Remembering and Praying

Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.

Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.

But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.

How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.

I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!

Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.

A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?

A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.

If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.

Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday


12 thoughts on “Remembering and Praying”

  1. A thoughtful post, which has made me ponder on why I commemorate Remembrance. Firstly, I have served on active service. I have known modern day service people who have died or been killed in modern warfare. For years I avoided corporate services of Remembrance, because memories were sharp and painful. In later years, as I have seen relatives who served in WW2 die, and recall how one in particular my uncle D, who died on my Birthday in 2008, was increasingly remembering the sacrifices of his Battalion in WW2 (he could still name those that he was close to, and also knew by heart the numbers of his Battalion that died or were horribly disabled). He had been a prisoner of war for three years in Italy than Germany and had been badly treated, leaving him with a life long disability which gave him a war pension in later years.

    His memory wasn’t one of bitterness or hatred of the enemy, but understanding of the suffering that he and those who died or who were left maimed for life went through, and he pointed out the Rudyard Kipling poem “Tommy” which seemed to high light to him how veterans were ignored or even forgotten once a conflict was over. He had, like me, become a “pacifist” as regards using armed force to resolve issues. He accepted that the war that he fought was a just one, but disagreed completely in the way that it was fought.

    His view of modern warfare was also about the impersonal nature of much of it, where death and destruction was visited on mainly civilian populations from long distance and controlled remotely. He hated the Gulf Wars which involved so much of this.

    I now attend and participate in our parish corporate services of Remembrance, because I feel that all of those who died in war, military or civilian, deserve to be remembered, because if we have a corporate memory of such suffering, we might just think very hard indeed before resorting to violence to resolve conflicts, whether small or large, such conflicts damage all involved as you quite rightly point out.

    My prayers are for those who died, but also for those living who defend us against possible wars, I believe that now, our Armed Forces (apart from the Nuclear element) are largely peace keepers rather than war makers.

    No, I don’t believe that Remembrance should cease, but should be refocused on how we can maintain peace and reconciliation in an era where so much conflict seems to be about indiscriminate killing.

    Neville Chaimberlain might have got it wrong when he proclaimed “Peace in Our Time”, but his thinking was right, albeit peace in all times might have been a better aspiration for him and us.

  2. You express so well exactly my misgivings and concerns about what Remembrance has become and particularly this year. My father fought and was wounded and gassed in World War 1 – he had no hatred for the Germans – he was in hospital when the armistice was signed but said there were no celebrations as wounded and very sick Germans were admitted daily and many died each day. It is right that we recall what in hatred we can do to our fellow men and praying must be for all – how often do communal prayers include only the “good”! Thank you, as ever, Dr Catherine for saying what we need to hear. God bless you.

  3. This blog, like so many of yours, is challenging and thought provoking. On the whole I thoroughly agree with you, except on one point, and that is that this should be the last Remembrance.
    My grandfather served in World War One, and although he was badly wounded, survived. During the course of my family history research I found that eight of his men had been killed on the eve of them taking over one of the guns before Passchendaele. I remember them on their anniversary every year and again today. Similarly, my father survived, but many of his men and fellow officers didn’t. As I learn more about what they went through, my admiration for them grows. I don’t think that I will live to see the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but I will remember and honour their memory until my dying day. There are many more who have died or suffered terrible trauma or injuries in subsequent conflicts, but I don’t think that we should stop remembering or commemorating.

  4. This resonated so strongly with me. My mother’s family kept a little estaminet in Northern France. They had a son who had, what was then called creeping paralysis. He had his room in the basement and his hobby was Radio. During the last war, my aunt and uncle served German soldiers who were occupying France and engaged them in conversation. The family was shunned by the local people. Then in 1944 the Nazi soldiers stormed the place and shot the entire family dead. Emil had been a member of the Maquis and had been relaying information. And someone had betrayed them.
    After the war, my parents who lived in Nottingham were asked by their parish priest Fr (later Canon) Puttmann, who had fled his country and seminary in 1939, and made his way across Europe, was given refuge at Quarr Abbey, to accept a German PoW for Christmas.

    My mother was very conflicted but they agreed. He arrived, a young lad who had been conscripted into the army and captured after a few months. His father was a butcher in Bonn and the family were destitute. He became a dear friend and painted images of the evangelists for either side of the altar in our Nissan hut church. Eventually he was repatriated and wrote regularly to us.
    What a lesson in reconciliation and understanding of the pity of war.

  5. Dear Sister Catherine
    I concur. Having served over Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan in the RAF, and as a civil servant located in Kuwait during the last Iraqi War, I can recall friends who have died, those ‘on the other side’ who I witnessed dying, and for what? The “War to end all wars” from 1917 should still be echoing in our minds but all I hear, see, is a furtherance of the military machine. Where is humanity in all this? I also struggle to see the Church, which appears so linked to the political aspirations, that the call from God to peace and love for all appears lost. Thank you Bob

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful meditation in Remembrance Day. As the grandson of a man who spent years in Dartmouth prison for refusing to fight in WW1, I approach each Remembrance Day with renewed determination to seek peace in my relationships with others and promote peace initiatives. Our world is very fractured. There is too much anger with the accompanying eagerness to insult and demonize in our interaction in social media. If Remembrance Day can call us to recall what we have in common and motivate us to unite then I am all for it. If Remembrance Day is a celebration of conflict and glorification of war, count me out.

  7. I am wondering if I am ususual in perceiving 11th Nov as a recognition of the tragedy of all wars, and thanks for those who volunteer to serve so that most of us can choose not to get our hands dirty with the reality of conflict, and can comfortably tell each other we are passivists. It often feels like concept of a Military Covenant between those in the forces and the rest of society is very poorly understood. On Remembrance Sunday I thank God that my own father always came home safely, and that his PTSD didnt tear our family apart, as well as praying for an end to war and peace for all victims, alive or dead. It this was the last: When would we recognise the service of the few for the many, that is still going on?

    • I’d made up my mind not to reply to any comments but I think I can properly give a personal answer to your question about when would we remember and pray if there were no Remembrance Sunday. November is the month specially set aside by the Catholic Church for prayer for the dead, and there are frequent reminders throughout that period of our duty to pray. As I said in my post, I myself have no difficulty about remembering or praying for all who have died in war, and being but a stone’s throw from the SAS is a daily reminder to pray for all actively engaged in defence.

      • Thank you. I worried after I pressed the button that I had expressed myself too strongly. (Terrible, when you warn us so often against it, so apologies). It is such an emotive topic and perhaps a little too close to home for me.

        Another point you regularly make is that we all need to consider our violence and failures (now I’m even more sheepish!) and I was trying to express is that I firmly believe a lot of us are comfortable that we are against war, or pacifist, with our considering our collective culpability for it. I am uneasy that so many perceive Remembrance as a glorification of war, rather than an occasion to reflect. I am also aware, for example, of the importance of it being ‘worth something’ in aiding those returning from conflict in recovering from the mental scars. It is much too complex an issue for me to write about in a balanced way in a short comment from my phone!

  8. I’ve thought a lot about this post, and come to the conclusion that we must continue to mark the Armistice. The problem for me is not whether we remember it, but how we remember it. I agree about the dangers of nationalism, but we need it nonetheless as a day to remember the futility of war.
    I don’t know whether the ‘friend’s father’ that you refer to was my father, who was in Buchenwald, but he certainly embraced the need to remember the horrors of the holocaust as an example of human inhumanity. Remembering it as solely the province of the Nazis and the Jews degrades the memory and distances it from us. And yet it MUST be remembered, lest it happen again.
    In the same way, I believe we must continue to have a focus for remembering the horrors of war, and November 11th is as good a day as any, and, given its history, better than most.

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