Thursday, April 5, 2012

But If Not: a Meditation for Holy Thursday Evening and Good Friday




The story is told that in late May, 1940, over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were trapped by the German army on the beaches and in the harbor of a little Belgian town called Dunkirk.  There seemed to be very little reason to believe they would survive.  But for reasons still unexplained, the Germans withdrew briefly to regroup.  From the British forces a single terse message arrived in London.  It contained three words:  “But if not.”

Commonplace words oddly chosen.  But the British commander obviously knew whence they came and what they meant.  They come in fact from the Old Testament Book of Daniel.  The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, has set up a vast image of gold and commanded that whenever the people heard any kind of music, they were to fall down and worship before it.  Images of gold and music, Swastikas and fiery words and jackboots, the props change but the story does not.  Three young Jewish men, faithful to God’s commandment that they worship no other God but the God of Israel, refuse.  Malicious tattle-tales betray them to the king.  He asks them if it true that they have refused to worship the golden image.  Do they not know, he asks, that if they do not obey, he will have them cast into a fiery furnace?  “And who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15).  The three young men reply, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up (Daniel 3:17)” .

Those who received them also understood.  “We believe that God can save us, but if not, know that we will not bow down before Hitler’s army or the Swastika which they have set up.” 

These seventy and more years after Dunkirk, the thing that astonishes is that not only the British commander who sent the message but also those who received it recognized the words and what they intended to say.  And so, it seems, did the British public, though they were not told immediately the extent of the Dunkirk disaster or the peril of the troops  Churchill said later that he had “feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history.” He expected only a few thousand men to be delivered during the two days he thought the British Navy would have to take troops off the before the Germans blocked the evacuation.  He added, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.”  The British destroyers dispatched immediately on May 26 could not sail into the harbor or close to the beaches because the water was too shallow. 

But on May 27, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping began to call for the use of what became known as “the little ships of Dunkirk”—small boats of every kind, from merchant marine ships to small fishing vessels to pleasure boats.  Hundreds were assembled.  Some ferried men to the large Naval vessels waiting in deeper waters.  Others sailed back and forth across the dangerous waters of the British Channel, carrying men from the beaches back to the English coast. 

On May 27, the second of the two days the British authorities had projected, the Luftwaffe began to strafe and bomb the beaches and attack the RAF planes flying protection for the ships.  The evacuation went on.  It took nine days.  Men died on the beaches and in the boats, but the rescuers carried on.  By the ninth day, 338,226 troops had been saved.  On June 4, the BBC reported that the commander of the rear guard had inspected the shores by motor boat to ensure that there was no one left undelivered before he himself boarded the last ship for England.  It was indeed what Churchill called it:  “the miracle of Dunkirk.”

Seen in retrospect, the words of the three young men and the British commander move me deeply.  In fact, the whole episode of Dunkirk undoes me every time I read of it. 

Seen in prospect, the words terrify me.  They have never been confined to the furnaces of Babylon or even the beaches of Dunkirk.  We hear not the exact words but their echo in later biblical stories.    The Jews of Jerusalem in the second century BC, for whom in fact the Book of Daniel was written as a sort of coded message, made much the same response.  Threatened with destruction by a Syrian despot if they would not abandon their own religion to assume the practices of the Greeks, who then ruled the world The author of the First Book of Maccabees writes, “They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant.”  (1 Macc 1:63 (RSV)  Some two centuries later, Jesus, threatened by the determined wrath of the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees, again echoed the words from the furnace:  “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.” “Cup” is a biblical image for one’s destiny.  “Take this cup from me.  But if not, your will, not mine, be done” (cf. Matthew 26:39 and parallels).  We hear the same echoes from the martyrs facing the wild beasts in the Roman arenas, from men and women on crowded cattle trains to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, from Middle Eastern Christians under Moslem threat today. 

But the story that frightens me the most is not one of the great epics of human persecution and courageous defiance hurled even in the teeth of death.  I am fairly safe from those.  The story that frightens me most is quieter and less widely told.  It’s the story of a young woman who died in a strictly cloistered Carmelite monastery in 1897, so unknown and so unremarked that her Sisters wondered what on earth they would write about her in the obituary customarily circulated to other monasteries.  She was introduced to me as to many as “the Little Flower,” but there was nothing little or flowerlike about her.   Through a life not more than ordinarily difficult, she grew into a tower of steel, wrapped in the deceptive fluff of late nineteenth century pious language.  But nothing could have been worse than her own Dunkirk.  Trapped in a body literally disintegrating under the then invincible onslaught of tuberculosis, she entered into a darkness deeper than Gethsemane, in which she could find no sign at all of the God she loved so profoundly.  No doubt she prayed, “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.  But if not…”.  No one came to take her off that beach, but she did not surrender.

She frightens me because I suspect she is not the last.  Oh, most of us now won’t be besieged by a Babylonian king or Hitler’s army or the chief priests and Pharisees or even tuberculosis.  But what about the forces around and within us that whisper daily, “What would it hurt to give a little? All anyone is asking of you is a little compliance, a few small dishonesties, a compromise with conscience here and there.”  But the thing is that though the characters and the props and the music change, the story is repeated. Nebuchadnezzar, the chief priests and Pharisees, Hitler, all wear different names and speak with different voices now, but they are still there, and more are coming behind them.  I can talk myself out of following the example of the young men in the furnace.  What are Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonian music to me?  And I can excuse myself from joining in with the stubbornness of the Maccabees who resisted their Syrian conquerors to the death.  I can even talk myself out of being too literal in imitating Jesus, whom I claim to follow.  After all, he was divine as well as human, and I am very far from anything like divinity. So I can thank God there are no beaches in my world, even as I weep over the miracle of Dunkirk.  But when it comes right down to it, I find it much harder to dismiss a little nun who grew up in ordinary stuffy bourgeoisie, took on a habit much like mine, though hers was Carmelite and mine is Benedictine, lived the humdrum daily routines of the cloister, and died not so terribly many years before I was born.  And I know that the darkness into which she went so went so courageously after her Lord lurks in the corners of my monastery too, as prayer sometimes dries up and busy-ness overwhelms and nuns my age fall prey to the pains and illnesses brought by advancing years.  And, thanks to the Internet, I also see beyond the walls and know that I am not alone in watching the dark troops advance along the humdrum highways of contemporary culture, looking for whom they may devour (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). 

In the face of the advancing night, they rise up in the mind:  the young men facing the furnace, the Maccabees, Therese.  But especially on Good Friday, Jesus, who is not so easy to dismiss after all.  All of them ask me:  when Dunkirk comes, what message will you send?

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Notes: This reflection was inspired by a homily preached at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Hanceville AL) by Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, MFVA. 


Some of the versions of the Dunkirk story that circulate on the web report the British message as “And if not.”  But the King James Version of the Bible, which the British would have known, says “But if not.”  I recommend the articles from Wikipedia on the Dunkirk evacuation and the little ships, with their links to things like Churchill’s famous June 4 speech, “We will fight them on the beaches.”  


The crucifix pictured at the head of the post hangs in the monastic refectory (dining room) of the Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, Colorado.

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