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

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/08/remembrance-sunday-2015/

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/11/10/remembrance-sunday-2013/

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A Lesson from the Neanderthals

Most, if not all, of us have a dollop of Neanderthal DNA in our make-up. Gradually we are learning that Neanderthals were not the brutal beings we once thought they were, though they must clearly have been bold and handy with a spear to have survived for 200,000 years. They were capable of art, which means they must have been capable of thought and reflection. More tellingly, recent archaeological studies have revealed that they were capable of compassion and care of the sick. Most Neanderthal bones show signs of injury, some quite serious. A recent find indicates that one man with a withered arm and broken leg survived for about ten years after being hurt. Someone must have cared for him. The BBC reporter announcing this called it evidence of compassion. I think I would go further and simply call it ‘love’. The Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens. Their legacy to us is still being worked out but I’d say that their being compassionate and caring for the weak, of loving those who were physically unable to contribute much to the hard life the Neanderthals lived, is a lesson we could all do with learning, wouldn’t you?

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Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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In the Eye of the Beholder

I have not been able to find a photo of David Hockney’s new window for Westminster Abbey that is not subject to copyright, but I trust most people have seen it. Personally, I do not care for it. I can cope with the fact that it makes no reference to God or the Queen, such as one might have expected given its setting and the subject it commemorates, but those great splashes of primary colour that look, to me, like a nightmare vision of octopus tentacles, no. Other people, of course, are enthusiastic, seeing in the window depths of meaning and beauty that escape me. Close-up photos of the window under construction have revealed details of the craftsmanship that has gone into its making which I can, and do, admire; but the window as a whole, no. Yet it would not be fair to say that I have no appreciation of or liking for contemporary art. I just happen not to like this particular work.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the problems that confronts us whenever a new church is planned or an old one is restored or has something new added to it. Personal taste counts for such a lot. Sometimes, too, there can be an artistic overload of things good in themselves but which do not work together. I still remember the frisson of horror I experienced when the Rubens altarpiece was placed below the East window of King’s College, Cambridge: window, painting and altar frontal all vying for attention. I decided that the window ‘won’ but I think I am in a minority on that.

There is, however, one point I hope is less controversial. It is encouraging that churches are still keen to commission original works of art. Not every generation will throw up a Julius II or Dean Hussey, nor artists of the stature of those whom they commissioned, but we have not abandoned the quest to enrich the buildings in which we worship, or the articles set aside for use in the liturgy, with every form of beauty we can. Long may we continue to do so!

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A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.

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Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?

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Courage in Old Age: the Example of Bl. Margaret Pole

Blessed Margaret Pole’s ancestry did not suggest that she would die a heroic death. The niece of Edward IV and Richard III and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (who was executed for treason by his brother) and Isabel Neville, she had a complicated inheritance, to say the least. A peeress in her own right as Countess of Salisbury, she was married off by Henry VII to Sir Richard Pole, one of his loyal supporters and a connection of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. They had five children together, but Margaret was widowed early and left in what Victorian hagiographers liked to call straitened circumstances, i.e. little land, less income, and a precarious situation vis-a–vis the king. A partial solution to this problem was found in dedicating the third son, Reginald, to the Church, where he subsequently became a cardinal, archbishop of Canterbury and a papal legate, while Margaret herself found refuge among the nuns of Syon until she was returned to royal favour in 1509.

The royal favour was fickle, however, and Margaret’s situation was not helped by her sons, Geoffrey, Reginald and Henry, who all, in various ways, incurred the royal ire. Geoffrey was pardoned; Henry was executed; Reginald was loud in his condemnation of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon; and their mother found hesrself imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up charges. Some say she was treated well; others, that the cold and damp caused her much pain. She knew she could die at any moment, but her spirit was unbroken. She carved the following verse on the wall of her cell:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

When, on the morning of 27 May, 1541, she was told she was to die within the hour, she retorted that she had been found guilty of no crime. In fact, her refusal to yield on the point of papal authority, and her son Reginald’s constant plotting, made her death a certainty. Chapuys, the ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, described her death as cruel and messy: at first, ‘when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced.’ Then, because the usual executioner had been sent North to deal with rebels, the execution was performed by ‘a wretched and blundering youth who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’ Her last words were, ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.’

Is this just the story of a stubborn old woman who refused to compromise when compromise would have assured her a comfortable old age? I think it is more than that. Those who met her were impressed by her indomitable spirit and the clarity with which she saw the consequences of opposition to the king’s will. How could she not, given her family history? But she was prepared to suffer for what she believed to be right. There could be no going back on that. She is a reminder that courage in the elderly is no less great than courage in the young; that we may meet our biggest challenges when we are at our weakest and least able to cope with them; and that a lifetime of prayer and fidelity is the surest way of ensuring that we do so with grace and constancy. May Bl. Margaret Pole pray for all who are growing old and experiencing trials the young may know nothing of; and may all of us, whatever our age, give thanks for the inspiration the elderly are to us.

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St Wulstan of Worcester

When I lived in Worcester St Wulstan was not only a local saint, he was a very approachable one. Much that we saw when we looked out of the monastery windows would have been familiar to him. As Benedictines, we lived by the same Rule and ordered our days by a similar horarium. It helped that he was one of the bridges between the old Anglo-Saxon world and the new world of the Norman Conquest, keeping his see when the other Anglo-Saxon bishops lost theirs. We admired his work to end the slave trade (see this post for a reflection on the same), chuckled over his habit of repeating lines of the Office that he particularly enjoyed (very trying to his companions, no doubt) and were moved by Colman’s stories of his washing the feet of the poor and his generosity towards those in need. Even allowing for the hagiographer’s touch of rose, Wulstan was the kind of saint we could actually like; and we didn’t think much of Emma Mason’s debunking account of 1990.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Wulstan was a holy fool, a man who spent all his time in prayer, devotion and works of mercy and was not taken seriously by his contemporaries. Wulstan was socially well-connected and made the most of his connections. His personal humility did not extend to ignoring or playing down the rights of his see, nor did his zeal for reform or his extensive building plans suggest a weak character. He is thus a much more challenging figure than many will admit. What has always struck me about Wulstan is that, for all his very considerable charm, he was a man of iron will. Even the often-repeated anecdote about his being distracted at prayer by the smell of a goose roasting and vowing that he would never eat meat again if he could be freed of the temptation is evidence of his determination not to be deflected from what he thought was right.

I wonder how many of us have thought about the kind of sanctity that Wulstan demonstrates, the very capable sanctity of a man who fulfilled his office with care but did not limit himself to the immediate concerns of his own diocese? For most of us there is a difficult balance to be maintained between the obvious duties of our life and the wider concerns of the society in which we live. Wulstan’s holiness as both monk and bishop reminds us that achieving that balance, resolving some of its implicit contradictions, is both possible and worthwhile. Today let us ask his prayers for all who feel pulled in many directions but who recognize the pull of our Lord Jesus Christ as the most important of all.

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Contemporary Shibboleths

How many people reflect on the fact that the Hebrew word we transliterate as ‘shibboleth’ means ‘ear of corn’? I think we might be tempted to call it a ‘wisp of straw,’ especially when the belief in question is one we do not share or regard as outmoded. I often think that many people in Britain today regard Christianity as rubbish, possibly even dangerous rubbish, and certainly not worthy of respect or any attempt to understand. As a result, whenever Christianity comes into conflict with contemporary attitudes it is dismissed as old-fashioned, over-rigorous or just plain wrong. If one questions what someone means by Christianity, one frequently discovers an ignorance so profound as to be frightening, bolstered by an inadequate grasp of history and a conviction that a very literal interpretation of biblical texts is all that is needed to make one an expert in what Christians believe. If I sound harsh or hyper-critical, it is because I have often been on the receiving end of such misconceptions; and I am beginning to wonder whether our current fascination with the visual (rather than with text) is making it more difficult to argue a case or express an opinion reasonably.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance. To anyone who has studied it, it is entirely consistent. From the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, the individual’s right to life is regarded as clear and unequivocal. Abortion and  euthenasia are equally unacceptable; capital punishment may just be allowable, but there is a vast body of opinion that argues against it. Divorce and the possibility of remarriage are difficult areas, and as for same-sex marriage or choosing one’s own gender, the Church doesn’t believe it possible. Not, please note, that the Church is against it; she just doesn’t believe we can decide such matters for ourselves. All these things make Catholics out of step with contemporary British opinion, and often with other Churches that regard inclusivity as more important than tradition. But then, of course, other things come into play. I trust my divorced and remarried friends, my trans friends, my friends who have had abortions, find me as welcoming as those whose lives have taken a different course. And there’s the rub.

Looked at from outside, Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, can appear harsh in its refusal to accept unquestioningly many of society’s current values. Where there is congruence, as, for example, in awareness of the earth’s finite resources and the need for more equitable sharing or for the pursuit of social justice and the common good, there is no problem. But even where there is disagreement, as in some of the instances I have mentioned, these disagreements are not carried over into condemnation of the individual or personal animosity. We are a Church of sinners, and that knowledge teaches us to be humble in the face of difference. We uphold what we believe to be true because we believe it to be true. To do otherwise would be to do violence to our conscience. But we must always be ready to explain, and to make sure that what we believe to be the teaching of the Church really is the teaching of the Church, not our own version of it. Love has a way of making difficult or contradictory things easier. It reminds us that shibboleths can take many forms. Only discernment can show which are nourishing ears of corn and which are transitory wisps of straw.

Please note: I don’t want to get into an argument over the teaching of the Catholic Church in this blog. If you want to know what the Church teaches, a good place to start is the Catechism, which you can find online in English here. (Link opens in new window.)

 

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Remembrance Sunday 2017

I am repeating a post I wrote originally in 2015 because it says exactly what I would like to say and pray this morning.

poppies

Poppies by Giuseppe Moscato (www.flickr.com/photos/pinomoscato/)
Image source: Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licence

For people of a certain age or religious belief, Remembrance Sunday is uncomplicated. We pray for the dead and ask God to change our hearts and minds so that war is done away with altogether. Our prayer may be tinged with memories of family members looking out of black and white photographs into a future they were destined never to know, or seared by remembrance of the terrible wounds of mind and body borne even now by those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it is essentially unsentimental, unarguable. People fought; they died; we remember, and we pray. We are grateful for the sacrifices that made our freedoms possible, but we don’t want them repeated. We want a world at peace.

But what if we haven’t grown up with those photographs — if we have swallowed wholesale the revisionist histories or political ideologies that confuse ends and means  and make us uncertain, troubled? What if we have no faith that looks through death? Then, I think, we are left with little more than vague sentiment, regret and fear. Millions of deaths, whether as combatants or civilians, are hard to get our minds round. The more we know about the conduct of this war or that and the political shenanigans that accompanied them, the further away we are from any sense of personal connectedness, the less easy it is to accept the simple view of history. We walk hesitantly where our forebears strode confidently. And if we have no faith, the poppies and the bugle calls bring no peace, no certainty that ultimately sin and failure are redeemed, only regret and an unfathomable bleakness of mind and spirit. We are in the wilderness again.

This morning many of us will have our own private memories of war and the grief that war brings, but even if we don’t, this national act of remembrance is one in which we can take part with integrity and purposefulness. During the two minutes’ silence let us pray not only for the fallen and the wounded, for forgiveness and healing, but also for understanding. Just as peace begins within, so does war. The conflicts of the twenty-first century look like being very different from those of the twentieth, but the toll they will exact in terms of human suffering and death will be the same. Unless we are prepared to make the effort to understand others, we can be sure we will have to pay the price. ‘Peace has her victories no less than war,’ we are told. Indeed, and the greatest of these is to make war impossible. Let us remember that, too.

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