Our spiritual eyes have become rather clouded here in the West, so it is not much of a wonder to find causes and effects being confused in Sen. Conrad Appel’s recent essay about reviving New Orleans and other cities in the US. He expresses his belief that economics and politics are the main drivers of the well-being of cities:
Somewhere at the intersection of two great political-economic principles lies the future of America’s cities. The United States is a nation that long ago achieved stability and faith in government because it is a constitutional republican form of government, a form of government whose leaders are democratically elected. It also is a nation whose embrace of free market capitalism underpinned by a reliance on the precepts of western legal tradition propelled it from an economic sideshow to the world’s strongest democracy, a nation in which opportunity and prosperity are co-equal.
For most of America’s history cities were the epicenter of accomplishment. The underlying reason was that these two powerful principles, political stability, and economic freedom, co-existed in a balanced steady state, in a form of political and economic harmony evolved through a millennium of Western trial and error. The vitality of cities, conceived in the balance of political and economic interests, spread nationwide and became the progenitor of good fortune for all the people.
In our times we are seeing the advent mainly in cities of a rapidly evolving social democratic philosophy of government, a system contrary to what Americans have known, one that Americans are only slowly coming to terms with, one to which America’s response may be for good, or for worse.
Then we get the clincher at the end (bolding added): ‘History is replete with numerous examples of the brutal reality of nature; a city does not exist unless there is an economic reason for it to exist. There is no reason to think that American cities are immune to the forces that determine whether a city is vital or not, and government support is not the path to self-sustaining vitality.’
So, again, the main point is that a city comes into being and remains in existence mainly for the sake of economic activity of men and women. This is where our spiritual blindness comes in, for, historically speaking, it is not commerce that has been at the center of city life but worship, religion.
One of the oldest archaeological sites confirms this. Gobekli Tepe is a vast complex in southern Turkey, older than the pyramids of Egypt, consisting of giant pillars and other artwork. What was the reason for building this large urban center in the middle of nowhere? To engage in trade and politics? No. It was constructed so that religious rites could be performed there.
Think of other cities. What was at the heart of Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Israel; what was her defining feature? A trading market? A parliament? No, it was the Temple of Solomon.
Jump ahead to the Christian era. What dominated the magnificent city of Constantinople/New Rome for 1,000 years? The sublime cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), one of the wonders of the world.
And many other cities throughout Christendom grew up around churches and monasteries. The monastery of St. Finbarr is illustrative:
‘. . . But the man of God’s main achievement was the foundation on the river Lee of his most important and influential monastery, on the site called Cork, which in the tenth century would become a thriving town. Now it is a very beautiful city in the south of Ireland. In effect the city of Cork grew and developed around the saint’s monastery. Thus, Finbarr, the first Abbot of Cork, was one of many early saints of the British Isles and Ireland who contributed to formation of future large settlements with their churches or monasteries at the center of the community.’
We see, then, that religion, rather than commerce or politics, is the beating heart of the city. The latter two are subordinate, outgrowths of the first, and subject to its commandments. Religion is the cause of city life; commerce and politics follow as effects.
A look at New Orleans gives further confirmation that something more defines a truly good and vibrant city than wealth and politics. Grace King, a loyal daughter of New Orleans and a fine writer, wrote about the essence of this city just after the turn of the 20th century in 1902 in her book New Orleans: The Place and the People:
‘Critical sister cities note, that for a city of the United States, New Orleans is not enterprising enough, that she has not competition enough in her, that she is un‑American, in fact, too Creole. This is a criticism that can be classed in two ways; either among her qualities or her defects. It is palpably certain that she is careless in regard to opportunities for financial profit, and that she is an indifferent contestant with other cities for trade development and population extension. Schemes do not come to her in search of millionaire patrons; millionaires are not fond of coming to her in search of schemes; noble suitors, even, do not come to her for heiresses. It is extremely doubtful if she will ever be rich, as riches are counted in the New World, this transplanted Parisian city. So many efforts have been expended to make her rich! In vain! She does not respond to the process. It seems to bore her. She is too impatient, indiscreet, too frank with her tongue, too free with her hand, and — this is confidential talk in New Orleans — the American millionaire is an impossible type to her. She certainly has been admonished enough by political economists: “Any one,” say they, “who can forgo a certain amount of pleasure can become rich.” She retorts (retorts are quicker with her than reasons): “And any one who can forgo a certain amount of riches can have pleasure.”
‘ . . . does she not appear what she is essentially, a city of blood and distinction, “grande dame,” and, when occasions demand, grande dame en grande tenue? And, outranked hopelessly as she is now in wealth and population, is there a city in the Union that can take precedence of her as graciously, and as gracefully, as she can yield it?’
It is precisely New Orleans’s disdain for money-grubbing, and her embrace of her Old World French and Spanish elegance and grace, that define her. Furthermore, at the center of New Orleans’s history, as in other cities of Christendom, lies a religious establishment – the convent of the Ursuline nuns. Quoting Grace King once again:
‘It is with feelings of the tenderest veneration and pride that the Louisianans tell of the Ursuline sisters. They are the spiritual mothers of the real mothers of Louisiana. It is with intent that their advent in the colony has been chronicled in this way, just after and in connection with those rude pioneer efforts to establish homes and domestic life in a new and still barbarous country; it seems proper that the mission of nature should serve as introduction to the mission of grace. To say that the convent of our good Ursulines of New Orleans is the oldest establishment in the United States for the education of young ladies, that it made the first systematic attempt to teach Indian and negro girls, that it was founded in 1727 under the auspices of Louis XV, and that the brevet from that monarch is still to be seen among the archives of the convent, — to say this seems to express so little; it is only the necessary, that skeleton, a historical fact.
‘ . . . For ninety years the gentle sisters here pursued their devotional works among the women most the colony, sowing the seeds of education and religion, until, generation after generation passing through their hands, — daughters, grand-daughters, great-grand‑daughters, rich and poor, brides for governors and officers, noble and base, bourgeoise and military, — they have become a hereditary force in the colony and state; and in truth it is not an exaggeration to say that there is no Louisiana woman living to‑day who, directly or indirectly, is not beholden, for some virtue, charm, or accomplishment, to that devoted band who struggled across the ocean in the “Gironde.”’
It is telling that Miss King devoted an entire chapter to this monastery in her book about New Orleans, and a second to another, the Convent of the Holy Family.
What all this shows is that Aristotle was right when he proclaimed that contemplation is the highest good mankind can attain in this life (not the noisy commotion of political debate or the buying and selling at the market). Our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ affirmed this when he chided Martha for worrying about her chores and praised Mary for sitting at His feet in stillness and wonder and love (St. Luke’s Gospel 10:38-42). This culminates in the practice of hesychia (stillness) by the Orthodox monks and nuns.
If we want New Orleans and the rest of the cities in the US to be well again, we must tend primarily to the soul. It is beneficial to have healthy political and economic environments as well, but if the soul is sick, if the Christian churches and monasteries are abandoned, those other two will never have an ordered existence except under the iron rod of a dictator.