The month of November’s focus on the Holy Souls encourages us to do two things:
- To remember, of our charity, to pray for the souls in Purgatory, and hopefully give them a helping hand towards paradise
- To reflect on the end of our own life and the Four Last Things, and consider the current state of our own souls in relation to this.
Our modern, western culture doesn’t like to think about death. There is a tendency to sanitise it, or to divert the focus away from the issue (consider how common it is when reporting the death of a famous person, or when giving an address at a funeral, to cut as quickly as possible to some entertaining anecdote from their life) or just to pretend it doesn’t exist (I was struck by the absurdity of a charity’s use of the slogan ‘No Child Born to Die’ – surely that is the one certainty we have; hopefully they will have a reasonably good ‘innings’ between the two events, but death is definitely going to happen at some point: our death is even more certain than our birth).
Ignoring death isn’t a healthy thing: if we don’t think about the future, then we are unlikely to prepare for it. This doesn’t, of course, mean we should become preoccupied with death. Life is good and worth living, but we can live it in a way that works towards the next step, and will very likely have a better and more enjoyable life if we do this.
As it is the month for praying for those who have died before us, there couldn’t be a more poignant mark in the year than that of Remembrance Sunday. From the end of October the Poppy sellers are out (they are in fact, members of the Royal British Legion) and these bright little flowers seem to pop up every as symbols of Remembrance, solidarity and hope. The poppy is an instantly recognisable symbol of respect for those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice in conflicts past and present. As the nation’s custodian of Remembrance, the Legion is committed to helping everyone understand the importance of Remembrance, so those sacrifices are never forgotten.
Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday in November, is the day traditionally put aside to remember all those who have given their lives for the peace and freedom we enjoy today. On this day people across the nation pause to reflect on the sacrifices made by our brave Service men and women at 11am on the 11th of November of every year. For two minutes it feels as if the whole world the world goes quiet as we figuratively join hands in unison to pray for these soldiers. It is duly afforded the rich pomp and ceremony it deserves. I am always moved to tears by the nation’s solidarity in the sincere and stoic observance of this day.
The Royal British Legion is the UK’s leading Service charity. They provide practical care, advice and support to serving members of the Armed Forces, veterans of all ages and their families.
John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.
In Flanders Fields
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.
Take 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.
One of the most asked questions is: why poppies? The answer is simple: poppies only flower in rooted up soil. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, and only when someone roots up the ground, they will sprout. There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.
The opening line of the beautiful hymn ‘Abide with Me’ alludes to Luke 24:29, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent”:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.