In a place like Oxford, history is quite literally written on the walls.
"Here in 1653, Robert Hooke discovered cell structure."
"Novelist Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure in this pub."
"In this spot in 1556, Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake for refusing to recant."
The proximity of the past is humbling.
Sometimes it is suffocating.
This Wednesday (November 11th) marked Armistice Day. I participated in remembrance ceremonies throughout the day, but none moved me so much as my college's simple Remembrance Day commemoration.
We stood in the quad as the chaplain read words of comfort, promise, and commitment:
". . . they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid." (Micah 4)
"They shall not grow 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."
As the chaplain continued with her words, and as the two minutes of silence followed, I looked around the quad at the faces--young and old--who had come to pay respect. I was overwhelmed with the realization that one hundred years ago, the young man standing next to me as well as the ones across from me would have most likely been in a trench in France . . . and I would have been left behind. Perhaps I would have followed a brother, a lover, a husband into battle as a nurse. But all the same, someone I loved would have left me for the war.
And it is likely that he would not have come back. And if he had, neither of us would have been the same.
Corpus Christi suffered the highest proportion of casualties in the Great War out of all of the Oxford colleges. For such a small college, so many never came back. It is sobering. Lives and generations lost.
"The war to end all wars" did not lead to that at all. Quite the contrary. We still fight battles today. And we mourn with those who mourn. We--the ones left behind--weep. We grieve. And we strive for peace.
Neither shall they learn war any more. That is the hope, isn't it? That someday, there will be a generation that has no blood lust, no thirst for revenge. Where children can grow, live, and sleep in peace.
And on Wednesday, I felt my heart turn towards those whose stories ended short. For songs never sung. For discoveries never made. For children never born.
Every life has more reach than we can imagine.
Remembering does not glorify war. Instead, it reminds us of our duty to publish peace and to build: build bridges, understanding, and hope.
We remember those who gave their tomorrows so we can have our today . . . what are we doing with that today?
That is what I asked myself on Wednesday, wearing a poppy-red coat and my heart on my sleeve.
We will remember them.