Remembrance Sunday

11 November (year unknown), Cambridge

On the Sunday of Remembrance, I feel that I can not speak of prayer in general without relating it to the context which we have been living through in the course of this evening. And so let me start with a few things which will put it in its right setting.

When I was called up in 1939 I took my stand before God and asked Him earnestly, very earnestly, from the depth of my heart to give me a word for me to know whether I was going into a war as a murderer or whether I was going into it fulfilling the words of Christ that were read to us in the course of this service — that no-one has a greater love than he who gives his life for his neighbour. I prayed for guidance and then I turned to the Holy Scriptures opening the holy book ready to receive a word from the Lord. And these are the words which I read not only with my eyes but which reached my heart and made sense of the next six years of war: “Blessed are from now onward those who die in the Lord.” Six years in the war and in the French Resistance have only confirmed the truth of these words. I have not seen murderers, I have seen men and women who gave their lives generously, with agony of mind or with elation of soul but gave them, gave them in the terms in which the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of His own sacrifice when He said, “No-one it taking My life from Me, I give it freely.” “Freely” did not mean ‘without anguish’, it did not mean ‘without horror’, it did not mean ‘without pain’.

From the Upper Room, the Lord Jesus Christ went into the Garden on the Mount of Olives and we know that there began His passion, and from there the days during which He gave himself and when His life was harvested from the earth to be sown and to bring forth new life for the world.

When I was in my middle teens I came one day back from a summer camp. My father met me with a worried question, “Was everything alright?” And I answered superficially. I smiled and said, “Were you afraid that I had broken a limb?” He shook his head and said, “No, I was afraid that you might
have lost your integrity.” And then he added, “Remember that whether you live or die should matter nothing to you or indeed to anyone however searing the pain would be for those who would be bereaved. What matters is what you are prepared to live for and to die for.” Life must be as great as
death. Life must be such that it stands above ground face to face with death, fearlessly, with readiness to meet it.

Later on, I asked myself what it was that one should be prepared to live for and to die for, to live a life that would be day-by-day and hour-by-hour spending of one’s life, tantamount to dying to oneself. I came across a phrase by one of our most beloved Russian theologians of these decades, Vladimir Lossky who once said in a conversation with his children, “Remember always that to fight for one’s own right is abject but not to fight for other’s is vile.” This is the word that we could well ponder upon. To fight for one’s own rights, for one’s own advantages, for one’s own life, the very physical life which we so much treasure and rightly so, may be abject if as a result, we shrink from being capable of facing the needs of others and giving our own life that others may live.

Soldiers have been dying through centuries. A few years ago a Remembrance service was for most students unreal because it seemed to apply to people who had died so long ago. Now after the last war in the South Pacific, we can think of life and of death and of the readiness of people to give their lives that others may live, to give their lives that others may be free, to give their lives for the dignity of others. We may think of them concretely and we may think of those who are bereaved concretely also. They are in our midst. So often I feel that we insult their grief, we make small something that would be great by offering them pity or by saying that it was not worth a human life to fight here or there, for one cause or another. I feel it is an insult to my comrades in the war to say that they fought in vain. An officer of our regiment went out of the safety of a trench six times to bring wounded people back. At that moment, six times he chose to give his life that others may live. He was great and he is great. Another friend of mine, tall and broad, who had always complained that he was too tall and too broad, wrote to me during the war and said, “I thank God now for the
breadth of my shoulders and the height of my body – when people shoot, two men can be protected by my flesh.” He was prepared to put his body between death and a companion.

Now, what matters in this is the free gift of one’s life. But one dies in the war in a variety of ways. One may die with elation, one may die with the joy of giving one’s life; but one may die also in anger, in fear, in trembling. One may give one’s life and yet with so much fear and agony. And yet it is a gift, and our security, our safety, our lives, our freedom, the fact that we can stand with dignity, that we can grow into people who make noble choices and not cringe before fear and before death is due so often to these deaths. And how grateful we can be to those people who have gone young, vigorous, enthusiastic, or young, vigorous and afraid — and yet have stood for us who are still alive and those who will be born after them.

And we pray for them, for the repose of their souls — but what does it mean? It means something only if we can bring to God a testimony. If we turn to God and say, “Lord, bless them as we bless them, receive them as we would receive them or will receive them in the age to come.” When we say these words as if at the same time, we are prepared to learn from them to live as they lived and die as they died not fearless but paying the cost of love for others, it is because and only if their example has taught us how to live worthily of men that we have a right to say to God, “Lord, receive their souls in Thy eternal rest! Lord, bless them because they have been great, generous and loving!” — otherwise it is a lie.

If that which I have been saying is true, we must learn to live, each of us, in such a way that having learnt from them how one lives greatly enough to face death, we live in such a way that their death should not have deprived the world of what they might have been. Each of us who has received the message from the life and the death of one or of many should determine to live in such a way that the world should be enriched by their death because their death had become in us a seed of greatness, a call to greatness, realised and fulfilled. We must also turn our thoughts to those who are bereaved, not undermining their spirit by implying or telling them that it is in vain that they have died, that they were out to kill and not out to give their lives.

And it is a hard thing, a hard thing indeed to be left behind – a mother, a wife, a bride, a friend. In our Orthodox funeral service, the first words that are spoken are, “Blessed is our God…” How much faith, how much true devotion to God and to eternity, to the greatness of men one must have to be
able to bless God in the face of death! And the next words that come taken from a psalm resound as though they were coming from the grave, speaking in words of life, “My soul lives and I shall bless the Lord” — as though the departed himself was pronouncing, proclaiming this message. And again the answer is, “Blessed is the path which thou treadeth today, o human soul, for a place of rest has been appointed unto thee.” A place of rest, not a grave but the final, the supreme encounter between a living soul and the Living God, the supreme encounter which is fulfilled, which is the glorious fulfilment of life and has broken through death, entered into eternity as one enters a conquered realm.

If we want to remember, let us not remember only with our minds, not only with an emotion passing, frivolous of our heart but with the totality of our lives. Let us live a life as great as death, a life in times of peace as daring, as dangerous, as generous as the life of those who have given it in the final
generous gift. And then our prayer will be supported, then our prayer will come forth before the face of God because our total life will be a testimony that we are speaking words of truth which are words of life itself.