War


My subject is war, and the pity of war..” wrote Wildred Owen, a First World War poet in the preface to a collection of his poems. He was well qualified to write about it, having known that particular hell- on- earth from the inside, in all its horror. His poetry tells a graphic story of war, it’s nightmarish realities and harrowing experiences. What it does to men and how it changes them. He was to die himself, in that nightmare, only seven days before it came to an end.

His writing exposed the lie of the glory of war especially to those who watched from the safety of untouched shores. Describing a poison gas attack in his poem

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent like some beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie Dulce et decorum est,
Pro patria mori .

(it is a sweet thing to die for one’s country)

The last three novels I have read, have coincidentally, had war as one of their main themes, from unusual angles. One covering the First World War, one the Second, and one the Trojan war. Different weapons, centuries apart, same violence and death. As well as its horrors, they also covered the deep bonds and camaraderie between those who fight alongside each other, facing death at every turn. It is now ten years since the start of the war in Afghanistan. The names and photos of all those young lives lost, have been posted on news websites in a silent role of honour. There have been interviews of bereaved families, and grievously wounded soldiers, telling their stories of lives changed forever. Time and time again, I have heard these soldiers talk of their time in active theatre with glowing eyes and wistfulness. Even after being very seriously wounded, they would go back tomorrow if they could.

Wilfred Owen also knew this feeling.

Apologia pro Poemate Meo

I, too, saw God through mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder …

The title of the poem means ‘an explanation for my poetry’ , and these are the opening lines. I guess there never is a time more ‘real’, than when life is stripped down to its bare essential, survival. There is only the intensity of the moment, and living it with all you have and are. Perhaps this is what calls them back, as well as being back with their fellow soldiers? I can only speculate from the sidelines. I have lived through a couple of wars, but was not directly involved or affected, apart from being evacuated a few times. I am perhaps not qualified to speak, which is why I am using allot of other people’s words, who are.

In the First World War, it seems to me, there was so much blood spilled with very little actually gained. A mile or two of muddy Belgian Front, perhaps. Afghanistan is a very different type of war, and yet, ten years on, it is hard to see what, if anything has been gained. The costs, however, are very obvious.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” April 16, 1953 Eisenhower

Ghandi had a very similar view, put more concisely.
An eye for an eye, only makes the whole world blind.”

People in probably every war there has ever been, have thought similarly. Andrew Downing, an architect and poet who fought in the American civil war in the 1800’s wrote these lines, ( a selection from his poem The Bluebird) looking back to his experiences of war, and forward to the time when God’s Kingdom would come on earth, and the prophesy in Micah 4:3 about spears being used as pruning hooks, and ‘nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war, anymore.’ would come to pass.

I am reminded of the battle years

When men, full-armed, and wearing suits of blue,
Marched to the music of the fife and drum
In strong battalions in a southern land.
And all the pomp and blazonry of war–
Guidons and banners tossing in the breeze,
Sabers and muskets glinting in the sun,
Carriage and caisson rumbling o’er the stones,
The midnight vigil of the lone vidette,
The shock and roar of battle, and the shouts
Of the victorious army when the fight
Was done; the aftermath of sorrows deep–
The cries and moans of wounded, dying men,
The hurried burial of the dead at night,
The broken lives in many homes, the hearths
Made desolate–all these come back to me,
As I beheld and knew them once; and then,
In sad reflection to myself I sigh:
What weak, inglorious fools we mortals are
That war must be, or any need of war.

And yet, the better day is coming when
The teachings of the lowly Nazarene
Shall be the rule of nations–as of men;
The sword and bayonet shall be preserved,
By the fair children of a nobler race,
As relics only, of a barbarous past

AMEN.


“bringing love, where love is absent”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a person who fascinates me. She scares some, and attracts others, but she rarely fails to have an impact. I have learnt so much by spending time with her, imaginatively. There are so many hidden depths to her character.  As probably a very young teenager, she faced a near impossible ask, and had to face the potential of losing her life, never mind her reputation, by her obedience.

She said Yes-

but suppose the answer had been NO?

and Heaven held it’s breath

as in that startled moment

a teenage lass

looked an angel in the face.

Cascades of questions

in tug of terror and of trust

as wide eyed in wonder

it dawned on her

the choice was hers

and hers alone.

Yet the choice was not to choose

to surrender choice itself

taking the gift

God gives with life and breath,

to lay it down.

Her Yes was all that she could give

took all she had

to hold the angel’s eye.

‘Let it be to

me as you have said’

and Heaven’s gate swung wide..

 

What a journey that nine months must have been!  It is for any woman, expecting a baby, but the emotional roller coaster Mary went on, from that Yes, to the moment she held her son in her arms, is almost beyond imagining. Facing possible stoning , certain divorce, and having to explain  the unexplainable. Spending time with her also-pregnant-in-miraculous-circumstances cousin, Elizabeth, and finally having someone understand, must have been a huge comfort and relief.

A  long, weary journey, at the height of pregnancy, is never recommended.     (trust me, I was a midwife, once upon a long time ago). A long weary journey with no accommodation provision, let alone medical cover- Mary didn’t even have a friendly face to greet her in Bethlehem. The labour and birth itself, scary to almost every first time mum, must have been a lonely, frightening experience. Then the precious, never, forgotten moment of holding her baby for the first time. This son, who had turned her life upside down.

Upside Down Miracles

Exhausted, yet wide awake,

my body spent, yet every nerve alive.

we one have become Two.

He who lately stirred in me, moved

more than limbs, whose spirit sang

with mine, filling my soul with wordless awe:

now like a lamb, lies in the straw.

God’s perfect lamb…that shepherds knelt to see.

my tiny lamb…so vulnerable

that I would hide him from the fears that lurk, and

what the future may require..

Who then is he, whose soft breath on my neck

nuzzles me close, and with his

fingers in mine, I wonder with a kiss

just who is holding who?

The poems above, are mine. Recently, I came across someone else who has spent time with Mary, and expressed their thoughts in poetry. Frances Croak Frank came up with an insight on Mary that took my breath away.

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,

After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,

‘This is my body, this is my blood?’

 

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,

After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,

‘This is my body, this is my blood?’

 

Well that she said it to him then,

For dry old men,

Brocaded robes belying barrenness

Ordain that she may not say it for him now.

Allot has been written on the priesthood of Mary, the Christ-Bearer, an angle I had never considered – and yet the association with the words  “This is my body, this is my blood” is so startlingly obvious, that I cannot believe I have never made the connection before.  The poem is about women in the priesthood, but this was not what primarily grabbed me.  Mary’s pain, watching her son die an agonising death, and then holding his lifeless body in her arms is unbearable.  When he was a tiny baby, being presented in the Temple, Simeon had told her that “a sword would pierce her heart” . Those words must have haunted her through the years, and I am sure would have played loudly in her head as they came true, before her heart-broken eyes. How do you begin to deal with something like that?

But deal she did, and her journey continued, round the awesome bend of meeting her resurrected son, come back from the dead. Scripture doesn’t describe that meeting, or even tell us that it happened- but I can’t imagine that it didn’t. That she wasn’t allowed that privilege, along with the disciples. What a moment that would have been! We find her next, with the gathered faithful in the upper room .

They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

She will have received the Holy Spirit, though I imagine that the experience had a feeling of deja-vu, flames alighting on her head, small fry, compared to angels appearing with life- shattering news.

We hear no more of her by name, in Scripture, although tradition has her travelling to Ephesus with John,  ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ and the one into whose care Jesus had  entrusted her.  Historians, Irenaeus and Eusebius of Caesarea, write of John ‘The Evangelist’ travelling there, which is probably the basis of the association.

When I was licensed an Anglican Reader, the preacher took Mary’s obedient Yes, as her subject and gave us each a postcard of The Walking Madonna – a bronze by Elizabeth Frink, which stands in the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral.  She quoted the words below, which come from a sermon preached by Revd Professor Frances Young at the Easter dawn service in Salisbury.

In the Cathedral Close is the most potent symbol of resurrection – Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna, striding forth to bring Christ into the world – not as the teenage Virgin, pregnant with the new humanity, but an older Mary, stripped down, thin and ascetic, stomach hollow, face pinched and haggard with suffering – one who has been through the experience of the Pieta and held the dead body of her son across her knee, but now is determined and invigorated with resurrection life – “walking with purposeful compassion as a member of the community of the Risen Christ, to bring love where love is absent.”

May we tread in her steps, filled with light and love and joy, for the Dayspring from on high has visited us, and Christ is risen – Alleluia. Amen.”

This week has been a very  hard one. I have known the heartbreak of Christ’s broken body in a very real way. The broken body of his church, that is.  A situation that was a microcosm of the global picture. It tore my heart to see it, be a part of it, and know how much more God’s heart must be breaking.  I also witnessed very large portions of Grace- shared like the bread broken for the multitudes. More than enough for all.

I experienced too, the most profound Eucharist I have ever had, in my whole life of faith. A simple service, where every line of liturgy and sermon was  imbued with grace, healing and forgiveness. I cried through the whole of it, and could barely swallow the gifts of Grace and undeserved Love, when they were given to me. They were too costly to take in, on any level.

This is my body, this is my blood” Mary knew the cost, as no one else could. Apart from the Father, that is. My prayer is that I can with her,  walk “with purposeful compassion as a member of the community of the Risen Christ, to bring love where love is absent.”