We must steadfastly strive to see, and necessarily recall, others’ witness—so we can take the chances they give us to do so, too.
Beginning last Summer, recall, the radical Left opened a front in the intensifying culture war against certain historical monuments in particular. More than mere vandalism, there were desecrations of statues, memorials, historical buildings, and churches. They were really attacks on our heritage, culture, and the rule of law.
In the West, pieces of public art and architecture like this spark our memory and encourage reflection on our highest political, moral, and religious ideals. The attacks on statuary monuments to people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, for example, were really against the formation and furtherance of democratic institutions and the preservation and spread of freedom.
It is no wonder, and altogether reassuring in light of the Summer of Iconoclasm, that most everyone—no matter where they may place themselves on the political or ideological spectrum—reacted negatively to the recent violation of the U.S. Capitol building and grounds.
We at The Giving Review have proudly featured several articles calling to mind—and urging respect and support for—the invaluable civic contribution that our historical statues, monuments, and memorials make by reminding us, and those to come after us, of the service and sacrifices of those who came before us. Last July, for instance, we recalled a visit of then-former President Dwight Eisenhower to Normandy, France, on the 20th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.
Sitting among row upon row of headstone monuments, Eisenhower remembered those who died that day, and why. They did so “for one purpose only: not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government in the world,” according to Ike. “Many thousands of men have died for ideals such as these.
“[T]hese people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before,” he said.
From their witness, we must learn. It’s necessary. Who they were and what they did, we have to try to do, as well. Perhaps even try harder, and do better.
An exemplary manner
There is other witness from throughout our history, too, of course—from which we must also learn. Earlier this month, Rod Dreher wrote a thought-provoking Substack piece about St. Elizabeth, for example, who was martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1918. A granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth was born a German princess in 1864, as Dreher tells it. She converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy upon her marriage to Tsar Nicholas II’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergei.
Following the Grand Duke’s assassination in 1905, the Romanov Grand Duchess Elizabeth devoted herself to the monastic life. She sold her jewels and created a hospital, health clinic, soup kitchen, a residence for a lay order of nuns (the Sisters of Love and Mercy), and an orphanage for girls.
Her charity went beyond the mere founding of these institutions. “Hands-on,” she assisted in the care of patients, helped them in surgery, and was there with them when they died. She received all, especially the poor.
The manner in which Elizabeth undertook her philanthropic work should serve as an example to all those who have the capacity to give. She had a steadfast commitment to her own ideals and a vision of how her service to others could spiritually transform lives. She was not rewarded with wide recognition.
I became more familiar with the story of St. Elizabeth while working for Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which supported several similar charitable projects in Russia, many of them faith-based. Like Elizabeth’s work, the projects were not grand attempts to get at “root causes.”
They were charity, and not measurable in the way mechanistic Big Philanthropy wants to measure. They evidenced a confidence in the capacity of citizens to come up with their own solutions, as opposed to planned by experts.
Like Elizabeth’s efforts, though, they were soul-stirring. As such, symbolically so—and so well worth supporting, we thought.
Elizabeth refused to flee Russia, even as her family pleaded with her to do so. Her lay order, the sick and dying, and the orphans needed her. The Bolsheviks arrested her in April 1918. Three months later, they executed her with her sister, Alexandra, Alexandra’s husband the Tsar, and their children.
A statue commemorating the life of Christian witness of Elizabeth, who was made a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992, is above Westminster Abbey’s West Door. It should spark our memory, too, and encourage reflection on our ideals.
The statue is among nine others of Christian martyrs of the 20th Century, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dr. Martin Luther King (positioned next to hers), St. Oscar Romero, and the pastor executed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Westminster Abbey is England’s most-notable religious building. Founded by Benedictine monks in the 10th Century, it is a Gothic monument not only to English and British history, but the historical narrative of all Western history in general.
The life and death of Grand Duchess—St.—Elizabeth as memorialized over its West Door serves as a constant reminder that the sacrifices of those before us give us the inspiration to do better. As Ike might say, and Dreher would agree, she gave us a chance.
From her witness, we must also necessarily learn. Who she was and what she did, we have to try to do, as well, including in philanthropy. Perhaps even try harder, recall, and do better.