Remembrance Sunday 2013

How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:

Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.

When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.

We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.

I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.


5 thoughts on “Remembrance Sunday 2013”

  1. I prayed especially for that Marine, found guilty of killing an injured man in Afghanistan, today. When I read what he had said about the circumstances and the situation in which the incident happened, I felt for him. While murder cannot be justified, I wonder if he would ever have killed anyone had he not been sent into conflict.

    War has terrible effects on the mental wellbeing of those involved. It must be so hard to not give in to the violence and chaos in those situations. Would each of us be able to hold onto peace inside, or would we give in?

    Personally, I think remembrance focuses too much on those who have died, and not enough on those who have sacrificed (and are sacrificing) other things. Their health, their sense of peace, witnessing the early years of their childrens’ lives, and so on. Perhaps the hardest thing is to forgive yourself for giving these things up, in order to fight in a war when it is ‘just’ your job.

  2. I think that Remembrance is now much wider than just those who made the sacrifice fighting a war. To me, it’s about the victims of war in all ways – and perhaps the military who died count among those victims.

    I read something from the national secular society today about taking religion out of Remembrance. ( which seems to me to be an attempt to bring politics into what is essentially a time of reflection on the evils of war. The NSS Claim to represent the majority of Briton’s today, who don’t claim a religious faith, but as their membership is actually less than 10,000, I doubt that they are representative, just a noisy minority.

    God’s love and grace are an essential aspect of Remembrance, along with the Sacrifice on the Cross made once and for all bring the Kingdom of God near. I see Remembrance as a central part of that love and grace, where we can weep for those suffering, but determine to take God’s love and grace with us from the Act of Remembrance to the world as we go about our lives.

  3. Thank Dame Catherine, and indeed, the three comments above – all deeply important and nourishing thoughts for today, and every day.

    Just one thought though, in relation to last year’s post (which I missed at the time, I was away on Retreat over Remembrance Sunday last year): as someone who is presumably not too far from the generation of your nieces (I’m nearing 30), the events of WW2, WW1 and more are not just “all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years'” for me, or for some of the people closest to me who are within my age group. They are very much alive. (To the point where, when I heard the Angelus marked in Innsbruck by a siren the exact same as a British air raid siren, I had a physcial reaction of fear to it.) I walk the paths at the country park that housed the flying boat squadron here, and I see both the current trees and the ghosts of service men and women. Granted, I had an unusual upbringing – but my friends did not, and they do the same. Granted, modern history was one of my university subjects – but it wasn’t for my friends. The more imaginative of my generation are still grasped by the horrors of the Somme, of Passchendaele, of the forced marches from the Concentration Camps, of the D Day landings on the beaches, the air raids on the cities, the poverty all over… We may not have a direct familial link to these events as your generation do, but we have a sensitivity to the large amounts of first hand source material that makes it very much alive still. (I wish I could explain it better than that, but it is a feeling which I cannot impart in mere typed words.)

    Something I was awoken to today though, which I think relates to your post, was the need for inclusivity at Remembrance Services. Most years I attend in Enniskillen – and, as I was away last year, this was the first time as a Catholic. I was the only person in Mass this morning wearing a poppy, although our PP spoke beautifully about the need to remember. And a friend of mine, a Religious of 50 years, attended the Cenotaph for the first time (having never felt welcome before, i presume…) Her response was similar to my own, growing, concern: “what can we do to make this more inclusive? To make the whole community feel like they can take part in it?” It was great to have the Prime Minister of the Republic with us, by his own request – but that still doesn’t make the greater percentage of the Catholic community feel welcome, at a commemoration of those who gave their tomorrow’s for people of every faith and none. The sad thing is, to open it up to a commemoration of all those who gave their life in war – as opposed to just British service men and women – would alienate a goodly proportion of those who do attend, at least here in N.I. Because to do that would mean thinking of exactly those people you highlight above, as well as those who fought against “our” people, though just as sure (or not) in their own belief that it was right and just… It’s not something I have an answer to, but in the growing multi culturalism of the UK, and the recovering society of N.Ireland, I think it is something that needs addressed – and soon.

    • You make some very valid and unique points about the exclusivity of Remembrance in the Province. Off course, many Catholics from both the North and the South volunteers and served in the British Forces in WW2 (at a time when it was illegal in the south) and I’m glad to see from the Irish Times that they have now been pardoned (after 60 years) and that Remembrance in the Republic is now being given a higher profile.

      It seems to me that making Remembrance more inclusive isn’t just needed in the Province, there are many in the UK who feel excluded whether because they are migrants or from commonwealth countries whose relatives also served, but were for many years ignored in Remembrance commemorations. We need to be mindful also that those who have no faith or belief can feel estranged by Ceremonies that have a high religious content – a balance needs to be struck to welcome them to come along, because they have the same right to mourn and to grieve for those who’ve died through the evils that is war over the generations.

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