Bringing light to big city culture has been a constant theme in the life of the Church, whether we’re talking about Jerusalem, Rome, or our own Washington, DC. And while the times and places change there are certain constants of how to approach ever-new evangelization.
Reading about Bl. John Henry Newman this morning, I found an amazing observation of his. He was applying the teachings of St. Philip Neri (16th century Rome) to his own circumstances (19th century Birmingham/London)… teachings that hold no less true in 21st century DC… check this out:
[St. Philip] preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt… He perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher but by mean of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth…
Stay positive… meditate on the beauty around you… share that with others and baptize culture for Christ! Peace.
It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.” Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building. It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor. It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome. But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career. Both of these desires typify life in our city. The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise. To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people. Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith. For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.” Not so bad, really. In fact it has a ring of justice to it. If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized. That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics. And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that. Why? Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love). As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition. It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.
It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us. St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear. It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it? In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen. One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.
DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs. Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas. Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.
Entering the Thanksgiving – Christmas season (known to Catholics as “Advent” because we await the “advent” or “coming” of Christ) I’ve had a number of inspiring experienes: (A) sitting on the Mall admiring the Capitol… yes, even with all the scaffolding on it (B) attending the wake of a Bishop who just died (C) meeting a student from Georgetown who’s majoring in “Social Justice.” Very diverse encounters to be sure, but they got me thinking about a major theme for this season and this town: desire. Over the next few days I’ll be posting on some different dimensions of desire in our life as Washingtonians:
The Desire for “Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men”
“The Deepest Roots and Highest Aspirations of our Yearnings: ‘The Love that Moves the Stars’ ”
I hope you’ll find these musings both edifying and useful. Happy Thanksgiving!
Despite their gleaming finishes, you might easily miss these men. These are the Marconi monument (West side of 16th Street, NW in Mount Pleasant), and the African American Civil War Memorial (U St, NW). Multitudes of monuments mark our metropolis. Passing them routinely, we can become immune to their message, but they’re all worth thinking about.
Lately in ministry we hear a lot about being “intentional disciples” to improve the quality of our lives of faith. Our monuments (even little ones like Mr. Marconi ) can serve the same purpose. A call to intentional citizenship. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. Without the soldiers of the Union, we wouldn’t have a country. Without Marconi we might not have radio technology and I might not be able to blog!
Taking a minute to think about who’s memory I’m passing on the bus can be an inspiration to give my all and leave a better city for future generations of Washingtonians. How can I leave a good mark today?