Soldiers often possess a strong spirituality, one marked by a clear and vivid sense of mission. That’s certainly true of Thomas J. Jackson, the Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and Instructor of Artillery, at the Virginia Military Institute. You can hear it in this letter of 1851, sent to his sister Laura.
The passage of Scripture from which I have derived sufficient support, whenever applied, is in the following words: “Acknowledge God in all thy ways and He shall direct thy paths.” What a comfort is this! My dear sister, it is useless for men to tell me that there is no God, and that his benign influence is not to be experienced in prayer, when it is offered in conformity to the Bible. For some time past not a single day has passed without my feeling His hallowing presence whilst at my morning prayers (140).
Jackson read the Bible and prayed daily, and no word in the English language meant more to him than that of “duty.” As S.C. Gwynne notes in his 2014 biography, Rebel Yell, the cadets of the Virginia Military Academy would have seen their instructor as
a perfect martinet, a humorless, puritanical, gimlet-eyed stickler for detail, a strict enforcer of every rule and regulation. He was such a literalist when it came to duty that he had once, while in the army, worn heavy winter underwear into summer because he had received no specific order to change it. Once, when seated on a camp stool with his saber across his knees, he was told by VMI’s superintendent to “remain as you are until further orders.” The next morning the superintendent found him seated on the camp stool in the same position, because, according to Jackson, “you ordered me to remain here.” He insisted that his students obey his orders just as unquestioningly. He was as painfully formal in conversation as he was in class (14-15).
In the American Civil War, that dogged sense of duty would earn Thomas J. Jackson a moniker much more famous than his baptismal name. He had gone to war, not for states’ rights or slavery, but because, as he saw it, his home state of Virginia had been invaded.
On the morning July 21, 1861, at Bull Run, in the first major confrontation of the Civil War, green Confederate troops began to fall back before equally green, but numerically superior, union forces. The Union commander, General Irvin McDowell, had already telegraphed Washington of a Northern victory, but Confederate Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee exhorted his rattled soldiers to re-form their lines around late-deploying troops. He shouted, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians.” They did, and the tide turned south.
It wasn’t the first, or the last, time that Jackson would respond to battle as though he did not know fear. He had done the same in the Mexican war, literally standing alone under a hail of artillery fire. When questioned, he laconically replied,
My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.... That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave (103).
We close another year of grace with the Solemnity of Christ the King. Today, the church, pondering the distant future, makes a claim whose assurance about fate mirrors that of Stonewall Jackson, though the audacious assertion is set amidst an admission of ignorance.
There is much the church does not know. Like all of humanity, she must question herself about the meaning of history. She “has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes ¶4). Nor is the church the ultimate arbitrator of God’s will upon earth. “Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one” (GS ¶42). Yet the church has been given a duty, a great commission. She is to preach a great truth whose depths elude even her. She “holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history” (GS ¶10). Here is a surety every bit as bold as that of Jackson.
The great irony is that Stonewall Jackson was felled by friendly, not enemy, fire. In 1863, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson and his staff were returning to camp late at night. They were mistakenly fired upon by Confederate pickets. Stonewall Jackson was hit by three bullets, but it was battlefield pneumonia that would take his life.
The weaker his body grew, the stronger his spirit. Knowing that his end was near, he expressed satisfaction that it was a Sunday. “It is the Lord’s Day; my wish if fulfilled.” His last words were delirious, an admixture of duty and delight. He said, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks…” He never finished that sentence. The doctor wrote that “a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Today, after admitting that she is not the Kingdom of God, only its servant, after acknowledging that the ways of God upon earth stand beyond even her ken, the church nonetheless insists that she knows the inner meaning and ultimate conclusion of history. It is belongs to Christ. It will be gathered into Christ. It will be made whole and luminous in Christ.
Calling Christ her King, admitting how tossed is she herself by the unfathomable waves of history, the church nevertheless reminds us two essentials: our destiny and our duty. She boldly insists that both belong to her Christ.
Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17 1 Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28 Matthew 25: 31-46
Gaudium et Spes is the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.