"When you go home - Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow We gave our today." Stained Glass Window, St. Michael at the North Gate Church, Oxford, UK. Photo Credit: 2009 © Sheepdog Rex. Image Reproduced with kind permission.
I recently had a look at Oxford's Saxon tower and church of St. Michael at the North Gate. This is the oldest building in the city, constructed around 1000-1050. A couple of stained glass windows in the church struck me because of their messages about the debt we owe to the past. These were national and religious devotional windows, dedicated to the dead from the First and Second World Wars. But in the act of remembering those who died to secure our present, they remind us that we too, must sometimes live as the predecessors of those who will follow, and do things to help those we cannot see, will never know, and cannot anticipate. We owe a debt to those who live in the future.
"To the glory of God and in memory of the members of this Church and Parish who served, suffered and gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918." St. George crushes the Dragon in the First World War. Stained Glass Window, St. Michael at the North Gate Church, Oxford, UK. Photo Credit: 2009 © Sheepdog Rex. Image Reproduced with kind permission.
The image of St. George and the Dragon is crowned by shields of St. George himself, as well as St. Patrick (Ireland), St. Andrew (Scotland), and St. David (Wales). This symbolism implies that sacrifice for future generations is most often recognized when it is made in war. But it may also be made through efforts in one's daily life - and it is a sacred quest. How do we thank nameless, unknown people from the past, who worked and struggled through war and peace, in order that everything around us might exist? I was struck by the fact that people in the past created beautiful buildings and artworks not just for themselves, but for us as well, and for those who will follow us. But then there are the millions of others whose claim to greatness was more mundane, but no less essential.
St. George and the Dragon Stained Glass Window (detail of the Dragon), St. Michael at the North Gate Church, Oxford, UK. Photo Credit: 2009 © Sheepdog Rex. Image Reproduced with kind permission.
As for our debt to the future, it's incredibly difficult to put aside the demands of the self in the present, and accept that one is part of a stream of history, a contributor to the flow from past to future. How do we come to terms with the fact, however painful, that our present will be someone else's past? Almost all of us will be forgotten after our deaths. I still remember an eccentric friend of mine, C., who went into a job interview with an international consultancy. When asked what his ultimate goal in life was, he said, "I want to achieve immortality." But not all of us are Leonardo da Vinci.
Would we live differently if we felt responsible for the lives of our children, and for people living in 2100? 2500? 3000? One of the most compelling elements in James Cameron's early vision of the Terminator was the idea that people bore the burden of unfulfilled destinies which could change the world - but they didn't know it yet. They were responsible for actions they could not even imagine themselves doing. They struggled with the invisible weight of future destinies.
"Awake thou that sleepest. Arise from the dead." Getting Ready. Image © 2010 by chryssalis. Reproduced with kind permission.
The image above by chryssalis on deviantART is a play on time, in that the girl dressing for a masquerade ball is casually immersed in a historical surrounding yet is ignoring it. However, when I first looked at this image, I thought of something more surreal, probably because of the chessboard. Because the stained glass window behind her recalls the stained glass windows posted above, and also refers to religious battles, my initial impression that this was a new kind of warrior and a new kind of battle. Our new spiritual battles will be at least partly temporal in nature; this battle again relates to death, but does not focus on the theme of sacrifice, a theme which has defined the past 2,000 years of history. Rather, chryssalis's post-Postmodern take on post-WWI memorials points to a future battles driven by symbols of resurrection.
See my other posts on military memorials here and here.
Click here for my post on chess and time.