A choir member mentioned to me on Sunday how moved she was by the powerful images of those 888,426 ceramic poppies that have been placed around the Tower of London this week. Representing the individuals who died during World War I, but also symbolizing, I think, the collective sacrifice made by all of humanity for a questionable cause, it does look for all the world like a sea of blood spilling from the stones. Where is God in the carnage of war?
How often have you heard – or asked – that very question, especially when looking at particularly difficult situations – like death, homelessness, and the alienation so many feel. All art, including poetry and other kinds of writing which seek to explore these universal subjects, sometimes directly points to God, and sometimes quietly uncovers the pain and gently leads us to make our own conclusions about if and how God just might possibly be found somewhere there inside the pain.
And so, in this week when our country commemorates Veteran’s Day, Europeans remember World War I in more detail, and memories of Kristallnacht are in the air, I asked the choirs at St. Alban’s to think about those poppies, and the sacrifice too many have made in wars, as they sang a moving setting of the now famous funeral poem, Do not stand at my grave and weep. Among its Celtic, or perhaps native American, images of nature, the poet hopes her listener will find comfort – God the comforter – in those every day experiences of wind and sunlight and birds in flight.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die. ( Mary Elizabeth Frye)
This coming Sunday a choir will sing the African-American spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. There is nothing but anguish in this beautiful old spiritual.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home.
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone, a long ways from home. (African-American Spiritual)
The words bear witness to a slave’s experience of being far from any comforts of home – the home of their native Africa perhaps, or the home that is promised in a Christian understanding of life after death. The music carries the cries of someone who is completely alienated from home and even from a mother’s embrace and offers only the comfort of knowing that this is a shared experience among all humans, to sometimes feel that kind of separation from love.
Where is God in all this? At this coming Friday’s Arts@Midday performance of an adaptation of Beckett’s Molloy, a work which explores the devastation of war, the performer asks this same question on behalf of his audience. He doesn’t promise any answers, but, like the known and unknown poets of the two texts above, wonders if Beckett offers the hope that God just might be found in our pain, walking at our side through it, or perhaps circling above our heads in a flight of birds.