poetry

I Vow to Thee, My Country

I have recently grown fond of a rather beautiful poem. It’s called “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” Written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, it outlines the devotion one has to his country, and the longing love to his eternal homeland.

It’s uncertain when exactly Rice wrote the poem, but many agree it was around 1912 when he was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. His main task: to convince the Woodrow Wilson Administration to abandon neutrality and join the fight against the Germans in World War I. His mission was successful, and in 1918, was recalled back to his island home. It was then that he reworked the poem to reflect a mood of somber loyalties one has to his country.

The poem was at one time memorized by all English boys and girls. So powerful was the appeal that Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets symphony, modified a key movement from “Jupiter” to fit it to the poem. It is a common anthem sung at numerous official events, and while it has a distinctly English feeling, for sure, the essence is universal.

Once titled “Urbs Dei” and “The Two Fatherlands,” the core theme is duty and love to home. It is appropriate, considering for most people, their place of birth (or adopted new country) is like their own familiar Jerusalem, a City of God. Pius XII once said

It is quite legitimate for nations to treat [their] differences as a sacred inheritance and guard them at all costs. The Church aims at unity, a unity determined and kept alive by that supernatural love which should be actuating everybody; she does not aim at a uniformity which would only be external in its effects and would cramp the natural tendencies of the nations concerned.

This is the essence at which the poem aims, to embrace the natural love one feels for their country, while keeping the heart and soul direct to the Eternal City in Heaven. While nations may go to war to protect themselves, the “country I heard of long ago” is gentle, and all her paths are peace.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago
most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The Dangers of Leisure

Before the start of the academic year I take students at our university to Colorado. I never quite know what to call our experience. It is part “retreat”: a chaplain accompanies us, there is daily Mass, rosary, divine office, discussions of faith. It’s also part “recreation”: we climb 14ers, swim in lakes high in the mountains, sight see, stargaze. It’s also part “academic symposium”: we read and discuss Plato, Benedict XVI, Alan Bloom, Bl. Cardinal Newman.

If you have read my previous posts at CBC, you can guess right that my preferred term for all of this would be “leisure”. Cultivation of the human person as a whole: mind, body, and spirit. What I was reminded of, on this particular trip, was just how dangerous leisure can be.

College students, as you know, are not early-to-be, early-to-rise. And on the last day of the trip we were one of the last groups to start our morning ascent of Quandary Peak. Besides a case of altitude sickness, we were doing well. Below the tree-line there were plenty of “ooh” and “aah” moments with loveable forest animals and August flowers. As we broke through the tree line and made our way along a ridge before the final ascent, we had our mid-morning snack interrupted by a mountain goat and her kid.

A student asked and we started to recited Fr. Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God...

Swiftly after this clouds began to roll in and the race began to summit before the usual afternoon storms.

It will flame out like shining from shook foil...

What a poor choice of poem for those soon about to brave 14,000 feet with storms rising!

One group raced to the top. I myself, by pretext of waiting for one of the men who had fallen behind, gave my not-as-limber-as-21 legs and lungs a chance to recover before the final ascent about 100 feet from the rocky summit. As the first group began to make its way down, it began, in the choice phrase of one sophomore, “hailing Dippin’ Dots”. Any hope of cover lay about 2,000 feet below. As Miss Dickinson put it, “the dews drew quivering and chill”. Suddenly at 14,300 feet August traded places with December. The view was surreal, or rather supra-real. Hazy through the cloud I could see miles below in the valley patches of sunlight and reservoirs. At my feet the hail built up into tiny drifts between the rocks. It was like standing between the pages of a children’s book, to my left a picture of winter, to my right summer.

After the initial, “Is this happening moment?”, I crossed myself, said my act of contrition and began to book it down the mountain. As chance would have it, a senior majoring in meteorology was my companion down the mountain. To be stuck INSIDE the cloud of a hailstorm with a meteorologist is an experience I shall never forget. Magic Schoolbus, eat your heart out.

I was told later that a student in one of the groups below, not grasping the seriousness of our situation began reciting John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X:

Death, be not proud...

That evening as we gathered for Mass our chaplain summarized the experience well. The Christian is to live every day as though it were his last. Leisure, holy leisure, as we experience it in this life is a preparation for death. Our philosophic speculations, if they are not mere navel-gazing; and our sport, if played in earnest; and our faith, if it seeks something beyond earthly peace [Matthew 10:34], will always be conducted for mortal stakes.

In the eyes of this world, God’s peace is a very dangerous thing.

 

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.

Dance!

Boat, I will stay in the boat

Though the water glistens.

There is no shade,

And the sun is hot.

 

Land, one day I will see land.

The one I love is waiting

On the shore.

Quietly, over the water, he calls.

 

I think of him there,

Standing on the shore.

But the sun is so hot

And the water is sparkling.

 

River, it is a river.

The current runs far and wide,

Now fast, now slow. The water

Sparkles, and the sun is so hot!

 

But I will stay in the boat.

There are rapids ahead.

Magnificent they rise,

Deadly and mesmerizing.

 

The sun is so hot.

The one I love, still so far away.

I yearn. I feel so dry

And the water glitters.

 

Bored! I am getting bored.

In the sun my boredom

Is dry! My tears are wet

And so I let myself cry.

 

Parties! Oh we have parties.

They seem to me all the same.

And talk! I am tired of talk!

It is dry, and the sun is hot.

 

The water is full of promise,

Shimmering in the sun.

Lapping against the boat,

I almost long to jump.

 

Alive! I want to be alive

While I am living—for myself

And for the one I love.

Dance! He whispers across the water

 

Fear! I am afraid.

The people here do not dance

The whisper is getting louder

But I have not seen anyone dance.

 

but Stay! I want to stay.

Even though it is hot, the boat

Is going straight to the man I love.

I am weary, but I will stay.

 

Dance! The voice of my beloved

Pulses in my veins. It has long been gaining

Strength. The sun is so hot.

Afraid—I am afraid!

 

Through the rhythm in my veins

I hear the deck groan.

The boat seems to ache from stillness,

It appears a stage made for me.

 

Fire! I am on fire!

And my hips are beginning to sway.

For mercy I am on fire, I overflow!

And how I yearn for the man I love!

 

Tingles! My skin tingles

With every thought of the man I love.

My fears are dissipating, I do not

Care what anyone thinks.

 

Dance! I will dance

And the fire will blaze bright and free,

Refusing to be quenched by water,

Satisfied only on the shore.

 

Yearning! I am yearning

And the fire moves deep inside.

Hot, the burning fire in the sun 

But I do not care, I am alive.

 

 

Eyes. Quiet eyes. Unfamiliar eyes.

Peer across the deck, a shivering

Woman climbs aboard and

Asks to dance with me.

 

Cold? The water was cold?

And it did not sparkle underneath?

Please, come near the fire.

Catch all the heat you need.