What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candle may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor10 of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen, September - October, 1917
Wilfrid Owen’s poetry introduced me to the reality of war as a student at secondary school, along with Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves these were the writers that helped me see the sacrifice that we ask others to make on our behalf when we send them to fight for us. These writers showed us what they suffered in war, as well as revealing their courage.
All of us have some contact with war today, even if it isn’t with the actual experience of fighting. One experience that stays with me is visiting the S21 prison in
and seeing the remnants of
the appalling Pol Pot regime. It was an experience similar perhaps to those who
visit Cambodia Auschwitz, a chilling and frightening
one to witness to the remnant and memory of what people do to one another in
war. The element that I found so scary about the Cambodian war was the way in
which it seemed impossible to work out and follow who was fighting who – the
terror would turn ally into foe in an irrational chaos. But, the museum that
this small school had become, the memory of the torture chamber that it was,
was honouring the dead. People came, people looked, and people saw what had
happened. These places of memory, like the S21 Prison Museum, and the current
poppy display at the Tower of London catch the imagination in their different
ways, helping those of us who didn’t’ experience the wars first hand, to
understand and remember.
But, other than imagining and remembering and honouring, what can we say today?
Can faith take us through war, into war, along with war?
Can faith survive war?
Well- we perhaps can only look to examples of people who have revealed in their lives that faith can not only survive but grow, nourish and bring inner peace in the midst of war.
Etty Hillesum is such a person. She was a young Dutch Jewish woman working in
during World War II who kept a series of journals that recorded her spiritual
awakening. She served Jewish refugees in a Nazi transit camp before she too was
finally transported to Amsterdam Auschwitz, on November
30, 1943, at the age of 29, where she was killed.
An editor of her journals, Anne Marie Kidder, writes that Etty, "is a mystic who, amid the war's horrors, could affirm the goodness and beauty of life and taught herself, as she taught others, to explore the landscape of the soul and the soul's quest for truth and God.” Etty became, in her own astonishing words, "the thinking heart of the barracks”. What does it take to be able to affirm goodness and beauty in the midst of the horror of war?
For Etty, war became the catalyst for the transformation and purification of the heart. Rather than it consuming and destroying her soul, as it did her body, her soul was made perfect through the experience; she rose up to heaven, whilst her body was in hell. In war she found out what peace meant."True peace will come when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race--even into love one day. It is the only solution" she writes.
It takes prophets and mystics to transform conversation and power. For men and women of peace are powerless in the face of the world’s actions. Yet, as people of faith we know that the Cross is ultimately greater than any power in this world. Jesus’ abandonment on the cross, his utter powerlessness in the face of the violence and destruction of the world was transformative – he rejected the ways of this world and in self-sacrifice and in peace he transformed the world. For in losing everything of worldly value, we know we can attain everything of the greatest importance: truth, justice, and ultimately peace.
So, this Remembrance Sunday when we remember those who have given their lives for us, we can honour them most effectively by focussing in on our own lives and in dedicating ourselves to developing an attitude of peace in our hearts and minds, a practice that should transform our speech and our personal and public relationships. We must always look for and seek peace so that we do not have to ask young and old to give their lives in active service:
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty”, writes Etty,: “to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”