Chris Reynolds went to the lowlands called Ypres Salient in Belgium on Christmas Eve 2014. On that spot one hundred years earlier, men who would fight continually for a period of four years, and die in unimaginable carnage and numbers, began to sing prayers into the night.
This past Christmas, I went on a pilgrimage to Ypres, Belgium, to pray and to sing in a place where enemies celebrated the Christmas Truce. The reason I traveled there was because of seeing the 2005 film, Joyeux Noel. I played that movie before winter break the last 8 years of my career as a high school French teacher. The narrative follows the lives of French, Scottish, and German soldiers who decided to put down their weapons and come out of the trenches to meet each other in peace. The night of December 24th, 1914 there was a spontaneous pause in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men. First, the enemies sang songs to each other from their trenches. Slowly, they came to meet in No man’s land where fraternization through music led to mutual understanding and compassion. In some sectors along the front, the Truce extended into Christmas day and beyond, with the soldiers coming together to bury their dead, to pray, even to play soccer. Some exchanged addresses in order to meet again after the war.
The story of compassion told by Christian Carion in the film Joyeux Noel goes to the heart of why I became a French teacher. I chose to become a French teacher because I thought that was a way for me to bring more understanding between cultures to the world. With the centennial of the cease-fire approaching, it seemed appropriate for me to go to the Western Front in order to honor what the French call, La Trêve De Noël, in the locations where the soldiers gathered. The Truce was celebrated in numerous locations along the road between Ypres and Messines, Belgium, remembered in poem as Flanders Fields. My intention was to grow the Spirit of Peace. My pledge was that for the rest of my life, I would nourish that Spirit in the manner of the original cease-fire—by singing, particularly on the Messines Road, to continue the wish for peace set in motion 100 years ago.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, huge masses of people came into the streets to cheer. They were swept along by widely-held ideas and possessed by a destructive spirit bent on death. Unprecedented industrialized killing left untold bodies and a muddy, lifeless, No man’s land amid the remains of ruined trees. The visible evidence of the desolation of the Earth was my clue to sing on the night of my pilgrimage.
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War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. – Heraclitus 5th C. BCE
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There is an old Anishinaabe story set in a similar landscape. In that story, First Man sought to kill the shadow-faced creature that had killed his father. The creature lived on a muddy, desolate island in Lake Superior. Yet there was nothing alive on the island. The only things standing on it were a few dead trees. That story, set in a No man’s land, gave me an insight for how I would express my intention.
In the aboriginal myth, the enemy who killed First Man’s father had its heart on top of its head, hidden inside a shock of hair. Informed of this by Woodpecker, First Man dispatched the terrible creature by firing three arrows into its hairy heart-in-the-wrong-place. Using the story’s suggestion that the enemy of life has its heart above its head, I wondered which heartless ideas in the air encouraged the rush to war in 1914. Taking another mythic cue, it seemed to me that there was a task for sons of missing fathers in our time of relative peace. In our world, where we are surrounded by ongoing violence, aren’t life-affirming men being asked to discover, to target and to take deadly ideas out of the air? I wondered what ideas were in the air in 1914 that remain in our psychological atmosphere today. I sensed that by entering into the journey down the Messines Road, I would get discernment about the life-eating thoughts at which I could then take aim. I trusted that I would be able to create my own song-arrows along the way. My greatest longing was to sing an atmosphere of peace into the world that would build on the Truce of 1914.
Since 1928, every single evening there has been a ceremony called “The Last Post” at 8:00 PM, at the Menin Gate in Ypres, a memorial to 58,000 dead who have never been found. To this day, bones are still unearthed in Flanders Fields and around Ypres. And as about two hundred people gathered, on that Christmas Eve, a young Scot, wearing his ancestor’s medals and a kilt, played the pipes in honor of his great-grandfather. At the end of The Last Post, the facilitator said, “and let us remember that one hundred years ago, on this night, the Christmas Truce was celebrated in places along the Western Front, including areas not far from here.” Hearing that, I began my pilgrimage.
I set out from that moment and walked from the Menin Gate south to the Messines Gate that opens onto the road to Messines. I walked through that gate and moved into the clear, calm night.
In the dark sky above me, the winter constellation of Orion the Hunter with his companion, Sirius, the Dog Star, shone brightly. I wondered if the hunter and his dog in the tale of Iron John somehow corresponded to this heavenly display.
The personal association with these figures was comforting to consider, and suggested a second association. The Hubble Telescope has shown that in the area of the night sky below Orion’s three-star belt is a stellar nursery. The correspondence between the birth of stellar lights in the heavens and the sacred birth that Christians celebrate at Christmas felt like an affirmation. Walking, I realized that the life-affirming night sky I felt over me was the same tableau that the soldiers saw one hundred years ago.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
all is calm, all is bright…
The song, “Silent Night,” was the ‘trigger of peace’ all along the Front so long ago. As I walked, I saw how the hope expressed in the song was like a prayer that had been answered. It shone forth in the healed fields and restored nature around me. It was true. I stood in the radiant stillness of the night sky resonating with the words of that peacemakers’ song. How could the soldiers not sing together that night? The invitation to come together in No man’s land came most often from the German trenches:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht….
The German words offer another layer of meaning:
Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm; alone and awake
Of course, “Silent Night” was the first song that I sang. Song followed song, prayer followed prayer, over the eleven kilometers to Messines. At times along the road, I felt waves of warm chills tingling all through my body. It felt like gratitude was coming from the landscape and sky around me. I understood the flow of warmth as the presence of the Holy. I would pause in those places, and allow them to register. In that way I simply witnessed receptively. Often, there would be a gentle rushing of wind through the trees above me. At times, I wept for the beauty of it.
I walked through the village of Messines to the “Island of Ireland Peace Park.” At the Island of Ireland, not only did Protestant and Catholic Irishmen put aside their differences, but I was told that the night of the Truce, they were joined by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and atheist Germans. On a small bench near the tower at the Peace Park I sang my prayers.
Singing under the peaceful starry heavens, I wondered, is it our songs that make the difference? Do the songs that unite us through compassion tip the balance? Walking north, back to Ypres after the ceremony at the Peace Park, the constellation Cassiopeia, the queen of heaven, sat before me. To my left was the constellation Boötes, the shepherd.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar….
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In the Anishinaabe story that I was remembering, the arrows’ target hid in a shock of hair over a shadow face. Called to face my shadow, I realized that the target I was seeking was not just ideas that have hurt me, but those ideas in which somehow I have participated. Feeling even more in my heart and body, as the awareness of pain in my feet increased, three destructive ideas in my life stood out in the night, as plain as day.
Though it is tempting to share here the pathological conceptions that I targeted on my pilgrimage, I think that I respect the story most and those who hear it as well when I allow you to consider the question for yourself.
I can say that I think my song-arrows struck true. I felt that affirmation in my body. Walking back toward Ypres in the growing light of daybreak, I again felt the warm waves moving through me, soothing my heart. With each passing kilometer, I felt such an embodied appreciation for the precious gift of a human life on our planet. Again, I felt gratitude coming to me from everything around me, above, below, all around, and within.
I felt an increase in my esteem for humanity. I felt then and feel now that our lifetimes are each so valuable that even our worst moments support inner worth. Aren’t even our worst failures opportunities to learn to transform human life into beauty? My wish was and is, that through learning from the past, we may offer healing to those who have died.
I walked the Messines Road a century after the Christmas Truce, thinking that singing our hopes together is the best way to bring forth the beautiful world we wish for future generations, knowing that the prayers for a Holy Night, a Silent Night raised up one hundred years ago came true once and that we can sing the gift of Peace on Earth forward.
– Chris Reynolds
Chris Reynolds http://www.urrealist.com
The Last Post at Menin Gate
The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)
A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman