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The Angels of Missouri, Part I

My intention before departing was to devote this blog to historical reflections with the intention of seeking the American (United States) Catholic spirit. Initially I set out with the goal to proclaim, remain pious in a spirit of pilgrimage. I have not posted much because the topic is complex and it is necessary to compose in prayer. But it is important as it is fundamental for vocations to understand the historical context. A positive reflection and inculcation of our history being a good catalyst to convince American Catholics to contribute to that history. I set out to with an intense desire to understand the spiritual virtue of U.S. Catholicism as a kind of bastion for the Holy Spirit to renew Catholicism as a whole. For history to inspire vocations it must be provocative. This provocative spirit is not meant to challenge but rather inspire vocations. There is a fundamental truth that provokes a response: pro-vocations.

1873: Conception Abbey in northern Missouri. Founded by Swiss Benedictines from Engelberg.

It is astonishing how quickly one transitions from the south to the north, or rather from south to west, traveling across America even at bike speeds. But it is a good speed that obliges the armchair historian to lift out of the sedentary realm of opinion and trip over a few misplaced relics of our history and river flotsam that has value even as a kind of raw root. Missouri is another keystone state even if Pennsylvania has taken that slogan. Missouri’s keystone metaphor is closely linked to its physical bounds as it is effectively defined by the rivers that have been instrumental in developing the American nation and serve to hold it together and contain the flow of its history. But in many ways, it is a keystone to understanding U.S. Catholic history.

1853: Old St. Vincent’s de Paul Church in Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi

But first, how ought a Catholic understand history? Perhaps this needs to be explored before launching into a layperson’s specific analysis. It is challenging to convey with conviction and earnestness to a cynical world that each history has an angel. Yes, something like a spiritual reality that is an intelligible distilled corollary of itself but as adhering to divine purpose and not human endeavor. I’ll even be bold and assert that there is the highest probability that each specific history as it constituted in a national identity has a multitude of angels that mutually enlighten its identity. I am not speaking of a national psyche, though that is important but not for understanding revelation. A national psyche is good for revolutions. The Catholic in America ought to seek its national angel as might be described by St. Thomas Aquinas.

…so likewise in the angelic missions, there is an external mission, in respect of some administration of corporeal things [nation] —and on such a mission not all the angels are sent—and an interior mission, in respect of some intellectual effect [history], just as one angel enlightens another—and in this way all the angels are sent.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I, Question 112.

Reliquary of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration with over 500 first and second class relics.

It is important to draw the distinction between the psyche and angelic. At least for the purposes of this article. Psyche evokes an emotion that is awakened each time one hears the national anthem. This is a sentimental agency that is strictly bound to us and might bind others that are like us and can be manipulated. A national history forms a national spirit and as spirit it ought to transcend the emotional stickiness of the national psyche. It is resident in the skull and not the heart and as skull it marks the bound between the waters above the heaven and below the heaven; the arch or canopy where God and things of heaven dance upon above and the stuff of synapse and neural impulse that are the human spark below that canopy. The most marvelous symbol of this canopy is the clerical zucchetto. It is the thinking cap where angels dance.

1873: German Church of St. Martin in Starkenberg, MO

Each history casts a preternatural shadow that adheres to our material existence as a kind of corporeal corollary. History is a kind of constant crucifixion of the past and future into the present. Each history suffers. And each Catholic history ought to suffer with Christ to discover its identity. The angelic adhesion to history forms an intellectual safety net against the danger of a kind of historical dualism or rather against dividing the national identity between a far too diaphanous concept with a vague ethereal spirit that hovers somewhere like a vapor and an emotional explosion of jingoistic rhetoric that is ready for revolution and violence. The nation is rooted in the stuff of furrowed fields and harvests or droughts and floods, of battles and blood and bastards. It is tribal and troublesome; it is disease ridden with despair and yet astringent in sparkling hope. It is both simultaneously rich and poor and extends from majesty to misery. History is fixed in the seasons and shivers in the winter and sweats in the summer. But history also weaves these forces as a warp and weft and forms a composite fabric from which it seems a cloak is being formed.  Our American angel as expressed in our Catholic history is always present and mutely indicating the way to a proper specific national identity as an angelic “patch” in a complex quilt of human redemption.  

1818: Original log Church of the Vincentians in Perryville, Missouri. Fern Greenwell, Pat Vetter (Shrine of the Miraculous Medal) and nephew Gregory Hoopes

This journey for vocations has helped understand a fundamental error in understanding history from a point of view of a proper faith perspective. One error that always troubled me is the concept that history is leading us to a common ocean of humanitarian tolerance and bliss where the waters of diverse cultures flow, emptying and mixing in an expansive shared relativistic human destiny.  That would be a dreadful watering down of national identity and make our national angels our enemies and this is rather something different from a theological view. Let’s not forget that an inimical angel is a demon. For any American Catholic considering a vocation it is vital to have a firm grip on the nature of our American Catholic history and its angelic composition. Understanding that composition begins in Missouri precisely because it is pastoral. Each current of Catholicism seems to tie back to the great immigrant entry points. The Catholic experience is always tied to the ports of New York or Philadelphia or Boston. These are the primary colors from which to mix the palette. The rural Churches of Missouri have an important story to tell. It is easier because there is a little less squalor and a little less social stress so that what appears to the mind is a pastoral pastel. Missouri is a better canvas upon which to paint and find a positive blend of color.  If you look at the state and its two contact points from southeast to northwest, you will see two points that stretch out the canvas and give the state its grip on the nation. These two points are the odd boot at the southeast that attaches Arkansas and serves as an umbilical cord that brings with it the culture of the south and the clutching grip of land or interface with west called the Platte Purchase to the opposite extreme in the northwest.

(To be continued)

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