I’ve been thinking about the Americas for so many years,
sometimes feeling that we have built a world by the subjugation of indigenous peoples,
thinking with grief that their empires, decimated by new diseases and war,
had been given a promised land by earlier not quite alien manifestations of the Creator God,
and we, the new-comers, seeking fortune and power, immigrants with industrious desires
for the supposed good of all, have been terrorists, conquistadors, imperialists, and thieves.
Many of us have those feelings of collective guilt and shame; do we not, sometimes?
But we also have enormous gratitude for the ways in which the land has blessed us.
This painting comes from a Jesuit, whose forebears, in the name of Christ Jesus,
brought religion, culture, and ways of social development, education, and land management
to a world which had not yet heard of the great Book and the redemptive gospel of Jesus. Yet,
there are always ways still to feel shame, aren’t there, for mistakes made under the guise of good, as Thomas Aquinas so wisely suggested centuries ago.
So the wars of take-and-control as well as the peaces of give-and-share are our history.
This diptych shows a kind of pristine gift; in the right panel squash forms, in green and yellow,
look like canoes seen from below with a mechanized or constructed sun in the sky above.
Have we not tried to harness the environment for our own good?
The other panel shows an enshrined priest in a wreath of gems and fruits and a squaw princess
in a banana-boat. Does she worship him, learn from him, fear him? The questions are with us now. Religion is important; it’s where we learn to appreciate the gifts of the Creator and one another.
It is our shared wisdom. And yet, we do so much harm, looking for wealth, power, and pride.
America the Beautiful is both a gift and a responsibility. The painting tells me
to find something inside myself, inside all of us, which would relish the gifts, learn to
live like we (almost) deserve them. There is something of God in the whole of creation,
which demands a response —-not just a recognition that we are empowered but an obligation
that we be engaged in a common project. The interactivity of it will teach us each something,
more than we deserve, about who the Giver is and what The Giver deserves from us.
Our America would be “something beautiful for God,” Mother Theresa’s other Indian suggestion!
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