Tag Archives: War

8 May: VE Day, The Cherry Trees.

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

Edward Thomas

This is a war poem. All Edward Thomas’s poems were written with the Great War in the background, here we have loaded words, shedding, dead, followed by the hammer blow, ‘There is none to wed.’ The men were gone to war, as he was going, never to return.

The cherry trees in Thomas’s day would have been like these, with sheep, swine or geese grazing under them. The fruit would have been picked using a wooden ladder, tapering at the top to get between branches, but you could walk between and beneath the trees. The orchard is a fortnight or so before its flowering time, but the ornamental cherry at Saint Mildred’s, Canterbury, was shedding petals this week, strewing the grass.

No weddings this May, due to the corona virus. Edward Thomas could have been writing for us but his wife Helen was an appreciative reader, saying proudly that he found beauty where other people could not see it.

On this VE Day let’s pray for eyes to see the flowers of the field in all their divine glory. Let’s be thankful for all that has been done, these past 75 years, to bring peace to Europe, reconciling former enemies, and over the last 30 years, remedying some of the harm done by the Iron Curtain. Let us pray that peace and understanding will continue growing despite the setbacks of recent times.

Leave a comment

Filed under corona virus, Daily Reflections, poetry, Spring

30 April: Spring is the last true thing

Easter

There was rapture of spring in the morning
When we told our love in the wood,
For you were the spring in my heart, dear lad.
And I vowed that my life was good.
But there's winter of war in the evening,
And lowering clouds overhead,
There's wailing of wind in the chimney nook,
And I vow that my life lies dead.
For the sun may shine on the meadow lands
And the dog rose bloom in the lanes,
But I've only weeds in my garden, lad,
Wild weeds that are rank with the rains.
One solace there is for me, sweet but faint,
As it floats on the wind of the years,
A whisper that spring is the last true thing
And that triumph is born of tears.
It comes from a garden of other days,
And an echoing voice that cries,
Behold I am alive for evermore, And in Me shall the dead arise.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy
(Woodbine Willie).

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Easter, poetry, Spring

8 April, Desert XXXVIII: Enforced exile.

Adam, the first exile.

In 1943, Archbishop Spellman, a former colleague of Pius XII at the Vatican Secretariat of State, visited Ethiopia, which with allied help had defeated the Italian invaders who had overrun the country some years before and planted the beginnings of a colony there. People were sent to create a new Roman Empire in this ‘open country’.

Spellman discovered that many colonists were unhappy with their part in Mussolini’s venture. He met a family who had been exiled from their own home when they were taken as colonisers to Africa.

‘The father of this family told me that the grief he suffered in being taken from his home was renewed and redoubled, when he watched the officers drive another family from their home, to make room for him in a strange land’. And now he and his family were returning to an uncertain future.1

Who knows what became of that family, returning to a famished Italy? Their story is not so far from those of so many displaced people today, exiled even if living in a land flowing with milk and honey and all good things. ‘If I forget you Jerusalem … let my right hand wither.’ Yet who can survive, consumed with bitterness?

1 Francis J. Spellman: Action This Day. Letters from the Fighting Fronts. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943. p169.

Image from West window, Canterbury, thanks to SJC.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent

28 March, Desert XXIX: Proverbs 21.3, More acceptable to the LORD.

poperinge.2

To do righteousness is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

PROVERBS 21:34

This postcard was sent during the Great War from Poperinge, a village in the small enclave of Belgium that was not overrun by the Kaiser’s armies. You may be able to see where the censor obliterated the town’s name for security reasons.

‘Pop’ was a place of rest for allied troops, and an Anglican Chaplain had an open house there. His name was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, alias Woodbine Willie, from the pungent cigarettes he distributed far and wide.

He had the reputation of a poet, often writing in dialect, as he does here. This is from a longer poem, ‘Well?’, describing a soldier’s dream of the Last Things. We include it here since it challenges any smugness that we might have accumulated during our ‘Lenten Observance’ – the man is in the ultimate desert place – or so he feels.

How would you answer that ‘Well?’

For more about Woodbine Willy, see Remembrance Sunday 2015: Woodbine Willie

And day by day, and year by year,
My life came back to me.
I see’d just what I were, and what
I’d ‘ad the charnce to be.
And all the good I might ‘a’ done,
An’ ‘adn’t stopped to do.
I see’d I’d made an ‘ash of it,
And Gawd! but it were true.

A throng ‘o faces came and went,
Afore me on that shore,
My wife, and Mother, kiddies, pals,
And the face of a London whore.
And some was sweet, and some was sad,
And some put me to shame,
For the dirty things I’d done to ’em,
When I ‘adn’t played the game.
Then in the silence someone stirred,
Like when a sick man groans,
And a kind o’ shivering chill ran through
The marrer ov my bones.
And there before me someone stood,
Just lookin’ dahn at me,
And still be’ind ‘Im moaned and moaned
That everlasting sea.
I couldn’t speak, I felt as though
‘E ‘ad me by the throat,
‘Twere like a drownin’ fellah feels,
Last moment ‘e’s afloat.
And ‘E said nowt, ‘E just stood still,
For I dunno ‘ow long.
It seemed to me like years and years,
But time out there’s all wrong.

What was ‘E like? You’re askin’ now.
Can’t word it anyway.
‘E just were ‘Im, that’s all I knows.
There’s things as words can’t say.
It seemed to me as though ‘Is face,
Were millions rolled in one.
It never changed yet always changed,
Like the sea beneath the sun.
‘Twere all men’s face yet no man’s face,
And a face no man can see,
And it seemed to say in silent speech,
‘Ye did ’em all to me.
‘The dirty things ye did to them,
‘The filth ye thought was fine,
‘Ye did ’em all to me,’ it said,
‘For all their souls were mine.’
All eyes was in ‘Is eyes, – all eyes,
My wife’s and a million more.
And once I thought as those two eyes
Were the eyes of the London whore.
And they was sad, – My Gawd ‘ow sad,
With tears that seemed to shine,
And quivering bright wi’ the speech o’ light,
They said, ”Er soul was mine.’
And then at last ‘E said one word,
‘E just said one word ‘Well?’
And I said in a funny voice,
‘Please can I go to ‘Ell?’
And ‘E stood there and looked at me,
And ‘E kind o’ seemed to grow,
Till ‘E shone like the sun above my ead,
And then ‘E answered ‘No
‘You can’t, that ‘Ell is for the blind,
‘And not for those that see.
‘You know that you ‘ave earned it, lad,
‘So you must follow me.
‘Follow me on by the paths o’ pain,
‘Seeking what you ‘ave seen,
‘Until at last you can build the “Is,”
‘Wi’ the bricks o’ the “Might ‘ave been.”‘
That’s what ‘E said, as I’m alive,
And that there dream were true.
But what ‘E meant, – I don’t quite know,
Though I knows what I ‘as to do.
I’s got to follow what I’s seen,
Till this old carcase dies.
For I daren’t face the land o’ grace,
The sorrow ov those eyes.
There ain’t no throne, and there ain’t no books,
It’s ‘Im you’ve got to see,
It’s ‘Im, just ‘Im, that is the Judge
Of blokes like you and me.
And boys I’d sooner frizzle up,
I’ the flames of a burning ‘Ell,
Than stand and look into ‘Is face,
And ‘ear ‘Is voice say – ‘Well?

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent, Mission, PLaces, poetry

8 March, Desert XI: Fear 4.

mercy.ruin

Thomas Merton is living through the hotter part of the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis would blow up a year later; he had cause to be afraid. In the days before this diary entry,* bombers had been flying low over the Monastery of Gethsemane, his home. Thinking about US and world politics aroused:

… my own fear, my own desperate desire to survive, even if only as a voice uttering an angry protest, while the waters of death close over the whole continent.

Why am I so willing to believe that the country will be destroyed? It is certainly possible, and in some sense it may even be likely. But this is a case where, in spite of evidence, one must continue to hope. One must not give in to defeatism and despair, just as one must hope for life in a mortal illness which has been declared incurable.

This is the point. This weakness and petulancy, rooted in egoism. 

Defeatism and despair are rooted in egoism, and they are not necessarily good survival tactics. Let us ask the Lord for a taste of the perfect love that casts out fear and despair

Thomas Merton, Turning towards the World, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p162.

Image from CD.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent, PLaces

5 March, Desert VIII: Fear 1

trees-wind-moon

Edward Thomas wrote ‘Out in the dark’ when he knew he was about to leave for the front during the Great War. No wonder fear drummed on his ear. Like Dylan Thomas, who admired him and claimed him as a Welsh poet, he was aware of the creative nature of night, but he was also often downcast.

We have to love the night, the dark, which is safe for the fallow deer, but does not feel safe to Thomas. Always remember that Jesus was afraid that Thursday night in the garden. Feeling fear is no sin or weakness but we must face our fears.

Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And I and star and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together, — near,
Yet far, — and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent

13 November, Readings from Mary Webb XXIII: The Night Sky (1916)

 

darkevening

Like Edward Thomas, Mary Webb was touched by the Great  War, even at a distance of hundreds of miles across the sea. She knew well that the flashes at the front were not soft lightnings with less stir than a gnat makes, but despite the scarlet wars taking the young men away, she draws our attention to quiet and calm. Our world is small and oftentimes too loud; too lit up by what we might call light noise. But in November, given clear skies, we may see the moon and stars before bedtime!

The moon, beyond her violet bars,
From towering heights of thunder-cloud,
Sheds calm upon our scarlet wars,
To soothe a world so small, so loud.
And little clouds like feathered spray,
Like rounded waves on summer seas,
Or frosted panes on a winter day,
Float in the dark blue silences.
Within their foam, transparent, white,
Like flashing fish the stars go by
Without a sound across the night.
In quietude and secrecy
The white, soft lightnings feel their way
To the boundless dark and back again,
With less stir than a gnat makes
In its little joy, its little pain.

Published out of numerical sequence to appear at Remembrance tide.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, poetry

12 November, Readings from Mary Webb XXII: The Lad out there.

 

poperinge.1
poperinge.3
I had forgotten this war poem by Mary Webb. ‘So young he is, so dear to me’: this was not just written in sympathy for others, but from her own heart. Her three brothers enlisted, and one was gravely injured. Even so, if we cannot feel with those left behind, there is something wrong with us. Pray for all mothers, wives and families and friends worrying, worrying, at home, as well as the men and women on service.
Oh, Powers of Love, if still you lean
Above a world so black with hate,
Where yet–as it has ever been–
The loving heart is desolate,
Look down upon the lad I love,
(My brave lad, tramping through the mire)–
I cannot light his welcoming fire,
Light Thou the stars for him above!
Now nights are dark and mornings dim,
Let him in his long watching know
That I too count the minutes slow
And light the lamp of love for him.
The sight of death, the sleep forlorn,
The old homesickness vast and dumb–
Amid these things, so bravely borne,
Let my long thoughts about him come.
I see him in the weary file;
So young he is, so dear to me,
With ever-ready sympathy
And wistful eyes and cheerful smile.
However far he travels on,
Thought follows, like the willow-wren
That flies the stormy seas again
To lands where her delight is gone.
Whatever he may be or do
While absent far beyond my call,
Bring him, the long day’s march being through,
Safe home to me some evenfall!

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, poetry

11 November: Deliver me from men of blood, O God.

john xxiii

Good Pope John XXIII 

Remembrance Day, and there are wars still on God’s earth.

During most of the Second World War, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli,  the future Pope John XXIII was the pope’s representative in Istanbul, serving the Church in Turkey and Greece from a city where representatives of both sides could meet in secret. He had many diplomatic contacts and helped save many Jewish people from the death camps. He deplored the conflict and the currents of thought that engendered it and fed off it.

In his Journal of a Soul1 he reflects: 

The world is poisoned with morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood, in contradiction to the Gospel. In this matter especially, which is of burning topical interest, ‘deliver me from men of blood, O God.’ … Jesus our Saviour died for all nations, without distinction of race or blood, and became the first brother of the new human family, built on him and his Gospel…

The Holy Church which I represent is the mother of nations, all nations. Everyone with whom I come into contact must admire in the Pope’s representative that respect for the nationality of others, expressed with graciousness and mild judgements, which inspires universal trust. Great caution then, respectful silence, and courtesy on all occasions. It will be wise for me to insist on this line of conduct being followed by all my entourage, at home and outside. We are all more or less tainted with nationalism. The Apostolic Delegate must be, and must be seen to be, free from this contagion. May God help me.

May God help us to show respect and courtesy to all those we meet, and encourage others to do likewise. May he give us the peace the world cannot give!

1 John Paul XXIII (1965), Journal of a Soul, London Geoffrey Chapman.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

10 November: Remembrance 2019

 

southsea

This is a view of Portsmouth from the sea. The monument on the left is the Naval Memorial, and this still is Navy town, though there are fewer ships and fewer sailors than in 1944, when the city was an important departure point for the D-Day Normandy Landings.

Back in June this year some the old men who took part in that action to liberate France and Europe returned with the British Legion, as well as their allied counterparts. The Legion’s Head of Remembrance, Nicholas Rowlands had been preparing the men for this last big commemoration in Normandy, and he told the i newspaper*:

A lot of their memories are, naturally, quite sad. But the ones that  they tend to connect with the most are the funny memories. You can see them go back to 1944 and they’re 19 years old again,  it’s lovely.

The tall Naval Memorial cannot be ignored; the deaths of soldiers, sailors and airmen, nurses and ambulance drivers must not be ignored, nor the suffering in the occupied countries, the concentration camps, and the continuing conflicts around the world today.

But the way the funny memories light up the veterans says something about the human spirit. We can find absurdity frightening, or we can look on it as something to be laughed at, to be smiled over in retrospect. Absurdity is a hint that there is peace of mind to be had somewhere. We can connect with that peace by acknowledging our sinfulness and frailties and by laughing absurdity and fear out of court.

* Rob Hastings, I-newspaper 4.6.19 p20

Portsmouth, an important departure point for the landings and for today’s peace time ferries.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections