Desiring a Better Motto

The Order of Canada was established in 1967 as part of Canada’s centennial celebration. It was to be a native equivalent of the various British orders of merit, in particular the Order of the British Empire. If you’re interested, see my friend Chris McCreery’s book for more.

The motto of the Order of Canada is “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam,” that is, “They desire a better country.” If you’re in the Order at any level, and you’ve got a coat of arms, you can insert a circlet bearing this motto around your shield. This is a British tradition: motto-circlets were invented so that members of other orders (e.g. the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Royal Victorian Order, etc.) could have something to put around their shields parallel to the Garter, the device of the oldest and most prestigious order of all; Canada continued this tradition, especially after the establishment of the Canadian Heraldic Authority in 1988. From Wikipedia, two illustrations of this phenomenon:

royal_coat_of_arms_of_the_united_kingdom-svg

Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of the United Kingdom. As the Queen is sovereign of the Order of the Garter, the Garter, bearing the motto “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense,” encircles her shield.

coat_of_arms_of_canada-svg

Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of Canada. Note motto-circlet bearing “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam” around the shield.

Now, I’m all for tradition! And I’m happy for the existence of the Order of Canada, the CHA, and the heraldic motto-circlet. But the other day in church something caught my attention: a reading from Hebrews 11 (verse 16):

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

So, I wondered as I sat there, is this where the motto of the Order of Canada comes from? (Just as the motto of the country itself, “A Mari Usque Ad Mare,” comes from Psalm 72.) Alas, no: here is verse 16 from the Vulgate:

nunc autem meliorem appetunt id est caelestem ideo non confunditur Deus vocari Deus eorum paravit enim illis civitatem

“Meliorem” picks up on “patriam” from two verses earlier, but look at the verb: appeto -ere, meaning “to make for, grasp at, seek, (of places) to make for or go to,” not desidero -are, which means “to long for what is absent or lost, to wish for; to miss, find a lack of.” I guess the word “desiderata” (things desired) also fits in this sense, because you don’t have those things yet. So members of the Order are desiring a country that doesn’t yet exist, or once existed but does not anymore? Surely this is not what the government wants to imply! Should we therefore introduce a resolution to the House of Commons changing the Order’s motto to “Appetentes meliorem patriam,” implying that members are seeking a better country, even though the one they have is still pretty good – and also making the motto congruent with a biblical source?

I have enough experience with making these sorts of suggestions to know what the answer would be… still, one can always dream….