Armistice Day

The leaves have turned in our valley. Splotches of russets, golds, burgundies burst from yards and hillsides, lining lanes, dotting the landscape. On a day like today, when the dome of blue seems to shelter our land and the sun is still warm in spite of the crisp air, it nearly seems magical. Days are shorter as darkness falls early, making the time between the later sunrise and the earlier sunset more precious.

So when we drove to church through this autumn world of oranges and yellows and reds, the piercing sun upon the leaves outlining each one in my memory, I was thankful. 

I had a quiet week, forced quiet, once my back went out after reaching for something at an odd angle, once I hobbled home from the chiropractor, once I arranged my ice packs and wound tight my elastic brace. I sat gingerly in an armchair before a blazing fire and read Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve. Also in my stack was Girls on the Edge (Leonard Sax), and Paul Among the People (Sarah Ruden), among others. The first two books were for research purposes, homework for my next novel. From time to time I scanned my Kindle’s collection of poems and prose by Christina Rossetti, for I wish to include her work in my work as well. Sarah Ruden reminds us in her book on St. Paul to read Holy Scripture in the context of the cultural setting, something not often done, especially in the feminist world. 

I cancelled appointments and lived with my pain, hour to hour, pain which subsided gradually. I was given renewed admiration for those who live with pain day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. I was also forced to bracket a few days and create a mini-retreat. It made me more dependent on God. 

We are fragile creatures in a fragile world, yet live as though both (creatures and world) were stable and strong and predictable. Perhaps this delusion is a form of self-protection, for how else could we arrange our human affairs? I believe this overabundance of confidence is also a reflection of the real world to come – God’s eternity – a vision, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, that colors our imagination and longing and deep desire for beauty, truth, goodness, love. 

And so, in church today I was glad to recall Armistice Day which we celebrate officially tomorrow, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the truce was signed on the eleventh hour that ended the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” the “great war.” I was glad to give thanks for the brave men and women who fought then and who defend our country today, who protect its fragility, who shore up the shores of our land. I gave thanks for peace in our time, relative peace, having lived through Vietnam and listened to the tales of my chaplain father who served in the South Pacific in World War II. Those other wars weren’t supposed to happen after the “war to end all wars,” but happen they did. And wars continue to scar the land, the people, the world. 

My father couldn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but we have large glossy black-and-white photos of his ship, the Phoenix, and he described once the terror of the kamikaze raids, the planes diving into the sea on either side the ship. I have his Bible, signed by General MacArthur, tucked away in my glassed-in portion of my bookcases. 

War continues, for the seed is planted deep in our hearts. Our preacher today spoke of the necessity of prayer to end wars, that only through prayer can hearts be changed, can nations’ hearts be changed, can laws that govern our land be true and just, laws passed by such renewed hearts. So today I prayed especially for humility and penitence and then, perhaps when my own heart is scrubbed clean of all ill feeling, all grudges, all resentments, all, all, all… only then can my heart be filled with wisdom to choose, only then can it be filled with God, only then can I pray for my country and its leaders, and only then pray for the world’s leaders. 

I am so thankful for the men and women who protect our beautiful country and our fragile people, our delicate democracy. I am thankful too for St. Martin of Tours who shares this feast day, November 11. Did the generals who set the date for the armistice choose St. Martin’s on purpose? I think so. They would have had a choice, and in 1918 they would have known this day was St. Martin’s Day, one of the more widely known and celebrated saints days in Europe, one said to be even trans-European. 

Martin (316-397) was a Roman soldier, a Christian, who gave half his cloak to a poor beggar who had none. He then had a dream in which Christ appeared to him saying that when he gave the cloak to the beggar he gave it to Christ himself. When Martin left military service, he took holy orders. He established a Benedictine monastery, traveled the land preaching, and became Bishop of Tours, France. 

His cloak was soon a relic housed by a cappella, a covering for the cape, and from this came our word chapel. Such a cloak came to be worn by clergy in the military, those who ministered on the battlefield and at sea, and these clergy came to be known as chaplains. Our own priest wears a cope when he celebrates the Holy Mass. My father, being a chaplain, was in this sense a descendant of St. Martin. 

The sun is setting now, the dome of blue no longer cloaking our world with its bright beauty. The darkness approaches. But we have memory and we have the saints and we have the brave men and women who protect us today. God provides these shelters, these human chapels, and I am thankful, thankful to be covered by the cloak of his incarnate love.

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