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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St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!

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