On Wednesday evening this past week St James’, in conjunction with former CBC broadcaster Bill Richardson, offered the Office of Compline in remembrance of renowned Canadian author Mavis Gallant, whose 100th birthday it would have been on Thursday. It was a reflective service, with the chanting of the psalm and Nunc dimittis, together with extracts of Mavis’ works and musical meditation, followed by the closing prayers. I found it moving and thought-provoking.
One of the readings was an anecdote Mavis shared in an interview in 1977 with Geoff Hancock on stories in her anthology The Pegnitz Junction. Mavis describes the impact the first concentration camp pictures made on her when they first arrived in Canada; she was a journalist at that time in Montréal. “You couldn’t believe it. We’re dreaming. This isn’t real. We’re in a nightmare.” She was asked to write an article for her paper, but the editors chose not to publish it. Here is part of her reflection:
‘There must be no descriptive words in this, no adjectives. Nothing like “horror” or “horrifying” because what the pictures are saying is stronger and louder. It must be kept simple.’
What I wrote and thought at twenty-two I think and believe now. I wrote, then, that the victims, the survivors that is, would probably not be able to tell us anything, except for the description of life at point zero. It we wanted to find out how and why this happened, it was the Germans we had to question. There was hardly a culture or a civilization I would have placed as high as the German.
But what the pictures said was that neither culture nor civilization nor art nor Christianity had been a retaining wall. Why not? What had happened? What had happened to the people who had produced Bach and Goethe, who had been singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” since the Renaissance? How could a nation like that one drop to zero so quickly and easily?
All that I knew, or felt, looking at those pictures was that we had to find out, from the Germans themselves, what had gone wrong. I’m putting this very crudely, now, don’t misunderstand me. The victims, the survivors that is, could tell us what had happened to them, but not why. The why was desperately important to people like myself who were twenty-two and had to live with this shambles.’
That why, important then and still demanding an answer now, not least with the number of holocaust deniers around, relates more widely in the context of other genocides and atrocities before and since: Armenia; Rwanda; Bosnia; in the colonization of Canada and other countries by Europeans; in slavery; the current wars in Ukraine and Syria; the fear of war between China and Taiwan; the treatment of the Uyghar people. The list, sadly and appallingly, is too long. Why, why, why?
This is the question we all need to keep asking, when we observe that humankind seems never to learn from history. It would be foolish to pretend an answer, yet the persistent questioning may save us from complacent indifference and acceptance.
I close by sharing a prayer offered at Compline on Wednesday:
Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts,
remembering the six million Jewish souls murdered during the Holocaust.
In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted
because of their identity, and in [other] genocides, [even here in Canada],
we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.
Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others,
simply because they are different from us.
In the light of God, we see everyone as equally precious manifestations of the Divine,
and can know the courage to face the darkness.
Through our prayers and actions, help us to stand together
with those who are suffering, so that light may banish all darkness,
love will prevail over hate and good will triumph over evil.
(This prayer was written for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 in the UK, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, and the Senior Imam.)
Every blessing as we seek to walk in the way of peace and reconciliation,
[You can find an audio recording of the service, courtesy of Bill Richardson, here ]
Download the service booklet here: Liturgy at Home Assumption of the BVM Sunday August 14 2022