I grew up in Hawthorne, New York–just on the other side of Buttermilk Hill from Sleepy Hollow. My elementary school housed murals of, “The Headless Horseman of the Hollow” and of, “The Woman in White” whose screams–according to legend–could still be heard on cold, dark nights. Unknowingly, we were steeped in Romantic tenets like bags of rich, aromatic tea. Indeed, the stories told by Washington Irving still echoed off the bluffs of Buttermilk Hill, his supernatural stories still alive to us. Like, “The Woman in White”, these tenets veritably screamed to us, “Don’t lose your imagination! Believe!”
Washington Irving’s love for nature was passed on to us in the beautiful setting we grew up in just, “a stone’s throw” from Pocantico Hills, the Saw Mill River, and from the convent grounds of the Dominican Nuns of Hawthorne, with its large orchards, fields, and raspberry patches. There was even some latent idealism where I grew up–we still went to church every Sunday, my dad–even as his health failed him–still tried to keep Hawthorne home for us-commuting 180 miles a day when he was transferred with AT&T to New Jersey. Our town’s patriotic parades were a highlight of the year and gave us reason to decorate our bikes in red, white, and blue crepe paper and to place bubble gum cards on the spokes in order to make noise–riding proudly alongside shiny red firetrucks and marching bands. It wasn’t until this past Monday, however, that I found out a piece of American History involving my favorite author–Washington Irving–and our greatest president–George Washington.
As I toured Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” home, we stood for a moment in his cozy office. There was an unpretentious little watercolor hanging on the wall to the right of us. “That,” said our docent, “…is a painting of a time when a young Washington Irving was in a book store with his nanny and they had a chance meeting with President George Washington–who was in the area around the time of his inauguration, in 1789. The nanny told President Washington that this young boy had been named after him. George Washington, clearly moved, placed his hand atop the six year-old’s head and prayed that his little namesake be blessed. Washington Irving later stated that he felt this blessing had stayed with him throughout his entire life.”
It was an inspiring moment for me.
It seems that today we are pushing God further and further out of our national consciousness. There are those who will say our founders were just “Deists” who believed only in the concept of a “Watchmaker God” –a god who wound-up the universe but was inaccessible in terms of their everyday needs. These professors said that our founders’ god was uninvolved in day-to-day life. When I heard this “academic tofu” in graduate school from some of my professors, I scoffed at the idea. I knew there must have been something more to their faith. Surely our founders’ early reliance on “Divine Providence” showed that their faith really came from the heart. Yet I had been taught that, most likely, these founders had a dry religion devoid of a spirituality that saw God as active in their own lives.
And this past Monday, I saw this small painting of President George Washington, humbly beseeching that a blessing come upon his young namesake, Washington Irving. And I heard how Washington Irving had felt the power of that blessing over the course of his entire lifetime.
And now I know the following truth for my own life; our country was founded by a man who was humble and had an active faith in God.
I wish we could hear more about that–don’t you?
As more and more leaders say that we should push forward–perhaps a look back now and then would do us all a world of good.