Graduation Sermon


30 July 1989

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

When I look round this chapel and see on every column the names of men who have given their lives for their King, their Queen, their country, their faith I am filled with awe and with gratitude, and my only sorrow is that their names are surrounded by a black line, a line of death, while as a Russian I would feel that they should be surrounded by a line of gold speaking of victory and of glory or a scarlet line that would speak of life, a life worthily lived, generously spent and a life, which has borne fruit, because it is of their lives and their deaths, their victory over themselves and the gift of self that freedom and all that is worthy of love and of reverence and indeed the lives of all of us have been protected and made secure. So these names are truly the glory of this land together with so many, so many names that have been forgotten or never known except to the closest who lost their beloved ones.

When I was young, I was told by one of my teachers always to remember that my life and the life of all my contemporaries (that was soon after the First World War) was made of the death of those who had stood for what was right and great – and worthy of man. And later when I myself found myself in the Second World War I realised what death may mean not as a terror but as a challenge that makes life great. The writers of old used to say, “Never loose sight of death,” and when one speaks such words nowadays, people tend to say, “Do you mean that we should think of death at the moment of exultation, of joy, of love? Do you want to cast the darkness of death upon all the joys and all the beauty of the world?” And the answer would be, no, not that indeed. But it is only if we are prepared to live with such daring that we can defy death, that living will be great and intense. If we live only insofar as our lives are not endangered, we do not live, we exist watchfully, timidly, afraid of what may happen if we dare. It is only if we are prepared to accept the ultimate challenge of death that we can make life daring and great.

And this is something which is supremely the experience of the army but also supremely perhaps, even more, the experience of Christianity, because we are told by Christ that we must be prepared so to love our neighbour as to give our lives for him. If giving our lives meant nothing but be killed immediately, it would be hard but bearable. But at times giving one’s life means giving it day in, day out, day in, day out, facing odds, facing criticism, enmity, hatred and hardships at times untold.

And I want to give you one example of a man whom I have met a certain number of years ago in Latvia, in the Soviet Union. He was a man of my generation. He sat opposite me on a low bed and spoke of his life and he said to me, “I spent 36 years of my life, that was more than half of it, in prison and in concentration camp. Can you realise how wonderfully good God had been to me? The Soviet powers did not allow a priest either into a prison or into a camp, and God chose me, a young inexperienced priest and sent me first for five years into a prison and for the rest of 31 years into the camp to serve those people who needed me and indeed Him more than those who were free within the tyranny of Soviet Russia.” For him this sacrifice of his life day in, day out for more than half of his life had been glorious. It was a generous gift. He was offering those people who perhaps did not possess his faith, who certainly needed comfort of one who would say, “Fear not, despair not, I am one of you and look – I live with the glorious faith of the victory of God, the victory of all that is within me and around me.”

But to do that one must be prepared to face life, and it is not always easy to face it. I am not speaking of the ordinary hardships of life like the cold and homelessness, and hunger, which I have known all my youth and which can be faced, but meet life in its tragedies, in those things which we find frightening, truly frightening because they seem to destroy our souls and not only challenge our mortality. We must learn to serve but to serve means to give, and one can give only what one possess. One can not give what one is not master of. And this is why the army is such a wonderful place where we can learn to master our bodies, to discipline all there is within us in order to command ourselves and to be able to serve and to give ourselves unreservedly and perfectly for the service of others even if that implies giving our lives, our earthly lives, sacrificing this gift, which is so precious and so wonderful.

There will be moments whether you are in times of peace watchful, protecting it or, God forbid, faced with ultimate tragedy, the tragedy of war, there will be moments when weakness will come upon you, when you will feel, is it necessary, could it be avoided? Why should I of all people have to make this or that sacrifice? Then remember that Christ when He was coming to the end of His ministry was also tempted by weakness, called indeed to renounce His calling when Peter said to Him in response of Christ’s words about His crucifixion, “Don’t allow that to happen to You. Have mercy on Yourself.” And answer then as Christ did, “Get thee out of my way, Satan, my adversary!”

But there will be also moments when elation will be as dangerous as the fear of defeat. You remember the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, Satan saying, “You are hungry, You are in need, and yet, You tell us that You are the Son of God? Well, make a miracle for Your own benefit.” How easy it is when one possesses knowledge and authority, and power, and a situation in life to think, “Why not use all this to make my life easier, to protect it, to make it rich in joy and enjoyment?” We must be prepared to say, “No, I am here to serve, I am here to be full of courage and mastery.”

There will be moments when you will feel, especially as young officers, that you must show who you are, shall I say, show off your dignity, your new powers. Say, “No, I am here to serve, not to be admired, applauded!”

There will be moments when you will be told by an inner voice, “Why can I not, like so many others, like the majority of people, why can I not give way to this little temptation – to lust, to greed, to desire to be powerful, to be admired, just one moment?” And say, “No!” because a crack in a dam is the begging of a flood. That requires determination, it requires courage, it requires watchfulness all minute and all life, but how glorious it is one day to be able to do, perhaps, once in one’s life the right thing because one had developed within oneself, brought up within oneself the right attitude.

And I will add with one example. During the German occupation I taught in a Russian school and I had a pupil, a girl who was a nice girl from every angle, but we expected nothing very great of her. And then one night a German bomb hit the house where she and many other people lived. They all thought they had escaped until suddenly they noticed that one old woman had not been nimble enough, quick enough to leave a house that was now in flames. People began to lament, this girl said no word, she walked into the fire and she never came back. She gave her life in all simplicity, and this gift of life was not a sudden impulse. It was the result of a few years, she was 18, during which she had felt that only great things, only noble things were worthy of her and of everyone. Isn’t that an example for us? May God give us that courage, that greatness of heart and that mastery over ourselves that would allow us to be worthy of being men and women endowed with an ideal, a calling and indeed, called by a nation to protect her, to protect the weak, to stand for freedom, to create a new world worthy of men and worthy of God to be a city of men as great, as deep and as holy as the City of God. Amen.

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