Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Clothes For Christmas: A Sermon

Preached at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, on the First Sunday of Christmas, 27 December 2015

Texts for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2: 41-52

 As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Col 3:12)


I hope you didn’t find this under your tree!  Unless, of course, you like this sort of thing.

Many of us feel the need to dress to celebrate Christmas.  “Don we now our gay apparel” says the old carol, and many people do just that, even if it is with tongue firmly planted in cheek.   Some wear santa hats and Christmas ties to work.  Others put red noses on their cars and trucks.  At the military base where I work, one can even see grizzled sergeants wearing reindeer antlers. The Value Village off Wellington Street even had a sign up advertising tacky Christmas sweaters, which can be fun to wear at parties, even if you don’t want to find them under the Christmas tree.

At the same time, do any of us really want to find a tacky sweater under our Christmas tree?   And is there any kind of Christmas present more prone to hazard than clothing?  Really, giving clothes is fraught with peril.    What if our gift doesn't fit?  What if the the recipient doesn’t like the clothes we buy them because they’re not fashionable enough, or the wrong cut or colur?  At the same time, none of us want to be that boring aunt or uncle who always gives yet another pair of socks at Christmas.  We pity the poor dad who gets yet another ugly tie, and we laugh at the hapless husband who buys something flimsy and quite impracticable for his wife.


So as a thought experiment, let’s imagine what it would be like if God’s Christmas present to us was new clothing?  What if there was nothing tacky or wrong with this gift?  What if these clothes were stylish and comfortable?  What if these were clothes we would want to wear everywhere we go?


Our reading from Colossians tells us to put on new clothes as part of our new life in Christ.  Of course the author of Colossians (who may or may not be Paul) is using a figure of speech.  He is using clothing as an image of how our relationship with Jesus has the power to change us and the way we live with and treat others.


“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”.


There are two things I’d like to focus on in this verse.  Both of them, I hope, will shed light on the Christmas mystery that we have just celebrated.


The first is that God has reached out to us.  Colossians calls us “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”.  Those words help us understand why Gabriel came to Mary and why the baby in the manger came to be born.   God reached out to us, stood with us, because he cares for and loves those who he created. Nobody was expecting this.  In the ancient world, the gods were lofty beings, sometimes cruel and uncaring, who had little to do with the physical world.  Even Israel, which had been chosen by Yahweh the living God, could not imagine that he would come to earth this way.  


Peter Wehner, an ethicist and former politician, wrote in the New York Times this week that Christmas was a revolution in human existence because it gave humans a dignity that they did not give one another.  “Christmas teaches us that human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears.”   When you think about, this explains the preaching of someone like Pope Francis.  If God loves us, he loves everybody - you, me, the poor, the homeless, the refugee.  And if God loves all of us, how can we not love one another?   And if we love one another, how can we not care for one another?


The second thing I wish to point out is that we can care for one another because God has changed us.  Colossians not only calls us “God’s chosen ones” but it also says that we are “holy”.  How did we get to be holy?  Was it because we did something to impress God?  Well, no.  Someone once said that God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbour does.  The gift of Christmas is also the gift of a new way of living that makes it possible to love our neighbour as much as ourselves.


One of the main ideas in Colossians is the idea of the new life in Christ.  Col 3:9-10 says that as followers of Jesus we have “stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self”.  This is the same idea that we hear in our baptism service.   In our passage today, Colossians goes on to describe some of the things that make up our new self, our new identity as Christians.  It would take too long to go through each of them, but let me point one thing about the new identity behind this figure of speech of new clothes.  


“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  These are all social virtues.  By that I mean that you don’t practice compassion in solitude.  You don’t go off to a private to be kind and humble.   These are all things we do around other people.  We are compassionate and kind to those who are in need.  We are modest because arrogant and proud people think of their own needs way ahead of the needs of others.  We are patient with other people because, sometimes, other people take up our time and energy.    


So, if compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience are the Christmas clothes we find under the tree, then they are clothes that are meant for wearing wearing in public.   We are kind to others.  We are humble and meek with others.  We are patient with others.  These are clothes to wear wherever we go, whatever we do. They are work clothes, lounging around the house clothes, Sunday best clothes.  And, in a very real sense, they are a kind of Christian uniform, because its wearing these clothes, acting this way, that others see our faith.


Frankly, people need to see and to benefit from how we live out our faith.


This Christmas Eve, an American psychiatrist and blogger named Scott Alexander posted an essay called “How Bad Are Things?”  He was reflecting on the human misery he saw in his practice, and he got to wondering, how many people out there have the problems I see? Is it just that only the most miserable people see psychiatrists, or is that many many people are miserable and only tell their troubles to psychiatrists because nobody else cares?


As an experiment, Alexander studied the probability that people might have a problem that would make their life miserable, including but not limited to poverty, mental illness, abuse, or imprisonment, and then ran the numbers.  He concluded that our of every 20 people, 11 out of 20 have some problem that would make their life miserable.  That figure does not count all conditions that might make for misery, or the many people too shut in, poor or isolated to ever seek help.  Alexander’s conclusion was that “ The world is almost certainly a much worse place than any of us want to admit. And that’s before you’ve even left America.”  


As Alexander puts it, if you accept that things are this bad, then you can either ignore this reality, despair, or (his choice) embrace charity and philanthropy.  And this is from a man who isn’t (as far as I can tell) arguing from a religious point of view.   However, as Christians, we can get behind his conclusion.  Alexander’s argument reminds us, as Christians, that the incarnation is a gift for each generation of the faithful  to take up every Christmas.   We are all chosen.  We are all holy.  live the gospel together.   We are called to be part of a community of the faithful that is kind and compassionate, not just to our fellow believers, but to all those around us.  As Trinity Church considers its future, we need to ask ourselves, what misery is there around us?  How many people are hidden, isolated, hurting?  How can we in our Christian lives reach them?


Let me finish with a final thought about Christmas clothes.  In my family the classic Christmas film was A Christmas Carol, the black and white classic with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  In the opening scenes Scrooge is in black, sombre clothing, like the undertaker he sees waiting for his lonely, miserable death in the vision shown to him by the third spirit.  At the end, as Scrooge is a changed man, reentering the world, we see him pay a visit to his nephew’s house, and it’s a shock and a joy to see Scrooge in warm, festive clothing, and to realize he’s been transformed into a Victorian dandy.  It’s a visual way of showing Scrooge’s return to society and his discovery of the importance of human life.  


The same is true of the Christian clothing given to us.  If you look under the tree you won’t find a tacky Christmas sweater.  You’ll find beautiful, comfortable, festive  clothing, far more costly than any designer label would be, clothing that will be a delight to us and to those around us.   So, on this First Sunday of Christmas, let us consider the gift of new life that God has given us.  Let’s put on this new life, wear it with pride, and show it to others who need that new life.  Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

First Christmas In The Trenches: Remembering Anglican Chaplaincy in the Great War

This post copies an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, the body of Anglican chaplains serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.  It is part of an ongoing centennial retrospective of Anglican military chaplaincy in the First World War.   Last Christmas, I posted here about the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first Christmas of the war, when they were waiting to go over from England to France.  By Christmas 1915, the Corps had suffered brutal baptisms of fire at places such as Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy, and were well on their way to becoming professional soldiers.  


By Padre Michael Peterson



To make the centennial of the First World War, the AMO Newsletter continues a series of vignettes of Canada’s Anglican chaplains and their ministry throughout that conflict.  Each instalment in the series will recall a time one hundred years prior to the date of each Newsletter.


During the second half of 1915, Canada’s Army and its Chaplaincy had both matured.   The Canadian Corps, now with two divisions in the line, had suffered its baptism of fire in the spring at Second Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy.   By the winter the Corps’ strength had reached ninety-five thousand, and it held a line in Belgium south of Ypres and north of Messines, between the villages of St. Eloi and Wulverghem.   While the positions were static, the British high command expected all units to carry out trench raids under cover of darkness in order to improve combat skills, gather prisoners and intelligence, and to maintain the troops’ fighting spirit.


These orders were more easily given than executed.   The historian of the Second Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment), described the Flanders rains that winter as “like no other that had ever fallen on earth”.


There was no escape from it. The trenches, which were nothing more than sandbagged breastworks, simply dissolved. The earth within the sandbags liquefied and oozed out. Everything collapsed. Every indentation of the ground filled with water, and, to make things worse, the enemy, being on higher ground, delighted in draining his trenches  across No Man's Land into those occupied by the Canadians.


Those in damp billets and flooded dugouts fared little better, and as there was not sufficient waterproof clothing, particularly rubber waders, troops suffered from influenza and a new ailment known as “trench foot”.


Canadian troops in Flanders, Winter 1915

(Natl. Archives of Canada)


While the Canadian Chaplain Service had been formally established in August 1915, it suffered from the divisive leadership of its first Director, Col. Richard Steacy.  His partiality  towards Anglicans and Orange Lodge factionalism meant that many Catholic and other Protestant chaplains were kept out of the line, and as Corps numbers increased, so did the number of padre vacancies.


Chaplains in the rear areas found opportunities to enhance morale.  Some set up sports events and libraries, while others worked with the Red Cross and church groups in Canada to distribute comforts to the troops.  Arthur McGreer, an Anglican priest (Trinity College 1910) assigned to Third Field Ambulance, was tasked with setting up a concert troupe which became wildly popular.  By the end of the war there were some thirty such concert troupes entertaining Canadian soldiers in Europe, the most famous being the Dumbells.  


Three of the Dumbells. Their founder, Capt. Merv Plunkett, is in the centre.


Through the second half of 1915, padres had earned greater freedoms to pursue their frontline ministries.  Canon Scott wrote that “Chaplains were being looked upon more as parish priests to their battalions.  They could be visited freely by the men, and could also have meals with the men when they saw fit”.  During the sodden winter of 1915-1916, some found that maintaining morale could be difficult.  Even the diligent Canon Scott discovered this challenge when he met a unit, “wet and muddy”, coming out of the line.


I stood by the bridge watching them pass and, thinking it was the right and conventional thing to do, wished them all a Merry Christmas. My intentions were of the best, but I was afterwards told that it sounded to the men like the voice of one mocking them in their misery.


Christmas 1915 was a varied experience for Canadian troops.  If they were in the front line, it might pass with scant celebration.  The 10th BN (Calgary Rifles) spent Christmas in the trenches, supporting the engineers with working parties day and night.  The 10th’s war diary states tersely: “No notice of Christmas Season other than issue of plum puddings and gifts of cigars and fruit at midday meal”.  However the men of the 7th BN (British Columbia Regiment) found time to publish a Christmas edition of their regimental newspaper, “The Listening Post”, with an image of a stern Father Christmas and wishes “To one and all of our Fellow Countrymen at home in Canada, and to our many friends and relatives where ‘ere they be … a right MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR”.


Pte. Alan Manderson with the 49th BN (Edmonton Regiment) wrote to his mother to describe a fine Christmas dinner of chicken, plum pudding and beer served by the sergeants.


We got a Christmas sock from the people of Canada for the Canadians in France.  Mine came from a lady in the east end of Toronto.  I may write and thank her for it.  At seven we had supper - just custard and figs.  Then followed the concert — a pantomime, “The Babes in the Wood”.  It was great.  The actors were all soldiers in camp here, but I’ve seen worse shows in Toronto lots of times.


For those troops in the front lines, however, war and danger were ever present.  Canon Scott was summoned on Christmas Eve by a sergeant “who told me he had some men to be buried”.  After prayers over their graves with the burial party, he set up in a barn “which for some reason or other, although it was in sight of the enemy, had not been demolished and was used as a billet” and celebrated a midnight Eucharist with the men of the 16th BN (Canadian Scottish).  This candlelit barn, with empty biscuit tins as an altar, was a far cry from Scott’s previous Christmas, celebrated in the lovely English parish of St. Mary and Melor, Amesbury.



St. Quentin Cabaret Commonwealth Cemetery

Somewhere near here, Canon Scott celebrated the Eucharist on Christmas Eve, 1915

The Highlanders assembled in two rows and I handed out hymn books. There were many candles in the building so the men were able to read. It was wonderful to hear in such a place and on such an occasion, the beautiful old hymns, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The men sang them lustily and many and varied were the memories of past Christmases that welled up in their thoughts at that time.   


Christmas 1915 also saw one of the famous informal soldier’s truces.  For some Canadian troops, the memories of the gas attack at Second Ypres left them feeling too uncharitable for such a gesture.  The CEF official history notes that “front-line battalions were instructed that any attempt by the enemy ‘to bring about a temporary cessation of hostilities’ must be met by rifle, and if necessary artillery fire”.  However, in Canon Scott’s part of the line, all was peaceful.  To the Canon’s “astonishment”, German and Canadian soldiers strolled in plain view of one another, and bottles of beer were exchanged as gifts.  Miraculously the rain had stopped.  “Christmas parcels had arrived and the men were making merry with their friends, and enjoying the soft spring-like air, and the warm sunshine”. 

The unofficial soldiers’ truces of Christmas 1915 earned

significant media attention.


Later that day Scott celebrated Eucharist with another battalion, “in the cellar of a ruined building” and “down some broken steps”.  He would later write that “We had two more war Christmases in France, but I always look back upon that first one as something unique in its beauty and simplicity”.  


No Canadian soldier that Christmas could imagine that three more years of war, each more terrible than the last, lay ahead of them.

Blessings to you and yours this Christmas.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Anglican Military Ordinariate Advent 2015 Newsletter

The Anglican Military Ordinariate is formed of clergy of the Anglican Church of Canada serving as chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces.  Our Advent/Christmas 2015 Newsletter may be found here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

On The Profession Of Arms And The Importance Of Reading

A somewhat pompous title, I grant you.  Perhaps the formal tone is because I've been reading Jane Austen lately, which is always time well spent.

Speaking of reading, I was at a training review meeting several weeks ago and we were talking about how soldiers learn what's important.   For some things simple direction (e.g., wear your helmet) is direction enough, and for others the actual performance of a task, learning by doing, suffices.   But how do soldiers learn values and accept, even embrace, the military ethos?

This topic allowed me to mount my personal hobbyhorse and bemoan the absence in the Canadian Armed Forces of the commander's reading list.  There is an official CAF-published reading list from 2009, a substantial volume in its own right giving members a comprehensive list of resources on a wide variety of subjects for their own professional education.  Such a guide is well and good, but I would like something both more current, and more influential in the sense that the list comes from the boss.

If you google "Chief of Defence Staff Reading List" you will find a page published by the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.   Australia's Army Chief published a reading list in 2012
and the US military's service chiefs each have a list published by the National Defence University.  The US Marine Corps, and this may surprise some, is apparently an intellectual hothouse and boasts six of its own reading lists.  Canada also has a Chief of Defence Staff, but I searched in vain for a reading list published by a senior Canadian officer in the last ten years, up to and including the CDS.

Besides the official military reading lists, there are a wealth of reliable guides to good books for soldiers.  Tom Ricks, one of the best defence journalists in the business today, published this list of lists in 2012 which will keep anyone going for years.   There are other such lists out there.

Returning to my original point, a senior commander's reading list, assuming that the boss has actually done the reading and has not simply delegated the task to a staff officer, is a way of signalling what he or she thinks is important.  The military ethos is built on emulation.  Junior officers will read whatever their senior officers, up to and including service chiefs, are reading. Everyone wants to be like the boss, because everyone hopes their career will also lead them upwards.  Thus, junior ranks will read whatever their sergeant majors, and especially their command sergeant majors, are reading.  In a military like my own, where that intellectual example and curiousity doesn't seem to be happening, that's a concern.

I missed an opportunity recently, when Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, General Vance, came to CFB Borden where I worked.  General Vance is a good soldier and a busy man, and he gave the assembled audience a lot of time and as much candour as he could.   I now regret that I didn't stand up and ask, "Sir, what three books have you read this year that you would recommend we all read?"

General Vance, sir, if you happen to be reading this, please leave the answer in the comments and I'll post it.

What about you, readers?  What books should we in uniform be reading?


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Military Picture of the Week

 This image from a New Yorker article entitled “Japan’s Cute Army” features anime-style nose art on two helicopters belonging to the Japanese Self-Defence Force.  

The article, by a Tokyo-based writer and translator named Matt Alt, notes how the endearing pop culture art style known as kawaiii reflects a deep-seated tension in Japanese culture over its present day military and its militaristic past.   As Alt writes:  
“In Japan, where indirect communication is highly valued, cute illustrations have long played the role of tension-breakers and mediators in situations of conflict.  Thus kawaii mascots, whether miniskirted girls or bunny-rabbit decoy launchers, are both a reflection of pop-culture trends and a way to defuse the very touchy issues surrounding the military’s undeniable presence.   Put another way, the time to get worried is when the branches of the Japanese military abandon their kawaii trappings, because that would signal that citizens and soldiers had made their peace with the subject."
A fascinating article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Sermon For Remembrance Sunday, 2015

Preached at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, on Sunday, November 8, 2015 

Readings for this Sunday: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

It`s a great pleasure to be asked to preach at this Remembrance Service Sunday, and to represent the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service.  I bring you greetings on behalf of our Chaplain General, Brigadier General Guy Chapdelaine, and the chaplains – Christians, Jews and Muslims, who serve the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.


Among these several hundred chaplains, I am one of approximately sixty Anglican priests.   All of us came out of parishes and dioceses, and were given permission by our bishops to begin new ministries in the Armed Forces.  In my own case it was Bishop Howe of Huron who gave me his blessing, despite the fact that he had invested in my theological education and in that respect had a claim on me.   In this and many other ways, the Anglican Church of Canada supports its clergy in uniform and we in turn try to maintain our ties with the Church.


While we are happy to be priests in uniform, our ministry in the Forces is not just to Anglicans, or even just to Christians.   Our ministry is to each and every military member, regardless of their belief.   If we have the chance to celebrate the eucharist while on maneuvers, with the hood of a truck as our altar, we do.  If we can help a Jewish soldier find a way to observe Passover, or defend the rights of Sikhs to wear their turbans or Muslim soldiers to wear their beards, we do so.   We do our best to serve military personnel in all their diversity because the one thing that unites them is that they all joined to serve Canada.


What unites chaplains, despite all of our own religious diversity, is that we feel called to be with our military members and their families.  It`s not because we necessarily want to convert them, though we do want to show them the love of God.  We serve the military because soldiers are called to go places and do things that no one else would want to do or could do.   Soldiers`' lives can be touched by darkness and evil, and we as chaplains want to remind them that there is more than just darkness and violence.  We want to show them the love, hope and light that we find in our faith.


In this respect, nothing about war has changed since the days of Canon Frederick Scott, a famous Anglican chaplain of the First World War.  Scott wrote that ``To both officers and men, the chaplain hold a unique position, enabling him to become the friend and companion of all’’.  Canon Scott was an old man in an army of young men, a white haired eccentric in his fifties who lived in the muddy trenches and loved to recite his own poems to nervous troops as shells burst nearby.  One of those soldiers later wrote of Scott that ``The men loved him for in the hours of their misery, help and comfort radiated from his undaunted soul’’.

Canon Frederick Scott in France


At the military school where I work at Borden, we prepare chaplains for a military and a world that has changed greatly.  When Scott wore his clerical collar in the trenches, everyone knew who he was and what a Canon was.  Today`s soldiers don`t have that same basic knowledge of or comfort with Christianity.  They may follow another faith, or more often, none at all.  But they are still called to go to dangerous and difficult places, like Somalia, or Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Haiti, or Nepal.   Their basic needs haven’t changed, and so we still train padres to be that friend who brings hope and comfort to the troops.

Chaplains cannot do this work without paying a cost.  A very dear friend of mine was one of the last padres to go to Afghanistan before Canada`s mission there ended in 2012.   Before he left my friend was a gentle family man, cheerful and funny to be with.  He served with an infantry regiment, tough, rough and fit young men, but you could tell that he loved them and was loved by them.    On his return I was shocked by the change in him.  Like many new veterans he was angry and cynical and sarcastic, and it took him several years to get back to normal.   Perhaps this change in personality had something to do with the fact that he lost a soldier over there.  Master Corporal Byron Greff was the last Canadian to be killed in Afghanistan, the victim of a suicide bomber.  Greff was in his mid-twenties.  I will never forget the photo of my friend walking stone-faced in front of the casket on the way to the aircraft that would bring Byron Greff home.


Byron Greff and 157 other Canadians died in Afghanistan, many more were wounded, and according to a recent Globe and Mail article, at least 54 have committed suicide since returning.  Today there no Canadians in Afghanistan and the future of that country is very much in doubt.   It`s tempting to ask what it was all for.   This week I called my padre friend, the one who was in Afghanistan, and asked him that very question.  I wanted to know what he would say to Byron Greff and all those others.


Like many veterans my friend didn`t say much, but he made two good points.  First he said that most Canadian soldiers do not want to go to war.   When they do go, he said, it is with what he called a `weary sadness`, a sense that their job is unpleasant and unwelcome, but necessary.  Second, he said, Canada`s wars are necessary because, in some way, they are to right a wrong or to free others.   In legal terms, they are just wars.  Holland, Korea, even Afghanistan were not left the worse for our presence.   Unlike some armies, Canadian soldiers do not bring terror and cruelty with them.  They are not feared by the locals.  Today I see young Canadian soldiers who are recent immigrants from many countries, and I know that in their homelands, a soldier is often someone to be feared.  So it is good to see them wearing our country`s uniform with pride and self-respect.


Still, my friend’s comment about ‘weary sadness’ speaks to something profound.  On Remembrance Day we sometimes speak about sacrifice as if it is something that ended in 1918, or maybe in 1945, and is now safely locked in the past.   The tragic thing about history is that sacrifices never end, despite talk about wars to end wars.  Like Byron Greff, new generations of young Canadians are called up.  Today you can find them in Iraq and Kuwait and Ukraine, training and protecting others.   And all we know about the future is that it keeps getting more dangerous and more unpredictable, so it seems quite likely that new sacrifices will be called for.


In this respect, the words of our lesson from Hebrews seem to take on a new relevance.  Hebrews tells us that Christ, our high priest, is not like human priests of the old covenant who offer sacrifices at their altars day after day.  If Christ was human, he would simply share our suffering, and his blood would  have to be poured out again and again in constant sacrifices that would change nothing.  But, because Christ is of God and our high priest, his sacrifice of himself on the cross changes and saves the world.   We do not know how this will work out or when it will happen, but we know that the resurrection changes everything.  We know that God has not abandoned the world to an endless cycle of war and sacrifice and pain.  Our hope and our promise is that God in Christ has begun his work of saving us and saving our world.  As padres, that hope and promise is what we as padres is what we strive to show to the troops as serve.  As Christians and Canadians, that hope and promise is what we seek to hold on to once the bugles and bagpipes of Remembrance Day have faded away.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What Do Runners Think About?

Something I occasionally post about here, less than I used to perhaps because lately I find it`s more of a core and less of a pleasure now, is running.

I am always impressed by people who tell me they think deeply and meditate on their daily runs.  Me, all I can think about, most of the time, is that my knee hurts or that each breathe is now all-consumingly interesting.  There are however moments where it can something in the local envuronment catches my attention and even becomes luminous, making a reward of the entire experience.  Recently it was a woodpecker on a wooded trail, whose taptaptapping behind me arrested me in mid stride.

Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker offers a fascinating essay, inspired by last weekend`s New York Marathon, on the subject of thinking and running.   I'm pleased to know that other runners are not especially reflective - I find that comforting.

I`m especially indebted to Schulz for her min-review of Thomas Gardner`s non-fiction book on running, Poverty Creek Journal: Lyric Essays. It`s definitely going on my reading list.  The publisher, Tupelo Press, offers a free Reader`s Companion in .PDF format which looks amazing - the briefest glance at it makes me want this book all the more.

Maybe reading it will help me enjoy running again.   So I`m off for a run as soon as I post this.  I may even think.



Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review, Redeployment by Phil Klay

Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin 2014)

 Redeployment may be the strongest and most literary work of fiction to have emerged from America’s recent wars, deserving comparison with Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds .  It is a collection of short stories, presenting different voices of soldiers, all back from war and all trying to process their various experiences.  Together the voices have the quality of a person directly after an accident, still trying to ascertain the extent of their injuries.
The author, Phil Klay, served from 2007-2008 as a Public Affairs Officer in the US Marine Corps in Iraq.  While he describes his own experience as “a very mild deployment”, it is clear that he was a skilled observer of military experience.  His characters seem highly believable as they go through the many stages of returning home, including emotional numbness, anger, heightened alertness, and disillusion.
Klay is clearly writing for a civilian audience, to whom the minds and experiences of new veterans are largely inaccessible.   In some stories, he shows readers how an experience at home can trigger memories and re-traumatize them.  In the first story, a Marine, a dog lover who had to shoot feral dogs in Iraq, finds that his girlfriend has kept his ancient and sick dog alive for his return. He refuses the services of a veterinary, and decides to put his dog down himself.  “That’s how it should be done, each shot coming quick after the last so you can’t even try to recover, which is when it hurts”.  In other stories, characters struggle to make themselves understood to civilians, sometimes using their “war stories” as weapons to wound and alienate their listeners.
Redeployment is a distinctively American book and the experiences of US Marines in places like Fallujah do not closely match (thankfully) those of CAF personnel in Afghanistan.   However, as a starting point in learning to understand the many ways in which contemporary war both wounds and stays with its survivors, it is a useful book.   Two stories will be of particular interest as they both feature chaplains.  In one, “Prayer in the Furnace”, a Catholic chaplain finds few words of comfort for a Marine who wonders how “somebody can live and fight for months in that shit and not go insane”.   As a Catholic himself, Klay imagines the priest’s pastoral and theological struggle with great sympathy and integrity.
While a work of fiction, Redeployment offers some understanding of the traumatic effects of war and the post-traumatic effects of survival and return from war.   For chaplain readers of this blog, since we who are called to walk with soldiers, and seek to understand their often concealed interior worlds, it is a useful book to have on our shelves.  Using war fiction as a means to explore issues of moral injury, spiritual resilience, and ethics may also be a useful way for chaplains to connect with other CAF members through one-on-one conversations, study groups, or talks.  Other recent fiction which chaplains should know about include Kevin Powers’ Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds and two classics of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Friday Theology: Rabbi Abraham Heschel on Religious Dialogue

I learned about Rabbi Heschel's document, No Religion Is An Island, during a conference I attended yesterday on Nostra Aetate, one of the conciliar documents coming out of Vatican II which set a tone for discussions between Christians, Jews, and Catholics.  This quotation from Heschel is taken from this website.
On what basis do we people of different religious commitments meet one another ?
First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common : a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the personhood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.
To meet a human being is a major challenge to mind and heart. I must recall what I normally forget. A person is not just a specimen of the species called homo sapiens. He is all of humanity in one, and whenever one man is hurt we are all injured. The human is a disclosure of the divine, and all men are one in God's care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is holy of holies.
To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God. According to a rabbinical interpretation, the Lord said to Moses : "Wherever you see the trace of, man there I stand before you..."
When engaged in a conversation with a person of different religious commitment I discover that we disagree in matters sacred to us, does the image of God I face disappear ? Does God cease to stand before me ? Does the difference in commitment destroy the kinship of being human ? Does the fact that we differ in our conceptions of God cancel what we have in common : the image of God ?

For this reason was man created single ( whereas of every other species many were created ) ... that there should be peace among human beings : one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine ( Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a ).
The primary aim of these reflections is to inquire how a Jew out of his commitment and a Christian out of his commitment can find a religious basis for communication and cooperation on matters relevant to their moral and spiritual concern in spite of disagreement.
There are four dimensions of religious existence, four necessary components of man's relationships to God : a ) the teaching, the essentials of which are summarized in the form of a creed, which serve as guiding principles in our thinking about matters temporal or eternal, the dimension of the doctrine; b ) faith, inwardness, the direction of one's heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy; c ) the law, or the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary, in society, or at home, the dimension of the deed; d ) the context in which creed, faith and ritual come to pass, such as the community or the covenant, history, tradition, the dimension of transcendence.
In the dimension of the deed there are obvipusly vast areas for cooperation among men of different commitments in terms of intellectual communication, of sharing concern and knowledge in applied religion, particularly as they relate to social action.

In the dimension of faith, the encounter proceeds in terms of personal witness and example, sharing insights, confessing inadequacy. On the level of doctrine we seek to convey the content of what we believe in, on the level of faith we experience in one another the presence of a person radiant with reflections of a greater presence.
I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.
What divides us ? What unites us ? We disagree in law and creed, in commitments which lie at the very heart of our religious existence. We say "No" to one another in some doctrines essential and sacred to us. What unites us ? Our being accountable to God, our being objects of God's concern, precious in His eyes. Our conceptions of what ails us may be different; but the anxiety is the same. The language, the imagination, the concretization of our hopes are different, but the embarrassment is the same, and so is the sign, the sorrow, and the necessity to obey.
We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.
Above all, while dogmas and forms of worship are divergent, God is the same. What unites us ? A commitment to the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture. Faith in the Creator, the God of Abraham, commitment to many of His commandments, to justice and mercy, a sense of contrition, sensitivity to the sanctity of life and to the involvement of God in history, the conviction that without the holy the good will be defeated, prayer that history may not end before the end of days, and so much more.
There are moments when we all stand together and see our
faces in the mirror : the anguish of humanity and its helplessness; the perplexity of the individual and the need of divine guidance; being called to praise and to do what is required.

Was Kunduz A War Crime?

A week after US warplanes bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan on 3 October,  killing over twenty staff and patients, Afghanistan, there is some debate as to whether the bombing was a war crime.

On 8 October, Dr. Joanne Liu, the President of MSF issued a statement that included these words.

"It is precisely because attacking hospitals in war zones is prohibited that we expected to be protected. And yet, ten patients, including three children and twelve MSF staff, were killed in the aerial raids.
The facts and circumstances of this attack must be investigated independently and impartially, particularly given the inconsistencies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days. We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the US, NATO, and Afghan forces.
Today we announce that we are seeking an investigation into the Kunduz attack by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC). This Commission was established in the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions and is the only permanent body set up specifically to investigate violations of international humanitarian law. We ask signatory States to activate the Commission to establish the truth and to reassert the protected status of hospitals in conflict.  MSF has called the event a war crime and has demanded an international investigation."

Whether these attacks constitute a war crime, a deliberate breach of the Geneva Convention protections on hospitals in war zones, will be up to the IHFFC, which BBC News describe as a "never-used body" to determine.

A week after the event, some facts are apparent.  The hospital, seen here in this photo from an MSF factsheet on the bombing, was clearly marked as such, and its location was known to NATO and Afghan authorities.

The MSF has denied claims from the Afghan government that enemy forces were operating on the hospital grounds. 

This week the New York Times reported that the US forces involved were apparently not in a position to confirm what was happening at the hospital when they ordered the strike.

The Special Operations Forces also apparently did not have “eyes on” — that is, were unable to positively identify — the area to be attacked to confirm it was a legitimate target before calling in the strike, the officials said.
Regardless of what mistake may have been made, General Campbell told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the strike was ultimately the result of “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.” He took responsibility for the sustained bombardment of the medical facility, which he said took place in response to an Afghan call for help.

“Obviously, the investigation is still underway, but Campbell’s thinking now is that the Americans on the ground did not follow the rules of engagement fully,” said one of three American officials, all of whom emphasized that no final conclusions had been reached and that the inquiry could yield different reasons for what transpired.

Under Article 18 of the Geneva Convention, hospitals enjoy protected status in war zones provided that they are being used as hospitals, as this UN commentary on the Article notes.

A civilian hospital must have the staff (including administrative staff) and the equipment required to fulfil its purpose. It must be organized to give hospital care. That is the essential point. It is not necessary for the hospital to function permanently as a hospital. The Diplomatic Conference considered that establishments converted into auxiliary hospitals as an emergency measure consequent upon the events of war, should not be excluded from the protection of the Convention (5), as such hospitals are very often established in the combat area itself, and their need for protection is thus all the greater. The deciding factor is, as has just been mentioned, that it must be effectively possible to give hospital treatment and care, and that necessarily implies a modicum of organization.

Clearly the hospital in Kunduz was organized to provide care, and was entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.

In an interview with NPR, an American law professor noted that to convince a court or tribunal that this a war crime, as something more than an accident, would be difficult.

Still, it is a high bar to call the Kunduz attack a war crime, says Robert Goldman, who teaches international law at American University.
"Are we going to have to make some kinds of reparation and so forth? Well, I think, you bet," he says. But, he cautions, it will be difficult to make a case that this was an intentional attack on a protected place — rather than just a case of poor intelligence or negligence.
"The burden would be on the prosecution to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that this was an attack willfully undertaken in the knowledge that it was an object entitled to protection," Goldman says. "That is a very, very high hurdle."

At the very least, the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz was the result of haste, the "fog of war", chaos, and poor communications.   It should not have happened.   It seems unlikely that those who bear responsibility will face international justice, but the doubtless will face internal investigation, and possibly reprimand and dismissal.  Beyond those consequences, those who called the mission, authorized it, flew it, and fired the weapons will face the moral consequences and injury for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Military Picture of the Week

(Click on image for a larger view)

This week's photo comes from the Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera website and illustrates Canadian Army activities in eastern Europe.  Here's the official caption.  The Canadian is second from left, kneeling and facing right.  Note the differences between Canadian and Latvian camo patterns.

Lieutenant Francis Arseneault, Platoon Commander, Fus du St-Laurent, talks with Latvian military members during Exercise SILVER ARROW at Adazi Military Training Area in Kadaga, Latvia on September 26, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE.

Photo: Corporal Nathan Moulton, Land Task Force Imagery, OP REASSURANCE

Friday, October 2, 2015

Notable Quotable: Tim O'Brien on War

I heard these word's being read yesterday by Garrison Keillor on his radio feature, Writer's Almanac, and GK's distinctive gravelly baritone seemed perfect for this passage. 

The author is Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran whose book  The Things They Carried, is essential reading for trying to understand the experience of war.  I would put it in the same category as Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Raemaker's All Quiet on the Western Front, and a recent book, Phil Klay's Redeployment.

Tim O'Brien in Vietnam

How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference — a powerful, implacable beauty — and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Whither Canada's Military, and Who Will Pay For It?

Last week I offered some thoughts here about the burdensome costs that first world countries must contemplate to put soldiers in the field.

On the CBC website today, Brian Stewart offers some thoughtful comments on relationship between the cost of a standing military and the need to have a rationale for that cause.  Stewart notes some startling numbers as to what it will take to bring the Canadian Armed Forces to reequip the Canadian Armed Forces with ships, aircraft and ground equipment such as tricks.

"We're going to need to add on much more — between $33 billion and $42 billion across the coming decade — just to adequately modernize and maintain our military, warns Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette. 

 And even that wouldn't satisfy our allies. Leaders of the NATO alliance, especially the U.S. and U.K., nag that we should be spending twice what we're now doing, up from one per cent of GDP to the two per cent that NATO members have set as the common goal.

 The last time Canada hit that two per cent mark was (surprise) under Pierre Trudeau over 40 years ago, and we're not about to get even remotely close in the foreseeable future.

So we remain slumped near the bottom of NATO, 22 out of 28 in the percentage of GDP that we spend on a common defence."

The essential problem is that since the Cold War, no party has been able to articulate a coherent rationale for why Canada needs a military or what sort of military it should be. Even during the height of the Cold War, there were disagreements within the military and civilian leadership as to whether Canada needed more than a trip-wire force in Europe when World War Three was likely to end in nuclear suicide.  Peter Kasurak’s book A National Force: The Evolution of Canada`s Army, 1950-2000 (UBC 2013) tells this story in detail, noting that Canadian Army planners were allowed to fantasize about building a standing army of corps strength, along the lines of the army of 1940-1945, while their political masters had no intention of ever authorizing such expenditures when the uses of such an army were unclear and difficult to justify.

History shows that we build up our military only once the shooting starts, which is why Canadians went to Afghanistan riding in obsolete Iltis jeeps and ended up in Chinook helicopters. That was ad hoc, not planned, spending. The reality is that other than Search and Rescue capabilities, and some vague conception of peacekeeping, the Canadian public can not agree on what sort of military it wants.  If you read the comments on the CBC website in response to the Stewart article, you will see that readers are all over the map, from build the army to cut the army to bring the troops home.   Taxpayers almost certainly won't pay for a large standing military until we get into a major war, in which case, taxpayers won't have a choice. 

Tonight I’m listening to the federal leaders’ debate on foreign policy, and I have yet to hear anything thoughtful on what Canada’s foreign policy should be and how that might drive our military commitments.



Saturday, September 26, 2015

Praying for the Sick: A Sermon for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. George’s Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 27 September 2015

Texts for this Sunday:   Esther 7:1-6,9-10,20-22; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  James 5:13-14


This year my wife and I started on a journey.   It started when my wife saw the doctor because of abdominal pains, and it ended up, months later, with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. 


Now I don’t say this to talk about me or my family.  We’re not the first ones to take this journey, and it’s a busy path. Some of you, I am sure, have taken this journey before, and most of you have walked it with a loved one.  You know the stages on this uncertain and unwelcome path, starting with shock and fear, moving into uncertainty and unfamiliar medical places like the chemotherapy clinic.  After a while you find yourself well on your way and the path before you unfolds into a long slow grind, treatment by treatment - with hair loss, fatigue, changes in body weight as milestones along the way.


Throughout our journey, my wife’s faith has been an inspiration to me, and has kept me going as I walk with her.  She often says that she’s felt God’s hand in hers as she takes this unexpected journey, and she marvels at how we have been surrounded and supported by the prayers of others.


Brothers and sisters on both sides of our families are praying for my wife.  In churches where we have been members, a charismatic Anglican congregation in Medicine Hat and a more high church one in Waterloo, people are praying for my wife.  Chaplain colleagues of mine from across the Christian spectrum have been praying for my wife.  A friend of ours, an Orthodox priest, came to our house to anoint her.  He brought a gold cross, holy oil from a monastery in Greece, and long prayers, all very foreign to my wife’s tradition.   Afterwards, my wife said that she felt fabulous.


It should also be said that many of our non-believing friends have been very kind to us.  We have received a beautiful card and thoughtful gift from a sister who is atheist.  Many friends have used social media to say things like “sending healing thoughts and positive energy your way”.  Such expressions are encouraging and welcome.   It’s good to have company on the journey, 


However, one thing we’ve discovered in our journey is that prayers — the real, intentional prayers of faithful Christians -  do make a difference.  Having vague expressions of positive energy and happy thoughts sent our way is all well and good, but knowing that prayer warriors are with us, remembering us before the throne of grace and asking God to give us his strength and comfort and healing power - knowing this helps keep us going.  We feel supported and held up on our journey, as if some had volunteered to take a hand and help us over a patch of rocky ground, and others had offered to carry our pack or give us a sip of water.  


Today’s reading from the Epistle of James reminds us that we who are the church, we as the body of Christ, are called to pray for one another.   We’re called to rejoice at good fortune, to “sing songs of praise”, but we’re also called to pray for the sick and suffering.  Amidst all the other things that we as church are called to do - worship, mission, outreach - we the church are called to be a caring community that ministers by our prayers as well as our actions.


I confess I didn’t really understand this until my first parish in a rural community.  We had a small prayer list, and it was always an event when someone’s name was added.  At the church door, people would ask my, “why are we praying for Frank?” or, “What’s wrong with Eva?”.  Fresh out of seminary, I would follow my training on confidentiality and say, “I can’t say”, or “I don’t have permission to share the details”.  Such statements didn’t really work at the church door.


What I realized over time wasn’t that my parishioners weren’t, as I first thought, being nosy.  I learned that they were teaching me about compassion.  They were teaching me about how God’s people are called to journey with one another, and that being part of the body of Christ is as much public as it is private.   Sometimes compassion and concern don’t always work well with confidentiality.


Before I close, I would like to reflect on what exactly we are asking God to do when we pray for the sick.  James tells us that “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven”.(5.15).   This verse raises several questions.   Will God only act to cure the sick if we pray to him?  When people get sick, are they being punished for their sins?  Should we expect God will heal the sick if we pray?  What if the sick get sicker?  What if they die?


I don’t have answers to all these questions, but I have some thoughts.  First, I don’t think we have to tell God what to do.  I don’t believe that God only helps the sick if we pray hard enough.   Jesus in the gospels does often heal others when he is asked to, and he often credits people’s faith for their curing.  Sometimes, however, as with the woman with the haemorrhage or the lame man at the pool of Siloam, Jesus is the one who steps in when no one else has faith or wants to help.  So prayer, I think, points us towards the Son of God, the one we call Saviour, who was sent to us only by the compassion of the Father.  Jesus came to be among us because of the Father’s love for us.  Prayer is calling on that love.


As for the relation between sin and sickness, we as Anglicans reject the idea of illness as punishment. We don’t believe that people get sick because they’re being punished for something.  Our liturgies, in the anointing of the sick, at the time of death, and during the funeral, remind us that the faithful can and do die, but that even as we go down to the grave our prayers and our alleluias are heard by God.  We know that the resurrection of Jesus foretells a time to come when sin and death will be no more.  In the new world foretold by Revelation, and mentioned in places such as Eucharistic Prayer Three of the BAS, there will be no place for the things that hurt and kill us, including cancer.  If there ever was a connection between sin and sickness, it is part of our fallen world.   Scripture only tells us that God did not intend creation to be this way, and God will fix creation in his own good time.  


As Anglicans, we believe in praying for the sick.   This parish still uses the Book of Common Prayer, and you will know the prayer from the service of Compline that uses these words:

“Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous”.


These words comfort us with the promise that our God is the enemy of sickness, sin and suffering.   In our prayers for the sick, whether our prayers are couched in the noble words of the Prayer Book or whether they are own halting, uncertain words of prayer, we connect our love for the suffering with the love of God, and we commend the sick into God’s care.  For those who are sick, knowing that they are held in prayer is a great comfort, for it connects them with the Body of Christ, and it reminds them that their journey of sickness, however difficult and uncertain, will bring them to the love of God.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Alfred Knopf Canada 2015).

The Buried Giant is the seventh novel from Ishiguro and his first in a decade, since Never Let Me Go was published in 2005.  Whereas his last novel was about cloning in a dystopian near-future, the new one is set in a post-Arthurian fantasy Britain.  That choice of setting raised some eyebrows, and the novel has been badly roughed up by critics, including James Wood in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Critics found the novel's allegory to be unconvincing and the attempt at archaic dialogue to be "old timey" and even laughably "Monty Pythonesque".  Ishiguro's famously flat style and his interest in the banalities of human life were, they argued, curiously out of place for a setting that is usually chosen for heroic fantasy.  The Buried Giant is set just after the reign of King Arthur and a bitter war between Saxons and Britains, but no one can remember much of it because people have had their long-term and even much of their short-term memories stolen by something they refer to as "the mist".

The heroes of the novel are not warriors but an eldery couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out on a journey to try and find their son, who they can only vaguely recall.   The journey becomes a larger quest about memory and launches an ethical discussion about whether a society (or a marriage, for that matter) can afford to forget wrongs committed in order to live at peace, or whether recalling those offences is necessary for justice (and perhaps reconciliation) even at the risk of rupture, hatred, and the renewing of cycles of violence.  The question, as Wood notes, is what Ishiguro is prompting us to think of "by literalizing historical amnesia in this way".

As Axl and Beatrice come to the end of their quest, they discover that "the mist" is an enforced truce, a wizard's solution to war that is, as James Wood calls it, "a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement".  This a clever quip on Wood's part, because it touches on the terrible reawakenings of national memory and grievance post-Tito that provoked the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  However, while the phrase "Never Forget" can become a national slogan (Israel and the Holocaust and the USA and 9/11 come to mind), it's hard to imagine a national process of reconciliation where the remembrance of past crimes is not a necessary precondition for reconciliation and forgiveness.  If Isihiguro is saying that to remember violence and crimes committed is to risk fresh crimes and new cycles of violence committed in the name of vengeance, he seems to suggest that such risks are worth the price of memory and the possibility of better futures.  Axl and Beatrice's kind farewell to a young Saxon, who is being groomed to hate Britons, seems to suggest that one can remember the past without falling victim to it.

Something not mentioned in the reviews I've read, but raised (to my mind) by the choice of two aged protagonists with memory problems, is the spectre of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.  I wouldn't suggest that Ishiguro is setting this theme up as a minor allegory, but the affection between the two that persists after the loss of memory, and their inevitable forced parting, makes Axl and Beatrice poignant and (dare I say) contemporary characters, despite the archaic fantasy setting.  As they anticipate the return of their pasts, both characters wonder if their devotion to one another will withstand the recovered memories of damages inflicted.     Ishiguro thus raises the question of how memory and reconciliation work eenin the most intimate relationships.

Given Ishiguro's famously flat style, readers may be disappointed by two of the briefest and most laconic swordfights that have surely ever been described in a novel.   Likewise, while there are ogres, pixies, and even a dragon, they are, not surprisingly, presented in the most muted ways imaginable.   Readers will have to decide if these descriptions, like fragments of memory, are enough.

I found The Buried Giant a frustrating but strangely satisfying work, that left me with more questions than answers.  Perhaps, as an English prof of mine once said of King Lear, another work about an old man whose memory is in tatters, it is a book only suited to those at certain stages of life.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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