“Death Comes for the War Poets” is currently an experiment in verse that just so happens to be exactly what is needed about now. Even if thinking about death and war seems too overwhelming on the surface or too much of your existence already. I know, myself, I’ve officially asked God for a break from death for a while after losing friends and colleagues one after another lately. But that’s not how life works. And the headlines do remind you. Oh, how they do, seemingly unceasingly.
It was almost a year ago now when Father Jacques Hamel was killed while celebrating Mass. We’ve seen in recent weeks, as you well know, terrorist attacks in Amsterdam and London. If this is war, its feels widespread and random at the same time. To people already feeling uncertain and exposed, fear can set and burrow in.
And I’m always reminded, as people on social media offer “thoughts and prayers” in response to an attack, how one New York newspaper in particular pushed back with a fury against those sentiments, especially as they come from politicians. The Daily News front page seemed to want action. Is it an indictment of those of us who probably could afford to be praying more (guilty!) that the sophisticated editorial world does not think that prayer is itself an action, the most powerful action?
But about “Death Comes for the War Poets”: Currently at the theatre the Archdiocese of New York has set aside in the name of that great evangelizer to the world Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the play takes the poetry of two World War I era poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and presents them as verse tapestry, which producer Dominican Father Peter James Cameron compares to ballet with words. What it seems to do is invite you to bring all that uncertainty of a violent world and let it meet up with the innocent joy we once all had, the childlike wonder before the world weighed down our hearts. It takes the reality and reminds us of redemption. We need to pray and we need to do good and beautiful things in the arts and elsewhere. And so The Sheen Center provides a venue.
Today all too often people can’t hear about hope because it seems implausible. And perhaps those of us who have a real Christian believe in it don’t communicate with any accessible sense of plausibility. Which is why “Death Comes for the War Poets” is exactly what we need. It’s creative. It’s poignant. It’s real. It acknowledges the grave pain as only poetry can, with a brutal tenderness. It uplifts, drawing us away from the temptation to despair that can at times feel unavoidable, most especially if we’re talking about the horror of war. And more than physical war between nations, too.
“Death Comes for the War Poets” knowingly pours grace into the hearts wounded by the cruelty of evil and the spiritual warfare that can tie us into knots, darken our hearts, and strangle and drown us.
One of the ways “Death Comes for the War Poets” does this is by light and dark, that is beauty and seductive poison of evil, and even that essential complementarity of the sexes. Without being overly pious or heavy handed, but tantalizing with purity, the audience comes to see the how the desires of the heart are satiated only by God. In faith is our peace and our reconciliation. But it has to be real and when it is it is lovelier than any counterfeit could pretend to be.
Borrowing from the poetry of Sassoon, the book version of “Death Comes for the War Poets” includes:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and live and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Such a stripping away of any veil over what war does to men leaves an opening for the hope that knows no other name but God.
This is how Pope Benedict put it in his encyclical on hope:
“It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of “redemption” which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — is man “redeemed,” whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has “redeemed” us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote “first cause” of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’” (Galatians 2:20).
Or, perhaps, how Sasson puts it in the play:
Call it conversion: but the word can’t cover such good.
It was like being in love with ambient blessedness —
In love with life transformed — life breathed afresh, though yet half understood.
In the search for meaning in violence and death of the kind we’re seeing in radical Islamic attacks in Europe and the existential thread this murderous ideology still presents for Christians living in Iraq and Syria Christian hope offers the strength to look wake up in the morning and give thanks for the new day. We’re called to be ceaselessly creative in helping people see Christ and know him and be drawn into his way of sacramental and beatitudinal living.
It’s what St. John Paul II told young people in the Louisiana Super Dome in 1987:
“The supreme theft in your lives would be if they succeeded in robbing you of hope. They will try, but not succeed if you hold fast to Jesus and his truth.
“The truth of Jesus is capable of reinforcing all your energies. It will unify your lives and consolidate your sense of mission. You may still be vulnerable to attack from the pressures of the world, from the forces of evil, from the power of the devil. But you will be invincible in hope: ‘in Christ Jesus our hope’” (1Timothy 1:1).
Jesus Christ, he said, “and his truth and his promises of fulfillment and life are the Church’s response to the culture of death, to the onslaughts of doubt and to the cancer of despair.
Death may come for the war Poets but despair does not get the final word. And yet a wallowing in the ugliness of evil can make it impossible to see the truth. The truth is God’s creation in the skies and in our hearts. It is the love of the cross. It is the reality of Easter and the Pentecost we are called to live.
Look away from the screens and see what still there is to celebrate. Life remains even with too much death and destruction. Show people the way of Christ and a fog may just lift and the purveyors of death may just be sidelined, as those looking for purpose will find the irresistibility of the eternal promises of Christian hope and mercy and justice.