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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Grudges, Grouches and Grumbles

The three ‘g’s — grudges, grouches and grumbles — are best avoided if we want a long and happy life. Constantly harping on old hurts or finding the proverbial fly in the ointment is a sure way of distancing other people and making oneself miserable at the same time. St Benedict’s frequent exhortation to avoid grumbling was not a matter of quietistic ‘put up and shut up’ (which could lead to the perpetration of the most hideous wrongs) but recognition of a psychological and spiritual truth. Memory and will are closely linked. A sense of grievance often has the unhappy effect of binding us in the past, in a situation we cannot change (because it is past) but which determines our present and future. It is a kind of moral blight, stunting growth.

Yesterday many people in Britain remembered the events of World War I in moving ceremonies redolent of Holy Week Tenebrae services. There was regret, penitence even; gratitude and pride; predominantly, perhaps, a poignant sense of waste — so many lives lost, and ultimately, for what? I very much doubt whether anyone used the language I occasionally heard from the lips of my grandparents’ generation about ‘the filthy Bosch’ or ‘the Hun’. Yesterday’s insults, like yesterday’s enmities, lay silent in death.

This morning, however, we must face the reality of today’s hatreds and fears. What will become of the Christians forced to flee from the Middle East, most recently from Mosul? Will the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel lead to anything like peace? Nearer home, how will the preparations for the Scottish referendum proceed? It is easy to say, let go of your grudges, forget the ancestral myths, don’t be chained by your history, real or imagined. Easy to say, but not easy to do. I take heart, however, from this fact: we may not forget the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. What works at the individual level can work — if we are willing — at the level of peoples and nation states. If yesterday’s commemorations taught us anything, they taught us the price to be paid for human folly and malice. A grudge may seem a very little thing, but it can set the whole world on fire.

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The Great War for Civilisation and St John Vianney

Today we commemorate two very different things: the centenary of the day Britain found herself at war with Germany — the Great War for Civilisation as it was called, which left 17 million dead — and the feast day of St John Vianney, popularly known as the Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests and a man singularly well-acquainted with the deceptions of sin and the frailty of human nature.

St John Vianney himself had a peculiarly tangled relationship with the military. Although a student for the priesthood, he was drafted into the French army in 1809 because Napoleon was anxious for troops to fight in the Peninsular War. Within two days he was ill in hospital. When sent to rejoin his company at Roannne, he stepped into a church to pray and fell behind the group. The guide he secured led him deep into the mountains where he lived as a deserter for fourteen months until there was an amnesty.

I daresay a psychologist might explain the illness and the falling into some kind of trance in church as an expression of St John Vianney’s deep-seated desire to become a priest and not to fight. One must certainly allow for the fact that the moral and spiritual revulsion St John Vianney felt at the idea of war had profound effects on his mind and body. He became incapable of fighting because of his strong desire not to fight.

A hundred years ago today, this country was deeply divided about war with Germany. There were many ties of blood and friendship between our two nations, and although Kaiser Wilhelm was widely regarded as a crackpot, not everyone was convinced of the duty to defend ‘plucky little Belgium’ with military action. When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, and the terrible carnage began to mount up, the division at home became quite bitter. The forcing of white feathers on those perceived to be cowards because they were not fighting was shameful, but it was a mark of how twisted minds can become under the pressure of war. You must be made to think as I do. Anything else undermines the war effort, and that must be avoided at all costs.

Today, when war is convulsing so much of the world, and the West seems incapable of brokering even a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, let alone encouraging warring nations to make peace, it can be helpful to reflect on the experience of the last hundred years and the number of wars in which we have engaged — at least partly, perhaps even principally — because we believe others should think as we do. We have a tendency to dress our actions up with fine sentiments about liberty and democracy, but who would not admit that we have sometimes deceived ourselves? I am certainly not saying that war is never justified, or that all the wars fought during the past century have been waged on unjust or insufficient grounds, I am merely asking a question that I suspect St John Vianney, and many of those who took part in World War I, asked themselves with great earnestness of spirit: why am I doing this, and is it right? It is a question we must answer as individuals as well as nation states.

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