Today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles of the July Somme Offensive in western France during WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’. At 6.00 pm on July 19, 1916 the Australian 5th Division went into a battle they were never going to win. Twenty four hours later 2000 lay dead with a further 3500 horribly wounded. My grandfather was there and he returned, but was forever scarred, physically and mentally by the experience.
Bill Gammage in his book The Broken Years, quotes Corporal A.G. Thomas of the 6th Battalion, under fire at Pozieres six days later:
For Christ’s sake write a book on the life of an infantryman, and by so doing you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.
The book was written, but the shocking tragedies continue. The ‘war to end all wars’ was just a mirage! Twenty years later, World War II devastated Europe again; the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a new dimension of horror to warfare; the Cold War; the devastating attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in the Middle East; and the overwhelming and tragic plight of those who flee in search of peace and a better life.
Lately I have been reading newspaper reports of the catastrophic shootings in the United States and thank God that here in Australia, we are spared these outrages. My heart is heavy however as I think of the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who are suffering the pain of these unnecessary losses.
Another newspaper report, and television coverage, bring news that the atrocities in France continue. As I read, I recall walking along the Promenade des Anglais, basking in the summer sunshine glinting off the blue of the Mediterranean. Now this beautiful space will be forever tainted by the horror of recent events.
My quest for beauty, for my Ignatian desire to find God in all things, is almost overwhelmed by the sadness and horror this year is delivering. But a period of contemplation reveals the beauty I have experienced this year:
A trip to Sydney to see The Greats – Masterpieces of the National Galleries of Scotland, with the arresting Mrs Agnew by one of my favourite artists, John Singer Sargent; and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, one of only 36 remaining paintings of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.
An afternoon spent with a friend and Sydney Harbour by day and night. The Opera House, glowing in the dark, brought memories of the beautiful music I have experienced there.
My own city by night as I headed to the Performing Arts Centre to see the Queensland Ballet perform Strictly Gershwin. This vibrant and amazing company thrives under the direction of Li Cunxin – Mao’s Last Dancer and I look forward to their performance next month of Lest We Forget:
a moving reflection on war, featuring works from three renowned choreographers. War can intensify feelings of love, commitment and passion. All of the works in this unique triple bill draw on the power of dance to reflect the heartache of war.
In June I took a short break by the ocean and as I walked on the beach at sunset, I was in awe of the beauty of creation. The sound and smell of the sea, and the myriad of colours that streaked the sky and stained the clouds. And then my soul sang with joy at the sight of a man and his little daughter casting their fishing lines into the sunset.
Now as I remember that scene I realise that this was the embodiment of love and beauty that can never be subdued by these troubled times.
There were other occasions of beauty. Our early winter was not cold enough for my camellia bushes to bloom, but one perfect flower braved all and appeared in spite of it. There was the painting and pottery of my beautiful, creative friends, there was and is friendship that sustains me, the love of my family and a visit from one of our young Ugandan friends from our retreats there last year, and finally the creative perfection of the last rose of summer.
John O’Donohue wrote:
Beauty waits until the patience and depth of a gaze are refined enough to engage and discover it. In this sense, beauty is not a quality externally present in something. It emerges at that threshold where reverence of mind engages the subtle presence of the other person, place or object. The hidden heart of beauty offers itself only when it is approached in a rhythm worthy of its trust and showing.
In the end, the truth is surprisingly ordinary – that there is beauty in every life regardless of how inauspicious, dull or hardened its surface might seem.