- The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Moloka’i. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism. [Mohandas Gandhi commenting on the life of Damien de Veuster]
To be devoted to something is to belong to it alone. In Western monotheism, the ideal is to be devoted to God: to subsume one’s Being into the divine.
What could this mean to a Humanist? It is not a hard question to answer. I will answer it with other questions.
Is there anything you would willingly die for? Would you die to save your child. Would you die to save another person, or ten other people? Would you die for your country? Would you lay down your life for a just cause?
Your answer to these and similar questions is your measure of devotion. It is a choice, and a valued part of this model.
Father Damien de Veuster
(Harriet Jacobs hid away for years, cramped in a tight space and rarely able to move about, so that she could secure freedom for her children, and in hope of obtaining it for herself. This section begins as her owner is about to leave on a trip.)
The day before his departure for Washington I made arrangements, towards evening, to get from my hiding-place into the storeroom below. I found myself so stiff and clumsy that it was with great difficulty I could hitch from one resting place to another. When I reached the storeroom my ankles gave way under me, and I sank exhausted on the floor. It seemed as if I could never use my limbs again. But the purpose I had in view roused all the strength I had. I crawled on my hands and knees to the window, and, screened behind a barrel, I waited for his coming. The clock struck nine, and I knew the steamboat would leave between ten and eleven. My hopes were failing. But presently I heard his voice, saying to some one, "Wait for me a moment. I wish to see aunt Martha." When he came out, as he passed the window, I said, "Stop one moment, and let me speak for my children." He started, hesitated, and then passed on, and went out of the gate. I closed the shutter I had partially opened, and sank down behind the barrel. I had suffered much; but seldom had I experienced a leaner pang than I then felt. Had my children, then, become of so little consequence to him? And had he so little feeling for their wretched mother that he would not listen a moment while she pleaded for them? Painful memories were so busy within me, that I forgot I had not hooked the shutter, till I heard some one opening it. I looked up. He had come back. "Who called me?" said he, in a low tone. "I did," I replied. "Oh, Linda," said he, "I knew your voice; but I was afraid to answer, lest my friend should hear me. Why do you come here? Is it possible you risk yourself in this house? They are mad to allow it. I shall expect to hear that you are all ruined." I did not wish to implicate him, by letting him know my place of concealment; so I merely said, "I thought you would come to bid grandmother good by, and so I came here to speak a few words to you about emancipating my children. Many changes may take place during the six months you are gone to Washington and it does not seem right for you to expose them to the risk of such changes. I want nothing for myself; all I ask is, that you will free my children, or authorize some friend to do it, before you go."
He promised he would do it, and also expressed a readiness to make any arrangements whereby I could be purchased.
I heard footsteps approaching, and closed the shutter hastily. I wanted to crawl back to my den, without letting the family know what I had done; for I knew they would deem it very imprudent. But he stepped back into the house to tell my grandmother that he had spoken with me at the storeroom window, and to beg of her not to allow me to remain in the house over night. He said it was the height of madness for me to be there; that we should certainly all be ruined. Luckily, he was in too much of a hurry to wait for a reply, or the dear old woman would surely have told him all.
I tried to go back to my den, but found it more difficult to go up than I had to come down. Now that my mission was fulfilled, the little strength that had supported me through it was gone, and I sank helpless on the floor. My grandmother, alarmed at the risk I had run, came into the storeroom in the dark, and locked the door behind her. "Linda," she whispered, "where are you?"
"I am here by the window," I replied. "I couldn't have him go away without emancipating the children. Who knows what may happen?"
"Come, come, child," said she, "it won't do for you to stay here another minute. You've done wrong; but I can't blame you, poor thing!"
I told her I could not return without assistance, and she must call my uncle. Uncle Phillip came, and pity prevented him from scolding me. He carried me back to my dungeon, laid me tenderly on the bed, gave me some medicine, and asked me if there was any thing more he could do. Then he went away, and I was left with my own thoughts—starless as the midnight darkness around me.
My friends feared I should become a cripple for life; and I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die; but, for their sakes, I was willing to bear on.
[Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XXIV, The Candidate for Congress.]
Gustav Mahler’s music reflects his life: intensely passionate and consummately involved. His famous statement that a symphony should include everything encapsulates the idea of religious devotion, in the classic sense of “religare.”
- Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler (Yale University Press, 2011): “Mahler was . . . able to conduct four or five performances a week . . .; rise early the next morning to orchestrate his own music; and then walk to the opera house to deal with the myriad complications and headaches that came with his position as music director of a major opera house.”
- Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (W.W. Norton & Company, 1988).
Other narratives on devotion:
- Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son (St. Martin’s Press, 2011): the noted author’s account of living with, caring for and loving a child with cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome.
- Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story (Simon & Schuster, 1991): “In a cunningly straightforward way, ‘Patrimony’ tells one of the central true stories many Americans share nowadays: the agonized, sometimes comic labor of a family and a dying parent who must deal with all the loyalties and grudges of their past while coping with their transformed future as dictated by the invasive, also benign pressures of modern medicine and its technologies, bureaucratically organized.”
- Eleanor Henderson, Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage (Flatiron Books, 2021): “Henderson begins in their bedroom in Ithaca, N.Y., where she is trying to coax Aaron to sleep as he writhes in pain from the rashes and boils covering his body. After being sober for four years, he’s chasing a battery of prescription medications with Smirnoff Ice.”
Film and Stage
Historical dramatizations, more or less documentary in nature:
- Gandhi: the film focuses on Gandhi the man, and for thatit illustrates devotion to cause
- Molokai: The Story of Father Damien
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1904) (approx. 170-200 minutes) is an operatic expression of non-theistic Humanism. “Rimsky-Korsakov’s love of nature and his respect for the pantheism of pagan Russia went hand in hand . . .” “The heroine Fevroniya is a ‘holy fool’ in the Russian tradition, with instinctive wisdom which transcends politics and religion. When asked by Prince Vsevelod in Act 1 whether she attends church, she answers: ‘Is not God everywhere? You may think my forest is an empty place, but no – it is a great church, where day and night we celebrate the Eucharist’. The music to which she sings these lines returns in Act IV to embody her transfigured soul.” “The libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky, and is based on a combination of two Russian legends: that of St. Fevroniya of Murom, and the city of Kitezh, which became invisible when attacked by the Tatars.” “If this is the Russian Parsifal, who is Parsifal? Wagner's holy fool suffers for his failure to speak the compassion he feels in his heart. Grishka's sin in insulting the saintly Fevronia allies him more nearly with Kundry, who mocked the Savior, as does his delirium of self-laceration. So Grishka is no candidate, and there really is no other.” Performances have been conducted by Nebolsin in 1956, Svetlanov in 1983, Vedernikov in 2008, and Albrecht in 2020 (part 1; part 2). The orchestral suite (approx. 20-25 minutes) has been well-conducted by Mravinsky in 1949, Smetáček in 1959, Neeme Järvi in 1983, and Noseda in 2022.
Humanistic devotion implies a head-long dive into life’s concerns. This may not always seem inspiring superficially but the reward for tackling of problems can be deeper and more enduring than mere displays of devotion, or inner practices aimed toward it without a matching ethical commitment. We hear this approach in Benjamin Britten’s three suites for solo cello . . .
. . . in the incandescent performance of the chamber music of Giovanni Benedetto Platti (1697-1763) by Ensemble Cordia . . .
. . . in the magnificent recordings of Isaac Albéniz’s piano works by Esteban Sánchez . . .
. . . and in the music of Robert Carver, c. 1487 – after 1566.
- Raga Lalit, a “serene and devotional” Hindustani classical raag performed at dawn (performances by Chaurasia, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, Viayat Khan and Banerjee)
- Grigny’s hymns for organ demonstrate the idea in a traditional Western form.
- Gaultier, lute works, including Suites in D major, A major, D Minor, F sharp Minor
- Golijov, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
- Villa-Lobos, Sonata fantasia No. 1, Op. 35, W51, “Désespérance”
- Villa-Lobos, Sonata fantasia No. 2, Op. 29, W83
The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean -
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.
[Robert Frost, “Devotion”]
Enjolras was a charming young man, who was capable of being terrible. He was angelically handsome. He was a savage Antinous. One would have said, to see the pensive thoughtfulness of his glance, that he had already, in some previous state of existence, traversed the revolutionary apocalypse. He possessed the tradition of it as though he had been a witness. He was acquainted with all the minute details of the great affair. A pontifical and warlike nature, a singular thing in a youth. He was an officiating priest and a man of war; from the immediate point of view, a soldier of the democracy; above the contemporary movement, the priest of the ideal. His eyes were deep, his lids a little red, his lower lip was thick and easily became disdainful, his brow was lofty. A great deal of brow in a face is like a great deal of horizon in a view. Like certain young men at the beginning of this century and the end of the last, who became illustrious at an early age, he was endowed with excessive youth, and was as rosy as a young girl, although subject to hours of pallor. Already a man, he still seemed a child. His two and twenty years appeared to be but seventeen; he was serious, it did not seem as though he were aware there was on earth a thing called woman. He had but one passion--the right; but one thought--to overthrow the obstacle. On Mount Aventine, he would have been Gracchus; in the Convention, he would have been Saint-Just. He hardly saw the roses, he ignored spring, he did not hear the carolling of the birds; the bare throat of Evadne would have moved him no more than it would have moved Aristogeiton; he, like Harmodius, thought flowers good for nothing except to conceal the sword. He was severe in his enjoyments. He chastely dropped his eyes before everything which was not the Republic. He was the marble lover of liberty. His speech was harshly inspired, and had the thrill of a hymn. He was subject to unexpected outbursts of soul. Woe to the love-affair which should have risked itself beside him! If any grisette of the Place Cambrai or the Rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, seeing that face of a youth escaped from college, that page's mien, those long, golden lashes, those blue eyes, that hair billowing in the wind, those rosy cheeks, those fresh lips, those exquisite teeth, had conceived an appetite for that complete aurora, and had tried her beauty on Enjolras, an astounding and terrible glance would have promptly shown her the abyss, and would have taught her not to confound the mighty cherub of Ezekiel with the gallant Cherubino of Beaumarchais. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume III – Marius; Book Fourth – The Friends of the A B C, Chapter I, A Group which barely missed becoming Historic.]