When the war was over my father did not want to know any more about it. He wanted to get on with the business of living. He loved life. He loved being alive. He returned to England and went back down the pit and earned money to support his growing family of four children. He enjoyed his free time, a pint and bet on the horses, and his annual holiday in the west of Ireland, saved up for and prepared my the mammy. And when his dying day came, and his condition meant he could no longer put words together, he lay in is hospital bed and quietly prepared to meet his maker. He was a peaceful man who went through a terrible war, and who quietly yielded his soul to God.
His last encounter with an enemy could not have been more startling. On a May morning in 1945, out on patrol and on the lookout for stray German soldiers, my father’s patrol came across three wandering characters. One of them dived into a shop and hid under a counter. My father was sent in to get hold of him. He grabbed the man by the arm and brought him out under arrest. It turned out that the man was Heinrich Himmler, the driving force and mastermind of the wholesale murder of millions of people.
This man believed in the right to exterminate his enemies and spoke to German soldiers of how brave they need to be to shoot people in cold blood. There he was that day cowering in a baker’s shop. Then rather than face up to all the things he had done in the war, Himmler took the easy way out and bit down onto a cyanide capsule secreted in his mouth.
I often think about this encounter between the miner and the monster, between my father’s gentle character and the monstrous misguidedness of a brainwashed Nazi warmonger: the paths in life that led them to that day and to that encounter on the plain of Luneburg heath and Meinstedt.
Today in the gospel, as we draw near to Holy Week, Jesus faces his foes. It is amazing that Jesus knows what will happen to him but he does not run away or hide. This is bravery: To keep living your life and keep true to yourself in the face of all threat and danger. He makes a most prophetic statement. ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He.’
In our own lives we have to face many issues including our dying day. It is good to face each day with an open mind and heart and to rejoice in the gift of being alive. That is what my father taught me by the simple expedient of doing so each day. And when his time came to leave this world, he did so, quietly and peacefully.
Life had taught him to live each day as it comes and that included his last.
It is the great hope and promise of the Faith that our last day is also the first day of life beyond what we can see. Jesus did not only promise this to us, but by going through the torment of his own death, he showed us the path of life and the joy of his resurrection.
My father was a man of life. On that May morning in 1945 he arrested the man of death. Then he came home and got on with the joy of living, and in so doing gave witness to those around him of the simple goodness of life.
Will we have a brew, Eileen?
5 April 2022