Saturday, November 8, 2014

Keeping Faith on Veterans Day Honoring the Armistice

Armistice Day/  Veterans Day, & Spirituality

8 March, 2012, Normandy France, Geoff W. Sutton

A century ago, 1914, The Great War was underway. Two years later, on 21 February 1916 the Battle of Verdun began. Using the code name, Judgment, the Germans attacked the French at Verdun in an effort to “bleed France white” (von Falkenhayn). The graphic descriptions left by the soldiers remind readers of the horrors of war. The numbers of dead soldiers at one battle is mind-numbing—133,000 French and 120,000 Germans. War is a spiritual experience of the worst kind. War is hell.

On the fields of Belgium and France, soldiers noticed signs of life. Men remembered birds in the sky. Close to the release of German gas, a woman gave birth (April 22, 1915). And despite the devastation, others appreciated the flowers in the Spring.

 In 1915, a Canadian soldier, John McCrae, penned the famous lines:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Wake up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In 1918, Moina Michael reported a spiritual experience as she read McCrae’s lines. She especially noticed the last verse. And she determined not to break the faith. Monia Michael was familiar with veterans and the effects of war on those who survived. A famous relative (General Francis Marion, aka Swamp Fox) had fought in the U.S. colonial war for independence. Her family, longtime residents of U.S. Georgia, fell on hard times in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. She began work as a teacher. She was in Europe with friends when war broke out in 1914.

After returning to the U.S., she began volunteer work for the YMCA. At a YMCA conference in New York, two days before the armistice of 11/11/1918, she had a spiritual experience as she connected with McCrae's poem. She began wearing a poppy at the conference, which inspired others to do the same. She campaigned to have the poppy recognized as an official remembrance of what the soldiers had sacrificed. Her ideas were carried to France by Madame Anna E. Guérin. In the years to follow, several Western countries followed the practice. The poppy not only represented a remembrance of those who gave their lives, but it also served as a reminder of those survivors who were disabled and those civilians harmed by the effects of war. (Link to more on the story.)

In war, ordinary people carry out the decisions of political leaders. The writings of soldiers in the line of duty reflect how hard it is to make sense of daily existence regardless of the sacred cause. For soldiers in the trenches and on the barren plains of war, the basics acts of life—eating and drinking—take place among the dead. The plea to keeping faith with our warriors is answered every year when people take time to honor those who died for us. Spiritual experiences are of course quite personal, but a few lines of a poem and a small poppy flower illustrate the power of symbols to affect the emotions of millions of people in many nations. Even hardened warriors can be moved to tears as they remember fallen friends. Only life makes sense of death.

Symbols make life and death meaningful when they connect us to the lives of real people.

The death of veterans gives life to others.

The supreme sacrifice is aptly named--what else can a person give that is so meaningful?

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