Remembrance Sunday is an invitation to find a space in our harried lives for a silent opening to all that war has meant for the country: a national meditation on what Wilfred Owen called ‘the truth untold / the pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Something remarkable can happen in a sports stadium when a crowd observes a minute’s silence. Those present cease, for that moment, to be supporters and become reflective and respectful. When a particularly significant loss is remembered – as when Anfield commemorates the Hillsborough dead – the silence gathers the crowd into a shared emotion. Then the whistle blows and hostilities recommence.
The minute’s silence on Remembrance Day this Sunday probably can’t match that emotion for most of us. Yet the invitation to reflect is the same and, here too, silence is a fitting medium.
The most intense experience I’ve had of remembrance was attending a weeklong interfaith retreat in the grounds of Auschwitz/Berkenau concentration camp. My grandfather and other members of my father’s family died in the Holocaust but my father was baffled that I would wish to go to such a place. When I found myself sitting in Berkenau, surrounded by barracks and barbed wire and shivering in the biting autumn air, I shared his perplexity. Why was I there?
It helped that we performed rituals and recited kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; and it also helped that I had time to simply sit in silence. I sensed that I wasn’t there for myself: I was there for the dead. I was there to remember because the alternative was to forget. I was there to bear witness to the suffering of others because it was the suffering of the family, the world and the life of which I’m a part.
A minute is barely enough time for the chatter of our minds to begin to settle. All the same, Remembrance Sunday is an invitation to find a space in our harried lives for a silent opening to all that war has meant for the country. For me, it is a national meditation on what Wilfred Owen called ‘the truth untold / the pity of war, the pity war distilled.’
Attending to that untold truth requires that we become quiet, for just a moment, and bear witness to what happened. We don’t need to figure it out or think how to put it right. Then what? I think Owen’s word ‘pity’ is a clue, and ‘compassion’ – a word beloved by Buddhists and others – is another. We can’t force compassion into existence any more than we can force a flower to grow. But if we sit quietly in those silent moments at a football match, in a concentration camp, or on Remembrance Sunday, perhaps compassion will emerge; and, with it, a sense of what to do next.