Mark Twain once remarked that when he was 15 his father was the stupidest man alive, but by the time he turned 25 he was surprised at how much the guy had learned in 10 years.
That pattern can be seen all over the place.
|Thanksgiving. File photo
Consider the Pilgrims’ Progress over the past four centuries. In their day, these Angry Young Men were, as Angry Young Men usually are, certain they were where history was going.
The Puritan stormed out of the ecclesial house in a huff in the 17th century. In that, he was a little like and a little unlike his Anglican father who had himself walked out of the Catholic house a century before. The Anglican had mostly done so, not out of religious zealotry, but because King Henry VIII wanted to remarry and he and his buddies had their eye on all that delectable property that the Church was blowing on such wasted pursuits as educating the poor and caring for the sick.
Of course, once Henry was gone, it became necessary for the winner of the Darwinian struggle for the throne, Elizabeth I, to consolidate Henry’s victory lest she lose the power dad had won for her. So with ad campaigns against the Catholic “Bloody Mary” and assiduous cultivation of “Virgin Queen” mythology (imagine walking into your local Catholic parish and finding all the statues of Mary replaced with likenesses of the U.S. First Lady if you want to get the hang of how crass it was), she pulled it off.
Rise of the Puritan
In the great revolt of the rich against the poor that was the English Reformation, the Church was pillaged of its dangerous affinity for the oppressed and made the docile servant of Caesar.
But as the revolt began to age and the Anglican Church became the tool of the rich that its royal architects had always intended it to be, something happened that they did not intend: Real religious zeal was unleashed by extremist 17th-century radicals called Puritans who took way too seriously all that Calvinism was getting Continental Protestants worked up. The Puritans looked at their Anglican fathers and said, “You guys sold out!”
So, like all hotheaded young turks, the Puritan set himself to show the old man he could do it better. Dad, said the Puritan, had rejected the pope but retained popery. The young Puritan, full of the future with his New Model Army and exciting theories about election and predestination, would at last scour the faith clean of all the smells, bells, feasts, fasts, images and statues and become Purely Spiritual (see sidebar below).
He rejected anything with a popish scent as the worship of Satan. He was particularly hostile to religious images and smashed them with zeal. With a sort of silly logic, he set himself against feast days because a) they gave honor to saints instead of God alone and b) they provided the shiftless poor with a day off to have fun instead of inculcating the famous Protestant work ethic that would make the Industrial Revolution so much fun.
Indeed, he was so distrustful of the Catholic idea of “sacred time” that, in addition to inventing Grinch behavior by banning Christmas, some Puritans even tried to ban speaking of “Monday, Tuesday,” etc., because these names came from Norse and Roman deities. However, the attempt to inaugurate “First Day, Second Day, Third Day” and so forth failed due to the congenital English inability to maintain religious fanaticism once the mood passes. So did Oliver Cromwell’s attempt to get rid of the king, theaters, feasts and pretty much anything else the English thought was fun.
In the end, England had enough of the pure and brought back the king, Christmas, theaters, feasts and all the rest (except the stuff — like the Catholic Church — that threatened the rich winners of Henry’s revolt). Not without reason does G.K. Chesterton express the general feeling of “good riddance” that reigned at the time of the Restoration when he remarks: “In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.”
Fertile new ground
Thanks to America, the failure of his English political fortunes did not spell the end for the Puritan. Long after his star fell across the Pond, the Puritan soldiered forth on our shores, fretting that someone, somewhere was having a good time. But something odd happened during the long years after the death of Cromwell. As time went on the Puritan found that the face staring back at him from the mirror each morning was looking more and more like his comfortable Anglican Father’s.
As an example of what I mean, consider the curious interior of King’s Chapel in Boston. An amalgam of Puritan and Anglican heritage, it was assiduously scoured clean of any Romish imagery that might tempt the unwary Puritan into the sensuous worship that characterizes the benighted papist.
However, it is also a chapel which was essentially funded by the prosperous local burghers and young capitalists whom the American colonies produced with such fertility. It being only their due for such public-spirited generosity, the benefactors naturally received the thanks (one might even call it the “veneration”) of a grateful church in the form of dozens of statues and busts bearing their likeness which adorn every nook and cranny of King’s Chapel.
And so the Puritans achieved the overthrow of Rome and all its pomps and works — its cru-cifixes, stained glass, baroque saints, shrines and rosaries — and proceeded to put in place of all this Romish piety … the statues of a bunch of rich guys. Eventually, they also created a civilization in which the central architectural feat was no longer the Romish cathedral of ignorant superstitious Dark Age faith, but the sleek, modern skyscraper dedicated to the forthright worship of mammon.
All this was a bit awkward for the architects of the City on a Hill, so it was necessary to establish a Creation Myth for the new country that preserved something more ennobling than, “As a matter of fact, you can serve two Masters.”
But it couldn’t be a creation myth that acknowledged the Roman menace, as the 19th-century Know Nothings called the Catholics in their midst (see sidebar below). So instead, a 19th-century Protestant culture naturally established a Protestant creation myth starring ... well, that’s the funny thing.
You see, as the children of a young country began to crowd around the portly and prosperous Puritan, asking of him to be a heritage, identity and guide, the once-rebellious Puritan found he had to submit to the humiliating process of becoming venerable. He discovered that he could not build a life on mere protest. He couldn’t be pure anymore, because his children needed him to be human.
So the old firebrand who once swore to burn down every last vestige of popish pomp found himself dragging such things as tradition out of the attic in order to teach his children. The hater of religious images started turning up in paintings hung in churches all over America.
The smasher of statues got his graven image covered in pigeon doo all over America. This old radical whose hero Cromwell had beheaded the king had to invent a government, and eventually fight a Civil War in which his heirs in Boston and Washington, D.C., found it necessary to crush rebellion.
And most ironic, the government prosecuting that war found it necessary to raise the spirits of a battle-weary nation by pointing to none other than the Puritan’s honored example in the establishment of what amounted to (horrors!) a civic liturgical feast to be held on a particular sacred day every November (see sidebar below).
In the supreme plot twist, this despiser of holy days wound up being remembered by a nation hungry for a creation myth as the establisher of the first holiday celebrated on American soil — a feast whose name, in Greek, is “Eucharist.” Indeed, the day would eventually arrive where his children would fight as hard to honor this feast as he had fought to destroy all such liturgical celebrations. They would find themselves protesting the War on Christmas as vociferously as he had protested Christmas.
And most ironic? As the Puritan went through all these changes, he would discover another, rather unexpected, voice close beside him: the voice of the Holy Father in Rome, speaking out against tyranny, speaking out for the Gospel of Life, speaking out for the Gospel of Christ, speaking out to give thanks to God as he had done in that first Thanksgiving. In this curious development, we may discern a bit of Malachi’s prophesy that God would turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children and the hearts of the children toward their fathers (see Mal 3:23-24).
And so we can pray that the day will come when all the children of Puritanism give thanks (as so many already have) for the Holy Father who, like Twain’s father, turns out to have learned an amazing amount in 400 years.
Mark Shea is senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com. He writes from Washington state.
G.K. Chesterton on the Puritans (sidebar)
In this snippet from G.K. Chesterton’s “A Short History of England,” we get a taste of the actual beliefs that animated the Puritan movement and the Pilgrims:
“The honest Puritan, growing up in youth in a world swept bare by the great pillage,
possessed himself of a first principle which is one of the three or four alternative first principles which are possible to the mind of man. It was the principle that the mind of man can alone directly deal with the mind of God. It may shortly be called the anti-sacramental principle; but it really applies, and he really applied it, to many things besides the sacraments of the Church. It equally applies, and he equally applied it, to art, to letters, to the love of locality, to music, and even to good manners. The phrase about no priest coming between a man and his Creator is but an impoverished fragment of the full philosophic doctrine; the true Puritan was equally clear that no singer or storyteller or fiddler must translate the voice of God to him into the tongues of terrestrial beauty. It is notable that the one Puritan man of genius in modern times, Tolstoy, did accept this full conclusion; denounced all music as a mere drug, and forbade his own admirers to read his own admirable novels. Now, the English Puritans were not only Puritans but Englishmen, and therefore did not always shine in clearness of head; as we shall see, true Puritanism was rather a Scotch than an English thing. But this was the driving power and the direction; and the doctrine is quite tenable if a trifle insane. Intellectual truth was the only tribute fit for the highest truth of the universe; and the next step in such a study is to observe what the Puritan thought was the truth about that truth. His individual reason, cut loose from instinct as well as tradition, taught him a concept of the omnipotence of God which meant simply the impotence of man. In Luther, the earlier and milder form of the Protestant process only went so far as to say that nothing a man did could help him except his confession of Christ; with Calvin it took the last logical step and said that even this could not help him, since Omnipotence must have disposed of all his destiny before hand; that men must be created to be lost and saved. In the purer types of whom I speak this logic was white-hot, and we must read the formula into all their parliamentary and legal formulae. When we read, “The Puritan party demanded reforms in the church,” we must understand, “The Puritan party demanded fuller and clearer affirmation that men are created to be lost and saved.” When we read, “The Army selected persons for their godliness,” we must understand, “The Army selected those persons who seemed most convinced that men were created to be lost and saved.” It should be added that this terrible trend was not confined even to Protestant countries; some great Romanists doubtfully followed it until stopped by Rome. It was the spirit of the age, and should be a permanent warning against mistaking the spirit of the age for the immortal spirit of man. For there are now few Christians or non-Christians who can look back at the Calvinism which nearly captured Canterbury and even Rome by the genius and heroism of Pascal or Milton, without crying out, like the lady in Bernard Shaw’s play, “How splendid! How glorious! ...and oh what an escape!”
Pass the bean soup (sidebar)
It turns out that the first Thanksgiving may well have been celebrated by Spaniards.
“Florida teacher chips away at Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving myth” (USA Today, Nov. 20, 2007) tells of Florida schoolteacher Robyn Gioia’s discovery of the story of Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Gioia has written a children’s book called “America’s REAL First Thanksgiving” (Pineapple Press, $14.95), in which she presents kids with the little-known fact that a Spanish explorer who landed in St. Augustine, Fla., on Sept. 8, 1565, celebrated a feast of thanksgiving with Timucua Indians. They dined on bean soup.
If you do the math, that is 56 years before the Pilgrims sat down and shared a meal with natives at Plymouth Rock.
Who knew? Not even Gioia, until she attended a teachers’ workshop two years ago and heard Michael Gannon, a retired history scholar from the University of Florida.
It turns out that Gannon first laid out the premise of an earlier Thanksgiving in his scholarly book “The Cross in the Sand” in 1965, but few picked up on it. He says his mention of Menendez’s meal was a “throwaway line that lay fallow for 20 years.”
That was, until a reporter for The Associated Press in 1985 exposed Gannon’s academic findings to the world, which caused what Gannon remembers as “a storm of interest. I was on the phone for three days straight.”
Traditionalists, especially in New England, dubbed him “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”
Gannon took it with good humor.
“I became rather famous at the time for saying that by the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”
In case you missed the implications of that, this means that the first Thanksgiving in the New World was also very likely accompanied by a Mass.
Susan Parker, executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society, says there’s more to it than just getting the word out. She agrees with Gannon that written history is hard to change and adds that traditional accounts of America’s past often come with “a Protestant twist,” as that was the predominant culture.
“There’s a tradition of diminishing the Catholic presence of our early history,” Parker says.
Thanksgiving proclamation (sidebar)
October 3, 1863
The year that is drawing toward its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth. -- Abraham Lincoln
A Catholic Thanksgiving (sidebar)
Eucharist means Thanksgiving. So if there was ever a cultural observance adaptable to the Faith, this is it. Catholics can make the festivities more Catholic by (naturally) going to Mass. But in addition, here are a few other things I’ve run across over the years.
Bring food to Mass to be blessed. Make sure to bring food, not only to be served at your table, but also to give away to St. Vincent DePaul or the local soup kitchen, food bank or homeless shelter.
Set aside time at some point during the meal for each member of the family to say what they are thankful for. Some families will focus on things they are grateful to each member of the family for.
Kill the tube, just for a few hours, and look for some ways in which to really make it a family time with games, songs or stories. Build your domestic Church.