Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reading About War

On a Saturday morning in summer, my daily walk can take me into a nearby historical neighborhood.

Oval markers on the outside wall near the front door record the year that certain houses were built. Many of the houses are large and rambling and have wide porches that provide space for a collection of rockers and wicker chairs.

No one is on those porches at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning. I can walk down the center of the street with little concern about approaching cars. It is so still that it is hard to think that it could have been any quieter even a hundred years ago.

I am reading a book these days about events that took place a hundred years ago. At the recommendation of a friend, I recently got hold of a copy of The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front by Peter Hart.

Last night I finished reading the first two-hundred pages, arriving at the close of the tragic events of July 1, 1916, the first day of what has come to be known as the Battle of the Somme. Not accustomed to books about battles and wars, I carried with me this morning on my walk through that quiet neighborhood the diary entries and letters and interviews by which Peter Hart brings to life that long ago July day.

I am not accustomed to hearing what it takes to climb a ladder leaning against the side of a trench, to go over the top when the last person who had done just that took a bullet and fell to the side. I am more prone to immerse myself in narratives of interior battle, the decision to take a step that not everyone will understand, the resolve to live a life that sustains -- the way German contemplative Edith Stein wrote her books and kept her quiet call in the years leading to another world war.

One of the books I found in a favorite used bookstore on the Cape this week was a 1957 hardcover edition of Paris by Andre George. A book that had first appeared in 1937, it contains more than two-hundred black-and-white images taken by a range of photographers. To his original text, Andre George later added a reflection on living in Paris in the early 1940's: "We loved increasingly what we feared we should never see again." The families who lived one hundred years ago in the neighborhood through which I walked this morning may occasionally have gotten to sleep through quiet Saturday mornings mercifully unaware of battles that they, their sons, their daughters, would have to wage one day. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Taking Walks

Last week I was standing in church and remembered something from my early twenties. It was something I would do when I was a student in seminary: I would walk. I would walk by myself – for a half-hour, sometimes longer – along familiar paths on the seminary grounds. I would walk without the intention of getting to a precise somewhere else. I would walk not because I had been instructed to but because I had regularly seen others, even men older than I in religious life, walk that slow, solitary way.

I felt Catholic when I walked those hours or half-hours. There were times during the seminary day when I was free to write letters in my room or study in the library or reflect in the chapel. It was made clear to us that the grounds were always available for our exploration and enjoyment.

There was no easy solace in these walks, however, as relaxing as the pace might seem. With each venture out I would be left more and more with myself as I went first this path and then that. Sometimes I took a route between rows of tall pines at the edge of the seminary property; my shoes would kick through the brown needles. My mood at the beginning of a walk had the chance of getting clearer and clearer as I moved on, and that clarity might not automatically be something restful or easy.

Rock bottom, though, I was wagering that somehow with each venture out I might get closer to who I was. It might not be so hard to be with my precise questions and needs and issues and history. In a religious setting, I was testing out the proposition that a someone out there might already understand those questions and needs and history.

It was an odd wisdom that I might get closer to that someone out there as I got closer to the someone inside.

It was an odd experience to find at walk’s end that I wanted someone to ask me about that someone inside.

Sometimes in my walks I would pass one of the places on the seminary grounds where a statue had been raised decades earlier. It might be a statue of Jesus or a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus. Sometimes from atop a pedestal the statue of a missionary saint would cast its eyes down at whoever had slowed his pace there and looked up.

It would make sense to think of a walk among such statues as a Catholic thing. However, that was not the kind of Catholic walk I was remembering last weekend.

I was remembering my explorer’s heart that had wanted to go places as daunting as they were familiar. And I was remembering wanting another explorer to go with me.