Thought-Pourri: Events Edition

Due to recent events, I wasn’t able to post on Tuesday, for which I apologize. Between traveling to review an exhibition (more to come on that), social obligations, and yesterday’s snow storm on the East Coast, among other things, it’s been a very busy week. Today’s won’t be a particularly dense piece for your delectation, I’m afraid. However, I think you’ll find the following events of significant interest.

The Arts with the Catholic Art Guild

The Catholic Art Guild in Chicago kicks off their 2018 event season this weekend at the magnificent church of St. John Cantius with pastor, author, and radio host Fr. Thomas Loya, who will be speaking on Byzantine iconography and its liturgical context. Other speakers in the coming weeks include composer Mark Nowakowski, historian Dr. Denis McNamara, architect Duncan Stroik, and sculptor Anthony Visco, along with hands-on workshops for those interested in manuscript illumination, stained glass, sculpture, and gilding. I’m speaking as well, as you may have previously read, and deeply honored to be included in such an august company of presenters. Hope to see many of my readers in the Chicagoland area there!


Holy Week with the Dominicans

Holy Week begins this weekend with Palm Sunday – hard to believe it is almost Easter already, particularly with the weather we’ve been having recently in the Capital, where it feels nothing like Spring. For those of you in the DC area, be sure to check out the liturgies and events at St. Dominic’s, the historic parish church located near L’Enfant Plaza in DC, as well as the profoundly beautiful Tenebrae service on Wednesday of Holy Week at the Dominican House of Studies, across the street from Catholic University. Oh, and for advanced planning purposes, the eighth annual Spring Gala at Dominican House is coming up: you’ll want to reserve your tickets in advance as this is always a well-attended, wonderful evening, and will feature music by The Hillbilly Thomists, whom you may have seen featured in the news.


Wartime Sites with the NCAS

Beginning April 14th and continuing through May 19th, the National Civic Art Society is sponsoring a series of upcoming tours titled “Washington at War”, with a particular emphasis on the architecture and historical significance of places that have played a key role in shaping the Capital region and indeed the United States as a whole. Locations will include Fort Washington, the Lincoln Cottage, Soldiers’ Home, the U.S. Navy Yard, and Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the military memorials located on the National Mall. Register for the tours by following this link.


Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)


The Rise of the War Memorials

On the news last evening a report on the present conflicts in which this country is fighting caught my attention, though not because of casualty numbers or speeches by policy makers.  The curators of the visitor’s center being built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are planning to set aside part of their exhibition space, in order to mingle the story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam with that in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The same report explained that a formal memorial on the National Mall dedicated to those who fought in the latter two countries may take longer to approve.

The juxtaposition of the two present conflicts with that of Vietnam is interesting.  One wonders whether those in charge of this project will also include arguably more successful American military engagements, such as the Persian Gulf War in 1990.  Yet it begs the question, and admittedly many of my readers may find it an unpalatable one, as to why this is being done.

The birth of this country may have formally begun on paper, but it was ultimately achieved through bellicose means.  The United States  has participated in many armed conflicts over the course of its history, and will no doubt continue to do so.  If the American military has a well-deserved reputation for know-how and experience on the battlefield, it is because it has had plenty of practice.

Without listing every major military involvement in which the United States has participated since 1776, let me propose a list of some of the more important ones, at least in terms of numbers, parenthetically mentioning the approximate number of American military personnel killed. This is not meant to be viewed with scientific accuracy, but simply to give the reader an idea of the relative size of some of these conflicts:

The Revolutionary War (25,000)
The War of 1812 (20,000)
The Mexican-American War (13,283)
The Civil War (625,000)
The Spanish-American War (2,246)
World War I (116,516)
World War II (405,399)
The Korean War (36,516)
The Vietnam War (58,209)
The Afghan War (1,803)
The Iraq War (4,800)

This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of all armed involvement of this country in battles at home and abroad.  However, if you are familiar with the Nation’s Capital, you will notice a rather curious fact when examining this list: there are no national war memorials on The National Mall to those who fought and died in the first six wars on the above list. Why is this the case?

In order of appearance, the current group of national war memorials on The Mall began to appear in 1982, with the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, i.e. “The Wall”. This was further expanded in 1984 with the “Three Soldiers” sculpture, and will now include the aforementioned visitor’s center nearby. The construction of this memorial was followed by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993; the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1995; and the World War II Memorial in 2004.

Prior to the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, many monuments to historically prominent individuals were erected around the Capital, though very few on or around The Mall itself. For example, by now most of my readers are very familiar with the monument to General McPherson, which sits in the now-infamous square that bears his name, and there are monuments to figures as diverse as Chief Justice Marshall or Samuel Gompers spread all over the city.  Yet memorials to wars themselves were something of a rarity.

As to how America usually honors its military dead on a national level here in the Capital, from the time of the Civil War to today the practice has been formal interment at Arlington National Cemetery. While prominent individuals such as McPherson might get their own monument in the city, the ordinary soldier who did his duty would not have expected the same level of individual recognition.  However, he still knew that he would have a place set aside by his country close to the heart of its capital city, where he would be remembered, along with his comrades.

Times have certainly changed, for there can be no question that over the past thirty years there has been a demonstrable, unprecedented shift in attitude toward the purpose of having a national memorial on The National Mall, and the increasing popularity of the construction of war memorials to the veterans of such conflicts being placed along it. I do not have any answers as to why this change has occurred. Yet considering the report which started off this blog post, we ought to ask some questions about this increasingly common practice.

For example, how are we to establish the criteria by which wars are to be memorialized on The National Mall? Is it a question of numbers, so that World War I merits a national memorial on The Mall, because of the large number of casualties involved, but not Grenada, because the losses there were much smaller?  Are we only to memorialize those conflicts where there are still veterans left alive who fought in them, or are we to go back even further into our history when looking for subject matter for these memorials?  What about civilians such as government contractors who are killed in foreign conflicts – should they also be included in such memorials?

As unpopular as it may be to ask these types of questions, they need to be asked. My readers will draw their own conclusions as to the merits of continuing the practice of building memorials to veterans of specific wars along The National Mall.  However, I would put all in mind of the inescapable fact that The Mall is a finite space, and in order to preserve its character we need to act judiciously, adopting a high level of discernment about what is going to be placed on or around it.

While it will no doubt make me decidedly unpopular in some quarters for saying so, it would seem to me that building a memorial to the veterans of each and every conflict in which the United States is involved along the National Mall will soon turn the place into a kind of quasi-military cemetery. This seems rather superfluous, when we already have a magnificent, unifying memorial to American servicemen and women directly across the river. As much as I honor their contributions to aid their country, perhaps they would be better served by preserving and expanding Arlington, rather than continuing to expand a somewhat disjointed presence on The National Mall.

View of The National Mall in Washington, D.C.