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Kathryn Jean Lopez / June 10, 2017

Brightness on the Edge of Doom

I stood a few yards from the vice president of the United States this week as he talked about the genocide of Christians carried out by the so-called Islamic State. The cultural feeling is that nowhere is safe. The fatigue with the violence is real and overwhelming.

At first glance, “Death Comes to the War Poets” sounds like the last thing one needs more of these days. Death and war. Amsterdam. London Bridge. Is succumbing to terrorism our new reality? People have had enough. I stood a few yards from the vice president of the United States this week as he talked about the genocide of Christians carried out by the so-called Islamic State. The cultural feeling is that nowhere is safe. The fatigue with the violence is real and overwhelming.

And yet, at the Sheen Center in Manhattan, “Death Comes to the War Poets” is being performed as a “verse tapestry” exactly right for our times. The production’s writer, Joseph Pearce, is determined to present people with hope. “You will experience a catharsis,” Fr. Peter John Cameron, the Dominican producer of the production announced with some confidence, the night before opening night.

What is a verse tapestry? It takes the words of war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and makes of them the word equivalent of a ballet, says Fr. Cameron, who founded the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre. Pearce worries that Christians have become too comfortable and have ceased to focus on making great art at the service of God. Seeing creation as a gift changes everything. Seeing beauty as a gift fills us with gratitude. It makes us better, helps us see beauty in ourselves, too, and realize that our lives are meant for greatness.

Pearce wants to make these war poets better known, and in an accessible way that will make us better for it. He quotes from Sasoon’s “Litany of the Lost”:

In breaking of belief in human good;
In slavedom of mankind to the machine;
In havoc of hideous tyranny withstood,
And terror of atomic doom foreseen;
Deliver us from ourselves.

Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled;
World masterers with a foolish frightened face;
Loud speakers, leaderless and skeptic-souled;
Aeroplane angels, crashed from glory and grace;
Deliver us from ourselves.

In blood and bone contentiousness of nations,
And commerce’s competitive re-start,
Armed with our marvelous monkey innovations,
And unregenerate still in head and heart;
Deliver us from ourselves.

It’s hard not to think of the screens we sometimes seem enslaved to now, when reading those lines. ISIS recruits its members through such screens. Because as we live our lives hitting refresh, looking for the next new thing, we’re so obviously longing for something more. A connectedness is lost that is regained when we look at the talents of those who came before and how their insights can help us now.

In Sassoon’s “A Prayer in Old Age,” he writes:

Bring no expectance of heaven unearned
No hunger for beatitude to be
Until the lesson of my life is learned
Through what Thou didst for me.

Bring no assurance of redeemed rest
No intimation of awarded grace
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
To Thy forgiving face.

I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.

Pearce writes that Sassoon “[h]aving lived through two world wars, fighting courageously in the first, and having become utterly disillusioned with the lifeless coldness of modern secular ‘progress,’ with which the world with devildom had gone dark,” at the point of those last verses had “finally found the peace beyond all understanding” that “was the only authentic escape from the wasteland of worldliness.”

Months back, one of the New York tabloids lashed out at the typical reaction — particularly from politicians — to terror attacks and other seemingly senseless acts violence — “thoughts and prayers.” So many social media posts and official statements contain those words in the wake of some terrible act. But what do they mean? How do they help? Pearce’s effort is a meditation on just this. Even in the midst of our actions in the world — which for some may include participation in war — we can’t survive without recognizing and rejoicing in something greater than just this world. Believe it or not, we need people who do. They serve something other than ego because they see the source of everything great, every gift.

Pearce’s presentation, not a play, but a playing with contemplative words in the harshest and darkest of circumstances, is celebration of humility. Whatever the circumstances, use the gifts! Show the beauty of life — and see clear through to hope — even amidst clouds and suffocating darkness and death. Especially then.

COPYRIGHT 2017 United Feature Syndicate

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