Today we remember. Today we get to exercise that part of us that has the capacity to bring history into the present, and reflect deeply on our shared humanity. To do that, we’ll ruminate together on three distinct aspects of remembrance as we recollect the reality of war, set against the deep human yearning for peace.
The first and most obvious perspective is historical memory, our awareness (however minimal) of the wide sweep of human experience and struggle; the perspectives of the victors and the defeated alike. It includes the military strategies and the politics of conflict found in books written by the Romeo Dallaires of this world; as well as the institutional memory of churches like this one, whose membership proudly generated willing volunteers through generations to join the fight at the call of King and country. Through this, and through the basics of history learned in school, enhanced perhaps by the occasional documentary on the History Channel, or through our own travel to countries where war and sectarian violence have been a way of life over centuries, we all have some sense of the struggles that have shaped our modern world, and which continue to shape it. There’s an old proverb that says: “History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens.” ….which I suppose is a semi-humorous way of saying that historical memory matters, and it matters a great deal.
On the other end of the scale is personal memory – memories that are unique to each one of us. There may be some among us who have had direct experience of armed conflict, or are related to someone who has; perhaps some who are retired from military service; or some who are currently serving, or who are related to someone who is. Some among us may have had the experience of living in a country at war, or recall the reality of bomb shelters and Cold War air raid sirens here at home, or have difficult memories related to conflicted areas like Vietnam, Kosovo, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Israel, or Afghanistan. We may have witnessed the effects of war on our family lives, and are reliving them today: stories of a father or grandfather or brother who was never quite the same after returning from the field of battle; of wounds, physical or mental, that never really healed; of family life affected by wartime separation or bereavement. We all have memories unique to our own experience, just as we know instinctively that war, no matter how it’s depicted in the movies, (the story of Saving Private Ryan notwithstanding), doesn’t always make people better or braver, but can and often does leave a traumatic legacy that stretches across generations. So for many of us today, our memory banks have been activated and perhaps sent into overdrive as we contemplate the real cost of human conflict as it pertains to us and to those we know and love.
So – if historical memory helps us see the big picture, and personal memory connects us with individual stories, that leaves a third and equally important kind of memory to consider, and for want of a better term I’m going to call it spiritual memory. On this day, as at no other point in the year, we’re called to remember our foundations, our spiritual values, the things that matter to us, the beliefs that support us.
The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon is a reading appointed for All Souls, but it has also become synonymous with Remembrance Day. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, it begins; no torment touches them; they are at peace. The underlying theme is that God’s loving care for them and for us extends even beyond death: we are held in God’s arms, in peace, forever. God’s vision for humanity, conveyed and entrusted to ordinary people like Abraham and Moses, was a vision of a nation, a society, a world, based on the principles of justice, fairness, compassion and respect. The righteous ones throughout God’s history are the ones who embrace that vision, and who are prepared to make sacrifices to bring it to reality; and the souls of those righteous ones, we’re told, are safe and secure in the hand of God.
Remembering the things that matter is a theme picked up in a different way in the second reading. “You have an inheritance that is imperishable” says the letter of Peter to early Christians – an important message at a time when simply being known as a Christian could easily cost you your life. The burning question for them was, ‘How should we act in the face of this persecution? What does our faith expect of us?’ The writer expounds then about new birth into a living hope: about being secure in God’s love. He talks about holding onto the vision of better things to come, both in this world and the next – because holding onto hope and a sense of what really matters generates integrity in times of crisis. This is the foundation of our spiritual memory, and it is meant to make us think twice before resorting to ruthless means or methods (such as the victimizing of innocents) that we would normally be ashamed of, whether in the field of international conflict, or indeed anywhere in the field of human endeavour. There are rules of behaviour – even in armed conflict – that simply cannot be breached in conscience, and a clear awareness of who we are (and whose we are) provides clarity in such situations. Biblical wisdom teaches that if we sow the wind, we will reap a whirlwind, so our spiritual memory invites us act with honour, or as the saying goes, to take the high road. How blessed we are, then, in this season of Remembrance. From historical memory we can build a better future on the mistakes, struggles and victories of the past; out of personal memory we may be moved to compassion, understanding, and thoughtful response; and from spiritual memory we remember who we are, and who we want to be; in it is contained the voice of conscience and the voice of justice, an echo of God’s vision of wholeness for all of creation.
Memory exercised in all these forms honours the lives of those who gave their today for our tomorrow. On this day of Remembrance we celebrate those lives, remember them with gratitude, and pledge ourselves once again to seek peace and pursue it with every fibre of our being. For peace we pray, and together say,
The Venerable Nancy Adams