Friday, November 11, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Armistice Day at the Abbey"

Today is Veteran's Day.  Before it was Veteran's Day, it Armistice Day, the day that celebrates the end of World War I.  World War II was far more brutal in terms of lives lost and far reaching impact, but World War I was the war that stripped away all sorts of illusions and also showed us how technology might be used for destruction (think mustard gas).

 In so many ways, World War I was the one that catapulted us all into the twentieth century.  We got to see first-hand the ways that technology could be used for evil, as well as for good.  We got to see damaged war veterans return, and we got reports that made many people question the idea that war builds character.  And in a more positive spin, as so many men went off to war (and so many didn't come back), it opened up interesting doors for women into the world of work.

It all came at an enormous cost.  When I was in France with my parents, we stopped at several World War I cemeteries.  The white marble monuments stretched across the distance, as far as the eyes could see.  And I knew that it was only a fraction of the bodies fallen in the Great War.

A few years ago, I was at Mepkin Abbey on Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Sunday, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia, and the Sunday we were there was a memorial service for him. Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatants were invited out with the monks. I was struck by the way that the simple crosses reminded me of the French World War I cemeteries:

I took the above picture later from the visitor side of the grounds, but it gives you a sense of the burial area. I turned all these images in my head and wrote a poem, "Armistice Day at the Abbey."

 Armistice Day at the Abbey

The monks bury their dead on this slight
rise that overlooks the river
that flows to the Atlantic, that site
where Africans first set foot on slavery’s soil.

These monks are bound
to a different master, enslaved
in a different system.
They chant the same Psalms, the same tones
used for centuries. Modern minds scoff,
but the monks, yoked together
into a process both mystical and practical,
do as they’ve been commanded.

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.

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