Even the earliest Christians realized that we live in two realms — one secular, another sacred — and that neither can easily be separated from the other. Often they are opposed, but sometimes one can profitably learn from the other. This year the Solemnity of Pentecost coincides with the American observance of Memorial Day. Is there something to be gleaned from their juxtaposition? Something of the Spirit within us, and beyond us?
First, the Spirit within. Didn’t the ultimate sacrifice of self, given by so many men and women for our country, begin with a stirring of the Spirit within their breasts? That’s the sentiment of a British song, written in the wake of the First World War, “I Vow to Thee My Country.” It’s based upon a poem by Cecil Spring Rice and was given a beloved melody by Gustav Holst.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
But suffer a second lesson, about the Spirit beyond us. It’s drawn from a contemporary novel of the First World War, Sebastian Faulks’1993 Birdsong. The story’s hero, a wounded Stephen Wraysfold, is recuperating in a medical ward near the front:
One morning a boy of about nineteen appeared at the end of the ward. His eyes were covered with pieces of brown paper. Round his neck was a ticket, which the senior medical officer, a short-tempered man in a white coat, inspected for information. He called out for a nurse, and a young English girl, herself no more than twenty, went over to help him.
They began to undress the boy, who had clearly not had a bath for some months. His boots seemed glued to his feet. Stephen watched, wondering why they did not even bother to put up a screen.
They peeled the boy’s clothes from him and when they came to the undergarments the MO used a knife to cut them off the flesh. Finally the boy stood naked, except for the two brown eye patches. The top layer of skin had gone from his body, though there was a strip round the middle where the webbing of his belt had protected him.
The MO peeled the brown paper from the boy’s face. The skin of his cheeks and forehead was marked with bluish-violet patches. Both of his eyes were oozing, as though from acute conjunctivitis. They rinsed them in fluid from a douche cup into which the nurse had tipped some prepared solution. His body stiffened silently. They tried to wash some of the grime from him, but he would not stay still while they applied the soap and water.
“We’ve got to get the filth off you, young man. Keep still,” said the MO.
They walked down the ward, and when they came closer Stephen could see the pattern of burns on his body. The soft skin on the armpits and the inner thighs was covered with huge, raw blisters. He was breathing in short fast gasps. They persuaded him on to a bed, though he arched his body away from contact with the sheet. Eventually the doctor lost patience and forced him down with hands on his chest. The boy’s mouth opened in silent protest, bringing a yellow froth from his lips.
The doctor left the nurse to cover him with a kind of improvised wooden tent, over which she draped a sheet. Finally, she had time to bring a screen down the ward and conceal him from the others.
As the days went by Stephen noticed that when the nurse approached the screen behind which the gassed boy was lying, her step would always slow and her eyes would fill with foreboding. She had blue eyes and fair hair pulled back under her starched cap. Her footsteps came almost to a halt, then she breathed in deeply and her shoulders rose in resolution.
On the third morning the boy’s voice came back to him. He begged to die.
The nurse had left the screens slightly apart and Stephen saw her lift the tent away with great care, holding it high above the scorched body before she turned and laid it on the floor. She looked down at the flesh no one was allowed to touch, from the discharging eyes, down over the face and neck, the raw chest, the groin and throbbing legs. Impotently, she held both her arms wide in a gesture of motherly love, as though this would comfort him (149-51).
If the song “I Vow to Thee, My Country” reveals the Spirit within the hearts of those who gave all, then perhaps this image from Faulks’ novel — a young nurse, her arms spread wide in a motherly embrace who dares not touch the flesh of the wounded young soldier — illustrates the Spirit’s own heart, the Spirit beyond us.
Many of our war dead may well be saints, but ultimately the forces sending them to war come from this world’s sinfulness, its repudiation of the God who is Life and Peace. Like the nurse who cannot embrace, cannot even touch the wounded soldier, the Holy Spirit spreads self forborne across the suffering, the carnage that is war. These are the misdeeds of our freedom, a freedom God will not withdraw. But do not think the Spirit does not extend, as yet scarcely visible, arms across those who suffer from the sinfulness that is war. God is not impotent. How right that in John’s Gospel, Jesus announces the Spirit as he shows the very wounds that birthed its presence into the world (Jn 20: 19-23).
“I Vow to Thee My Country” expresses the Spirit still beyond us in its last verse.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
This is a weekend to remember self-sacrifice and to renew within ourselves a deeper desire for peace and justice, the Spirit’s gifts that yet will end all war.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein