Yesterday was Remembrance Day (der Volkstrauertag) in Germany.
I left Erfurt on Sunday afternoon, having taken part in the morning service in the Predigerkirche. This is where Meister Eckhart was the prior, and you can still touch the wood that he touched when leading his Dominican monks in worship here in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.
The service was packed – loads of young families with loads of children, elderly people, and everything in-between. The Lektorin who preached was excellent. I just brought a Grußwort at the beginning of the service, then enjoyed the rest of it without responsibility.
It's always instructive to share in someone else's memory. The poignant-yet-triumphant patriotism that sometimes characterises Remembrance Day events in England was entirely absent. Not only is Volkstrauertag for remembering the dead and the fallen in war, but it is also for rehearsing what caused war in the first place.
No romanticism, then, in the place where Hitler did his worst – and even the Roman Catholic Cathedral still has a wooden carving in the chancel of a Christian crusader knight on his horse fighting (and defeating) a Jew riding a pig. No sanitising of history here in order to shape a different – or more convenient – narrative. No hiding behind fantasy from the shocking consequences of conventional inhumanity or fearful silence.
I was reminded of a line from RS Thomas's poem The Evacuee: “… she leaped from a scorched story of the charred past”.
The other place that brings this home is outside the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. This is the town where in 1517 Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, thus igniting what became the Reformation. This is where the grace of God was found and proclaimed… and where the Stadtkirche still has built into its exterior (just below the eaves of the south-east end) a relief of Jews being baited in a pig sty. It could have been removed as an offence – and this was considered at the time it was rediscovered after German reunification when buildings neglected by the soulless DDR were being renovated in the 1990s. But, it was kept as a reminder that history cannot simply be removed in order to temper our contemporary sensibilities… and beneath it was placed a permanent memorial to the Jews of Wittenberg who experienced a more contemporary form of the old brutality.
Sitting there in Meister Eckhart's church yesterday morning another German memory revived in my mind. In 1999 I stayed for five weeks with German friends in Jakarta, Indonesia. While there I was taken on a trip through Bandung and other places. Up in the hills one day we drove for miles, visiting a tea plantation and then heading up into the terraced hills. Way off the beaten track we came to a small settlement in the middle of nowhere and I had no idea why we were there.
A short walk led us to a small cemetery containing (if I remember accurately) just half a dozen European-style graves. The story goes that during the Second World War a group of German soldiers was posted here. When the war ended, so ashamed were they of what had been done both by them and in their name, that they decided not to return immediately to Germany, but to stay and serve that small community of Indonesians. They all died of diseases fairly quickly and they are all buried here. The German Government pays for the upkeep of this small piece of earth that is pregnant with both the sadness and generosity of humanity.
Everywhere there is a story to be told and a story to be heard. And often the heard story will challenge the prejudices, preoccupations and absolutisms we nurture when confined to the familiar and the assumed.
The final bit of memory on Sunday actually arose the previous day. I was shown round the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Severikirche by the Dompropst. The Severikirche contains the tomb and relics of St Severus who was elected Bishop of Ravenna in 342AD. Two things struck me whilst standing before the tomb: (a) there is a clear relief showing the Holy Spirit sitting on the head of Severus, identifying him as the one chosen by God to be bishop; and (b) atop the tomb the reclining figures of Severus, his wife and his daughter.
Think about it. (I asked the Dompropst what the Pope thinks about the great saint-bishop having been a married father and still chosen by God and the church to be a bishop. This led to an interesting conversation – for which I am very grateful – about the nature of priestly ministry, celibacy and other matters close to the church both here and there.)
(And then I got my highest ever score for my fantasy league football team…)