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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St Martin of Tours and Armistice Day

There is a sad irony in the fact that Armistice Day co-incides with the feast of St Martin of Tours. Long-term readers will know that Martin is a favourite of mine, as he is of most monks and nuns, but I supect the one story everybody knows about him is of his having shared his cloak with a beggar — the young soldier, not yet baptised, who responded to the need of another and found, as we all do, that it was Christ he was serving. And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we recall the Armistice and the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, which did nothing of the sort and only showed us how much death and destruction seemingly civilised nations can wreak upon one another. Is there any way of making sense of this?

We could, of course, reflect on the fact that poverty kills more people than war does. We could go and look at paintings of St Martin using his sword to divide his cloak and be struck by how much they tell us about the social attitudes of the painter — the saint is almost invariably depicted on horseback, condescending to the poor man rather than standing side by side with him — and examine our own attitudes to charitable giving. We could go and read accounts of war in Europe and its aftermath and be sobered by our apparent inability to see further than our own noses at times. All these would be useful but I doubt whether they would help us understand something I think St Martin understood, and that we need to understand if we are not to repeat the unlearned lessons of the past.

Martin’s life was changed for ever by his encounter with that poor man on the road. He was baptised, braved his superiors’ disapproval and a spell in gaol, became a monk and later a bishop, and was remarkable not only for his orthodoxy but also his compassion. His efforts on behalf of the Priscillianists, for example, did not endear him to others. Like St Ambrose, he opposed the burning of heretics and did what he could to alleviate their sufferings. But there is something else I think we should remember. He was born in what is now Hungary, lived much of his life in Italy, and founded the first monastery in the West at Marmoutier in Gaul (now France). He was, so to say, an internationalist avant la lettre. His membership of the Church made national boundaries of secondary importance. That does not preclude love of country and all that is good about patriotism, but it does do away with the less admirable elements, what I call the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ approach of drunken football fans and the like. It means seeing people clearly as people, not as abstractions, symbols of something else. When Martin looked into the eyes of the poor man, he saw his brother, not an object of compassion. I think that is what we all have to learn to do. I dare to say if we could all learn to do that, Armistice Day would have attained its purpose and we would all live more happily as a result.

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Remembering: Armistice Day and More

The last few days have seen events that have made huge demands on the world’s attention and understanding: the horrors being perpetrated in Mosul, the outcome of the U.S.A. presidential election and the diverse reactions to it, the ongoing squabbles about Brexit. At the same time, we have been marking some significant anniversaries: Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Armistice Day. If what I have read is in any way typical, there has been a great deal of gloating and unholy glee manifested by some who are ordinarily kind and considerate, and a good deal of self-indulgent and self-referential grieving expressed by others. These will be thought harsh verdicts and I am sure many will leap to their keyboards to accuse me of being snobbish (because I am not a populist), stupid (because I do not agree with them) and, of course, ‘judgemental’ — which no one should ever be, least of all one who professes to be a Christian (I am being ironical). I hope you will allow me to argue my point, notwithstanding.

Armistice Day always makes me think of my grandparents and the people I knew in my youth: the wheezy old gentlemen, sometimes missing a limb or two, who would never speak about war or what it had meant to them; the maiden ladies whose fiançés had died at the Front and who subsequently lived lives of genteel poverty and loneliness; the tears shed by my maternal grandmother over her two sons killed in World War II; the pressed flowers from the Western Desert and the blood stains in one of my father’s books which told their own sad story. We children remembered, even though we ourselves had no part in the wars of our parents and grandparents; and as we stood during the Two Minutes’ Silence, we prayed for all the fallen of all wars and armed conflicts and asked God to grant us peace in our day. Today that prayer looks a little frayed round the edges. What is happening in Syria is barbaric; the souring of relations between the world’s superpowers is the stuff of nightmares; and the growing feeling that we no longer share any common sense of the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is deeply troubling.

The polarisation of society is something that should concern us all because, left unchecked, it does indeed lead to the victimisation of individuals and groups. If we value free speech, we need to be responsible about what we say and how we say it because, when all controls are gone, the very freedom it is meant to safeguard is endangered. We are all familiar with the way in which Social Media has been used to inflict pain and suffering through the repetition of untrue or unsubstantiated claims and through direct and sinister attacks on others. I think, however, there is something we can do which might help us.

As you might expect of a Benedictine, I always pray before going online or before writing anything. In effect, what I am doing is pausing a moment to remember what it is I am about and the people involved. Sometimes, of course, I get it all wrong and express myself badly or rudely or otherwise inadequately. Sometimes, however, I get it right; and instead of stoking the fires and multiplying misunderstandings, I manage to stumble across the words needed to defuse a situation. Sometimes, face to face, no words are needed, just a smile. You might expect me to say that prayer is at the heart of this, but I would say the act of remembering precedes prayer. It is what we need to do to allow God into the situation. Remembering, in this context, is not taking up a pre-determined position and going over (yet again) all one’s grievances. It is a little more difficult than that, and requires an act of will to accompany the act of remembrance. It means saying to oneself: this is a situation I have to deal with. I can make it better or worse. What do I have to do or change in myself to make it better?

Tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, many will stand beside War memorials and bow their heads in remembrance. Many others will not; or will utter some sort of protest at British imperialism or the arms trade or whatever. If what I have said above is true, what matters is what we ourselves do: how we remember, how we respond. It is no use lamenting the state of the world if we are not prepared to do something about it. We must start with ourselves, and remembering is a good first step.

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Poverty, War and St Martin of Tours

Today is Armistice Day in Britain. At 11.00 a.m. the nation will stop, pause for two minutes and silently remember or pray for all those who died in World War I and subsequent conflicts.  In the monastic calendar, it is also the feast of St Martin of Tours, the soldier turned monk and bishop, who is remembered for having shared his cloak with a poor man he met on the road and is celebrated as the founder of the abbey of Marmoutier, the first monastery in the west. The connection between the two is poverty. Poverty kills more people than war, but war always impoverishes those caught up in it. We have only to think of the suffering experienced by millions of people after the First and Second World Wars, or look at what is happening in Europe today, to see the truth of that. The migrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East are proof, should we need any, that war ceates poverty.

To later generations, Martin’s cutting his cloak in two in order to share it has become a symbol of how poverty is alleviated — not so much by giving as by sharing. That can be a rather tricky idea to get one’s head round because it suggests that the have-nots have a claim on what the haves possess. They have, so to say, a right to what is shared with them. That goes against our ideas of self-help and making our way in the world, and undermines any sense of self-satisfaction we may be tempted to feel when we notice ourselves being generous, but it is surely the most Christian response to poverty. As a nun, Martin’s example challenges me to consider how we as a monastic community attempt to meet the needs of the poor in our own day, mindful of the fact that poverty isn’t always material poverty. And, of course, his example also reminds me of the danger of thinking of poverty as an abstraction. It isn’t. Poverty has a face, as individual as yours and mine. It is Christ’s in everyone who is poor.

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Generosity: Pure but not Simple

Today is one of those days with multiple layers of meaning. We remember that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War for Civilisation which was to end all wars officially came to an end. We also remember St Martin of Tours, himself a former soldier like so many monks, but remembered today chiefly for one incident — the sharing of his cloak with a beggar.

I once summed up the secret of St Martin’s hold on the popular imagination in words that earned me a thorough scolding from some readers:

The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

Perhaps I should have kept the smile out of my writing and concentrated on Martin’s generosity instead, because I think it is generosity that connects both Armistice Day and the saint. The selflessness of those who gave their lives for freedom is a theme many have recalled over the week-end; the lived generosity of day-to-day will be the theme of many a gospel homily this morning. Generous people are immensely attractive. They are big-hearted, kind, warm. They never misuse their gifts to make others feel small or inferior. They never praise one in order to make another feel slighted. They are great encouragers, even if inside they don’t feel quite as happy or confident as they appear on the outside. They remind us that generosity is a mark of the pure of heart, but attaining that purity isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Note:
Do read Tanya Marlow’s blog post for Saturday afternoon (link opens in new window), when she reflected on the CNMAC Blogger of the Year award, for which she, like me, was a finalist. It is a beautiful example of the kind of generosity I am writing about. Her blog is uniformly excellent: add it to your list of must-reads. You can find a list of the winners and runners-up of the CNMAC awards here.

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