The sacred feast of All Saints informs and shapes the secular observances known as Remembrance Day. The Octave of All Saints includes the Solemnity of All Souls. On the one hand, we are reminded of the spiritual community of our common humanity; on the other hand, we remember our common mortality. In particular, we try to remember those who gave their lives in the great and defining events of the 19th and 20th century. It is a serious and sombre kind of remembering. And difficult.
Why is it difficult? Partly because our human memories are so feeble and fragile, finite and incomplete. At best, as the Octave of All Saints so profoundly teaches, they are joined to God’s eternal remembering and loving of all saints and all souls. In the time of scattered leaves and in the culture of scattered souls, there is a gathering, a remembering which is nothing less than the return to God of all that has gone forth from God. That return is about fellowship, about a kind of community in which together we live for what is greater than ourselves without which we cannot be a self. As such the remembering too is about character.
The transition from the sacred to the secular is complementary not oppositional. The great text read on Monday and Tuesday of this week complements and intensifies the readings we heard last week. In a powerful passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus, who has identified himself as the vine in whom we have our abiding in the love of God, tells us that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. The phrase adorns a thousand cenotaphs in communities throughout our land. A cenotaph is an empty tomb, a poignant reminder that not even their bodies were able to be returned to their communities, homes, and families.
Remembrance Day is not and cannot be about the glorification of war. If anything, war is ugly. War is hell. Another difficulty is that we don’t think deeply enough about its horrors. “I hope they will forgive us,” a character says in Timothy Findlay’s novel, The Wars, to which another responds, “I only hope that they will remember we were human.” It is our humanity in disarray, broken and wounded. Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman tells the story of the making of the Oxford English dictionary under the leadership of Professor James Murray. A collaborative affair, Murray realised that there was a Dr. W.C Minor who contributed more than ten thousand words to the project. Upon going to visit him, he discovered that he was incarcerated in a mental asylum. He had been a doctor in the American Civil War and at the enormously destructive Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. He was profoundly affected by the carnage but even more by having to brand an Irish deserter with a ‘T’ on his face. He later committed murder in London while in a delusional state and was committed to Broadmoor Asylum for thirty-eight years. Today we would say he suffered from PTSD. But the deeper point is that we don’t simply confront the horrors of what others commit, we confront the horrors of which we too are capable of committing. This is part of the deeper remembering and even the healing of Remembrance Day.
The phrase speaks profoundly to the forms of our fellowship and unity even in the face of an uncertain and troubled world. The mercy of the Beatitudes as we saw last week is about a higher and more perfect form of justice. Here Jesus concentrates that teaching in the concept of friendship.
Friendship features prominently in the literary traditions of which we are the heirs. The whole story of the Epic of Gilgamesh turns on the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is the wonderful friendship between David and Jonathan while on the Greek side, there is the wonderful friendship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad. Friendship with the Good, with what is true and beautiful, is what is sought for in Plato and Aristotle even if that friendship may seem too high for us. It is by definition beyond us and yet enfolds us in its power. Cicero will write a great treatise de Amicitia, which will influence the centuries after him culminating in the great Christian reworking of that Latin work in Aelred of Rievaulx’s 12th century treatise, On Spiritual Friendship. “God”, he says, “is friendship”, an interpretation of the phrase that God is love.
Friendship. It is a powerful and important concept that belongs inescapably to the idea of the qualities of the soul which perfect and adorn our humanity. But it is easily misunderstood especially when we have too much a restricted view of our humanity. Friends and enemies. Such is the most commonplace divide in our world and day. But in calling us friends, Jesus calls us to a sense of our fellowship and fraternity with him in his love for the Father. It is something spiritual. Our life together with one another is grounded in something greater. It is about our friendship with the Good, something which by definition transcends the animosities and divides of our world and day.
We try to remember. But our remembering is gathered up into something quite rich and powerful, the eternal remembering by God of all souls and all saints. That means that our poor, poor remembering participates in God’s eternal knowing and loving of all souls. On Remembrance Day, we remember by name those who went forth from this School and gave their lives for our liberties and lives. They sat where you are seated in our Chapel. Many of them did not return. We gather at an empty tomb, a cenotaph, to remember them by name. They may be completely unknown to you. The point is that they are known to God. And so are we.
Owing to the restrictions of Covid-19 in general and upon the civic, military and cadet world in particular, the public observations of remembrance are restrained and limited. At King’s-Edgehill, the School gathers at its cenotaph. Though not in Highland Dress or cadet uniform, it is still the School as a Corps, a body united in a purposeful event. We remember by name those who gave their lives for their county and for the spiritual and political freedoms which, I hope, we may continue to enjoy. Our poor remembering is gathered up into God’s eternal remembering. That alone is our hope and our joy. It challenges us about living for something greater than ourselves. Such is part and parcel of an education that is about character. It is found in our friendship and commitment to one another both here and in our global world.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy