Praying for victory brings mixed blessing

Published May 1, 2003

The Roman poet Horace used these words in a famous phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, which translates as “Sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.” I learned those words as a schoolboy during the Second World War, and they were strengthening words at a time when many Canadians, including some members of our extended family, were doing precisely that.Horace was writing at a time (1st century BC) when “dying for one’s country” was something that happened to Roman soldiers, not to citizens at home, in faraway places where they were creating and defending a great empire. Later in life I was to have a couple of experiences which put those words in a different light. The first came 50 years ago when I was a student in Germany. In the sense of physical damage, Heidelberg was virtually untouched by the war. My contemporaries at university were, like myself, too young to have served in the war, though of course they remembered it vividly. However, one day on a walk in the hills, I discovered the local military cemetery with its hundreds of tombstones from both World Wars. It was a peaceful place (the German word for “cemetery” is “Friedhof,” – “courtyard of peace”), but there was not a word of the kind that I had seen at home. For example, one did not see words like, “they did not die in vain.” My reflections were further stirred by a visit to the home of a fellow student where on the wall was a photograph of a young man in the military uniform I had been taught to fear. This was the brother who did not come home. Twenty-five years later, I was on the island of Bougainville, one of the islands of Papua New Guinea, visiting a friend working there with CUSO. Also visiting the village was a Japanese television film crew. They were on a search for the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died in that community. The Japanese government gave a grant to families who wished to find bones of soldiers, burn them and bring the ashes and the identification home for appropriate burial. In a village like Buin, with a strong oral culture, local people could remember where soldiers had died. But these soldiers, like tens of thousands of other members of the occupation forces, did not die in battle. As the Allies advanced, they captured some islands, but others they simply bypassed, knowing that no further supplies from Japan could reach them. The result was that there was no rice. The soldiers, for whom rice was the only staple, were surrounded by tropical fruit and other foods, but they could not digest them and died of starvation. In these days, when there is much hope for victory and triumph in battle, these memories of moments when I experienced more problematic revelations come back to me. As I write this, in the Easter season, I also reflect on the experience of the grieving disciples, shattered by the experience of Good Friday and bewildered by the first messages of the women on Easter morning. They were learning, as I pray we all do, that in the providence of God no suffering, no death, however bewildering, can ultimately thwart the purposes of God who, in Jesus, has entered precisely that experience and has triumphed. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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