in this blog.

From Wikipedia:

Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is a celebration observed in several countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian festival celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. In Western Christianity, it is celebrated on November the 1st by the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, and other Protestant churches, November 1st is also the day before All Souls Day.

In the Western Christian practice, the liturgical celebration begins at Vespers on the evening of 31 October, All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints’ Eve), and ends at the close of 1 November. It is thus the day before All Souls’ Day, which commemorates the faithful departed. In many traditions, All Saints’ Day is part of the season of Allhallowtide, which includes the three days from 31 October to 2 November inclusive and in some denominations, such as Anglicanism, extends to Remembrance Sunday. On All Saints Day, it is common for families to attend church, as well as visit cemeteries in order to lay flowers and candles on the graves of their deceased loved ones. In Austria and Germany, godparents gift their godchildren Allerheiligenstriezel (All Saint’s Braid) on All Saint’s Day, while the practice of souling remains popular in Portugal. It is a national holiday in many Christian countries. (Citations omitted.)

In Mexico this traditional rite of respect for departed family and friends is celebrated on November 2, El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a public holiday in Mexico where families gather to pray for and remember those who have died. Mexicans see the day as a day of celebration, not sadness. They consider their deceased relatives as awake and celebrating with them. A delightful portrayal of this Mexican tradition was provided in the recent award-winning movie “Coco,” a story of a twelve-year-old boy named Manuel who seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great grandfather to reverse his family’s ban on music.

Other cultures and other parts of the world have similar traditions to honor their forebears.

Again, from Wikipedia:

[In Greater China there is] the Qingming or Ching Ming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English (sometimes also called Chinese Memorial Day or Ancestors’ Day), … a traditional Chinese festival observed by the Han Chinese of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand. It falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4 or 5 April in a given year. During Qingming, Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites, pray to their ancestors, and make ritual offerings. Offerings would typically include traditional food dishes, and the burning of joss sticks and joss paper. The holiday recognizes the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture. The Qingming Festival has been observed by the Chinese for over 2500 years.

In accord with this rather universal instinct to reach out to our loved ones after their passing, and consistent with my own Christian and Catholic tradition, I would like to offer a prayer that I wrote several years ago but have never shared with anyone before. It is a take-off on Jesus’ favorite prayer, the Our Father. It is consistent with the spirit of the feast to pray to all saints, known and unknown.

The idea for this prayer came to me one night in a dream. It is called the “My Father” (it can be the “Our Mother” as well).  Here it is:

My Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be YOUR name

God’s Kingdom’s come

His will was done, on earth

And is now in heaven.

You gave us our bread on so many days.

You looked past our weaknesses

And taught us to forgive the failings of others

You guided our paths away from temptation

And oh! How you protected us from evil!

And now you are in God’s Kingdom, and His Power

And His Glory forever. Amen

Post 35: “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done”

The above quote is from Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun who is a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her book, Dead Man Walking, was about her work counseling inmates on death row and was made into the movie of the same name starring Susan Sarandon.

This week I want to give illustrations of a father and a community who have taken this sentiment to heart—with good results.

The Father

We begin with a story of Charles Van Doren. He was the son of Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic, and English professor at Columbia University. When Charles died this April, Robert D. McFadden wrote an obituary in The New York Times (April 11, 2019) that described his downfall, his father’s support, and his survival.

Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor and a member of a distinguished literary family who confessed to Congress and a disillusioned nation in 1959 that his performances on a television quiz show had been rigged, died on Tuesday in Canaan, Conn. He was 93.

In the heyday of quiz shows in the 1950s, when scholarly housewives and walking encyclopedia nerds battled on “The $64,000 Question” and “Tic-Tac-Dough,” Mr. Van Doren was a rare specimen: a handsome, personable young intellectual with solid academic credentials, a faculty post at a prestigious university and an impressive family pedigree.

But on Nov. 2, 1959, Charles told congressional investigators that the shows had all been hoaxes, that he had been given questions and answers in advance, and that he had been coached to make the performances more dramatic.

In (a) New Yorker article, Mr. Van Doren … disclosed that after his fall from grace his father had given him a present: a gyroscope with a quotation from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by the character called Feste, a clown wise enough to play the fool and tell the truth. “I knew he was saying that I, too, would survive and somehow find a way back,” he wrote. “I just hugged him and said, ‘Thank you, Papa.’ ”

Earlier in the obituary, McFadden reported how Van Doren’s life proceeded from that point:

…he became an editor and a pseudonymous writer, took a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica and moved to its Chicago headquarters in 1965. He eventually became a vice president in charge of the editorial department and edited, wrote and co-wrote dozens of books, some with Mortimer J. Adler, the philosopher-educator. He retired in 1982…[and] wrote a number of books…

Some 50 years later in the New Yorker (July 28, 1988), Van Doren recalled the impact of his father’s gift:

Gerry and I went to Rome in the early spring, a fiftieth-anniversary gift to one another, and one morning I took my little gyroscope out of my toilet kit, where it has travelled with me since 1959. I set it spinning on the edge of my orange-juice glass, and, as I looked at it, I said “Thank you”—to it and to my father and my mother and to all the other people who helped us to survive.

The Community

A second illustration of the benefits of conferring a second chance comes from the Bemba people of Zambia as described by Carol J. Dempsey in the March 22 – April 4 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

A group of people known as the people of Bemba believe that every human who comes into the world is good. Every person’s deepest desire is for safety, love, peace and happiness. When someone from this group of people acts unjustly or irresponsibly, then that person is required to stand in the center of the village, alone and unrestrained. The other members of the Bemba people are called together and they gather in a large circle around the one who has been accused of some wrongdoing.

Each person gathered around the accused then begins to speak, recalling all the good things that the accused person has done throughout the course of a lifetime. Many good deeds are mentioned in great detail. All of the accused’s positive attributes, strengths, kindnesses and efforts on behalf of the common good are recited carefully by different members of the group.

When everyone has spoken on behalf of the accused one, all the members of the Bemba people break the circle and a joyous celebration takes place. The one who had committed an injustice or who had behaved badly is now welcomed back into the group and given a fresh start. Past deeds are now forgotten as celebration and reconciliation intersect. The Bemba people are stronger and more unified because of this ritual, and their focus is on the positive aspects of the person instead of the negative. This pastoral response, instead of a punitive one, supports the community in the face of difficult situations.

Post 34: The Pope and the Rabbi on Religious Faith

While Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (who later became Pope Frances) served as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he wrote a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine Biophysicist and Rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. It was called Sobre El Cielo y La Tierra (On Heaven and Earth). Among other things, it discussed the nature of religious belief and fundamentalism. I was especially impressed with Skorka’s views on faith and Bergoglio’s statement that “every man is an image of God, be he a believer or not.”

I learned about the book in the April 5, 2013 edition of National Catholic Reporter, a month after Francis was elected Pope, in an article written by Eloisa Perez-Lozano. (The following quotes are not from the official translation.)

pic

Perez-Lozano wrote:

Francis’ now well-known humility comes across as he describes his response when meeting a nonbeliever.

“When I meet with people who are atheists, I share human issues with them, but I don’t bring up the problem of God right away, except in cases when they bring it up with me,” Bergoglio says.

If that happens, however, the future Pope says he tells them why he is a believer. Since humanity is something rich enough to be shared, he and the person can calmly and easily discuss experiences in life.

“Because I am a believer, I know these riches are a gift from God,” Bergoglio says. “I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not embark on the relationship to proselytize to an atheist, I respect him and I show him how I am.”

I would not tell him that his life is condemned because I am convinced that I have no right to pass judgment on the honesty of the person,” Bergoglio says. “Even less so if he shows me human virtues that make people better and are done in goodwill toward me.”

Bergoglio is firm in his insistence that consistency is necessary regarding the Bible’s message: “Every man is an image of God, be he a believer or not. With that reason alone, he has a number of virtues,  qualities, riches.  And in the case that he has morally low qualities, as I have as well, we can share them with each other to help us overcome them together.”

Skorka agrees, though he adds that he believes an atheist takes a position of arrogance as is also the case of a person who proclaims with certainty that God exists. The ideal position is one of doubt, Skorka says, like that of agnostics or believers who have moments of doubt.

“We religious people are believers, we don’t posit [God’s] existence as fact,” Skorka says. “We can perceive him in a very, very, quite profound experience, but we never see him.”

“To say that God exists, if it were but a certainty, is also arrogant, regardless of how much I believe that God exists,” he explains.

Skorka goes on to say that one can talk about God’s qualities and attributes, but one can never really give God form or shape in any way. Both men agree that instead of saying what God is, people usually end up describing the many things God is not.

Bergoglio mentions a book titled The Cloud of Unknowing, written by English mystics who attempt, “time and time again, to describe God and always end up signaling what he is not.”

He continues this line of thought by saying that while one may have a spiritual experience and feel certain that God is present, the experience itself is uncontrollable.

“This is why in the experience of God, there is always a question, a space to make the leap of faith,” he concludes.

….
Skorka speaks of certain Jewish circles where fundamentalism is rampant, meaning that when the teacher says to do something, the followers don’t have any other choice but to comply. “Things are a certain way and they are not discussed, they cannot be any other way,” Skorka says.

“These leaders hold back the religiousness that should emanate from the most intimate depths of a person; they dictate the lives of others.”

Bergoglio posits that this type of rigid religiosity “disguises itself with doctrines that pretend to give justifications, but really deprive people of freedom and will not allow them to grow.” 

“Fundamentalism is not what God wants,” Bergoglio says.

Post 33: Going Forward with a Backward Glance

As this blog is being posted, Faith, and I are in our second home in Scranton and I am preparing to play golf tomorrow with Cashel, Garrett, and my nephew Jim at the Country Club of Scranton’s nationally recognized golf course. Afterwards we will celebrate three family birthdays, spread out over a six-week period during this beautiful time of year in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We will do this in the home where my parents lived for almost 40 years. Going home to Scranton, being together with family and old friends and relishing happy memories of my childhood and high school days brings me great joy.

David Brooks helps to explain this in an article he wrote in 2014 entitled, “Going Forward with a Backward Glance—The Importance of Going Home.” (The New York Times, March 21, 2014)

… at this year’s TED conference, which was held here in Vancouver, British Columbia, the rock star Sting got onstage and gave a presentation that had a different feel. He talked about his rise to stardom and then about a period in middle age when he was unable to write any new songs. The muse abandoned him, he said — for days, then weeks, then months, then years.

But then he went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built.

Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head.

 

Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward.

The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion. Heck, it’s why Miranda Lambert performs “The House That Built Me” — to remind herself of the love of music that preceded the trappings of stardom.

Sting’s appearance at TED was a nice reminder of how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness. Some of the TED speakers seemed hopeful and creative, but painfully and maybe necessarily naïve.

Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.

A recent article in the Times helps to explain why golf adds to the pleasure of a family weekend at home. Jack Whitaker, an Emmy award winning Sportscaster and fellow Pennsylvanian, died at age 95 this past August. Whitaker covered every type of sport from thoroughbred racing to NFL football; but, as Richard Goldstein wrote in the Times obituary (August 19, 2019) he “reserved his greatest passion for golf.” Goldstein quoted Whitaker’s 1998 memoir:

“My happy golf travels have taught me that the difference between a Pebble Beach and a Main Line Golf Club is truly incidental. One has an ocean and breathtaking views, the other was split by U.S. Highway 30 and had hard bumpy greens. But the thrill of the well-hit shot, or the frustration of the poorly hit one, was exactly the same. Golf accommodates itself anywhere. It travels better than Beaujolais. Golf is the most moveable feast of all.”

 

Post 32: A Screenwriter’s Efforts to Portray Spiritual Values on Television.

Last week we published Maggie Smith’s touching and ultimately hopeful poem “Good Bones.” I found the poem in an article that Heidi Schlumpf wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in July of last year (July 2, 2018). The article focused on TV screenwriter Joy  Gregory and her efforts to deal with the big questions on television.

Heidi Schlumpf is a national correspondent for NCR. A fellow Notre Dame graduate, she has been covering issues relating to religion, spirituality, social justice, and women’s issues for thirty years. Whenever an article by her appears in NCR, I know I am in for a rich intellectual experience.

Here is Heidi’s account of Joy Gregory’s efforts to bring spiritual matters to your television screen.

It has been an excruciatingly painful day for “Madam Secretary” and her staff. A plot to negotiate the release of a kidnapped American aid worker fails, and the young woman — together with others who have been trafficked — is found dead from asphyxiation in the back of a truck in Kyrgyzstan. In the final scene of the episode of the CBS drama, as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni) tries to console distraught staff members in the wake of this unspeakable evil, the senior policy adviser shares part of a poem [“Good Bones”] by Maggie Smith.

 It’s a moment of grace, created by Catholic screenwriter and co-executive producer Joy Gregory, who believes the divine speaks through poetry and who has made it her mission to bring stories about “tangling with the big questions” to television.

 “I like to ‘sneak the vegetables in’ without people knowing about it,” Gregory told NCR, referring to how she works in storylines of redemption, spiritual struggle and even overt references to faith as a television writer and producer. That has been easier in her last two jobs on “Madam Secretary” and the teen fantasy drama “Joan of Arcadia” — both created by executive producer Barbara Hall, known for addressing faith on TV. Before that, Gregory often faced resistance in writers’ rooms full of “secular progressives,” most of whom are not religious. “It’s a shocking blind spot in people who preach and practice tolerance in many areas of their lives,” she told a group of religion journalists in January.

 But television writers can’t hit audiences over the head with proselytizing either, Gregory said. “Religion too often doesn’t work well on TV because it’s either preaching to a choir, or it’s trying to reach people who have already decided, ‘That’s not me,’ ” she said. “People don’t want to go deep. It’s not cool; they might ‘catch it.’ ” Instead of the overt approach, Hall and Gregory try to “throw a bigger party” to attract audiences with compelling spiritual, or even religious, stories. They were successful on “Joan of Arcadia,” in which a teenage girl had unexpected conversations with God, who was disguised as everyday people. That show, which originally aired on CBS from 2003 to 2005, was Gregory’s favorite, since it was “entirely about arguing with God,” she said. Gregory has also argued with God for much of her life and admits her questioning nature has led her to identify with Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis.

 

 Gregory knew that writing for television would give her a wide influence in bringing Christian and spiritual themes to her storytelling. That, however, was a bit of an uphill battle until she began working with [Barbara] Hall, the Catholic convert who created “Joan of Arcadia” and, later, the character of Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly), Madam Secretary’s husband, a Catholic theology professor and spy on the side.

 Hall said Gregory’s interest and curiosity about religion and spirituality is an asset to “Madam Secretary.”

 “She makes herself a student of any religious or spiritual story we tell and like any good student, makes it a point to understand all perspectives,” Hall said to NCR in an email interview. “She’s also a great humanitarian and her commitment to social justice is something she practices assiduously.”

 Season 2’s episode “Waiting for Taleju,” written by Gregory, was nominated for a Humanitas Prize, which honors film and television writers whose work promotes human dignity, meaning and freedom.

 Although the writers use consultants to get the political and religious details right, Gregory has made contributions to many of Henry’s spiritual storylines. The first episode she worked on, “The Time is at Hand” in Season 1, includes a “deep dive into Henry’s Catholicism as both a scholar and a sometimes-struggling believer,” Gregory said. In the episode, Henry is trying to defuse a possible mass suicide with a leader of a Christian cult, so Gregory wrote a scene in which he tells a formative story from his youth. After his best friend fell in a frozen pond and died, Henry found he couldn’t ring the bells during the consecration while serving as an altar boy that following Sunday. The priest tells him after Mass that it’s OK:

 “God goes quiet on us all.”

That honest admission of struggle with faith hooks Henry both intellectually and spiritually — as similar approaches to the spiritual life have for Gregory. “It’s those contradictions, the ‘wrestling with angels,’ that I’m drawn to in my own journey with faith,” she said.

 

Post 31: Does the World Have “Good Bones”?

On December 22, 2016, Nora Krug, an editor and writer for the Washington Post’s Book World, published an appreciation of Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” in which Smith expresses the hope that the world is not “beyond repair”. “Good Bones” quickly became an internet sensation and was named “the official poem of 2016” by BBC/Public Radio International.  Today I want to share selections from the Krug article with you.  But first: the poem.

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real s***hole chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

Krug wrote:

Last summer, Maggie Smith — no, not that one — sat in a Starbucks in Bexley, Ohio, and wrote a poem. “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” it began. Smith had no idea that she was setting down the first lines of a work that would seize the mood — and social-media accounts — of so many people in the tumultuous year that was 2016.  

Articles about the poem in the Guardian , Slate and elsewhere helped propel its spread. So, too, did shocking news: “Good Bones” spiked when British politician Jo Cox was murdered and again in the days following the presidential election. Nov. 10 and 11 were heavy with poetry on the Internet. Among the works most shared, according to the Academy of American Poets, were Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” — and “Good Bones.”

It’s impossible to know how many people have read the poem, though one estimate in August put the number at nearly a million. The poem has been interpreted into a dance by a troupe in India, turned into a musical score for the voice and harp and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Closer to home, Smith says that she has gotten many requests for the work to appear in church bulletins and for her to read it aloud. “It’s my ‘Freebird,’ ” she jokes.

“Good Bones” has become something of a societal anxiety barometer. “I can tell something bad is happening in the world when my poem is surging,” says Smith, a 39-year-old mother of two who earned an MFA at Ohio State and lives not far from where she grew up outside Columbus.  

The poem is a heartfelt work that grapples with pain and injustice, with unfairness and disillusionment. “The world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/estimate,” it says. “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird./ For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world/ is at least half terrible, and for every kind/ stranger, there is one who would break you.”

Its subject is whether, when and how to talk to children about these hard realities. “I was troubled by the question of how we teach our kids about the world without lying to them —telling them that it’s all good — and telling them the truth without scaring them.”  

In the poem, the speaker takes on the role of a real estate agent: “I am trying/ to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real s***hole, chirps on/ about good bones:

This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

The work, Smith says, sprung from a mother’s worry about what’s hard and unfair in the world, “and yet wanting it to be a good place for my kids to live in.”  

Still, Smith has been wary of discussing the poem with her own children, who are 4 and 8. For her, the trouble is not so much the expletive but the idea “that half the world is terrible.” That’s a pretty bleak outlook for children under 10 to contend with, she admits. At the same time, she says, “I don’t want my kids to turn 15 and all of the sudden that idea drops in their laps. We have a responsibility to tell them the truth.”

Driven by this sense of purpose, Smith wrote the poem, finishing it nearly in one sitting, on a yellow legal pad in that coffee shop all those months ago. “I’m happy for the poem but not the circumstances of its popularity,” she says. “I wish I had written a poem that people share when babies are born or people get married.”

That said, she rejects the notion that the message of “Good Bones” is pessimistic. “I don’t think I could write a poem that the world is beyond repair,” she says. Even if the world may seem at times like a dilapidated house that only a fool would buy, it still “has good bones,” Smith says.

“My hope is that the poem is a call to improve it anyway.”

 

Post 31: The Need for Rhetoric That is “Logic on Fire!”

Following the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last year, Michael Gerson published a thoughtful column stating that the dinner was an occasion where “the rhetoric of our historical era reached a culminating, symbolic moment.” He was referring to inappropriate jokes made by Michelle Wolf, a liberal comedian, as well as comments made by President Trump. I try to stay away from politics in this blog, so I will not share Gerson’s criticism of any individual’s remarks but, more importantly, his plea for a return to eloquence in our public life–eloquence which qualifies as “logic on fire.” I will let each of you apply his views to anyone on whom the shoe of vile rhetoric seems to fit.

The Gerson column appeared in The Washington Post on April 30, 2018. Selections are below.

In both Washingtons, political discourse was dominated by the values and practices of reality television and social media: nasty, shallow, personal, vile, vindictive, graceless, classless, bullying, ugly, crass and simplistic. This is not merely change; it is digression. It is the triumph of the boors. It is a discourse unworthy of a great country, and a sign that greatness of purpose and character is slipping way.

Here is an experiment. Take a book of John F. Kennedy’s speeches and put your finger randomly on a page. Mine went to a last-minute appeal Kennedy made to Democratic convention delegates before the 1960 convention. He ends by quoting the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Humanity with all its fears / with all its hopes of future years / is hanging breathless on thy fate! ”

This was not a moment when high oratory was expected. It was an appeal at a political dinner during a delegate street fight against Lyndon B. Johnson. And Kennedy’s natural style of speaking was usually different: direct, cutting and funny. But for Kennedy — and for at least some Americans in the 1960s — rhetorical ambition was seen as appropriate to the generational ambitions of the New Frontier.

American political rhetoric has changed dramatically over time. After being florid and verbose, Lincoln made it spare and poetic. With radio and television, presidential language became more conversational, personal and image-oriented. Kennedy was, in some ways, a glorious exception. Of his inaugural address, John Steinbeck said: “Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the Republic.”

The golden age of American rhetoric in the 1960s, of course, stood beside the hate-filled, populist appeal of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the profanity and vulgarity of comedian Lenny Bruce. But the updated versions of both have come to dominate American politics in an entirely new way. It is as if, in the struggle for America’s rhetorical soul, Wallace has finally won. “Hell,” exclaimed Wallace, “we got too much dignity in government now.” Not anymore.

What is the problem with this? What is wrong with the discourse of the Internet comments section? The rhetoric of common people?

But the problem is deeper, for one main reason: because good rhetoric is the carrier of serious thought. “Eloquence,” said theologian Lyman Beecher, “is logic on fire.” A great and memorable phrase encapsulates an argument. “The world must be made safe for democracy” expressed Woodrow Wilson’s vision of America’s role in the world. Kennedy’s “Let them come to Berlin” summarized America’s commitment to containing the Soviet Union. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech grew out of a compelling conception of fairness and justice.

Gerson concluded his column with this observation: “the repair of our public life will eventually require a restoration of rhetoric.”  Just as I try to avoid politics in this blog, so it is with proselytizing.  However, I have to suggest that St. Paul shared something of value to all rhetoricians when he wrote the following to the church in Ephesus:

All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting , and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you .. (Ephesians 4:30-5:2)