Point me to the skies (H.F. Lyte)
It’s easy to despair when we can’t find words for terrible things. Apart from natural disasters and genuine accidents, we are beset by all kinds of human evil, some beyond the power of words to describe. We can’t be blamed for asking: what is humanity for? As a child during World War II, I believed (what everybody hoped for) that torture, killing and even plain nastiness would end, as promised by the beautiful, golden words: “After the war…” Then, when it really did end, with exceptions, such as Korea and Vietnam, the balance of power kept bigger conflicts away, and on a personal level, after the experience of total war, life seemed freer, as we, the “silent generation”, stepped hopefully into the future.
But life was changing. I remember my first day in grammar school in September, 1945. My intake was the first after the war and we were having our introductory period, when the bell rang for the end of the lesson. Immediately, over half the form exploded and raced for the door. The teacher, shouting “STOP”, athletically dragged them back. She made them sit down again and wait for her permission to leave. Our form became known for disruption and noise, while the older forms got on with their work in silence, unsupervised if necessary. My class was the beginning of the future.
As the decades progressed, self-expression became important – as it should, of course – but self-control diminished (“Let it all hang out”, c 1960?), so that we have a situation today wherein many cowardly people, “expressing” themselves on social media from the anonymity of their homes, may send harmful “storms” of lies, spite and venom – even horrifying death and rape threats – to anyone who holds ideas different from their own, with no respect for other opinions and civilised discussion – which Unitarians have always striven for. Of course, to a certain degree, bad manners have always been around, and name-calling too. I remember a politician famously using the words “lower than vermin” and somewhere I recall “less than dung”. More recently, “swivel-eyed loonies” took its place in the English lexicon. (I forget who said it, but what striking imagination!) And we have all heard even gentle words used like the crack of a whip. But if we call people Nazis or Racists or Fascists – or even Loonies – for the simple reason that they have the cheek to disagree with us in certain matters, we weaken these unpleasant words, so that they lose their true force or meaning when we really do need something strongly descriptive of Nazis, Racists, Fascists, madmen and so on – and there are plenty of real ones about.
There are words that we reserve for special occasions, such as prayer and worship. These are powerful words, and the more we use them – carefully and in their proper place – the stronger they become. But out of place, any words weaken. Some people, seething with vicious, spitting hatred on both sides of an argument, may over-use the words “democracy” or “freedom”, or “sanity” or even “love”, for example, with the result that what should be meaningful words are weakened, or “bent” by either side, and may be used for all kinds of conflicting arguments. Before using words, we need to be sure that we know exactly what they mean – and might mean to other people.
Some words are particular to this time of the year; words simple and direct, such as: “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.” Or words of light and hope from “Abide with me”: “Point me to the skies”. But sometimes words can’t be found for the suffering of those who gave their lives for us, or were wounded in body or mind. My father, who was a lad of twenty in Bapaume in France, where he was wounded in 1918, once said to me, “You can’t begin to describe the fear you had when you were walking towards the trenches … the big guns…” His voice tapered off. These words were all the more powerful because he hardly ever mentioned the war.
Those who died or were wounded left us a story sweet and tender and terribly moving amid the hell of war. Deep behind it all, sometimes hidden in the dark, there was dedication to the good, with love of humanity, love of home and country, love of each other – and something greater, which shines through the darkness and the pain – the love of God, present and suffering, even in the enemy. A story using imperfect words to describe things – both dreadful and sublime – which are indescribable. Yet, dear Lord, words that still make me want to cry.