In a patriotic reverie last week, I found myself ruminating on one of my favorite hymns, I Vow to Thee, My Country. Setting aside the irony that on the Glorious Fourth I was humming a British song, it seemed suitably majestic and solemn to be fitting for our own national day. Set to a stirring section of Gustav Holst’s Jupiter (part of his larger suite, The Planets), the lyrics by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice reflect both his burning zeal for his homeland, as well as the acute sense of loss he felt in the sacrifices of war. The first verse uses the ardent language of prewar patriotism, which seems so alien to us today.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
Reading this verse on its own challenges our sensibilities. It is difficult to hear these words without thinking of the conflagration that enveloped Europe in 1914. How many young men went to their death in appalling trench warfare, motivated by a “love that asks no question”? It was unquestioned leaders and feckless field commanders who created vast killing fields in Passchendaele and on the Somme, at Tannenberg and Gallipoli. And to what end? To see a civilization shred itself to pieces, to witness the cream of a generation wiped out in numbers that boggle the modern mind? Truly, this was a love that demanded “the dearest and the best”; the surviving generations were shattered by the loss of their best and brightest, and felt it all the more keenly as their children went on to fight yet another world war.
Our experience with totalitarianism, with the perversion of the true virtue of patriotism, makes us allergic to such unquestioning sentiments of loyalty and self-sacrifice. The content of the first verse can seem like such romantic, credulous idealism. Even those of us blessed to live in this free republic are all too aware of our nation’s sins. We live with the legacy of slavery and racism, we see the reflexive support for abortion amongst so many; no, our love for our country, and support for her leaders, is anything but uncritical.
Yet the hymn does not end with this first verse. It is almost always followed by another, the third stanza in Sir Cecil’s original poem, which places the sentiments of the first in a very different context.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
This last verse makes clear that, for the Christian, love for one’s nation is not—and cannot—be one’s highest end. For we are, even while on earth, citizens of another country, a heavenly Jerusalem. This city is not visible to us in this life, but by faith, we are drawn towards it by the most powerful love of all. The heavenly host passes us by unseen, and we still await the return of our King and Lord. But this country actually has the most power of them all. The faith-filled heart is immune to every attack by the weapons of man, and every blow or setback is not a cause for shame, but of pride in following the way of the Cross.
The expressions of the first verse are justifiable only when anchored by the last. Well may we offer “all earthly things above” to the service of our countrymen, neighbors, and communities. This love is worthy and good, but only when it flows from the love for that “other country,” which knows no boundaries except the souls of those who love God.
As we celebrate our country and its history during these hazy summer days, we honor the incredible love that impelled ordinary men and women to give their lives in defense of our liberties. Our love for our country must ever be purified by that heavenly citizenship, which demands far more than just earthly goods. May our ways—and the ways of our republic—be ways of gentleness, and our paths those of peace.
Image: Rene Magritte, Applied Dialectics