Chris Houstonon 18 November, 2016 at 11:11
After an early breakfast with my client in the restaurant of our London hotel, I ran for a taxi. “Please get me as close to Westminster Abbey as you can,” I urged. And we were off. It was 10:05am, the service started at 10:30, at least I thought it did. By numerous back routes and short-cuts he deposited me two blocks from the Abbey. I ran to the entrance and arrived at a blocked door with five minutes to spare. “Only tickets allowed,” I was told. It was Remembrance Sunday. “A ticket!” I thought, “How do I get a ticket?” But after a few anxious minutes of waiting, another official spoke up, “if they say they are here for the service they can go in.” I was. And so in I went – through the cloister, over the ancient stones and to a side door, ending at a single vacant seat. It was up near the altar, with no view of the great choir stalls, yet just behind them. But there I was, wedged at the end of the row, program in hand, staring at a massive pillar that blocked my view. Yet the one sense I treasured above all in such a place remained unimpeded…I could hear!
The mighty organ led us. “…Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…” and, near the ticketed dignitaries, beside the silent gentry, in my jeans and my cardigan, with a crumpled poppy on my lapel, I sang. I joined the song quietly, so as not to embarrass the gilded class, but I sang, in Westminster Abbey. And I thought my heart would burst. “…Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home…” Waves of gratitude rolled through me, surging, wringing out of me an unutterable sense of thanksgiving.
What an incomparably blessed life I have had. Born in the hope and recovery of those early post-war years into a world hopeful because of the suffering and sacrifice of those whom we remembered on this day. Immersed in the creative scholarship of Oxford as a boy yet without capacity to enter it as a man. Plucked from the perils and obstacles of late blooming by God’s gracious sovereignty that led me to Vancouver, to a fulfilling career, to farmland that I love, blessed with children and grandchildren…because men and women went down to the sea in ships, to battlefields, to dog fights in defence of this city, in whose cathedral I now stood and gave simple thanks.
One of my favorite spots to walk is the ancient cavernous bowl called Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. It was born of a mighty eruption that before recorded time blew the rocks and hills to bits, leaving only a shadow of their past and the seething magma far below. We are frequently reminded that beneath the verdant pastures and sea floors there lie vast chambers of rumbling power, threatening to break loose all hell through the thin shell of crust that we find habitable. These days, in the West at least, we have a similar sense of deep disquiet that other things are quaking. If we are honest, we have been feeling it for more than a decade – major tremors after 9/11 and in 2008, and more recently Grexit spilling into unmistakable flow of Brexit and what some have labeled “Trexit”. The gilded promises of relentless consumption seem shaken and more uncertain. There is a rumbling disquiet; wealth disparity, climate ambiguity, elusive growth, and warhawks rattling their sabres. All feel it. Some tap into it and release its power, sometimes for good and sometimes to vent its anger and aim an eruption of molten frustration at one target or another, often, sadly, at one another. Most of us though, are not quite sure what to do with it.
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;” began the first reading from the mighty Abbey’s lectern …”the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Visual imagery of hope so grand as to seem absurd. I wonder what the ticketed guests behind me thought of that, or if they even recognized it, particularly the plummy voice that whispered to her neighbours after I had sat down about all the “tourists” that had somehow got in. I, of course, was one of them, in my jeans and cardigan, and yet I sang, “we pray thee Lord, arise, and come in thy great might; revive our longing eyes, which languish for thy sight.” How I quietly longed for something better than this seething tribal anger of creeds against creeds, race against race, gender against gender, sector against sector, rich against poor and crushing injustices that so easily could have laid claim to my whole life were it not for the steely resolve of people in this very city to withstand the blitz, others to endure the Kristallnacht, still more to survive the trenches, the rations, and the hope-numbing uncertainty that is war with or without victory.
And then there was, but for a muffled cough, silence! That great and vaulted and echoing place, was enveloped by stillness and silence, Faintly, through the stain glass windows, through the carefully laid stone walls, across the silent people standing still, and piercing the searing, glorious, sombre, memory-inducing silence, I felt my heart fully open to the wondrous cataract of hope that I was prepared to embrace. Heads bowed, ears tuned, minds alert, and suddenly there was a soulful melody of inexpressible power, unmistakable. I heard Big Ben’s striking of the eleventh hour. That sound has no words that can express its soulful melody, its steeple shaking power. Across that bombed city, amidst the sirens and shrieks of frightened children. In the darkest hours of freedom, that sound had rung, been heard by countless thousands that had hoped it tolled not for them, just yet. Silent we stood while it struck forth. Silent, heads bowed, hearts quieted, with not even the desire not to interrupt the moment by shifting weight between tired feet. Still, I stood, so thankful to be standing, so thankful to hear that sound, so thankful to be alive, to have capacity to give thanks, to anticipate its eleven-fold confident striking of the hour of remembrance. And then there was the gun that marked the end of silence. Such reflective peace could have lasted an eternity, and yet, once again the saintly voices whispered across the well-worn floors that carrying generations of the remains of the once-memorable so soon forgotten.
“They shall not grow old, we are that are left to grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” This sung promise throbbed in us all, for me speaking into my distracted obsession with my rights and my self and my possessions and my future. “We will remember…” they sang. May it be so.
“Let me not forget, and above all, help me to remember to be thankful…” and, before I could finish my whispered prayer, the resounding trumpet called out for the departed, for the last post, for the new day of reveille, the trumpet sounded through the great cathedral and echoed from its walls, clear and shrill and sharp and fresh and while somber, so filled with radiant hope. And when the trumpet sound was no more, I finally took the seat I had claimed not by the legitimacy of a ticket, but simply by virtue of showing up.
And then the Dean of the Abbey led us in the words of a long departed sage: “Lord make us instruments of thy peace. Where there is hatred, may we sow love; injury, pardon; discord, union; doubt, faith; despair, hope; darkness, light; sadness, joy.” And all the people said “Amen.” “So be it,” they affirmed with that single word, and I with them. “May it be truly so,” I thought. And whether or not the thousands who were there actually heard what they said to each other, I did and I really, really meant it. I hope to keep meaning it, and to learn to mean it even more than I did then. I do wish to use every creative idea and persuasive word and right of access and waking moment to be an instrument of peace and to turn even just a small corner of this rumbling, molten fear toward hope and not toward anger.
Then it was over. As I thanked the nice, official-looking lady with the medal at the end for letting a “tourist” show up, she mused wistfully, “I wonder if we’ll ever learn?” Her own answer was lost in a cloud of doubt, and I quickly began to wonder how all the others beginning to gather their things to head back out into the world might have answered her query. I could not see most of them from behind my pillar, yet I knew they were there, filling the great Abbey with their fears and their discord and their hopeful hearts and their seared memories. All horror that had threatened to engulf the generations and change the course of each life under this cavernous roof was not enough to separate us from our shared humanity in this moment of remembrance. For when the distant choir, gathered around the tomb of the unknown soldier, had offered this sung promise, “and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away…” I had found myself daring to hope that it would be so.
Eventually, after most had departed but while the organ still played, I rose and walked to the nearby altar rail and then turned and ambled out, behind the thinning crowd, down the full length of the emptying cathedral, beneath the organ loft from whence came the thunderous sounds of a Bach fugue. Slowly, so slowly I walked, alone, quietly in the reverberating roar of the final chords, pausing for thanksgiving at the tomb of the unknown soldier, past the smiling vergers and clerks whose duties were near completion and out through the main doors into the glorious sunshine and crisp air of the morning and then transfixing sounds of the bells. Ah, the bells! I pictured the bell-ringers dancing on their feet, near hoisted up their ropes into the tower from which the sound rang out, across the courtyard, across the roads, towards parliament, towards Whitehall from whence streamed the thousands who had gathered around the cenotaph while we worshipped in the Abbey. And I knew what I must do, what we can do.
I am no soldier, no politician, no CEO or senior leader, no head or titled influencer, no moving speaker or wealthy donor. Like so many of you I feel cut off, inadequate, stuck behind a pillar without an official ticket. I am no member of the powerful mainstreams of power and influence, and I feel so unable to materially change the course of much that is unfolding in our restless times. Yet I am profoundly hopeful because the choices of many thousands are starting to open another way. Some of the anger vented at our politicians in recent years is being constructively aimed to remake our businesses as instruments of good instead of mere greed. The swords of corporate excess and environmental damage are being slowly beaten into the plowshares of social impact and sustainability. While political institutions falter, businesses are turning to do good. And so, as I joined the crowds outside the Abbey, as they applauded the lines of veterans streaming down Whitehall from the cenotaph, I knew my own seemingly insignificant yet deep sense of call to not just say “thank-you!” but to act it out by seizing every moment to encourage a movement of businesses to do good, what I have called Telosity. That is my choice. And what will be yours?