Common Ground: A Lenten Meditation

My heart is broken these days as I read the political protestations by the candidates for president. The conversation seems to have descended to the level of a cock fight, with each side crowing over scoring a hit, rather than rising to a thoughtful discussion of the need to supply basic health care services and pay for them responsibly, the need to supply national security without destroying personal security, the need to help those who will responsibly use that help without wasting resources on those who willfully squander them — discussions that, if the proponents weren’t so concerned with winning, might actually provoke the creativity necessary to craft viable solutions. Conversations over religious issues often seems more about scoring points by citing the most proof texts than about seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern how we Christians may help each other fulfill our baptismal vows to love our neighbors — all our neighbors — without violating our consciences.  Even the debate over evolution and creation is often reduced to quips and quotes of various authors that promote neither good science nor good theology, but that do sell books.

What we have forgotten, and what we desperately need to remember, is how to become reconciled, one to the other. It’s a fitting topic for Lent, when Christians reflect on the great price God paid so that we might be reconciled to Him.

Americans seem particularly bad at reconciliation. We are great at competition, but we don’t do forgiveness well. We aspire to reconciliation from time to time — we have the incredible image of the whole of Congress standing together on the steps of the Capitol after 9/11, singing “God Bless America”. Unfortunately that dream of common cause faded all too quickly with squabbles over the nature of the threats and best ways to meet them, and there was no underlying sense of real unity to carry us through the practical realities of the ensuing politics and economics. The sense of disunity has grown over the last decade to real divisions that our leaders — political, religious, and academic — seek to exploit to their own advantage, rather than amend for everyone’s advantage.

I don’t know what the answer is. I can only offer, by way of meditation, three images that continue to haunt me: an archway at Magdelen College in Oxford, a statue and a plaque in a side chapel at the Cathedral in Rouen, and a pair of Westminster Abbey tombs.

We went to England in the summer of 1986. We were grad students with little money, but we had come by a slight windfall, we had some vacation time coming, and we had friends in England we could stay with at least part of our trip. So we packed up our 9-year-old, 3-year-old, and 15-month-old, and went to find the England of J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Dick Whittington, Henry II, T.H. White, Isaac Newton, and Edmund Halley.

Lewis’s England lies largely in Oxford, where he taught at Magdelen, so we boarded the train to Oxford and the hallowed groves of academe, where teachers have taught and students have studied and dreamed for a thousand years. Wandering through those grounds that were open to the public, we came upon names carved into the wall of an archway between a great square and a cloistered walk. It was a memorial to the members of the College who had fallen in the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

You find these memorials in every village in England, sometimes on the walls of a municipal building, sometimes on columns in the center of village square, sometimes on plaques flat in the ground of the churchyard, among the gravestones of those who made it home. Lists are long; casualties were high, and some villages lost half of their male population in the trenches. Standing in the shadowed archway at Magdelen, we paused to read through the names, and realized with awe that they were divided into two groups: those who died in the service of George V of England, and those who had died in the service of Wilhelm, Emperor of Germany.

For you see, Oxford colleges have this odd notion that once you become a member of college, you remain a member of college. You can return and read books in the library, be seated at the college dining table, wear the college robes, attend the college colloquia, and when you die, be memorialized on the college walls — even when you die in the service of a political enemy.  Governments rise and fall in the actions of charismatic leaders; industry bends to pragmatic ends; fashions will alter, economies will render the rich poor and the poor rich, but the underlying purpose of academics is to seek the truth, and at Magdelen, that shared journey creates a community that cannot be easily severed, even by war.

Fast-forward twenty-three years to a different trip, and a different country.

There was a decade in the nineteenth century when the Cathedral at Rouen was the tallest building in the world, its steeple rising nearly five hundred feet above the placid waters of the Seine, which meanders through the fields and orchards of Normandy on its way from Paris to the English Channel. Bombed and broken on D-Day, the cathedral nave has been repaired and remains breathtakingly impressive. Beneath the lacy stone and stained glass lie the tombs of Rollo the Northman and a shrine containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart, at the same time both king of England and Duke of Normandy. And, not surprisingly, since just about every church in Normandy has some memorial to Jeanne d’Arc, there is a chapel in the north transept with a modern statue commemorating her martyrdom. She is in chains, her expression calmly resigned, while stone flames lick at her stone gown.

Rouen is the end of Jeanne’s story: here she was held in a fat tower that still stands near the train station, tried by an illegal court, and burned to death in the town square as a witch at the hands of the English, who had determined that her uncanny ability to beat their well-trained armies with smaller forces must lie in a pact with the devil. One might well think the Normans should have little love for the English: Jeanne’s martyrdom marked a turning point in a century of war between France and England that left northern France devastated and economically impoverished for yet another century after hostilities ceased.

So it is with a bit of shock that the Cathedral visitor reads the plaque under the double gothic arches just behind the chapel altar: in French and English, it proclaims “To the Glory of God and to the memory of the one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918, and of whom the greater part rest in France.” In the chapel, in the crimson and sapphire and emerald light from the restored windows above, you suddenly realize that you are in a holy space, one that can abide the fundamental tension of human relationships. The English killed Jeanne, savior of France; the English died in defense of France, and became themselves saviors of France.  The English are — however long ago driven back and exiled to their island, and however badly some of them have behaved — still part of Normandy, and they will still come, if need be, to defend it.

Across the channel, in the center of London, on the banks of the Thames, lies Westminister Abbey. Here the English buried their poets and painters, dreamers and scientists, princes and kings: Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Caroll, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, Charles and James and Anne Stuart.

In the north aisle of the Lady Chapel are two tombs, one stacked above the other. In the lower one lies Mary Tudor, most Catholic queen of England, who held her sister Elizabeth in house arrest to prevent a civil war, whose courts ordered Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley burned at the stake on Broad Street in Oxford for their defense of a Protestant faith, and who sought all her life to serve God by bringing Him a Catholic kingdom in communion with Rome. In the coffin above her lies that same Elizabeth, most Protestant queen of England, who in her turn held her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest to prevent a civil war, who ordered the executions of Mary and Robert Devereux for political plots, and who sought all her life to serve God by avoiding the religious wars of the Continent and creating a peacable England. When we visited the chapel in 1986, the plaque on the floor read: “Those whom the Reformation divided, the Resurrection will reunite, who died for Christ and conscience’ sake”.  Standing among the royal tombs beneath the stone arches of the chapel, confronted by two sisters at deadly odds with one another, it is with some shock that four hundred years later what remains is the conviction that reconciliation is not merely possible: it is inevitable where there is a fundamental common goal to serve God.

The issues that divide us as Americans and as Christians are real; they are complex, and they challenge us to be the best we can be to address them. As individuals, we have limited resources of time and money and talent and intellect and emotional stamina. We cannot resolve complex problems by isolating ourselves from each other.

One of our visions in founding Scholars Online was to create a community where Christians of different backgrounds could study together, and we welcome anyone, regardless of their religious background, who shares our conviction that education requires not merely mastery of subject matter and the development of close reading and critical thinking skills, but also the formation of character that seeks to deal charitably and honestly with others. We do not require a statement of faith from our students. Our faculty comes from diverse traditions, and we all view our call to teach as a ministry. We — students, teachers, parents — do not always agree on issues, but we hold ourselves together in community, not only to serve the cause of classical Christian education, but also to serve as a model of community built out of diversity.

We start by standing together on the common ground of God’s eternal love for each of us and all of us.

[Part of this meditation appeared a 2009 entry to the All Saints Episcopal Church (Bellevue) blog.]

Leave a Reply

*