A Century of Refugees: Today’s Strangers and Pilgrims

The privilege of preaching at the Armistice Commemoration in Notre Dame de Paris on 11th November 2017, when the Battle of Passchendaele was the focus, provided an opportunity to remember how those who died in the suffocating quagmire of Flanders 100 years ago have no acknowledged ‘place’ where they fell. Similarly, those fleeing war in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years, who have been drowned in the Mediterranean, highlight the extent to which refugees are often the silent, unremembered casualties of war. I also wanted to remember the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who died in the first few hours at Passchendaele in 1917, and explore how his poetry, and the events after his death, might speak to our current political insecurities in Europe.

A Sermon preached in La Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris at the Annual Royal British Legion Commemoration
by the Archdeacon of France & Monaco, the Venerable Meurig Williams
on Saturday 11 November 2017, being the Feast of Martin, Bishop of Tours, c. 397

As we gather in one of Europe’s iconic spaces, on one of the iconic dates of modern European history, it’s worth pausing for a moment to allow the vastness of this holy and beautiful place to impregnate our consciousness. This is a place that has shaped, and will continue to shape, peoples’ national and religious identity. It is a place to which countless millions, down the centuries, have come for inspiration, sanctuary and shelter, for an encounter with the searing reality of God; where sorrows, hopes, joys and longings have been intensely expressed. It is a place where the abundant, unfettered love of God meets our primitive human yearning for love, for recognition, for protection, for a place to belong.

Having this place into which we bring all our memories and hopes is a privilege we should feel acutely, today. A Century on from the horrors of Passchendaele, which has been the focus of so much remembering this year, we know that many who lost their lives in that bloody, suffocating, quagmire of senseless despair have no place. Their bodies are mingled with the soil of Flanders: their names, faces, voices and memory dislocated from their human uniqueness, as the place where they fell lies unmarked, unacknowledged. No memorial. No individuality. No place.

As we contemplate the unmarked expanses of Northern France, as well as Belgian Flanders, T.S. Eliot’s words remind us that, amid the bleakness of all forgotten and dislocated places, God remembers:

There is holy ground, [he wrote] and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it,
though sightseers come with guide books looking over it…
From such ground springs that which for ever renews the earth…

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault who died in 1984, speaks to our remembering, today. ‘The anxiety of our era’ he wrote ‘has to do fundamentally with place.’ When we think of war in the present moment, and the contemporary victims of war, his words have a particular resonance. Place matters to human identity and human flourishing. Displacement is an intolerable strain. The Twentieth, and now the Twenty-First, Century has become the era of refugees. We are reminded of this, to devastating effect, and with depressing regularity, every time we watch the news. Displaced people are the casualties of war and political brutality. One hundred years ago, the churned and choking soil, on the farmland between Ypres and Roeselare, consumed the ripped and bloodied bodies of its unnamed victims. Today, the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe provides the unmemorable depths into which so many wearied, fearful and desperate bodies have fallen. Their faces, their names, their uniqueness lost beneath the cruel swell, as they urgently sought a place of safety, where ruthless regimes could no longer harm them.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, addressed to a community in upheaval and bewilderment, dislocated from their native cultural and religious moorings, speaks to our contemporary anxieties. As it recalls the story of Abraham, the great exemplar of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, we are reminded of how Abraham left a known and settled place, abandoned the securities of home and cultural familiarity, seeking an unknown place in an unknown future. It reminds us that one of the present-day anxieties about place is not simply to do with where we currently belong, or where we feel safe and fulfilled. It is about future destinations, too. This, I sense, is where the story of Abraham sits uneasily with our present-day cultural anxieties in Europe.

Few of us are immune to a growing, shallow, populist rhetoric, which has not only lost its historical and moral bearings, but also shows worrying signs of contempt for democracy. We are all-too-aware of how this is fuelling an ugly tribalism in many parts of the world. It wants to say that a sense of place is not so much a gift to be shared with the rest of our human race; but something to be defended against others – especially if those others are different from us, or are minorities in our native lands.

In stark contrast, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews praised those millions of unknown, unknowable people, strangers and pilgrims as they are called, who represent the unknown, unknowable millions who have no settled place on this earth, because their goal was above and beyond the menacing political and cultural dogma that can fan the fires of hatred and exclusion. Their focus was not their own self-interest; but that homeland which is God’s eternal gift to all the peoples of the earth. They desired a better country, a better future, built on the foundation of God’s just and gentle rule: a peaceable kingdom where none are enslaved, despised or excluded.

The visceral experience of exile, which runs right through the Jewish and Christian scriptures, was powerfully expressed by one of Passchendaele’s first victims: my fellow Welshman, Ellis Humphrey Evans. A shepherd and poet from Meirionydd, he is now remembered by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn. He was fatally wounded in the first few hours of 31st July 1917 at Pilckem Ridge, as the heavy rain of the previous week intensified. The ground underfoot became a morass of impenetrable sludge, and his battalion faced a German strong-point. Just over a month later, he would be declared the winner of the poetic chair at the National Eisteddfod, held that year in Birkenhead. As the trumpets sounded, and the winner was asked to identify himself, it was announced that he had been killed in action, and the bardic chair was draped in black. At this year’s National Eisteddfod on Anglesey, that same ‘black chair’ (as it has become known), was placed alongside the winning chair of this year’s winning poet. That ‘black chair’ was made by another of the worlds displaced people, the Flemish craftsman, Eugeen Vanfleteren, a carpenter born in Mechelen, just North of Brussels. He had fled to England on the outbreak of war and had settled in Birkenhead. In a strange land, his skills were welcomed as a gift and not rebuffed as a threat.

Hedd Wyn stands in the prophetic tradition of the war poets of the First World War, as he railed against human folly, and the arrogance that assumes that blinkered political ideologies, and the demonizing of other cultures, races and languages is the solution to our insecurities. Here, he recalls the great biblical lament of the Exiled Jews, Psalm 137, in a poem that proved to be hauntingly self-descriptive:

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell…

Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung,
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.

As we gather here, today, with Passchendaele casting its long shadow over our remembering; and as we recall the sacrifice of all those who now lie buried beneath the mud of Northern France and Flanders, who gave their lives for a more just and secure future, we are challenged by a vision of that other country: that eternal homeland which is our goal and our hope.

Do we, as people who prize justice and truth, have a deeper and enriching vision to offer a world which has lost its bearings?

Do we care that the future of this world should be nourished by a more generous, sacrificial vision of what it means to be human under God?

As we ponder the privilege of being in this place, we owe it to those who have died, and who might be otherwise forgotten and displaced in human history, to ask these questions.

We owe it to them to keep these questions in clear focus as we go about our everyday lives, making everyday decisions: in the places where we meet people, make choices and spend our money. We owe it them to do our ordinary, everyday things in a way that promotes society’s cohesion and flourishing, that recognises the value of those who are strangers and pilgrims, because we know only-too-well – in this City and in many other places across the world – that the forces of terror and hatred and exclusion can so easily make this world an unbearable place. We owe it to those who died in the stench and squalor of Flanders and Northern France. We owe it to them, who died with the belief that human societies and human lives need to be rid of political posturing and aggressive arrogation. We owe it to them who, we trust and pray, have a place beyond the brutal battlefields of this world: another country, where God is not ashamed to be their God – and ours.


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