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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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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Remembrance Sunday 2015

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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All Souls Day 2014

Purgatory by Carracci

What do we mean when we talk about the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed? Why do we set aside this day for special prayer for the dead; and why do we treat it as a feast, with a more elaborate liturgy than usual? In previous years I have shared a little of the history and theology of the day* but this morning I thought I’d try to address those three basic questions.

1. The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed on All Souls
Most of us are unthinking egotists. We rarely reflect on all those who lived before us and to whom we are linked by bonds of faith and charity, yet on this day of the year we are invited to pray with and for them with special intensity. We are reminded of our immense dignity as human beings and our eternal fellowship with one another. We are also reminded of the goal to which we look forward: a place in the Kingdom, a seat at the Heavenly Banquet, the vision of God. How lightly we let those ideas trip off the tongue, yet they are serious, the reason for our being here, the fulfilment of every hope or dream we have ever had; the perfection of life and love. In the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed the Church sets these ideas before us not as abstractions but as realities. Most of us appropriate them by praying for the dead we have known or with whom we feel a connection: our families and friends for the most part, but also those we have heard about in the news or whose stories have touched us in some way. In the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed we are asked to enlarge our vision, to embrace every soul, to pray for the whole Church Suffering.

2. Praying in a Special Way Today
To pray for the dead is a work of charity and the Church encourages us to do so throughout the month of November, not just today; but because we find it difficult to keep our focus, we are given this special day to lay aside our personal concerns and pray for all the dead. The whole Church prays as one, and marks the day with special prayers and ceremonies, which is very powerful. Perhaps we can see better what it is  by looking at an analogy. Later this month we shall celebrate Remembrance Sunday. It is a kind of secular counterpart to what the Church celebrates in All Souls. For some it has become an awkward occasion, used to glorify war, bolster nationalism or vindicate current political preoccupations or activity. That shows how far we have drifted from the concept of praying for the dead, or even from recognizing our common humanity and frailty. At its simplest and best, I suppose, Remembrance Sunday is not, or should not be, about war at all but about praying for those who have died in war or as a result of war and our commitment to seeking peaceful solutions to the conflicts that arise among us. There is nothing sentimental or jingoistic about that. Here in the monastery, we have no difficulty in praying for every person, known or unknown, who has died, no matter what ‘side’ they were on, no matter what their beliefs or lack of them. As we remember the waste of war, we also ask God’s mercy for the future. Thus, the unique character of All Souls is grafted onto a secular commemoration which is given fresh purpose and meaning as a consequence.

3. A Feast
All Souls is an odd kind of liturgical celebration. I’m reminded of Gertrude’s ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye’. We have all the grandeur of a festival and all the bleakness of a funeral. There may be six candles on the altar and three lessons at Mass, but the vestments are black (or purple, if black is not available), the mood sombre, the music slow, plaintive and unaccompanied. Again, I think it is the Church concentrating our minds, so to say, on our dignity as human beings and on the dignity of human flesh. We celebrate not just life but death as entrance into fuller life. The rituals with which we surround the dead body at a funeral are a mark of our recognition that the baptised person is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not just a meaningless collection of cells. On All Souls Day we have no dead body in our midst; instead we have the whole Church Suffering surrounded with our love and prayer as it undergoes purification. So, a feast that is not exactly a feast; a celebration that is only half-joyful; instead of a corpse, living souls; and all these things because the vision of God has not yet been attained. The souls in purgatory are assured of their salvation but they are still in via, and we can identify with them on the journey we hope one day to share.

That, in a nutshell, is all I want to say about All Souls today. Three simple responses to three quite profound questions, but I hope they will encourage you to pray, if you do not already do so, and to share a little more fully in the meaning of this day. If you wish the community to pray for a particular deceased person during the month of November, please use this link to make your request via our prayerline.

* Theology and History of the Feast
I’ve written quite a lot about All Saints, All Souls, Purgatory and Praying for the Dead. The quickest way to find links is to use the search box on the right.

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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.

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13 November 2011

For most people this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, pure and simple, when we recall the sacrifice of those who died in defence of our freedom. It is a day for prayer and gratitude and solemn acts of remembering. Here is it is also Oblates’ Day, when we welcome those of our oblates and associates who can get here to a day of quiet fellowship at the monastery. The 13 November is the feast of All Benedictine Saints so is suitably challenging: holiness, and nothing less, is what we aim at, and we have a ‘great crowd of witnesses’ to encourage us. Today will have challenges peculiar to itself, however, as half the community is down with what looks suspiciously like ‘flu or a similar virus. It reminds me of that lovely Hasidic saying, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I trust there is a broad grin in heaven today.

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