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One of the natural loves that humans possess is a love of place. Bubbling up from love for home and love for creation, the love of place shapes humans, conforming them to the topography of the landscapes they inhabit. As C. S. Lewis notes, to speak of a love of home is to conjure up images associated with a way of life at a particular place—all of the sights, sounds, smells, mannerisms, dialect, and other peculiarities associated with the locale. Falling in love with a locale, however, is fundamentally to peer into the beauty of creation refracted in and through the land and its inhabitants. The love of country also stems from the love for the region one associates with home. These interpenetrating circles of home, region, and country all speak to humanity’s need of place and the way in which humans instinctively root themselves somewhere.

St. Benedict seemed to have understood the importance of place in the conversion of the soul when he made the pledge of stability to the monastery one of the three monastic vows. Such a pledge was not simply to the monastery as a school of virtue, but to the land it occupied. The call of each monk to practice the spiritual artistry of soul craft finds its natural habitat in the rootedness of the community to the place. Benedictines gave shape to and were shaped by the land. Hence the pledge to stabilitas is simultaneously a pledge to stability in the monastic community and the region this community occupies as interrelated workshops within which one forges the character.

As much as humans seek to carve out the land they occupy, more times than not, it carves them. It turns ordinary humans into Southerners or Midwesterners or New Englanders. It is the first and primary tether to creation, which shapes human character and speaks to creatures who were formed of the dust and who shall return to the dust. It may be that the love of creation expressed in and through a love for a particular place is what prompts humans to adorn it with walls and buildings and other monuments. At least, Chesterton thought so when he claimed that “men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” Culture and character, the shaping of common life, happens slowly as humans interact with the landscape around them. When Yahweh called Israel to be a people, he promised them a land in part, no doubt, because this land in its sacredness was to form and shape them in a manner similar to Torah. It was a promise for them as much as it was a promise to them.

The kind of love for place Chesterton has in view is one with a transcendental root not reducible to any particular reason. Place points not simply to natural affection, but to the supernatural. It is a love for some place—the Southwest or Midwest—merely because it is. It may be grounded in the same kind of feeling one gets from fairy tales, namely, that “the world is strange and yet attractive” at the same time. One can give voice to this love as Mr. Tumnus, the Faun does when he begins to share with Lucy all the “wonderful tales . . . of life in the forest.” Mr. Tumnus finds his love again while sharing tale after tale that builds up a thick account of Narnia in a way that rivals the forest around him. In finding his natural affection for the place, he has tapped a deeper root that he cannot adequately articulate by pointing to this or that feature.

For Chesterton, this connection to place becomes the expression of primary loyalty to life. It is irrational in the sense that its reasons, like the reasons one loves another, cannot be reduced to a particular sequence of arguments. In Pascal’s words, “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” None of this means that it is against reason as though it is illogical; only that one reaches these reasons by a more circuitous route. Much like Anselm’s argument for “that than which nothing greater can be thought” forces the individual to conceive the entire created order in relation to another, it is a glimpse of the whole that is not reducible to any particular part. One comes to love life by loving the place of one’s sojourn through life and then one finds the reasons for this love in the tales one tells and the vision that emerges from those tales.

The stability of place can lead to its antithesis, however, unless one finds a way both to love it and hate it at the same time. According to Chesterton, “We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.” Such a feeling may be found in that primary loyalty places call forth and therefore worth the fiercest opposition if necessary. Chesterton sees this loyalty expressed in the family and the way in which families defend one another over against all and yet can remain almost as fierce in their criticisms of one another. It is because of their loyalty that they criticize.

This is part of the purpose of Christian apocalyptic, springing as it does from a deep love of place and yet a criticism that requires a vision of a cosmic polis, the New Jerusalem into which place must be re-made if it is to be saved. The call to renew heaven and earth remains grounded in the strongest bond for heaven and earth expressed in the sighs too deep for words that the Spirit evokes in solidarity with the groans of creation.

The aromas and fragrances of the places humans inhabit conform them to the land and tether them to life. From this love patriotism springs with its sense of home, as does love for creation. In their commitment to place—a vow of sorts that humans make to bind themselves somewhere to a piece of earth—they discover that the land grounds and shapes them. Yet, unless one’s love for place is so fierce that one would reform it to save it, place becomes the end of life rather than the beginning that it was meant to be. 

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More on: Public Life, Localism

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