During the formative years of my vocation I took part in a number of ecumenical pilgrimages to the holy island of Iona, off the coast of Mull. We would walk almost ninety miles over hiking trails, fields, and costal paths only to arrive, exhausted and happy, to celebrate Easter Day with the monastic community of the island. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only thing I remember clearly about each of these pilgrimages is the sense of sheer joy I experienced arriving to Iona. I don’t remember the falls along the way, the blisters, or the relentless wind – only joy of having finally arrived.
For those who know me fairly well, what I just said should not come as a shock at all as I tend to be – shall we say – a little forgetful. But the fact that my recollections only focus on joy may have also something to do with selective memory; something that each of us can fall into, especially after experiencing difficult circumstances. In fact, even St John’s gospel recalls Jesus talking about such a thing as selective memory when he says, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:21).
Selective memory helps us to focus on our accomplishments; giving us the morale boost we would need should we be confronted by similar situations in the future. After all, if I remembered all the hardship my group of pilgrims endured walking down steep and freezing slopes in the pouring rain for a week, I would have probably never done that pilgrimage again… So selective memory can be helpful as we make our way through life; but it can also be a trap that prevents us from seeing clearly the reality of what we have been through, hampering our sense of gratitude towards those who have helped us along the way. And this is never more critical than when selective memory affects an entire nation; it is never more dangerous than when selective memory becomes selective remembrance.
In the midst of the Battle of Britain, on 20th August 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with powerful words that made it into the history books; words that have influenced the collective remembrance of the nation ever since.
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, …and indeed throughout the world, …goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Remembrance informs our gratitude. In other words, the way in which remember informs the way in which we give thanks to others, and indeed to God, according to justice for what they have done for us. Therefore, if today we remembered “the Few” and just “the Few” whom Churchill spoke of as “British airmen” then our remembrance would be selective and so our sense of gratitude would also be selective, excluding others whose valiant efforts also determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
‘It's not “lest we forget”, it's “lest we remember”. That's what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’
Alan Bennet places these words on the lips of Tom Irwin, a cynical supply teacher in his acclaimed play the History Boys. This scathing gibe which could appear directed towards the entire culture of remembrance is, in fact, a dig at the way in which we tend to idealize, streamline, and make palatable the ways in which we remember momentous and tragic events, such as war, or in our very case also the Battle of Britain. This is a dig at selective remembrance, and we should do well to heed its call.
Let us remember that almost a quarter of the pilots who met the enemy in the skies of Britain came from fourteen other countries – 24,39%, if my I am doing my maths right. Let us also remember the ground control staff; the countless civilians who lost their lives in air-raids whilst working in airplanes and ammunition factories. Let us remember those who kept watch over our skies in the Royal Control Corps, now disbanded.
The very peace we have enjoyed on this continent for the last seventy years was wrought into the brotherhood and the blood of those who fought to defend the skies of Britain regardless of their nationality, but only in the pursuit of justice. If Britain had fallen under the enemy bombardments, God only knows what would have happened. D-Day would have perhaps never arrived, and certainly it would not have played out in the way it did. VE Day would have never dawned, and the oppression of totalitarism, racial hate, and fascism would have held sway across an entire continent…
In the Christian sense remembering has much to do with making present past events in their entirety. It means being honest about what happened so that we may properly give thanks to God and to everyone involved. That fateful Battle we remember today indeed tuned the tide of the World War, it was won over the skies of Britain and the Channel, and it was fought by the Few, the Forgotten Few from other countries (almost airbrushed out of history), by the Control Corps on the rooves of our cities, and by the many men and women who valiantly supported them at ground control, and in the spitfire factories. Today we call all of them to mind in one single act of true remembrance. To them all today goes out our debt of gratitude. And for them our prayers ascend to God the Father, that he may grant their souls eternal rest, that after the hardships they endured for the cause of justice they may be welcomed into a the joy of his kingdom. Amen.