Sunday, September 20, 2009

Woodward: The Alamo, Part II

My nine-year-old sons were captivated by the story of the Alamo, especially after watching -- from the edges of their seats -- the very loud and gunpowder-laden movie. They came away from the gift shop with a set of toy soldiers -- half Mexican regulars, half Texan volunteers (which inaccurately represents the relative strength of the contending forces). As I should have been able to foresee, this purchase required the construction of a scale-model Alamo once we got home, so that the belligerants could fight it out in front of an authentic-looking backdrop.

Thanks to Google images, Photoshop, cardboard, and Elmer's glue, the forces of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and Col. William Barret Travis can now battle it out over and over again until we get it right.

According to the Woodward family's resident nine-year-old military historians, Davy Crockett met his death more or less like this:

Charles Kuralt: The Interstate

Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything. -- Charles Kuralt

Woodward: The Alamo, Part I

My wife (a native Texan) and I (not) have been waiting until the youngest of our children, twin boys now 9, were old enough to appreciate it before embarking on the preeminently obligatory Texas family trip -- a visit (make that a pilgrimage) to the Alamo. Last weekend, a brief vacation with some old friends in the hill country of central Texas made such a trip easily do-able, and so down to San Antonio we went.

Perhaps this registers on me more than it does on my wife, for whom it is simply an accepted fact of life, but I have never lived in another state that inspires as much patriotic fervor in the hearts of its citizens as Texas does. I realize that such fervor fits perfectly with the rest of the country's stereotyped view of the loud and boastful Texan, but it is a reality nonetheless, and it works in a more wholesome and admirable way than most people who never come here would ever be able to see. Texans are proud of everything about Texas, but there is nothing they're prouder of than the Alamo and the chapter in Texan and American history of which it is the emblem. People refer down here to the Battle of the Alamo as "America's Thermopylae" and, in doing so, they mean to pay Thermopylae a compliment.

After watching the slightly romanticized but roughly accurate IMAX movie, the Woodwards moved on to the shrine itself -- and yes, that's right, the Alamo is officially a shrine -- where the younger members of the family dutifully listened to Dad's exhaustive running commentary on the historical and cultural significance of what they were looking at. Rent those touristy headphones with the pre-recorded guided tour? Please. Not when Dad is around....

If one knows in any detail what happened at the Alamo, it is impossible to stand within its walls and not feel something. The first time I was ever in San Antonio, it was to attend a professional conference. I befriended an attendee from Connecticut, who was absolutely as far west and as far south as he had ever been in his life. One free afternoon, we ran into each other by chance at the Alamo. With a funny look on his face and a note of urgency in his voice, he grabbed me by the sleeve and said, "Come here and look at this." He literally pulled me across the room to a plaque on the wall on which were inscribed the words of William Barret Travis's "Letter from the Alamo" -- the one that ends with these words:

"The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken -- I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls -- I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch -- The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country -- Victory or Death."

"Isn't that something?" my friend asked. Yes, I said; it was, indeed, something.

Heroism is more common in this world than is often thought. There are lives of quiet heroism being lived all around us every day -- the heroism of accepting the terms that life offers us and performing our obligations -- often onerous ones -- willingly, happily, and without complaint. But there are, just occasionally, acts of exceptional heroism, the heroism of doing more than simply accepting the terms life offers us -- the heroism of taking upon ourselves the terms life has imposed on someone else, and of making those terms voluntarily our own. That's what the heroes of the Alamo did. They did what others would not do and what they themselves need not have done. They died -- "a death they freely accepted," to paraphrase one eloquent description of heroism in its most absolute example -- for an abstraction. In a materialist age that mistrusts and usually ridicules abstractions (truth, liberty, virtue), their example is all the more to be revered.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Woodward: St. Joseph of Cupertino (September 18)

I've already gone on record with the opinion that St. Augustine is probably the Church's greatest saint. But my favorite saint is Joseph of Cupertino, in part because he reminds us that God delights in making saints out of what the world would regard as very unpromising raw material. (Being very unpromising raw material myself, I always contemplate St. Joseph with a feeling of hope.)

His life story can be found here. The flying business, while undeniably interesting in its own right, is far from being the most interesting thing about him. In an age when Catholic spirituality was beginning to run the risk of becoming over-intellectualized, Joseph showed the world that a pure heart is more important to God -- and ultimately more eloquent -- than a subtle mind. This is what my old St. John's Missal has to say about him:

Despised and afflicted with infirmities, he appeared as an object of scorn even to his own. By a singular disposition of Divine Providence, he passed successively through the three great branches of the Order of St. Francis. Finally he remained with the Minors Conventual, where his virtues became so striking that, in spite of himself, he was raised to the priesthood. The almost illiterate Joseph became the preaching companion of his Provincial, and it was his words that the people wanted to hear. He became the counsellor of all the great men of Italy of the 17th century, and he died in a radiance of honor and glory in 1664.

He is the subject of one of the finest films ever to be made about the life of a saint. If you've never seen it, you should give it a look.

O God, at your command your only-begotten Son was lifted up above the earth that he might draw all things to himself. May the merits and example of your seraphic confessor Joseph help to raise us above all earthly desires so that we may come to Jesus.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vehige: Not from Books

From the Catholic News Agency:

Symeon teaches us that Christian life is an intimate and personal communion with God, the Pope explained. "If, in fact, we are rightly concerned with tending to our physical, human and intellectual development, it is even more important not to overlook our inner development which consists in knowledge of God and communion with Him, so as to experience His help at all times and in all circumstances," he added.

In the nine volumes of his works, Symeon “insisted that true knowledge of God comes not from books but from the spiritual life, born of a journey of inner purification that begins with conversion,” the Pope summarized. The New Theologian "calls us all to the spiritual life, the hidden presence of God in us, to the purification of conscience, so the Holy Spirit becomes present in us and guides us."

Adding his own reflection to Symeon's teaching, Pope Benedict said, “the love of God grows within us if we remain united to Him through prayer and listening to His Word. Only divine love makes us open our hearts to others and renders us sensitive to their needs, bringing us to consider everyone as our brothers and sisters and inviting us to respond to hatred with love and to offense with forgiveness.”
As someone with two degrees in theology, I can personally attest to the truth of what the Pope is saying. Simply put, without a commitment to prayer, we cannot have a true and intimate knowledge of God.