Wednesday, November 01, 2006

remembering the saints

Today is All Saints Day. It's the day we remember all of those who came before us, those people whose lives have provided the generational foundations which undergird our own. It's not just about the saint saints, those untouchable "superstars" who have been officially canonized by the church - it's about the people who struggle daily to live good lives by sharing their spirit of love with us. Parents. Grandparents. Siblings and friends.

Last year, we ("we" meaning "the St. James's staff") decided to set up a microphone on the front steps of the church and read the full names and ages of all the U.S. soldiers who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the inception of the war. There were about 2,200 names, and it took us about two and a half hours. This year, we felt it would only be right to do the same for those killed since All Saints Day last year. Sadly, we still had a list of more than 900 names to read. The median age in this list of departed was around 21.

From the portico of the church, those attending the noon Eucharist service took turns reading names from a multi-page printout. I read a series of fifty names somewhere in the mid-400s. By odd coincidence, two of the first three names were Christophers. Another couple of Christophers showed up later in my list. Almost every name I read was younger than I by several years.

This service is a powerful experience, but not always in the way you might expect. Yes, it is shocking when the first few names are followed by numbers like "20" or "22" - even some that end in "-teen". Yes, it is awe-inspiring and awful that a list of young dead takes an hour to read aloud. But the thing I was most mortified about was how un-personal the whole experience became somewhere in the middle. After a certain number of names and ages, the wave of sound became blurry and abstract. I couldn't imagine faces with names anymore. It felt fuzzy and run-together. It's the same mechanism that allows someone to fall asleep in the midst of loud music: as long as the sound is constant, it can be tuned out, ignored. White noise. I realized this as I stood listening and trying to make each name personal to me, to attach meanings to them. Instead, it was like a photo negative of what I should have felt. Blankness where there should have been...something. And I think it's mostly due to the sheer number: too many to keep up with.

Nowadays, when someone questions what we're doing in Iraq in the first place, many people respond with, "Well, we shouldn't worry about why we're there now - we need to worry about how to fix it and get out." We do need to figure out how to fix things and get out. But that first question, the one about why we're there in the first place? I can think of over 900 really good reasons that question deserves an answer.


Anonymous said...

The President of the United States knows more than we ever will about terrorism. Regardless of political camp, one must trust the President when it comes to protecting the people he is entrusted to protect. Are you not willing to die for what you believe in? Do you believe in freedom enough to die for it? Does God not tell us to obey our leaders? If so, then arn't these soldiers who died for their country saints in their own rite?

lauren said...

chris, i'm glad you're updating more regularly. i enjoy your blog.