November is the time when we remember those who have died. Beginning with All Saints Day the Church recalls all the Holy Men and Women who have followed Christ and died a long time ago. On All Souls Day those near to us, who have gone to heaven before us, are celebrated; memories may crop up, perhaps pain we thought we had left behind catches us and hits us where we least expect it. We miss them still and always will remember them. How can we ever live without them? We manage, but certainly life will never be the same again.
On Armistice Day those who have died in military service become the focus of reminiscence and thanksgiving. Murray Watts recounts a schoolgirls’ assessment of the situation: 'Armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918, and since then we have had two minutes of peace every year.' Looking at what is going on in the world at present and in the more recent past, how relevant is this comment today?
NATO has just ended its intervention in Libya; fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq continues, while the conflict in the Holy Land is still a concern. During the First and Second World War the fighting and killing took place in Europe, but now it happens elsewhere and seems to have no impact on our lives anymore. Is this really possible if the whole world is connected?
How do we deal with conflicts on such a scale? Different options are available: some may be not too uneasy hearing or reading about them but unable to watch the news on TV, for example. Others may be unable to speak about these terrors. Yet another may be inspired to go and help in some way. Can we feel the pain and shock, or are we overwhelmed and beyond caring? What is your way of coping and reacting?
The Environmental Movement has coined the phrase 'Think globally – act locally', and this may be similarly applicable to the way we tackle conflicts of all kinds.
Every time we go to Mass we move to give The Peace to those around us. It strikes me that we usually do not stand still for this symbolic action. We move out of our comfort zone of the 'me' to meet the others, even if it is only by stretching out our hand to shake another’s. Whom do we bless in this way? Do we only give the Peace to those we know and like, or do we include the stranger and the person we do not like all that much?
What kind of peace are we talking about here? Is this the often hailed and never achieved absence of disagreement and conflict? How interesting would life be if we all looked and thought alike? Is there a way to live with differences and tensions and still be at peace? Life in London is a great example that this can work. People of all races and religions, as well as underprivileged and well-to-do, live side by side – but there is no revolution taking place.
A look at the life of Jesus may yield answers to the question what this peace means. The word 'shalom', which Jesus would have used, incorporates a range of concepts, such as fullness, completeness, health, rest and harmony. If they are a measure of Christ’s life he certainly was and had all of these – and more. He was always authentic in his actions and reactions and we are called to move towards the same level of wholeness. Maybe this is what heaven will be like. Sometimes one gets a glimpse of such a state of bliss, but most of the time life happens in an environment and in a spiritual state where we are longing for heaven.
So how do we get there? Of course there is always life after death but, like the lady who wants to wear purple when she is an old woman, maybe we should practise a little now. The ways in which we can do this are as different as the God-given personalities we have. One thing is certain: we will be not only better but also happier people if we do. In the present we will be able to live life to the fullest, and when we come to the end of living in this world we may move without regrets into the next life.
Rebecca Elson, a contemporary astronomer, also published poems. The following was written a short time before her death, and it points to new life in the dull dark days of November.
Let there always be light
For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:
To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.
Whatever they turn out to be,
Let there be swarms of them,
Enough for immortality,
Always a star where we can warm ourselves.
Let there even be enough to bring it back
From its own edges,
To bring us all so close that we ignite
The bright spark of resurrection.