The Snobbery of Chronology

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The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

In the Shade of Valor

In the Shade of Valor

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. – Carl Sandburg

London’s Imperial War Museum is at once a memorial, a museum and a monument to the tragedies and triumphs of war. Prior to WWII, the sun never set on the British Empire and imperial England sacrificed generations of young men to protect its colonial interests around the globe.  Once the makers of history, the British are now expert as curators of the past. Yet, it is through preserving history and traditions that nations might avoid the snares and quagmires that ultimately bring them to their knees.

The museum covers several floors and features unique exhibits that offer a covert peek into the history of espionage, the terrifying experience of enduring the Blitz in a civilian bomb shelter in 1940 London and a 30 foot trench line along the Somme in the First World War – a four year apocalypse that claimed 21 million lives and ushered in a period of modern conflict that Winston Churchill called, “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century. The jagged scars from centuries of warfare are everywhere as you bear witness to the arrogance of governments, the folly of generals and the uncommon valor of men, women and children who shouldered the savagery of warfare as it ripped from their lives any semblance of civility, humanity or hope.

I always return to the exhibit on those who won the Victoria Cross – –  Britain’s highest medal of valor. As you read these vignettes and solemnly gaze upon the ancient sepia photos of ordinary faces, you are struck by the extraordinary capacity that every person has within them for great strength and bravery.  The exhibit poses questions that creep like dark shadows – whispering and taunting with the self-examining question, “what would I do?”

The questions provoke deep introspection: “What made Private William McFadzean throw himself across a store of smoldering grenades in a muddy WWI Somme trench, saving seven men in his unit?”

“Why did medical doctor Noel Chavasse tragically insist on returning to the front line to rescue more men after already winning one Victoria Cross?”

“How did Private Johnson Beharry’s belief that he would never die affect him? What was it that that made him repeatedly expose himself to enemy fire in Iraq that enabled him to rescue his commanding officer and 20 other men?”

I have never forgotten these stories and upon returning to a US that was at war, I followed the extraordinary challenges and feats of our volunteer army fighting two wars in the rugged desolation of tribal Afghanistan and across the scorched sand and hostility of an unstable Iraq.  As these distant acts of valor echo like acoustic shadows, we conduct our daily lives and go about our personal business living under a tree of valor whose great shade is cast by those who sacrifice so much.

As I follow the lives and deaths of American service men and women and learn their stories of heartache, loss, courage and valor, they seem to be all bonded by a similar and extraordinary sense of community, duty and unconditional love for one another.  These uncompromising core values serve as a rather ironic backdrop amidst this chaos and fear of war – – fear that might otherwise drive an instinct for self preservation and self interest.

Valor is a soldier’s refusal to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the courage of a mother caring for a critically injured son or daughter who has returned home unable to care for himself.  It is a three tour of duty vet reenlisting to return to a vortex of chaos for the sake of not wanting to leave his buddies behind.

In reading the stories of Americans who have won the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest award for valor – there is no genetic or social marker that can predict which person will rise up to commit extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. Take for example the story of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in ceremonies this week in the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Memorial in Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove at the state Capitol Complex.

“McGinnis, of Knox in Clarion County, was killed Dec. 4, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he threw his body on a fragmentation grenade that insurgents threw into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of four other soldiers riding in the truck. “ Ross McGinnis was 19 years old.

Just north in rural Massachusetts, Jared Monti grew up to become a citizen soldier.  He was a generous kid who once purchased a Christmas tree for a single mother who could not afford holiday decorations for her children.  Another story details, “But even that ( Monti’s generosity ) pales in comparison to what young Monti did on June 21, 2006, in the rugged northeast corner of Afghanistan near Pakistan. According to a Pentagon account and CNN interviews with soldiers who were there, Sgt. Monti was leading a small patrol that was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. As rocket propelled grenades flew past his head, Monti got on the radio to call for backup. Sgt. Clifford Baird was on the other end of the line. In between his calls for help, Monti was using his own rifle to engage the enemy. Suddenly he noticed that a young private named Brian Bradbury was badly wounded, unable to move, desperately exposed to enemy fire. Another sergeant said he would run out and try to save Bradbury, but Sgt. Derek James heard Monti say no.

‘I remember him saying that Bradbury was his guy, so he was going to be the one to go get him back and bring him back to us,’ says James.

But with bullets flying, Monti had to take cover. He ran out a second time, but the enemy fire got more intense, so he stopped and yelled for help. Risking his life yet again, he then ran out a third time to try to save Bradbury. ‘We knew he was going to get Bradbury — then we all kind of heard him scream,’ recalls James.

Monti was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. ‘He said the Lord’s Prayer and he said, Tell my family I love them.  Inspired, his squadron beat back the enemy, thanks in part to the backup that Monti had calmly called for earlier.”

In his proud hometown of Raynham, Mass, his name adorns streets, memorials and dedications.  His valor casts a long shadow across the woods and greenbelt that border this little New England town.

While most of us cling to our own mortality and are driven by an innate self interest, there are men and women out there – in the dry, arid valleys of the Pashtun, in naked convoys moving along perilous roads in the Anbar Province and thousands of other heroes stationed across the world who subordinate themselves and the needs of their families to keep our nation safe and to prosecute the foreign policies of our nation.  As the old poem laments, their’s is not to question why, their’s is but to do and die.”

As we hear these stories, we shake our heads in disbelief and peer into the abyss of our own souls and wonder how we would respond in the face of our mortality. The valor of those who serve us in our military should never be  forgotten. On Veterans Day, we must honor every soldier and their families – with perhaps our greatest gift being to know them, remember them, support them, and rise up to cast our own shadows – – not those of darker wooded self interest but brighter evergreen illuminations sparked by our capacity to embrace Duty, Honor, Country, Service, Sacrifice and Heroism.