This two-part blog post combines (and adapts) commentaries written for my regular contributions to “Substack” (found at billschmitt.substack.com). The pair of reflections, which carried dates of August 16 and September 15, respectively, appeared under my Substack title, “Phronesis in Pieces.” Please see the end of this post for a few words about phronesis.
Part One, Mid-August: The Blessed Mother
Our pastor at Our Lady of Victory Parish in upstate New York used a potentially controversial word in describing the feast of Mary’s Assumption, which Catholics celebrate on August 15. He said the Lord extended to His mother the great privilege of joining Him in a way not yet afforded to other human beings—instead of dying an earthly death, being raised, body and soul, into heaven for all eternity.
Merriam-Webster gives this definition of privilege: “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor … especially, such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office.”
Our culture speaks today of a privilege that attaches to people because of their skin color. I will not argue about this meaning, but let me note that privilege, in the minds of Merriam-Webster and my pastor, is something granted directly to a particular person by dint of special circumstances.
The unusual idea of the humble Mary of Nazareth receiving a privilege prompts a couple of thoughts.
First, her assumption into heaven was not the first privilege God gave to Mary. She said yes when offered the amazing role of mother to Jesus, and she had already been granted liberation from the human curse of original sin. These were privileges that were hardly luxurious; as the Blessed Mother, she suffered a great deal and provided a lifetime of loving service to the Holy Family and to the Apostles.
When privilege is granted as part of an important role to be played, we can see clearly that privilege is best experienced as a gift that has been earned or which entails responsibility. It is not a pre-existing condition destined for ill effects. Some kinds of privilege, including skin color, definitely can be misused (because humans other than Mary still have our full complement of sinfulness); we need to treat privilege as a purposeful blessing to be re-gifted.
Second, let’s examine the privileges we have received in order to discern clues to the mission of love God has in mind for us. He is the giver of all gifts, skin-deep and far beyond. And He has others in mind when He gives us gifts.
Our New York pastor offered a beautiful idea. He recalled how, when he was a kid, he came home from school every day and knew that his mom would be home to welcome him. During those years when it was less common for both spouses to have paid jobs, there were few things that reflected the strength of family love better than the mom’s sure presence.
This blessing gave our priest, Fr. Tom Morrette, a special sense of the love found in God’s family. He commented that the Catholic belief in Mary’s privileged body-and-soul presence with her son is a comfort to all of us. No matter our earthly circumstances, we know we have our Blessed Mother caring and interceding for us in heaven, right up to our own deaths. In other words, we can say what Fr. Morrette was able to say throughout his childhood: “Mom’s home.”
Part Two, Mid-September: Queen Elizabeth II
The juxtaposition of two news stories on September 11—abundant updates about Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, looking back a couple of days, plus the commemorations of the terror attacks of 2001, looking back a couple of decades—set up a restless sabbath filled with homework for the heart.
A few thoughts emerged for me on that recent day. But first, a bit of background.
The British monarchy has never struck me with inspiration or frustration on a large scale. But I am fascinated by the style of leadership and followership which appreciates dignity, rigor, and aspiration in Great Britain’s collective mind frame. These qualities can be doorways to phronesis. I now understand how Queen Elizabeth practiced, or at least fostered, phronesis over a lifetime. She helped her commonwealth to “stay calm and carry on.”
Meanwhile, regarding 9/11, calmness is not my greatest attribute. My personal experiences on that day, starting when I witnessed from three blocks away the fiery crash of the “first plane” into the World Trade Center, somehow make phronesis visceral for me. I shed tears every year when certain sights and sorrows rush back via the TV documentaries, especially as people’s lives change forever amid chaos unleashed by irrational hatred.
On this 21st anniversary, thoughts crowded my head as I looked for meaningful linkages.
President Biden gave a speech connecting Queen Elizabeth’s compassion to sentiments of the day of terror. He quoted her insight, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” He also tied the continuing defense of the United States together with a summons to defend democracy anew.
I must say, the events I viewed in those documentaries, looking back at 9/11, did not prompt me to think about democracy per se. I do see democratic politics as a sine qua non for our beloved country. They are prized principles of wise governance like those I studied long ago at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. But what I recalled most from 9/11 were the lessons about solidarity, vulnerability, and compassion which Americans retaught each other that day. I remember admiring key parts of the national culture that resides upstream from politics.
The suffering, resilience, and solidarity captured in memories and TV programs are found in the cultural headwaters which feed our democratic processes still today.
You might have read my previous Substack about two categories of national leaders, called “head of state” and “head of government.” In the United States, the election of wise and good “heads of government” is an essential democratic duty.
Our founders wrote down key values to instruct us, and they established in the Executive Branch a presidential office which can be said to integrate the functions of head of government and head of state. Many candidates for the White House these days might easily dismiss that second function—the duty to edify.
Queen Elizabeth II received only the “head of state” role, but she fulfilled it with magnificent clarity and charity, motivated by an oath she made to God. She represented the qualities of phronesis to other nations of the world, and she reflected those qualities to her own royal subjects. She personified tradition and remembrance, sharing her Commonwealth’s good times and bad, showing how grief and love go together.
For me, this was a thought worth connecting to the anniversary of the terror attacks. On days of crisis and fear, which occur much more frequently than 9/11 anniversaries, doesn’t a nation need a head of state just as a family needs to know that “mom’s here” and “dad’s here”?
September 11 this year reminded me that America’s paradigm for national sovereignty does not promise us the same privilege—access to a person with the duty and capacity to edify. Our “chief executive” has been granted certain privileges of administrative power and process, but these are not privileges which one would call “all in the family”—able to be passed along, conveyed through relationship.
An American president can and should try to keep elevating our country, acting as a “head of state” who sees the big picture of transcendent values and common-good virtues. But, in lieu of special aspirations and graces, he or she will be mostly a downstream dweller, dealing in politics, speaking of democracy, not its components.
Presidents need to tap into culture flowing from a community of diverse communities. They are wise to avoid the accumulated sludge of propaganda and relativism which gathers on top of otherwise lively waters.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to grasp the sometimes-painful privilege of being one’s own head of state, and one’s head of government. We play these roles collectively in a democratic key, milling around in the hills and valleys, discovering ourselves as ambassadors among others, filling out the panoramic picture we are expected to present and represent.
Toward that goal, we can utilize resources of tradition and remembrance—lessons learned from good people, messages of faith and dignity from trusted institutions, and TV documentaries showing us how a day of terror can bring out our inner statesman.
Our reactions to life’s joys and sorrows will be shaped by our relationship with God. Like Queen Elizabeth II, we only need to accept, and properly exercise, the privilege of being His.
Phronesis can be defined as practical wisdom that leads to virtuous action, with an eye toward the common good. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s describes this well in his excellent address for the 2022 commencement ceremonies at Christendom College. The insights were published in May in Catholic World Report. Cardinal Sarah did not use the term “phronesis,” but the magazine attached the word as an identifying tag for his text.
The pursuit of phronesis, now an avid avocation of mine, can occur in the world of secular philosophy. But I believe it thrives in a Catholic context of urgent evangelization, offering American society a gift we need, a process that can add structure and purpose to the decision-making essential for reining in today’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual chaos.
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