Friday, September 10, 2021

Good Vibes at Valley Forge

My mother’s side of the family are Danas. This is a heritage, I was taught growing up, that brings with it some notable claims to fame. 

Take my great uncle Danny Herrera, for instance, who invented the margarita (true story). He first concocted it in the late 1940's at Rancho La Gloria, his resort in Mexico, where my mom would visit in the summer as a child. To this day my cousins and I all wish each other a Happy National Margarita Day every February 22nd, although as sober Latter-day Saints most of us have never actually tried one.   

Another source of Dana pride is that my grandfather Joe Dana, after whom I and my daughter are named, once fired his gun at an approaching bear who went down on the first shot. Though it was clearly dead, no bullet hole could be found until the taxidermist discovered that it had gone in one ear and out the other. If you don’t believe me, the skin was turned into a rug that has been passed around the family for decades and can currently be found in my sister Jane’s guest room closet. 

But the family lore that made me proudest was that this same grandfather was lifelong friends with the great artist Arnold Friberg, and was the inspiration for the physical build of George Washington when he painted his magnum opus, Prayer at Valley Forge. 

The physique of Grandpa Joe in this painting is unmistakable, particularly the unique size and shape of his hands. 

The president of Friberg Art once recalled a time that the painting was lying on the floor of a printer’s studio when a security guard passed by. He studied it for some time then said, “You feel the prayer in his hands. He got it.” 

I couldn’t agree more. 

George Washington is typically portrayed in heroic fashion and rightfully so, looking like the father of our nation that he is. In my textbooks in school I remember he was always shown overlooking a victorious battlefield, or on the back of a charging horse, or proudly presenting the Constitution. 

But in Prayer at Valley Forge, he is at his lowest. Frozen, defeated, and no doubt weighed down by the responsibility of leading his equally frozen and defeated troops to safety. Fallen to his knees, in a moment of desperation, he pleads with God for help.

Friberg’s Washington looks humble. Prayerful. And by 2021 standards, perhaps a little controversial.  

I wonder, what if modern social media scrutiny existed in 1778, and someone hiding in the snow captured this moment and uploaded it to Twitter. What sort of debate would it spark? Could it have hurt his chances of becoming president years later? 

Possibly. Prayer certainly didn’t help Mike Pence in matters of public opinion while serving in the White House.  Last year, during a meeting of the coronavirus task force, he led the group in prayer. Someone snapped a picture that went viral and triggered a stampede of criticism.  

“You can’t pray this away,” someone Tweeted. “We are so screwed,” wrote another. Honestly, the general consensus of reactions reminded me of Nacho Libre’s sidekick Esquelito when he said, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science," which, by the way, was supposed to be funny. Isn't there room to believe in both?

I don't think Mike Pence was praying to escape his responsibility in the pandemic any more than George Washington was praying as a strategy to avoid confronting the British. I believe that prayer is a component of our efforts, not an alternative to them.

I love the way Pope Francis put this when he said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” 

I think there can be a place in the political sphere for prayer without blurring the lines between church and state, the separation of which is one of our greatest freedoms. Prayer is an incredibly encompassing term. There are limitless possibilities of how a person might pray or to what source, and protections for those who choose not to pray at all. One of the primary tenets of my own faith is the privilege of worshiping according to our own conscience, and allowing others the same - “let them worship how, where or what they may.” 

I just wonder though, how prayer went from a natural expression and condolence we offer one another, to an awkward question of whether offense might be taken. Why people on social media are far more likely to send or solicit “thoughts and good vibes” than they are prayer. 

When you Google "sending prayers," in fact, several of the top search results are lists of alternative phrases you can use that omit the word prayer altogether. Because heaven forbid.

Still, in spite of all the noise, I believe that Prayer at Valley Forge is timeless. I don't know what Washington said in that moment of desperation, but the closest comparison of my lifetime was twenty years ago, watching an equally desperate President Bush address the nation of the evening of September 11th.

I remember sitting on the couch of my apartment in a dreamlike state, haunted by the images I had seen that day, and only beginning to understand how the world and my perception of it had changed. I couldn't imagine the weight on President Bush's shoulders. No amount of eloquence in his address would have been enough to comfort Americans that night. No call for vengeance or promise to rebuild sufficient.  And so he said - 

Today our nation saw evil - the very worst of human nature - and we responded with the best of America.

Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us.” 

Two decades later and more than two centuries after Valley Forge, we are still at times witness to the worst of human nature. And when we are, I'm grateful for a "power greater than any of us," and for the right to say God bless America, and mean it.

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