A few weeks ago, I took part in a performance of Alexander Kastalsky’s “Requiem for Fallen Brethren,” a piece completed in 1917, honoring members of the Allied Forces who had fallen during WWI, but never performed in its entirety (click here for a review from the Washington Post). Inspired by this event and guided by the writings of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), what follows is a reflection on the tragedy of war as we remember on this day the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.
On October 27th, 2018 the news was once more filled with reports of a mass shooting, this time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Yet again, leaders sought to console an inconsolable public. Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, pleaded, “In the aftermath of this tragedy, we must come together and take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We cannot accept this violence as normal.” And yet violence, as much as it is utterly abnormal is as likely to continue to tear apart the fabric of human lives as it has done for millennia. One has only to recall the fact that before the fragrance of paradise had entirely faded, already the stench of cold blood had risen to heaven.
“And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen. 4:8). Only a few verses before, the relationship between persons had been described as two becoming “one flesh” (cf. Gen. 2:24, Mk 10:8). Now, the relationship between two persons becomes so diametrically opposed as to lead to murder. Adam and Eve, in the wake of their first sin, started to drive the wedge of opposition between persons. Adam, instead of recognizing the bone of his bone and the flesh of his flesh, viewed Eve as an individual, separate from himself, and cast blame on her. Eve, likewise, refused to bear the guilt of her own sins accused the serpent. Both refused to accept their collective responsibility and hid themselves from God, separating themselves from Him. And division gave birth to further division; Cain fails to rejoice at Abel’s good favor before God, seeing not the honor bestowed on his brother as his own honor. Rather, he sees him as an individual with whom to compete and of whom he becomes jealous, so much as to plot his murder. And, instead of seeing Abel’s death as his own death, he asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Elder Sophrony, bearing in mind the maxim of his teacher, Saint Silouan, saw not only that he was indeed his brother’s keeper, but that his brother was his life. He saw likewise that failure to recognize our lives as a communion of being, failure to see our neighbor as ourselves, leads indefatigably to that “most terrible of all curses: war” (We Shall See, 31).
Sergei (later Sophrony) Sakharov was 18 when the first world war broke out. He was drafted into the Russian army and was particularly adept at target shooting (Being, 25). Providentially, he was never sent to the front as a sharp shooter but worked instead as a junior officer in the camouflage division, being also an artist. However, the impression made upon him at the time would shape the rest of his life. Many decades later he would write,
With the outbreak of the First World War the problem of eternity began to predominate in my mind. The news of thousands of innocent victims being killed at the front placed me squarely before a vision of tragic reality. It was impossible to come to terms with the fact of vast number of young lives being brought to a senseless, cruel end. And I might find myself drafted into their ranks, with the object of slaughtering people I did not know, who in their turn would be trying to annihilate me as quickly as possible.
Indeed, over 15 million died as a direct result of WWI and many more million indirectly, making it one of the most deadliest conflicts in human history.
Elder Sophrony continues,
Apart from all that was taking place in the outside world–war, disease and like calamities–the feeling that sooner or later I was doomed to die caused me unbearable suffering. And then, without reflection on my part, the thought suddenly occurred to me that if man is capable of such profound suffering, he is by his nature a noble creature.
By witnessing the appalling nature of war, first hand, he made a great discovery. “I was young, only eighteen years old,” he writes in another place, “but even then I had the feeling that every man is himself in a sense, the focal point of all the universe” (qtd. in Being, 67). His was a two-fold vision: on one hand the extremity of human brokenness revealed in the monstrosity of war and on the other hand the expanse of human potential, what he would later go on to call the hypostatic or personal principle; the recognition that each human person possesses the capacity to unite in his heart all of creation and even God Himself. With the backdrop of war ravaged forests, scared with trenches and barb wire, Elder Sophrony saw in those same men, who faced each other with bayonets and artillery fire, the potential to form a bridge uniting brother to brother. And such a miracle seemed, if only for a moment, to be possible Christmas Day of 1914.
Along the Western front, spanning from the North Sea to Switzerland, opposing forces had been entrenched for many months with virtually no ground gained on either side. In many places, only a few hundred crater torn and barb wire infested feet stood between the Allied troops (mostly French and British) and the troops of the Central Powers (primarily Germans and Austrians). Already in early December tensions between soldiers on either side of “no-man’s-land” had slackened, though by no means urged on by those in command. Between artillery barrages, soldiers would start singing and would be answered by soldiers of the opposing side. Occasionally, food would be thrown to the opposite trench and would be greeted with loud shouts of gratitude.
On Christmas Day, artillery guns fell silent. No sharpshooter picked off easy targets, and an uneasy peace settled over the trenches. On both sides, soldiers cautiously ventured into no-man’s-land. In one place, a German soldier held up a sign, “You no fight. We no fight.” In another place, German soldiers rolled a large keg of beer into “no-man’s-land,” an informal truce was quickly arranged, and British and German soldiers were soon laughing and taking pictures with one another.
In other places, opposing forces helped one another with the grim task of burying their fallen, even holding joint services. One British private recalled that on that day, “The first man I came to was an old man, and when we shook hands I thought he was not going to let go. Tears came rolling down his cheeks, and I felt sorry for him as he was so old, and wanted to go home” (Truce, 80).
Such truces were often in direct opposition to the instructions of the commanding officers, and yet they happened, always informally, in hundreds of places all along the Western Front. One German soldier, when asked by a Brit what he thought of the war responded, “The war is finished here. We don’t want to shoot” (ibid.). What if all of the soldiers, had done just that, refused to shoot one more shot? But alas, their officers threatened to fire upon them if they did not break the truce. With a gun pointed at their backs, the soldiers once more began to fire upon their brothers for another four years in complete futility, neither side making any significant advance until the war ended in 1918. In some places, the truce did continue for several months, each side warning the other when a token barrage would be made into the air to satisfy an inspecting officer.
When we recognize, in ourselves, our unity with all people, when we recognize that their life is my life, the tragedy of war is experienced in the depth of our being. Elder Sophrony writes, “Better to be killed than kill is the attitude of the humble man of love” (We Shall See, 31). But the Christmas truce was broken, “the war to end all wars,” continued, only to be followed by war after war after war.
During WWII, when nearly 100 million people were killed, Elder Sophrony was on Mount Athos. Though physically sheltered from the violence he bore its metaphysical weight, perhaps suffering even more. In a letter written to David Balfour in the spring of 1945, he writes,
Millions of souls are praying to God for peace, I joined myself with them too. In my despair during these years, like a madman, brazenly and audaciously, sometimes with pain which brings me almost to the gates of death, I too beseech God to grant peace to the world (Striving for Knowledge, 262).
And yet peace cannot be found. Thus, the man who has realized the unity he shares with his fellow and strives to be the bridge connecting the broken and fragmented world about him inevitably suffers. Indeed, St. Silouan’s principle, “the greater the love, the greater the suffering” here applies (St Silouan, 338). The man of love laments with Christ, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37). Love wishes to unite all under the wings of peace, but love respects even more the freedom of men . . . “and you were not willing.”
Wars and the senseless violence to which we are ever witness, even in our own country will continue to weigh upon our hearts until all realize in themselves the image of Christ. “Outside Christ, without Christ, there is no resolving the tragedy of the earthly history of mankind” Elder Sophrony reminds us (We Shall See, 31). Christ alone is the perfect Man, the perfect Bridge, that can unite all who are willing to God and to one another. In Him, we are given the perfect image of what it means to be a person, as He hangs upon the cross, His eyes lifted to God the Father, His feet in humble descent to hell, and His arms outstretched to embrace friend and enemy. And those who wish to see “peace on earth,” are inspired to follow in His footsteps, to take up the cross of human brokenness, and through prayer become co-creators with God in His restoration of the image, shattered in paradise so long ago. In Christ, we are not only our brother’s keeper, we are his salvation.
Murphy, Jim. Truce. Scholastic Press, NYC, 2009.
Sakharov, Arch. Sophrony. We Shall See Him As He Is. St John the Baptist. Essex, 2004.
St Silouan the Athonite. SVS Press. Crestwood, 1991.
Striving for the Knowledge of God. St. John’s. Essex, 2016.
Sister Gabriela. ‘Being’ The Art and Life of Father Sophrony. St. John’s. Essex, 2016.