Monday Morning Musings

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of Brexit, but Donald Tusk’s puerile rudeness towards Theresa May has made me much more sympathetic towards her than I ever dreamed I could be. It reminded me of incidents in my brief banking career when one was subject to similar laddishness (though, thankfully, Instagram did not exist then), to say nothing of the tiresome misogyny women still encounter in the Church. Happily, today’s first reading at Mass, Proverbs 3. 27–34, is a reminder that men do not have a monopoly of bad behaviour. We can all be boorish at times. The trouble comes, I would suggest, when we see our rudeness as a positive good, a mark of our independence of mind and spirit, and forget what the effect on others may be.

I have long thought that in Britain we have come to despise courtesy and forgiveness as weakness. The idea that inviting the German President to attend a ceremony at the Cenotaph to mark the end of the First World War is an ‘insult’ to those who fought and died in that war strikes me as but the latest example of such a tendency. I can’t imagine any of my family thinking in that way. The legacy they left their grandchildren (of whom I am one) was the conviction that war is a terrible evil, to be avoided at all costs; but if one is called upon to serve, one must do one’s duty but never make the quarrel personal or one will never be free of the hatred and suspicion that led to war in the first place. I am not sure that I have always managed that (my dealings with whoever is the Enemy of the Moment, especially if encountered just after emerging from the confessional, tend to give the lie) but I acknowledge it as an ideal, above all, a Christian ideal.

Why do I link courtesy and forgiveness? The answer is very simple. The word ‘courtesy’ originally meant manners fit for a royal court but subsequently came to have overtones of something granted as a gift, not by right. We all live by the mercy of God, freely given. We have no ‘right’ to grace or forgiveness, but we have the duty of sharing both; and if we do, we have our place in the court of heaven. Long after Mr Tusk’s little jibe has been forgotten and the memory of the First World War is just one more of those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’ a courtesy, a kindness, a refusal to bind another with unforgiveness will shine as brightly as the stars.

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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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Remembrance Sunday 2012

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.

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