Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 14th September 2014
14 September 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Last week I spoke about an Army chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, nicknamed 'Woodbine Willie', who during World War 1 gave out Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers. I finished with his poem 'Indifference'. This week I shall be speaking about Wilfred Owen, the great war poet who's faith severely suffered as a result of the atrocities, yet his genius was his ability to celebrate the ordinary, and his courage was his capacity for confronting doubt head on. Just like Studdert Kennedy, he held a deep sympathy for his fellow soldiers, and held great courage in action, coupled with a very strong sense of duty. This gave Wilfred Owen the moral authority to challenge the church, and to denounce the war as a sickness and a corruption, a festering evil from which he believed no good could possibly come.
Both Owen and Studdert Kennedy shared revulsion of warfare, and an ongoing inner spiritual struggle to reconcile a loving and forgiving God with the evils of battle. Both keenly recognised, more than anything else, that conflict had decimated a generation of young Europeans, and opened the public's eyes to the sheer inhumanity of large-scale trench warfare, and the pointlessness of it all. In Owen's case, the rare combination of poetic genius, coupled with his Calvinist upbringing and real suspicion of the Establishment, not least the established church, created a poet who was keenly concerned with proclaiming a particular interpretation of Christianity.
This morning's second lesson from the Book of Revelation speaks to us about the clinical defeat of the dragon and how there was rejoicing in heaven. St John mentions little about the nitty-gritty horror, and disfigurement and despair of war – with more about good triumphing over evil. In contrast, Owen's own life was totally dominated by the fact that war is brutal, savage and impersonal. To understand his faith struggle, and oscillating Christian belief, it's important for us to first grasp where he's coming from.
To begin with, he was particularly scathing of the politicians and intellectuals of his day, who believed themselves to be in the right, and blessed by God. He saw their actions as a double hypocrisy; and openly confronted firstly romantically-minded artists, for their false glorification of war; and secondly politicians whom he believed were not really concerned with the social morals they professed to defend. He sought to counteract this on two particular fronts: firstly by promoting a message of peace, love, and brotherhood that he passionately believed ought to underlie the politics of a "Christian" nation; and secondly by attempting to overturn, with gruesome realism, those who romanticised war and glory.
His attack upon the politicians and intellectuals of his day - is most explicit within his poem, 'The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,' this work draws more directly on biblical inspiration than any of his other war poems. Here, he tells us of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. The poem concludes with a radical perversion of the biblical story:
"An angel called him out of heaven
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its thorns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one".
Here he attacks the 'old men' in authority – who ignore the merciful commands of both God and people, choosing rather to spare their own pride at the price of the blood of an entire generation. This is so poignant because at the outbreak of the Great War, all the nations of Europe saw themselves as strongholds of the Christian faith. To Owen this was utter hypocrisy: if the gospel was a single revelation, how could the competing aims of these warring nations appeal to the same source of inspiration? Clearly, the message and truth of Christ had been undermined by the "truths" of each nation's politics.
His famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," which means "it is sweet and honourable," contradicts the popular notion that dying in battle is righteous. He tells us what war is really like for soldiers – with no romantic vision of gallantry and martyrdom. In the last lines of the poem, he says that if people truly knew what war was like, they would not encourage the "innocent," their children, to seek an honourable death in battle.
To fully understand Wilfred Owen's spiritual foundations, we need to know something about his religious thought. He was raised a staunch Calvinist by his mother. His understanding of God is above all one who punishes evil, sparing only a limited and undeserving elect. And it's in this light that we can begin to understand his merciless critique of politics and the establishment. Through the ironic beatitudes of his poem "Insensibility," he's scathing about the neglect of love showing what he thinks the Sermon on the Mount has become:
"Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers"
From this standpoint, Owen dreams of a revived Christianity. For him, it's not Christ himself who is buried by the hell of warfare, but rather the church, because of its defence of a corrupt civilisation. He passionately believes that its only through poetry that we can regain the true Christian message, which condemns violence and preaches love and brotherhood.
For him, true Christianity, is to look directly at the figure of Christ himself and to the innocents who suffer with him. He cites the unknowing young men of Europe who are led by their elders to the slaughter. It's also very significant that Owen chose to remain in the war, rather than return home, so that he could speak on behalf of those alone who know the true and real horror of warfare.
He tells us that the only men who have the right to speak of killing are those who are killed; the only men who can preach love are those who do not hate; and the only men who are fit to rule society are those who dispense with lyrical propaganda and look the truth in its ugly, mangled face.
After his death his mother attempted to present him as a more pious figure than he actually was. For his tombstone, she selected two lines from 'The End':
'Shall life renew these bodies?
Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?'
The problem was, she omitted the question mark at the end of the quotation. His grave therefore memorializes a faith that he didn't hold and ignores the doubt he expressed. With historical hindsight, we see here, a faith shattered and disillusioned by war and a soul dissipated with doubt and anger. We also detect that, deep within him, there was a volcanic engagement with God, broken apart by despair and bitterness.
In our world today, where violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths have reached new heights, we can learn so much from Wilfred Owen about the fragility of faith - in the face of horrendous violence. Unlike Studdert Kennedy, we see here that the dulling of hope, can directly affect our ability to recognise the grace of God.