Living stones or dead stones - Remembrance Sunday

The address was preceded with a story I have used many times before and is taken from 'Life is a Miracle' by Wendell Berry (2000, Washington DC, Counterpoint Press pp. 151-152)

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge 


In his sixty-fifth sonnet Shakespeare asks what possible chance of survival has beauty 'whose action is no stronger than a flower' when even rocks and steel are, by time, decayed. His answer is none unless 'in black ink my love may still shine bright' - in other words for him it survives in poetry.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

David West - in his wonderful but, alas, now out of print book on 'The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius' - saw that poetry, monuments and flowers also come together in Lucretius' refutation of the idea that there were great wars before the Trojan war and that brave men lived before Agamemnon:

'. . . if there has been no first birth-time for earth and heaven, and they have been always everlasting, why have the poets not also sung other things beyond the Theban War and the ruin of Troy? Into what place have so many deeds of men so often fallen, and nowhere flower implanted in eternal monuments of fame? But, as I think, the world is young and new, and it is not long since its beginning. (De Rerum Natura 5.324ff, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. by Martin Ferguson Smith, Harvard University Press, 1992)

West points to this text because he wants to draw our attention a particular word in the underlying latin text whose meaning, in translation, is often obscured. The word is 'insita' - which means grafted and West goes on to say:

'When men erect monuments they are grafting their deeds on to a durable stock, the eternal monuments of fame, in this case poetry. This is full of poetry, including the juxtaposition of stone and flower, the fragility of fame and flower, the seeming durability of monuments, the immortality of poetry, and man's elaborate operations to procure immortality for himself. All these pathetic [in the sense of evoking or expressing pity, sympathy] sensations and meditations are floating through the Shakespeare and the Lucretius, and in the Lucretius the literal force of the word 'insita' is essential to it all. It is because they were never grafted that the prepoetic achievements of man are not in flower but have fallen to the ground. The translators offer 'enshrined in glory', 'set glorious', 'gravées', and 'blühn sie nich fort'. This is murder' (pp. 2-3).

Drawing on West's insight my point today is simple - the things we, as individuals and as a culture wish (or need?) to remember will be always come to be forgotten when we try to enshrine them only in terms of external glory by, for instance, carving them in stone upon memorials. The only true and lasting memorials - the ones that have a real affect upon our culture are those which are engrafted in us as living people. True memory is a living thing and, like all living things it must be nurtured if it is to produce abundant fruits and flowers - fruits and flowers which in the case of Remembrance Sunday must surely be a deeper understanding of the human condition and the creation of a lasting, creative and perpetual peace.

As you know, I continually worry about the failure of contempoirary liberal democracies to get engaged, down and dirty in the world in the way more conservative religious and political ideologies seem to be able to do. I find that this is also often true with regard to remembering in the liberal democracies. It is simply not sufficient to devolve our remembrances to stone memorials that we visit once a year (if that). If our memory of the horrific wars is to become a truly transformative experience and so to bear real healthy and creative fruit we must endeavour to graft the memories onto our very being and the way by which human kind has best done this is through the remembered and oft rehearesed story or poem.

The phrase that 'in back ink my love may shine' is liable to be misunderstood unless you realise that the black ink in which Shakespeare wrote his poem is a poetic image itself and only an epiphenomenon of his actual composition of the poem out of the very stuff of his life - the beauty that he saw in another became in this transformative process his beauty and by extension - in so far as we make the poem part of us - we too can come to share that beauty. Memory is a living procession and, as the poet and theologian Wendell Berry noted, when the procession ends so too does the knowledge.

Although the language might, at first, be puzzling and off-putting (especially if you have been confused and hurt by overly literlistic and conservative forms of Christianity) what you are about to read (hear) is an early Christian author expressing this realisation and trying to encourage in his readers (hearers) an understanding of the importance of maintaining a community of memory and hope. Remember that here, like us today, they are remembering a particular human beauty (in this case Jesus), a violent death (his crucifixion) and the possibility that through this remembering they may share in a transformative process which can bring them all to a more abundant life (1 Peter 2:1-5):

'Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.'

Belonging to such a living procession of people is what counts - and we need to realise that our remembering will not work if the attempt to remember is made only through external things such as carved stone. That will wear away with time, However, as living stones belonging to such a living procession we truly remember and are, thereby, helped to learn and become transformed as a people. That is why our being here today together is so important. Here and now, the beauty (the best) that was in the hearts of all who have died in conflict can truly flower again amongst us - a people dedicated to cessation of war.

It is only insofar as this procession remains alive in us as living stones that we can ever truly say:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

ADDENDUM (Monday 9th November 2009)

Reviewing this address I realize that it could be thought I am, in truth, saying no more than that memory can only last as long as the human procession that nourished it. It is possible that such processions - even the longest lasting - will eventually come to an end. Indeed we may hazard a (reasonable) guess that what humankind has forgotten may infinitely 'outweigh' what has been remembered; in some respects (though not all) that this is so might be seen as a good thing.

Anyway, I certainly acknowledge that from a purely human perspective even the longest procession may be easily be conceived of as having an end.

However, at the back of my claim in this address is an intuition that when we talk about God in a Spinozistic way we find a way to articulate a rational conception of immortality, in other words, we can show the possibility of there being a truly immortal procession to which EVERYTHING belongs. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana summed up Spinoza's thought on this matter beautifully and I offer it to you again (for you'll find the ideas in this passage, in whole and in part, scattered throughout my writings):

To see things under the form of eternity is to see them in their historic and moral truth, not as they seemed when they passed, but as they remain when they are over. When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him. And knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of [existence.]


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