Thursday, July 3, 2008

Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor

This painting by Arnold Friberg, entitled “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” hung in my bishop’s office when I was young. It shows General Washington in the snow at Valley Forge, kneeling in prayer, and is based on an eyewitness account of Isaac Potts, who recalls,

“In that woods…I heard a plaintive sound as of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods. To my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was the Crisis & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home & told my wife. We never thought a man could be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. We thought it was the cause of God & America could prevail.” (Diary and Remembrances of Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, 1770-1851)

Friberg’s painting has always seemed intensely personal and strikingly profound to me, as if the artist were able, for a brief moment, to reach into those wintry woods, and into Washington’s soul, and from there into the soul of America and back again. It teaches me about Washington as a person, about life, leadership, and true greatness. Here we see a great man on his knees in the snow, in private dialogue with his Creator pleading for the welfare of his men and their cause.

As a people, we have the tendency to revere the Founders, especially Washington, the man we call the Father of our country. We respect them because of what they stood for, because their words captured the soul of America. Washington had a free spirit. He believed that freedom was worth fighting for. He believed that God had given to men that right. Americans, by and large, share his beliefs. We respect him for his courage, his dignity, his leadership, his strength, his devotion, and his selfless service. We know that he was a very humble man and a man devoted to his country. When he relinquished power after the war and again following two terms as president, refusing to be called king, the American people knew that in this man breathed no tyrant. He is America’s Cincinnatus, the epitome of civic virtue. He represents the essence of democracy, for he was a man who was willing to fight for freedom and then make that freedom eternally perpetuating, protected, and possible by enshrining it in a founding document that continues to be an example to the nations of this world. To America he represents all that this country stands for, and to the world all that it can be.

Our founders believed in God and could not help but see His hand guiding the beginning of their new Republic, a nation that would later make it a point to constitutionally protect a man’s right to worship as his conscience dictates. From their miraculous deliverance from a force far superior to their own to what they termed a “miracle” at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, they were moved to echo the words of Benjamin Franklin to that Convention, “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor…the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Washington, before the United States had gained its independence, understood this sentiment, and knew that indeed it was impossible for his fledgling nation to rise to prominence without the aid of “that powerful Friend.” The men who signed the Declaration of Independence put their faith in divine providence for support of their declaration, and then mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Their pledge has always touched me, for these were great and powerful men pledging to one another and to God their support of the principles they had therein called self-evident—that all men were created equal and free and had inalienable rights given to them by their Creator, who endowed them with the ability to govern themselves and all the attendant rights and privileges that accompany that capacity. These were men who felt the importance of their calling acutely, and were willing to pledge all that they had, and indeed, all that they were, in support of these ideas. These were much more than empty academic theories. They were core beliefs of the founders, principles upon which they were willing to stake their very lives, and, what is more important, their honor. Here, on the battlefields of the revolutionary war, Washington is shown demonstrating that he believed in the principles that these men had invoked, that he still held that honor sacred, still revered that Creator who had given all men the rights for which they were then fighting and dying. Here Washington was fulfilling that sacred oath, staking his life and his honor for the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” that those men had cited in that immortal declaration, and relying on the Framer of the universe to support him in his fight.

Friberg teaches a great lesson about humility in his painting, for here he shows the great and honored General Washington, the man most revered by centuries of Americans, on his knees in the snow, his head bare and bowed in an attitude of supplication. His posture is not one of grandeur but one of reverence. Washington is not the triumphant conqueror astride his charger or the noble statesman creating history with a flourish of his pen, but rather the humble petitioner before the throne of One mightier than he, his horse behind him and the tokens of his authority bent with him to the ground. We feel as if we are intruding, for Washington never intended his private benedictions to be seen, and certainly never dreamed that they would be preserved on canvas for generations to come. Lacking a closet, he prayed in secret in the woods, believing the promise that “thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:6)

I believe that the true power of a great leader comes, not from his ability to make flowery speeches, but rather from his dedication to principles that he knows are right, even at personal cost. We know that Washington was a wealthy man, and, had the colonies not rebelled, he could have lived out his life in comfort and prosperity. But Washington was spending the winter of 1777-78 on this frozen Pennsylvania plain with his weakened Continental army because he knew that freedom was more important than comfort, that peace was not just the absence of war but also the presence of freedom and justice, and that, as Aristotle said, “we make war that we may live in peace.” Washington answered to a higher cause than personal aggrandizement, and on that proving ground demonstrated his devotion to the cause of freedom.

Washington is an example to us all, private citizens and public officials alike. He was a true patriot, a man who believed in the freedom of all men, “a soldier and a Christian.” He is an example of humility, civic virtue, honesty, and—perhaps the greatest attribute of all—integrity. The freedoms he fought for are ones that we all should be willing to fight for, and the life he led is one we should emulate. I honor his humility in privately beseeching the Almighty God for the welfare of his cause, for it truly was and is and ever will be the cause of freedom for all peoples of this world.

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