Maundy Thursday and the Song of Creation

Maundy Thursday. Here we are again, like Jesus and the disciples at the Passover. There they were, again. Same thing, year in, year out. Same words, same ritual, same ending. And Leonard Cohen is in my head as I say about that ending: Everybody Knows.

Tempting as it is to wade through his famous song, even to Calvary, I won’t. It would pander to my politics and sense of justice, but I won’t because everybody knows the rules of the game, and the system always wins.

But that’s not good enough.

And tonight, in the washing of the feet, we begin to see that it is not true.

Because tonight, and in the liturgies of Good Friday, and in the Great Silence of Holy Saturday, if you listen carefully, you will hear a note; a sacred chord; something like a key-change in the drone that, some people say, is the background noise of all creation.

It is the song of new creation.
It is the sound of the wind of change blowing through the cracks in your – our – broken world.

You see, Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so that we can do the same thing, say the same words, sing the same song, year in year out down the centuries. He was a Jew:  such treasure was available already in the Law of Moses, in the cycle of festivals; at Passover.

With the breath of his mouth, in ordinary words and ordinary actions offered in extraordinary ways, Jesus sings the song of creation made new.

It is the song of a new heart made right within us.
It is the anthem of the peaceable Kingdom of God.
It is the sound of evil drawing breath for a shout of triumph, only to expel it in a scream of outrage.

What Jesus does on this night, is the inauguration of the New Covenant, the entry of grace as a force in the world; the primacy of that love which, in the King James version of the Bible is called both ‘charity’ and ‘loving kindness’: the love that dies for the beloved and, in so dieing, finds Himself eternal.

hans_holbein_d-_j-_-_the_passion_28detail29_-_wga11513

This liturgy that Christ works, this song, culminating in the ascending fanfare of the resurrection on Saturday night/Sunday morning, is the sound of every foundation cracking below every throne, toppling every seat of worldly power.

It is the song of souls set free at last.

If we come to church, in these Holy Days, year in year out, seeking the same old thing, we come seeking a show; a performance. And we may be disappointed because that is not why Christ comes to us.

If we come seeking change, in our hearts, in our lives, in our world, we come seeking Christ. And that, as the disciples will soon realise, is a very dangerous, sometimes frightening, and always transforming, thing to do.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Church, Creation, Easter, Holy Week, Incarnation and Embodiment, Liturgical Living, Love, Sin and Forgiveness, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Herod’s Last Request

This was written for a carol service at St John’s, West Ealing, in 1990. It’s powerful stuff and well worth reading to the end. I found it on Wordsout by Godfrey Rust, a resource of poems and other material for use in services. I won’t be using it this year but I felt the need to share it.

When Herod came to dinner we
locked up the silver cutlery— 
though king of God’s own chosen nation
he had a certain reputation.
Quite a few later remarked
on how his chariot was parked:
it didn’t really do much harm,
just set off the odd car alarm
(and anyway they never use
wing-mirrors on BMWs).
One thing we were grateful for—
his guards remained outside the door.
They said they didn’t mind it snowing
and whiled away the time by throwing
javelins at next door’s cat
(the neighbour’s curtains twitched at that).
We set an extra place or two
for the Ethiopian eunuchs who
he brought along to taste his food.
I said his timing’s very good,
dropping by on Christmas Day—
we were entertaining anyway.
Herod chewed the turkey fat
and chatted about this and that—
the cost of temple services,
the relative advantages
of burnt offerings over frankincense—
we seemed to have his confidence
and in a weak, unguarded minute
(just like me to drop us in it)
I brought up, casually aside,
the subject of infanticide.
Remembering John the Baptist’s head
I was concerned at what I’d said
but then we saw, to our surprise,
a twinkle came in Herod’s eyes.
“Why, don’t you know what brought me here?
Well, then I must make it clear!
I’ve come to pay my compliments
to fellows with a common sense.
Don’t you think that we might be
in the same business, you and me?
I kill by violence, you neglect—
and here you’ve earned my deep respect
for I can only be selective:
your methods are much more effective.
Just let an open sewer stink,
give him no clean water to drink
or basic medical supplies
and see how quickly one child dies!
By careful acts of selfishness
you have created such a mess
you now eliminate about—”
(he took his calculator out)
“—thirty thousand every day!”
He smiled and put the thing away.
“You can destroy whole continents
simply by indifference.
But though I like what you don’t do,
your actions are impressive too.
You take the mineral resource,
the inexpensive labour force,
most of the profits they can earn
and then you leave them in return
Coca-Cola and Big Mac,
debts they never can pay back,
spare change you feel good in giving,
cardboard packaging to live in.
A hundred million children now
sleep on the planet’s streets somehow
apprenticed into useful trades
like prostitution, drugs and AIDS—
though I’m both cruel and sadistic
I can’t compete with that statistic,
nor with the armaments I know
you’ve built to keep the status quo.
I just had swords and knives and spears
but after nineteen hundred years
you have such powerful weapons
their cost alone kills millions!
However population climbs
you can destroy it fifty times
and fight it on a dozen fronts
while you don’t feed it even once.
That’s big league stuff compared to me
who butchers a baby boy or three.
There’s nothing more I need to do—
I’ll leave my murdering to you.
A toast is called for now, I think.
This Christmas evening let us drink
to all the damage that’s been done
by looking after Number One!”
He raised his glass up to his head—
the wine it held was rich and red—
and looking round from face to face
he said “But we should say a grace!
Give thanks to those in direst need
who starve so we can overfeed
and die to do us sinners good.
We eat their flesh and drink their blood.
Do this, as oft as you remember,
at least once every December.”
Then Herod laughed, and drained his wine.
Somehow I couldn’t stomach mine,
yet though he smiled, his eyes were grim—
something clearly unsettled him.
“I murdered boys aged two or less,
and this was done under duress.
If you should want to place the blame
then put the Magi in the frame:
if I had not been so deceived
by those wise men, then I believe
much blood would never have been spilled.
I only needed one child killed.
My motive was quite rational:
stability in Israel
depends on keeping sweet somehow
whoever’s emperor just now.
This story of a new-born king
could only be unsettling:
he was a danger, patently,
to national security
and threatened also therewithal
my throne, my life, my soul, my all.
So—proving that my word is good—
I went just as I said I would
to worship at his incarnation.
He had my total dedication.
Everything was sacrificed
until I found the baby Christ.
And did you think I’d failed? Oh no.
Though it took thirty years or so
my people got the brat at last
and strung him up and held him fast
and made quite sure that he was dead.
And there he should have stayed. Instead
something went wrong. I don’t know how,
I just know he is not dead now
and like a nightmare in my brain
it happens time and time again—
with lives for stables, hearts for mangers,
he is born to total strangers
and so I cannot rest secure
until the child is found once more
and the botched work of Calvary
is completed finally.
That’s why I’m here, and why I stay,
for now ten billion times a day
those nails are hammered deeper in
by each act of your human sin
and, though each time the God man dies
somehow he manages to rise,
still there may be—I don’t despair—
evil enough to hold him there.
If Christ is born again in you
is he not often murdered too?
Surely someone hates enough
to overcome this power of love?
I depend on you, you see.
Please, finish off this job for me.”

Posted in Christians, Discipleship, Herod, Incarnation and Embodiment, Liturgical Living, Love, Sin and Forgiveness | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent

Brittle sky overhead; hard ground beneath my feet. It is dark. I turn for home as my breath condenses in front of my face; so thick it seems half-inclined to find a shape and stay there.

There is plenty of laughter behind me. It has been a good night; I think to myself that I have done a good job. I have spoken of my faith, and people  – nonchurchgoers – have listened.

The little alleyway alongside the pub is unlit. There is a street light here but it has been broken for as long as I have used this path. But the stars are bright. There is no moon, but the stars are very bright.

The door of the keg store is slightly ajar. It always is; I wonder that nobody ever pinches any of the barrels or nips in to relieve a bladder overburdened with beer. Of course, without a light, you wouldn’t know where to aim.

Except that, just for a second, there is a light. A glimpse, a flicker, of something too warm for reflected starlight. I pause. Darkness.

You know how sometimes you do something, and only afterwards wonder at your own stupidity? Without really thinking, I open the door a bit wider and stick my head inside.

“Hello?”

Silence. Not empty silence.

I sidle through the narrow gap.

“Hello?” Stepping forwards in lightlessness, I crack my shin on some edge. Arms flailing blindly, I nearly pitch forward but find something – a wooden post, I think – to grab hold of. Swearing, I feel around the pain, wondering if I’ve cut myself.

“Careful!”, says a voice – a female voice – in the dark, “that’s a new plough, it’s dead sharp”. I suspect she’s laughing.

“Thanks for the advice.”

No answer. I fancy that I can hear the sound of breathing – breathing other than my own. Slow. Somebody asleep?

“You OK?”, I ask the voice in the darkness.

“Be quiet, he’s sleeping.”

“Who?” (stage whisper).

“My husband to be. He’s dreaming dreams.” The voice speaks in tones of love.

My eyes seem to be adjusting. A narrow path down the centre leads between …what? I can’t tell. The air is thick, warm. It does not smell of beer. A darker darkness at the far end seems to change shape, detach itself. I hear fabric against fabric; a footstep?

“I think he dreams of angels.” Her voice is closer now.

This is becoming strange. “Are you sleeping rough?”, the first thing that comes into my head.

“We’re not homeless.”

“Then, why?…”

“Because the time is nearly here.”

Now, I am beginning to think that this is too weird and maybe a bit dangerous.

“What time?”, I ask, thinking that there is actually enough light leaking in from outside for me to make a quick getaway if need be: my legs cast inky shadows into the charcoal gloom and I can just about make out the shape of the speaker as she approaches.

“Kairos” , she whispers.

Kairos. The time appointed, the auspicious time appointed by God. I do not know this woman, have no reason to believe a word she says but… the quietly uttered word is a storm.

Kairos is coming. The supreme time; eternity breaking into time. Visitation.

The ground is no longer solid beneath my feet; I stagger; it feels as if the whole world staggers with me. Time…loses direction.

I think I know where I am.

And I do not want to be in the place where now, I am.

I do not want to be in the place from which this suddenly-terrifying woman speaks.

I should not have crept through the narrow opening – surely I am not welcome here – and I have no wish to disturb her man and  – smartarsed evangelist that I thought I was just seconds ago (kairos is nearly upon me) in the future – I most certainly have no intention of meeting, here, her (the Other Member of the family).

“Shepherd, fear not, you are early.” A hand steadies me. “The time [kairos] is not yet. He is arriving, not quite yet. You have not missed him.”

“But…”

“Sssshhh”. A hand on my lips. “You have flocks to tend, time to prepare. Not much, but enough.” The voice changes, “He is coming soon. The pain is starting. Go to your flocks. Listen. Watch. Pray.”

A hand on my chest, and the world spins again. I stumble back through the narrow gap, falling on merciless frosted stone beneath a star-dazzled sky.

A voice in the distance cries, “Yosef!

A voice in the darkness answers. “Mariam?”

On the edge of the night, the sky starts to lighten.

mary-mag-mary-mag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Advent, God, Grace, Incarnation and Embodiment, Kingdom, Liturgical Living, Mission, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Breath of Two

Brittle silence, cold air stripping the throat.

Blades break beneath the feet.

Ice-clad grass broken by my boots.

 

Not alone, another one is here.

Who are you, Lord?

You know.

Where are you, Lord?

I am with you.

 

Slowly turning, afraid to see the truth.

Breath hanging like a spirit.

Hanging like life unguided.

 

Your breath and mine. Cold air striking like nails;

A blade between the ribs.

Is this my day of reckoning?

 

Yes, beloved. This is the day of days.

But you died. I killed you.

My Beloved, you called me back.

 

Sweat-filled silence. Air-iced drops bloody my palms.

Sun glorifying His breath.

Closer now; images of blood and dust.

 

I did?

You call me since before the worlds.

I’m sorry. Breath in the air.

Hanging in the air. Hanging like my sin.

 

Our breath mingles. Cold clouds, death grey and golden.

You’re dust. Dust you will be –

But for now, take my hand. I took your sin.

 

My corpse-cold hand in His beating, wounded grasp.

Blind in the winter sun;

Blinded in the breath of the One who died.

 

Roaring silence.

Eternity is now.

Now – the time appointed.

And I find myself dead amid it’s glory.

 

Beloved. Live. I did not die in vain.

Now is the time to live.

But I killed you.

No. You chose abandonment.

 

I am your life. I am the air you need.

I am, so that you are.

I am wounded for you. I am your blood being unshed.

I am the offering of something new.

I am waiting for you.

I am awaiting you. I am the light in your breath.

 

I will follow. Hot air sobs in my throat.

Thawed frost soaks into my shoes.

I will follow. The breath of two lingers on the breeze.

 

 

 

z7h9493-1

Image of snow at the Capuchin Friary of Pantasaph.

Posted in Eternal Life, Forgiveness, God, Grace, Hope, Incarnation and Embodiment, Kingdom, Liturgical Living, Love, Sin and Forgiveness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dirt on Your Forehead.

Earlier tonight, a priest put the mark of God on my forehead. 

From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent, therefore, and believe the Gospel.

The ash, mixed with the oil we use for annointing the sick to make it stick, was rough. The priest was none too gentle in his application. He pressed hard. That was right. We are sinners.

In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus tell His followers not to disfigure their faces like the hypocrites do, so that everybody sees that they fast, but to take pains to look cheerful and healthy. Our fasting should be in secret, where only God knows our devotion and our justification is before (by) Him alone.

But the wearing of Ashes is coming to be a bit like a badge. People walk out of church, using it to spark conversations: “You’ve got dirt on your forehead!”; “no, it’s a cross, it means….” What?

Did you receive the imposition of ashes this year? Or did you just eat pancakes on Tuesday, then take up your Lenten resolution like a spiritualised new year? Did you go to church to remember how the one you are called to love with all your heart and mind went into the wilderness and strove against the enemy for 40 days? Or were you too busy?

Perhaps you are already in the wilderness, and the idea of taking anything more on this Lent, or losing anything else, is just one idea too many. I think that I, too, stand in that place.

If you received the imposition, why? What made you do it? Were you bearing witness? Or was it about your sin?

I didn’t eat pancakes yesterday. I couldn’t be bothered, to be honest. They seem a bit of a vanity if you’re not actually going to fast. I have thought about what my fast could be. And I think it will be ‘getting through’. My ministry in this place is coming to an end; a new ministry beckons. It involves moving away from the community in which I came to faith, uprooting my wife, and going somewhere I neither know or imagined living in. There is an awful lot to accomplish – or simply get through – between now and then.

I do not have time to attend to my sin; I can only focus on ‘getting through’.

That’s the problem, though. I cannot get through without attending to my sin. If I try, it will entrap me.

I went to the Ash Wednesday service because I go every year; and because it is what you do at the start of Lent (I say that, but only about 1/10th of our church was there).

But when the ash was imposed, it was not a badge, nor an empty ritual. Nor a means of witness. It was a mark of my sin; and of my redeemer’s love. In a church that, historically, is wary of sacramental confession, Ash Wednesday is the one day of the year in which we go to church in order to place our sins before God; in order to place them before our brothers and sisters, our sinful brethren redeemed in Christ; in order that we may recognise to each other, our brokenness and radical inability to heal ourselves.

We do not wear sackcloth. On this day we do, briefly, wear ashes. On this day, our worship consists primarily of confession. And that is right and proper.

I did not wipe the dirt from off my forehead before I got home. I did wipe it off before the Muslim delivery driver arrived: it is not a badge. I received it because I need to be able to admit my sin. I did not receive it (this year), to show my Christian-ness but I have worn it that way in years past. I think that that was probably also a sin.

Because this day is not a day for witness, or showing what a devout Christian you are. It is about humility. It is about dependance on God. It is about facing Him in the dark places of our soul, in the dark places of our life, and asking Him to bring light. So let us not disfigure our faces before others to show our fast. Let us go to our inner room and show the mark of our sin to the One who made us. And let us let Him wash it clean in the salt waters of confession, repentance, forgiveness and grace.

From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent, therefore, and believe the Gospel.

 

Posted in Christians, Church, Discipleship, Grace, Lent, Liturgical Living, Sin and Forgiveness, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Paris, the Middle East, Africa, the Ukraine…..

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere

everywhere
everywhere.

– Warsan Shire https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsan_Shire

I have been away for a few days, in a bubble of study, isolated from the world. I heard rumours of atrocity in Paris. But always we hear of war, and rumours of war.

Tonight, scrolling through the news feeds of social media, I see that this atrocity is seen by some to have eclipsed other atrocities, and the cry has gone out that it’s only in the news because it’s Paris – what about all the other places in which this kind of thing is going on?

And then somebody posted Warsan Shire’s words. I think they make answer.

Jesus came into contact with more than one dead person but he only wept for the one who was close to him, his friend Lazarus. Let us weep as we are touched to weep but let our tears be for the world; and let our grief, however we are touched by it, be a sign against evil. Our tears should not be the end of the story but, like Jesus’ tears at the tomb of his friend, let them prophesy a new beginning.

Posted in Grace, Hope, Love, Mission | Tagged | Leave a comment

Easter: I don’t think that word means what David Cameron thinks it does

The only thing I would add to this, is to pick up on Cameron’s use of the phrase ‘gentle reminder’. At the time when we remember the pain, suffering, persecution and isolation of Jesus at the hands of unjust politicians, the word ‘gentle’ seems as inappropriate a word as he could have chosen. Christianity demands a very courageous kind of gentleness, which often engenders suffering on behalf of the weak and in the name of Jesus. Being Christian, Mr. Cameron, means repudiating the very methods of power play that you employ. It means repentance. You acknowledge that you are not a good Christian. Do you repent? Do you seek amendment of life? Do you recognise, in Christ, your Saviour before whom, you must mend your ways?

broken cameras & gustav klimt

Crown Copyright Crown Copyright

I’ve hesitated for a few hours, but I can’t managed to hold back any longer. David Cameron’s Easter message is dreadful. I’m used to the charm-offensive-say-something-nice-to-Christians-at-Christmas-and-Easter type of message, but this is in a league of its own. Here are a few extracts and my only slightly restrained commentary.

In a few days’ time, millions of people across Britain will be celebrating Easter. Just as I’ve done for the last five years, I’ll be making my belief in the importance of Christianity absolutely clear.

As Madeleine Teahan has already noted, it’s not clear whether it’s David Cameron’s belief in Christianity or the importance of Christianity that he’s making clear. And by the end of the piece the reader is still not clear what Cameron is making clear, perhaps other than the fact he has a confused understanding of Easter and wants you to vote for his party.

View original post 502 more words

Posted in Liturgical Living | Leave a comment

Ask for the ancient paths

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls. Jer 6:16

We don’t though, do we? We seek the new thing, we think we have the right to create new paths. We do not consider our ways, thinking only that what we choose is right because we choose it. We place ourselves on the Mercy Seat, rather than seeking the good path that brings us before it with hope.

I suspect that the guilt of our generation is beyond compare. Whereas our parents and grandparents wrought terrible damage to God’s earth and each other, they did not know what we know. They did not recognise the terrible harm they were causing to the world that God describes as ‘good’; they could not see an alternative to the wars they fought.

We are different. We know the depth of danger into which we have taken the world. We know the rate at which species are going extinct at our hand. We have changed the biochemistry of almost every organism on the planet, we have even started littering the void with our debris. We hear warning after warning, then moan about having to recycle our plastic bottles when we clothe ourselves in plastic, write with it, use it in our cosmetics and cleansers; we cook food in it so that it’s poisons enter our bodies.

We know the injustices in our own societies, and we do nothing. We know the injustices that arise from our obsession with technology, and we do nothing.  We see the oppression of those who make our cheap goods, and we do nothing.

All of us, from the greatest to the least, pursues greed and injustice. Jeremiah’s prophecy could have be written for us.

What are the ancient paths? Where is the good way? They lie in the messages of the prophets; they are found in seeking the good of our neighbours rather than ourselves. The good way is the way of agape – the Love that God is (1 John 4:8,16). If God is love, then so is Christ because he is the Incarnation of God. His way is the good way of love; he is the ancient path mapped out by God.

Let us seek him while we may. Let those of us who name our faith after him make that faith live. The prophets warn us that words are not enough. Right, loving, action is the demand of love. The Word that is love became flesh and lived with us. And he gave us everything. But then we called it ours. If we do not start giving it back in radical ways then, I fear, the words of Jeremiah will be as applicable to our generation as they were to his.

Posted in Christians, Discipleship, Hope, Incarnation and Embodiment, Lent, Liturgical Living, Prophecy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lent reflection.

It’s been a while since the Butler has filed a report but Lent has arrived and so, it seems appropriate to make journaling a Lenten discipline. Previously I’ve done this in my private journal but this year, as there has been so little word from below stairs in recent months, a weblog-fest seems in order.

First, I must update you on my circumstances. The Butler now serves in a different house. It is still God’s but the journey from home to house takes considerably less time. I no longer look down from the train window to see the Roman Catholic priest at his breakfast table. I get an extra hour and half in bed!

I am now privileged to welcome strangers across a threshold that was, previously, barred for most of the time. Through the winter this has meant unlocking the doors before full light and locking them again after dark; singing morning prayer with my breath hanging in the air before me as visitors in huddled coats drift in and out. Today I wore three jumpers and two shirts but it was an admin and polishing day in the Sacristy where there is a heater; and I was almost too warm.

We are seeing a new dimension unfold in the life of a parish. In five months over 900 people have entered the gate. What brings them in? The majority say that they were passing and saw the church open for the first time. If ten of them already attended any of our regular services, I would be surprised. Many have prayed. See them come in ‘for a look around’; see them sit and fall silent; see a candle burning after they have moved on.

Something is happening in the life of the parish. The curious, the cold, the nostalgic, the bored, the spiritual seeker, the tormented and the grieving; they are finding a welcome that does not require them to sing or put money on a plate or be anything other than themselves. Yes, Christ meets us where we are. But the people of God often expect other people to meet them in worship. When you open the doors of God’s house, you invite the stranger  to meet God before they meet his people. It might be a better way – after all, you don’t usually meet your friend’s family before you’ve met your friend.

copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

The day is far spent: sunset illuminates a west facing window as evening draws in.

However that might be, one thing is sure. Christmas caught us by surprise with the number of people attending. For the Christmas Eve Crib Service, I printed 200 service sheets too few; I am told that we had the highest number ever at our main service.

Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, I sing morning prayer alone. I chant the night in while, perhaps, two or three sit for a while in the shadows. Once again, there are candles lit by the time I finish. But these are not the big story. That story is about the great congregation now coming and going, it is about Saxon roots, a monastic heritage and the daily adding of prayers to an ancient litany that, by God’s grace, has risen in this place for…. how long? A thousand years?It is, first and last, about the enduring promise and gift of Christ.

Nobody knows for sure, how long people have worshipped and prayed in this place. But I finish with the woman who echoes the words of many, “I’m not a church goer but as soon as I walked in here, I just felt this peace inside.” Thanks be to God.

Posted in Church, Discipleship, Grace, Incarnation and Embodiment, Lent, Liturgical Living, Love, Mission, Modern Monasticism, Prayers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lest we forget…. but what do we really know?

Across the country tonight, people and organisations have left single lights burning to mark 100 years since the war started at 11.00 pm.

In services across the nation and abroad we have heard the words of long-dead lovers, sons and fathers. It has been deeply moving; not least, the innocence with which those men of a century ago approached their fates.

The thing that strikes me, however, is the silences. The silence of the survivors. How little they spoke about their experiences when they returned. How little they handed on. I don’t blame them. Perhaps the enormity of their experiences was simply too much to share.

I know very little about what happened to my family in that war. As, I think, was the norm, they did not pass on their memories. But I know about one man, my step-Grandad. And I only know by accident.

I don’t know why Grandma married him. Thy never seemed happy. But then, I associated happiness with noise and ‘doing stuff’.

He was not a quiet man. He was silent.

I do not remember him speaking. He sat in the corner, wearing brown, smoking his pipe until the air was blue with his silent smog. I loved the smell but I never learned to love him. He was problematic.

This was in the days of Space 1999 and Star Trek. I used to fly my space ships over his head, fighting future wars in the smoke until my Mum told me off for fear that I would crash-land in his ear.

He never budged. He might have radiated annoyance, or benign tolerance; I have no idea: small children are oblivious to such things. I played war around Grandad and he puffed his pipe. With the exception of one time when we played a game together (under duress from my Mother) he barely seemed alive. When we played, he was a different person and I am glad of the memory. Because I think we dishonoured him. 

This awkard, silent old man never complained as I would have done, if the smoke of my pipe became the smoke of battle and pilots died alongside my armchair. Neither did he ever let on that he needed no imagination in order to see such battle in his mind’s eye. What memories did I evoke? Good, bad, any at all? I do not know because he did not say.

It was only after his death that I discovered two small cartons. Brown cardboard, his name, a rank and the letters R.F.C typed on each lid. Inside, there were medals.

Turns out that this old man to whom, I had no idea how to relate and, of whom, I have only one happy memory, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

I have some experience of terror but mine becomes insignificant. This grumpy old man used to sit in a little bundle of wood and canvas, with a flammable waterproof coating, while an unreliable engine would drag him 10,000 feet up into the air in order to have people try to kill him. He had no parachute. The Germans had them. The Brits really did fly by the seat of their pants.

I don’t know the details of his service but the strings of medals – RFC and then RAF – testify to a man who repeatedly put himself in the way of danger. I have no doubt that he was terrified, who wouldn’t be? Those planes would fold up when hit. They burned like torches. Once burning, you had no hope of getting to the ground and, time and again, pilots would be seen to jump from their burning aircraft rather than endure the flames enveloping their craft. Can you imagine the eternity in that fall? Can you imagine watching your friends do that? How would that hurt your soul?

What I struggle to conceive of, is the courage it took to treat it as routine. To get up every morning and face that slow climb towards death. I know the trenches were terrible. This was a different ‘terrible’. I heard an account, tonight, of how men on the ground became desensitised to the constant threat in which they found themselves. The RFC and their foes had to face the threat anew every day. Each day, they left the safety of bed and companions to face death alone.

And why? Because …. duty? Because it was what you did? And is that why they were silent to their families when they came home?

As they flew over the trenches, they came to the place where the constant shell-fire reached the top of its trajectory: artillery shells slowing just enough, as gravity took hold of them, to flicker into visibility before accelerating downwards. These men saw the horrors of the trenches from above: pale faces turned upwards as you tried to nurse a battered ‘kite’ to safety over friendly lines; the network of trenches a scar on God’s green earth like an outbreak of Hell itself.

Except that most of them would not have spoken like that. They faced their own specialised horrors that were unlike those faced below; and they tended to face them alone. Theirs was an individual war.

Alone, they came close to enemies who, occasionally, they came to recognise. And alone they killed or died or watched others start the long soul-shredding fall from life. Alone, they returned to base in order to do it all over again the following day. I cannot imagine price they paid.

Perhaps my Grandad’s silence is it’s own testimony. I have no idea what impact the war had on his faith, or even if he had a faith when he went out there. I do not know what sort of man he would have been without the war. Perhaps he would never have been much of a family man, or much of a speaker. But perhaps, although he survived, he nevertheless gave his life so that others might have theirs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in WW1 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment