The principle of mercy shapes all of the Beatitudes, we suggested in Chapel, because it reminds us of the truth and dignity of our humanity as found in blessedness. That is a more transcendent form of happiness that belongs to the good of our humanity. The Beatitudes provide a way to think about difficult things such as war and its atrocities.
Since the 10th century in Western Christianity, The Festival of All Saints has been immediately followed by The Solemnity of All Souls. The thread of glory runs through the grave of our common mortality. Remembrance Day is really a secular form of All Souls’ Day. We gather at the Cenotaph in Windsor and then at the School’s Cenotaph. There we remember by name those students who once sat in Chapel where our students currently sit and who went off to the ‘great’ wars and didn’t return. That reality too was made visible in this week’s moving Remembrance Day assembly. We are being asked to remember their sacrifice as something to be honoured and respected.
“They desire a better country” is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is the motto for the Order of Canada and reminds us of a fundamental feature of our humanity: we seek, desire, something more and better not just for ourselves but for one another. That is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. That “better country” is explicitly, “a heavenly” one. It is what we pray for in the Lord’s prayer, that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are reminded of the divine mercy which alone perfects all the imperfect forms of human justice which so often turn into the spectacles of radical injustice; in short, hell on earth. Remembrance Day is a necessary reminder of our broken and wounded humanity, a sombre reflection on evil and death. But to remember such dark and difficult things recalls us to mercy and grace.
Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, uses the imagery of the accoutrements of war to emphasise the spiritual struggle for the good in our lives. “Put on the whole armour of God,” he says, naming the traditional elements of battle: breastplate, helmet, and sword, but giving them a spiritual meaning. We are to put on “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit, “but, “above all,” he says, “taking the shield of faith.”
The image of the shield is particularly striking and belongs to a long tradition of reflection upon the paradoxes of the human condition about misery and felicity. Homer’s Iliad presents a detailed description of Achilles’ shield as part of the armour created by Hephaestus as he prepares to return to the battle to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus. The shield is marvellously described as depicting two cities: the city at peace and the city at war. The city of peace is imaged as a wedding festival and by a court of law reconciling a conflict. Virgil reworks the same contrast between war and peace in his depiction of the shield of Aeneas in The Aeneid. In modern times, the poet W.H. Auden reworks the same image in his poem, The Shield of Achilles.
Written in 1952, that poem speaks to the dark and troubling realities of our world soaked in blood and hatred. He has in mind the horrors of the Second World War, the continuation of WW1. Auden depicts Thetis, the mother of Achilles, as looking over the shoulder of the techno-God Hephaestus while he makes the shield. But looking for what? “For vines and olive trees, /Marble well-governed cities”; “for ritual pieties,/White flower-garlanded heifers, libation and sacrifice”; “for athletes at their games, Men and women in a dance/ Moving their sweet limbs”; all images of the city at peace. But instead of such images of peace and life, what she sees is “an artificial wilderness/ And a sky like lead,” a barren and empty world with “no blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood,/Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,” a meaningless world of armies “column by column in a cloud of dust/ … march[ing away] enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief”; a world of “barbed wire”, “bored officials” and “sweating sentries” where “a crowd of ordinary decent folk/ Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke”, silent in their despair or indifference “as three pale figures were led forth and bound/To three posts driven upright in the ground”; a reference to Calvary by way of the Holocaust.
It is a dead world where men died “before their bodies died,” a world of the spiritually dead, a world where there is “no dancing-floor/ But a weed-choked field” and where “a ragged urchin, aimless and alone … who’d never heard/Of any world where promises were kept, /Or one could weep because another wept”; a world bereft of any compassion. It is a telling indictment of our modern times, a strong reminder of the evil of war and its destructive consequences.
Yet to ponder such things is to look for what transcends them, to what is greater than all the disorders of our hearts and our world. At the heart of the matter is the reality of knowing that we contend against spiritual principles of darkness within our own hearts. We forget this at our peril. The real problem of evil lies within. It takes strong armour “to withstand in the evil day and, having done all, to stand.” It is really about the ethical teachings that bid us to transcend the animosities of our hearts and world by recalling us to a deeper understanding of the dignity and truth of our humanity in the community. This is what C.S. Lewis called the Tau, the ethical way of life for our humanity in a remarkable set of lectures delivered during the dark days of the Second World War in 1943 and published as The Abolition of Man.
On Remembrance Day, the School is a Corps, a body, a living body marching and standing together, listening and praying together. The school itself on Remembrance Day in Windsor is an icon of the desire of the whole community of our humanity. We are part of something greater than the divisions and animosities of our hearts. Our Remembrance Day observances are an icon of our desire, “our desire for a better country, that is, a heavenly.” Such is the mercy that seasons justice.
(Rev'd) David Curry
Chaplain, English and ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy