Mary and her place in scripture

Mary and Her Place in Scripture
by Pirrial Clift tssf
I have barely touched on Mary’s Place in Scripture, the topic of this second part in a series about Mary of Nazareth. I chose to attempt to unpick just a few words in Luke’s Gospel. Not being a theologian myself, I have leaned on D.W. Allen and Max Thurian’s work.

Before the Enlightenment common life and language understood softer boundaries between spiritual and physical realities: the liminal qualities of human existence were acknowledged. Metaphor, allegory, myth, poetry, mystery and hidden implications, spiritual powers, heavenly beings, dreams and visions, instinct and bodily knowing; all were considered valid vehicles of God’s revelations.

The woof and warp of salvation history is a tapestry rich in people who heard God’s voice, responded to dreams, entertained angels, conveyed God’s words to others and performed wonders and miracles: some followed stars or heard voices from a burning bush… a donkey… a cloud… Powerful myths containing kernels of essential knowledge were woven into history, preserving tradition and God’s laws through the spoken word; whilst poetry, running through scripture like a golden thread, opened hearts and souls to truths not easily expressed. Parables – and many other parts of Scripture – present truths packaged like Russian Babushka dolls, inviting the hearer to venture ever deeper into their veiled meanings. It need not surprise us then, that Mary’s place in scripture is woven with similar threads.

Mary’s place is central to the Biblical narrative of salvation history. Abraham, who appeared at the beginning of salvation history, held God’s promise that through him every nation would be blessed. Israel repeatedly failed to be receptive to God’s words. D.W. Allen posits Mary as fulfilling Israel’s supreme vocation when she received the living Word, enabling the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy ’Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Immanuel [God-with –us]’ was fulfilled in her.

Luke’s Gospel posits her as the link between the old and new covenants. To him she embodies Israel’s vocation, co-operating with the Creator in carrying the Living Word to full term; bringing God-in-Jesus among us for the salvation of all peoples.

At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel speaks: ‘Hail (or Rejoice), favoured one’.

‘Hail’’ appears in the NRSV as ‘Greetings’, which does not adequately convey the original meaning, according to Max Thurian, who refers to OT references including Zephaniah 3.14-18 and Zechariah 2.10. ‘Hail’ is used specifically to address the ‘Daughter of Zion’ a female metaphor personifying Israel. He says: ‘the Daughter of Zion is … mystical in that it concerns the union of the Virgin, the Daughter of Zion, with the Lord, her husband: and also eschatological in the sense that it represents the motherhood of the Daughter of Zion and her painful deliverance of the Messianic Hope, or deliverance of the people of God by the coming of the Messiah’. Mary herself, and Luke’s first readers, would have been cognisant of the hidden layers of meaning in that single word of greeting in a way that escapes contemporary readers.

Allen again: ‘Actually at this moment Mary is herself mysteriously Jerusalem and the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant’. He echoes St Francis’ Salutation to the Virgin Mary: ‘Hail, his Palace! Hail his Tabernacle! Hail his Dwelling! Hail his Robe! Hail his Servant! Hail, his Mother!’ Mary, wherein dwelt the King, the Holy One of Israel; covered him with her body, then later became mother and servant to him.

Full of Grace
The particular word meaning full of grace (sometimes translated favour) addressed to Mary, is found in Ephesians [1.6] to describe the abundance of grace poured out through Christ to all the members of his Body, the church. Mary however, is addressed as ‘the’ full of grace; the type or exemplar, of grace.

The Lord is with you
The Lord was with Moses in the ‘thick cloud’ on the mountain when he received the Law of the Covenant and with his people in the OT in the heart of the covenant community, When the Ark of the Covenant was set in the tabernacle, ‘the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ Now Mary stands as the new Temple – having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God dwelt deep in her body. She is the new Ark, the new dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus, the promised Messiah, is the personification of the New Covenant. As the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, so Jesus, the Incarnation of God’s glory, filled Mary.

Both Jews and Christians being accustomed to being described as ‘children of Abraham’ i.e. inheritor’s of Abraham’s renowned faith. Mary realised God’s promise to Abraham by giving birth to the promised Messiah, whose sacrificial love delivered the promised blessing to all nations.

Mary’s inspirational faith and trust in God are marked by Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting to her in the hill country: “…blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary ‘treasured all these things’ – the prophetic utterances experienced in angelic visitations, Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting, Simeon and Anna’s’ prophecies and Jesus’ only recorded childhood utterance – ‘in her heart’. God’s word spoken and written and God’s Word become incarnate in her womb were treasured by Mary.

In Mary’s, faith and grace, she is blessèd indeed. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Pirrial Clift. tssf

Blessed are Christians through the Pandemic

Irene Alexander and Christopher Brown (editors),
To Whom Shall We Go? Faith responses in a time of crisis,
Cascade 2021
Paperback ISBN 9781725289550
Hardback ISBN 9781725289567
eBook ISBN 9781725289574
Available from the publishers, Koorong, or from the authors at
Hardback $40, eBook and Paperback $25

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Part of us wants to pretend the Coronavirus pandemic has not happened, and that the Church can go back to its old ways after the worst of this is over. I have no doubt, however, that there will be enduring changes, not least in the way Church organisations use technology.

The collective of Christian writers behind To Whom Shall We Go, who call themselves the “Holy Scribblers”, are also convinced of permanent change. Their interest, as shown in this series of eleven essays, is in changes to our spiritual lives more than technology.

The book is loosely structured around the Beatitudes and this structure gives the book an optimistic feel: we Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment. Their grounds for optimism are historical. We have before lived through past pandemics and challenges and emerged changed and stronger.

The authors are an eclectic mix of academics and thinkers who are looking for thoughtful Christian readers, clergy and lay. Two Franciscan Tertiaries, Terry Gatfield and Charles Ringma, are among the contributors. As is always the case with essays from diverse authors, individual readers will find some essays stronger than others. For example, Chris Mercer’s explorations of Desert Father Evagrius’ “eight deadly thoughts” (gluttony and lack of thankfulness for food, sexual lust, sadness, boredom and apathy, vainglory and pride) resonate for me.

I have some quibbles with the structure of the book. Each section gave rise to prayers and questions for reflection. The reflection questions were at the very end of the book. In the eBook format, especially without hyperlinks, this rendered the questions almost useless.

The prayers were crafted along quite traditional lines, so some could be used or adapted, for example, for intercessions at the Eucharist. I found them a bit too stolid, with none of the creativity of the stunningly beautiful prayers of another Australian, Craig Mitchell, in his recent Deeper Water (Mediacom).

To Whom Shall We Go is a timely book and will stimulate lively thinking about where God is now leading God’s Church.

Learning from the Desert

2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.

Talk 3 – Learning from the desert by Ray Clifton tssf


When I was in Formation at St. Francis College, I would have a personal retreat in the summer break at the Old Friary at Brookfield. On one occasion I joined Midday prayers in the Chapel. During Prayers, I was surprised when I saw Brother Noel Thomas pray the Cross Prayer with arms outstretched. That day, I learnt something about trusting God and the need to let go of my false humility. Even though I had heard a call to be a Tertiary, I thought I wasn’t good enough to follow Jesus in the company of Francis. I saw in this action, the vocation to desire to be shaped by the cross and Divine Compassion, not for my sake but for a call to live the Gospel and embody it (however imperfectly).

What are we noticing as we emerge from Pandemic? In this talk, I would like to reflect on our shared experience over the last year and the call to witness to a life of Penitence and shaped by Divine Compassion.

During the Pandemic we saw rapid the uptake of technology to fill the void for relationships, communities, education, and business. Churches challenged by closures and finding ways to provide support and worship, adapted to technology where possible. This adaption brought forward the long forestalled virtual, connection to a wider group of people for worship groups, communication, and support.

In May last year, while working from home, I was pulled up short by the change to sounds in our garden. Because of border closures and restrictions on travel there was little noise from traffic and no roar from jets overhead or in the distance from the airport. For the first time it was possible to hear more birds in the garden than the usual crow, magpie, kookaburra, or noisy minor bird.

The Environment benefited with cleaner air and lack of noise pollution. Last year, Earth Overshoot day was later than 2019 because of less emissions. It was held on August 22 three weeks later than 2019 because of decreases calculated in CO2 emissions. Many were hopeful that these things would open an opportunity for change and point to a different future.

The Pandemic has shone a light on the precarious nature too of employment, under-employment, and unemployment; especially as the numbers of people with little or no work swelled through the pandemic. Concern has emerged too over proposed Industrial Relations Law changes and their flow on to vulnerable workers. The imminent withdrawal of financial support for business and workers has been highlighted as an opportunity to reassess support for the vulnerable as well as fairness in the workplace.

The Younger Son – What does this change

. 17But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

The younger son stranded in a foreign place, after spending his share of inheritance is destitute and isolated. Forced to accept degradation as a swine herder he is humiliated and willing to shamefully accept his status of being culturally and legally dead to his father because of his insult. The son is prepared to be treated as a slave and not a son. He is prepared to do the work of a slave on his father’s property just to have shelter, purposeful work, culturally appropriate food, and fair treatment. Perhaps even be near his father.

The younger son’s desert brings him to himself and a longing for the familiar even if on different terms. The son’s realisation, while filled with shame, begins to turn him to desire change. He realises that there is no right to any claim on his father. However, he hopes for mercy and nothing more. The son’s road to new hope starts with confession of the pain and insult caused to his father and trusting in mercy.

The wisdom of the insulted father

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

We are told the father runs to greet his son when he is still far off. In the joy of this time, with the memory of the pain he bore, the father’s action is vindicated. The extravagance of his love shown in the trust and freedom offered to the son finds its fulfilment.

The father shows the depth of longing and love which greet his son when he says, ‘24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The father brings from his desert experience of aching for his son, wisdom. The wisdom of risking trust on a son turned in on himself and his desires. The wisdom of allowing the son to make his own mistakes and respond to the consequences.

The father’s words reveal the presence of grace and unconditional love in response to the humbled son. It’s worth asking though of the son, what next? What are you going to do now that you know what you know and are sorry for the things you did?

Learning from this desert time leaves us with the same question. Now we know what we know from this experience, what will we do to show we are penitent and have a desire to live the Gospel in a new way?

Francis and Penitence

St. Francis would often pray with arm’s outstretched and as Brother Bernard discovered, would pray, ‘My Lord and my God.’ The Divine compassion was so important to Francis. It’s as if he embodied the cross to remind himself of God’s extravagant love.

Francis’ response to Divine Compassion in the cross is not just recognition of need for God’s grace but also the ways in which our lives obscure God’s image in us. God’s Love calling us to repentance, calls us to live lives of abundant love in newness of life.

For Francis, to live fully was to live the Gospel in ways which reveal that God is present and active in the world. Francis sought to cooperate with God’s action and to be more and more moulded into the image of God in him. He knew that there was a need to acknowledge those things which obscure or distort that image.

The way to living the Gospel wholly, was through a life of prayer and penitence. Not penitence in the sense of self-punishment or self-loathing but turning to God in humility and trusting in love and mercy.

Penitence then is an active thing. For Francis, living a penitent life included humility and joyful thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. The Fruit of which is a life overflowing Love.

This Love, the Divine compassion, Francis met and responded to in his relationships with the Creation and in solidarity and care of the poor and vulnerable. Whether singing the praises of God, preaching to the birds, speaking to the wolf of Gubbio or sitting and begging with the poor, Francis embodied God’s Love and responded to it around him.

Penitence was not passive for Francis. Penitence was visible in renewed living as a disciple of Christ. Living humbly from what he learnt from the Gospel and his own mistakes.


This Pandemic time has shocked us. Settling into the challenges of the Pandemic has pared back our lives. We have learnt from the characters of the story of the Prodigal Son about love and mercy meeting us in that vulnerable space.

Francis gives us the pattern to live penitent lives, humbly and generously. Being conformed to the cross and shaped by Divine compassion we are called to serve God and in solidarity with others.

* Where is God inviting you to know the welcome of mercy and love?
* Where are you called to be open to the cross and Divine Compassion and be shaped or deepened in your response to others and witness to God’s love?

Exploring the Strange Land

2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.

Talk 2 – Exploring the strange land, by Ray CLifton tssf


“Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in the city (of Wuhan), became one of the most visible figures in the early days of the outbreak when he tried to warn the world, but was reprimanded by police for ‘spreading rumours.’

The 34-year-old’s death from the virus on February 7, 2020 led to an outpouring of public mourning and rare expressions of anger online.

Days later he was hailed a ‘hero of China’ by renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan.

But when President Xi Jinping honoured the ‘heroes’ of the ‘people’s war’ against the virus in September, there was no mention of Li’s contribution.” (Quote from MSN News 6/2/21)

This one quote, a year after Dr. Li’s death, shows up the myopathy of power against the courage self-sacrifice and concern for others. The compassionate and professional actions of an individual against the narrow control of a regime.

Settling into this desert space meets us each differently. In the midst of settling are the currents of self-centeredness and openness. These currents run through our Gospel story too.

Settling into the Pandemic

As the Pandemic spread last year, everyone, including Governments with their political ideologies, had to find their own way of settling in this strange land. There were many challenges and discoveries each with their shocks and surprises.

One of the first shocks was the strange but necessary intervention of ‘physical distancing’ and ‘quarantine’. Each brought levels of distress and discomfort. The human need for connection and physical contact were missing as we knew it. Gradually as people settled and technology was picked up some solutions became available to keep people in touch. Yet isolation is still a large experience for many in the world. The scars and hunger of isolation will be present for a long time.

In lockdowns and under various restrictions, we saw varying responses. From denial, fear, and panic to slowing down, giving with generous hearts, and taking risks, people started to feel the effects of this new place.

The focus of the everyday with all its commitments was narrowed. With this came the contradictions of panic buying and the generosity of Communities supporting the vulnerable. Friends and strangers volunteered to check on older neighbours. The contradictions of the fear of missing out and mistrust of others at the same time as open hearts and mutual responsibility.

With life being limited to the home, people made the rediscovery of simplicity. There was time to bake sourdough bread, spend time with children and less in the diary. This was accompanied by a re-evaluation of the quality of life lived and its purpose in face of mortality and seeing what is essential.

Individually and as a community we were sometimes overwhelmed by the high death and infection rates. We were shocked too by the size of the economic collapse and unheard-of unemployment. Although Government stimulus and support was provided, the effects on individuals and families and businesses will go on for a lot longer than the pandemic.

Alongside protests about the perception of government limitation of liberty, we witnessed in this city and around the world, the dedication, self-sacrifice and professionalism of frontline health and emergency service workers risking their own lives for the sake of others.

Two views of the land

The younger son

The son’s decision propelled him on an adventure to a faraway land with the cash to enjoy it. Severing his ties with his family, without regard for the insult caused, this son set his sights on his dreams. Home and thinking about others were a long way away. It wasn’t until his cash ran out and all his new friends disappeared that the reality and isolation of his actions set in.

The isolation was acute. He found himself feeding pigs and eating their food. In these circumstances, poor and destitute, the son felt the depths of the consequences of his selfishness and decisions. To add to his predicament, the son suffered the indignity and offence as a Jewish person of living with pigs.
His myopia led to degradation and being religious defiled.

The Father

When confronted by his younger son, the father had every right to banish him from the family without the inheritance he asked for. The son’s action was as good as wishing his father was dead. The son had religiously and culturally offended his father in the worst way imaginable. Perhaps everyone in the family and in the community were waiting to see if the father would do what was demanded by honour.

Everyone was shocked at the father’s reaction. The father gave the younger son what he had asked for. Some may have been puzzled and even angry with the father’s action. Others may have thought him weak and unable to say no. Still others would have expected the father to disown his son and consider him dead.

It is always dangerous to project something onto a character in scripture. However, given the father’s response later in the story, there is an extravagance in the father’s love which defies understanding and honour, but invites the gaze to something else.

We are invited to look past the insult and the money to the relationship between a father and a son and the way the father offers the son space and the freedom to choose. The choice for the father is painful. However, the pain is carried with hope for the son. Hope that the son will find himself and return to Love.

The father had to trust his choice to allow his son to go his own way and above all trust in Love.

What looks foolish and extravagant in the eyes of the world was Love. Love freely given without expectation of anything in return.


Story of Francis and the brother hungry in the night

One night Francis and was woken from his sleep by one of the Friars. The man was crying out, “I’m dying, I’m dying.”
Francis called for a lamp to be lit and then asked him in a kind voice, “What is the matter my brother? Why do you think you are dying?”
“I am dying of hunger,” the weeping man said.
Francis immediately asked for a meal to be prepared. And so, the hungry brother wouldn’t have to eat alone or be ashamed that he was so hungry, Francis asked all the Friars to eat too.
Afterwards he said to them, “Everybody is different and has different needs. Some people need to eat more than others.” He then went on to say, “I want you to allow your bodies what they need in order that you may serve God to the best of your ability. God wants kindness and mercy and not sacrifice.”2

Francis was committed to living the Gospel. At times the passion for this met with the different abilities of other people to follow with the same passion or capacity. When the brother cried out there was a choice between two ways; highlight the brother’s frailty or have compassion. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the fear of our own need not being met or a passion for a practice or belief. Sometimes we are reminded of what happens when we impose these things on others or without regard for them.

Francis chose compassion and community. He listened to the brother and responded with the generosity of something to meet his need as well as the solidarity of a community.


The father and Francis point to a way of being in the strange land of the desert. The father bore his own pain and disappointment and yet offered freedom and choice to his son. While Francis’ actions for his brother provided for a need and connection to a community.

This time presents us with choices in challenging circumstances.
* When have you noticed the struggle to choose love of others over desire or gain?
* What thanksgiving can you offer for the gifts God has given in this time?

The Shock of the Desert

Ray Clifton tssf gave three talks for the Day of Penitence for Queensland-B Tertiaries. We post them here because many more Tertiaries will benefit from them.

2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.


Talk 1 – Eucharist – ‘The Shock of the Desert’

I would like to thank the Regional Team for inviting me to offer these reflections with you over this quiet day. I offer these little words and the invitation to journey with me in the company of Francis and in the Holy Spirit to reflect on the heart of our call to live the Gospel in these challenging times. We will have the opportunity to recognize where we have wandered in search of our own agenda, resented others and denied others grace. We will also have the space to see the ways God invites us to return to serving others where we are called, joyfully and generously.

In these talks we will use the metaphor of the desert and look at the Story of the Prodigal Son to reflect on the experience of the Pandemic. We will take what we have learnt from the desert of the Pandemic as we look to emerge into a changed place. The talks will lead us from ‘The Shock of the Desert’ to ‘Exploring the strange land’ and onto ‘Learning from the desert’.

The inherited European view of Desert in Australia thinks of Desert as a place of vast space, no life, a thing to be conquered and dangerous. To first nation peoples, the desert is a place of life, song lines and stories as well as resources.
David Attenborough at the beginning of a series on Deserts says, “A third of the land on our planet is desert. These great scars on the face of the Earth appear to be lifeless. But, surprisingly, none are. In all, life manages somehow to keep a precarious hold.”

In the desert, a variety of plants, mainly cacti, range from the tall and spiny to small and very low (almost submerged). These symbols of resilience and adaption to the harsh environment, all have ways of capturing water, protection from predators, and flowers to attract pollinators.

This view of deserts gives us, along with the challenges to life of this Pandemic time, a new way of seeing possibilities and of ‘being’ people of hope and life living in solidarity with others facing the same challenges.

For billions of people, 2020 is a year best forgotten. However, as we reflect on the last year and our continued experience of the Pandemic, we continue to live with unprecedented change and uncertainty. Nations, communities, and individuals, we all live with the scars of the experience and long for a return to how things were pre-COVID.

The great shock of the Pandemic, as it gathered pace, reached into every community and home. Even without the confronting experience of contracting the virus or the loss of someone close to us, we have all been affected.
During the Pandemic, some people experienced isolation. This was accompanied by fear of COVID and lead to separation at critical times of need such as funerals, sickness, and older people living alone. There were protests at restrictions of movement and being, forced to quarantine. A great number of people lost jobs and livelihoods. We also found ourselves confronted by panic buying.

Life was being pared back to basics.

A Tale of Two Sons – Broken Paradise
The Younger Son

In the familiar story of the Prodigal Son, the younger of them said to his father,
“Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” …A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.’

The son consumed with dreams and his own desires let loose a shock wave through his family and community and one which would consume him too. This younger son, oblivious to the effect on his father and everyone else leaves home with paradise in his eyes and ultimately plunges himself into isolation.

At first this desert place is a rich place full of exotic experiences. A place where he immerses himself in the pleasure and people money could buy. This oasis is only full of the paradise he desires, as long as his resources last. Very soon, this place becomes a broken paradise.

This desert now becomes an empty and isolating place. The shock settles in for the younger son as he is left with no one and nowhere to go. No way out.

The older son

In this story we only find out at the end what the impact has been for older son of this shock experience of desert time in the family. The older son returns from a day’s work to find his brother, not only home, but being treated with a ring, fine clothes, and a feast. It’s unbelievable, unjust, and insulting. The older son reveals the anger and hurt he has held since his brother left when he replies to his father, ‘ “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

The shock of this desert time for this older brother is that his belief in duty owed to his father and toiling for reward weren’t required. Duty and working hard, as important as they might be narrowed his focus, lead to angry judgements, and displaced the reason for respecting his father – Love.


Francis’ experiences of chasing pleasure and chivalry lead to his desert where the true focus of his life would be exposed. Francis, the ringleader of parties and carousing, the dreamer who pursued fame and heroism as a knight was gradually pared back by God. The isolation of Francis’ imprisonment in the war between Assisi and Perugia while he waited for his father to pay a ransom, his illness and the dream on the eve of battle as a knight, began to expose the emptiness of his quest and begin the journey to desire God alone.

Gradually this journey would turn Francis from selfishness to making God known through compassion and solidarity with others and all living things. Francis would be shaped by the shock of his desert and find springs of joy and life overflowing in in that same place.


As we reflect on the Pandemic and our experiences at this Day of Penitence, may we see afresh. To see the life-giving gifts of this uncomfortable desert and respond to God’s call to live a new life acknowledging those things that brought us disconnection from our communion with God, those around us, the environment and ourselves.

* What was your experience of the Pandemic?
* Which son do you identify with as you grappled with the shock of the ‘desert’?
* Like Francis, in what ways has this pandemic exposed your plans and desires or resentment?

Mary of Nazareth: The Franciscan Connection

Mary of Nazareth
Part One: the Franciscan Connection
by Pirrial Clift tssf

The approaching Feast of the Annunciation [25th March] prompted me to write something about Mary, the Patron Saint of all Franciscans – and the Franciscan connection seems an obvious place to begin.

Devotion to Mary has been part of Christian praxis since very early times, however at times it has been spread a little too thickly on the daily bread of the Church, which led to a virtual abandonment of Marian devotion from many Anglican circles. However Mary was not totally forgotten, as evidenced by the little side-chapels dedicated to the glory of God in her name, beautified with fresh flowers, where candles are lit and prayers rise heavenwards. Mother’s Union keeps her memory alive too, honouring Mary as the Mother of God; and dedicates their work to the support and spiritual care of families, always remembering Mary’s vital part in Jesus’ life.

St. Francis’ devotion to Mary is patently clear when we consider that he wrote the antiphon ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ which was recited at both beginning and end of the seven Daily Offices – that’s 14 times each day!

Antiphon: Holy Virgin Mary
Holy Virgin Mary, among the women born into the world there is no-one like you. Daughter and servant of the most high and supreme King, and of the Father in heaven; Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us with Saint Michael the Archangel, all the powers of heaven and all the saints, at the side of your most holy beloved Son, our Lord and Teacher.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
[Francis of Assisi. Early Documents. The Saint. Ed. Regis J Armstrong et al P 141, and see footnote.]

The Angelus – also known as The Memorial of the Incarnation – has been chanted by laity, clergy and religious throughout Christendom at dawn, noon and sunset for hundreds of years, accompanied by the ringing of bells in sets of three, symbolising the Trinity. It began as the repetition of three Hail Mary’s and the tolling bell after Compline in monastic communities, and gradually developed into the form we know. It is documented as being used as early as the twelfth century by Franciscans. The Angelus uses Bible quotes interspersed with the Hail Mary [which is itself the combination of a bible quote and a prayer] to recount Mary’s fiat and Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, concluding with a humble prayer to be made worthy of Christ’s promises.

Some historians suggest that St Francis popularised it as a way of sanctifying the hours, influenced by hearing the Islamic ‘Call to Prayer’ when he visited the Sultan. Be that as it may, St Francis’s theology is certainly incarnational – he loved to reflect on and speak of Jesus’ life on earth; and saw Jesus’ face reflected in the faces of those he met, especially after his encounter with the leper. Jesus’ life and passion were frequently on his mind, and simple things such as the sight of a couple of crossed sticks or a lamb triggered the remembrance of his sacrificial love and suffering.

Many religious still follow this tradition – I imagine the First Order Brothers at Stroud continue to do so. Across Europe when the bells rang people paused in their work to pray and remember that God is with us. During my Monastery years I followed in Sr. Angela’s footsteps and was frequently joined by Monastery guests praying along or simply listening – often asking questions later. These days Brigid the cat accompanies me onto the veranda first thing each morning to pray the Angelus. Sadly, we have no bell.

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
blessèd are you among women,
and blessèd is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord,
let it be to me according to your Word.
Hail Mary…

The Word became flesh,
And dwelt among us.
Hail Mary…

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

We beseech you, O Lord,
that as we have known the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and resurrection
we may come to the glory of the resurrection. Amen.

The Salutation of the Virgin Mary

Hail, O Lady, Holy Queen,
Mary, holy Mother of God, who are the virgin made Church, chosen by the Most High Father in heaven, whom he consecrated by his most holy Beloved Son
and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good.
Hail, his Palace! Hail his Tabernacle! Hail his Dwelling! Hail his Robe! Hail his Servant! Hail, his Mother! And hail, all you holy virtues, which are poured into the hearts of the faithful through the grace and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that from being unbelievers, you may make them faithful to God.
[Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. The Saint, Ed. Regis J. Armstrong et al. P163]

Part one – The Saint – in the trilogy ‘Early Documents’ describes this piece, written by St. Francis, as a ‘litany of greetings describing Mary’s role in the plan of salvation’. We will take a closer look at ‘The Salutation’ next time.

William Short OFM writes that the simplicity, poverty and humility of God revealed in Jesus are found in the Eucharist and in Mary, especially through the feast of Christmas. [Poverty and Joy. William J Short OFM, p40-42] Mary’s simple trust in God, revealed through her humble acceptance of God’s will at the Annunciation, and her lived poverty, echo Jesus’ abandonment of his own will and life to God: she becomes a model of discipleship. Was she the first Christian? Mary gave her life to Jesus, following him faithfully all the way to the Cross – and beyond.


The Corona Virus and Post-Modernism
by Charles Ringma tssf

The longer COVID-19 continues its free-play throughout the world with its deeply-concerning attendant consequences, the more we are all realising that far more changes will most likely come our way than we had first anticipated.
Much of the present conversation around possible future change has to do with the impact of the vaccination roll-out and its long-term consequences, economic recovery, and work-related issues. There are voices heralding an increase in work-from-home practices, the move of people to regional centres where houses are cheaper and travel time to work is minimised, the probable much longer need for booster vaccinations, and on-going social distancing practices. And there is the growing possibility that more and more educational courses will only be available on-line.
However, I am suggesting that more profound changes will come our way, that call us to careful discernment.
I am proposing that this pandemic will white-ant the Western world’s post-modern perspectives.

While I have no intention of reiterating all that may belong to the post-modern banner, it is clear that this philosophy majors on personal perspectivism, relativism and experientialism, and lacks coherent frameworks of tradition, ethics, and action. Moreover, it rejects meta-narratives, critiques dominant power structures, and celebrates the marginal and contingent. All of this is certainly not all bad. In fact, the opposite is the case. It has certainly helped to create a more tolerant environment.

However, I wish to suggest that post-modernism is a luxury spawned in the Western world of plenty, freedom, and the pursuit of individual self-enhancement. But I suggest that this philosophy is not well-suited when it comes to major national and global crises.

Generally speaking, in times of crisis governments tend to be more interventionist, and the latent “cracks” within the social fabric of societies may well become more evident. They may become chasms.

This means that democratic processes may be weakened, that authoritarianism may be strengthened, that dictatorships may become more oppressive and that societies may lurch towards contemporary forms of fascism. At the very least, a major crisis highlights the great disparities in societies.

However, none of this needs to happen, even though it may.

Let me suggest what we may do in order to build a more just society that avoids the polarities of a laisser-faire way of life on the one hand and a more oppressive set of realities on the other.

First of all, it is important that we maintain and further create democratic societies where we maintain the balance of power between government, the judiciary, police and army, and all economic, social, and religious institutions. It is understood that all of these must maintain both high levels of public accountability, and seek to work as cooperatively as possible for the common good.

Secondly, the above scenarios are simply not possible when relativism reigns supreme. Thus, the challenge is to find an increasingly common narrative as what a just society that seeks the human flourishing of all, should look like. This means that a new public discourse needs to brought to the fore. Rather than petty party politics, and the clout of powerful economic entities, and the championing of provincial causes and issues, we need to regain debates that deal with overall well-being, justice, and social integration.

Thirdly, this means that we need to find a new hermeneutic where we recognise the limitations of our knowledge and ideological silos. Thus, we need to create communities of conversation rather than the present shouting past each other or the premature dismissal of the other.

Fourth, the consequence of this is that neither narrow political party concerns, the pressure of lobbyists, and the favouritism of the elite, should dominate. The concern of all and the mantra of the nation should be one of building a better future for all. And that includes not only all the citizens, but the newcomers and refugees who are seeking a homeland.

Fifth, it is rather obvious that mere strategies, pragmatics, and the neo-liberal focus on economics, will not be sufficient to build a better future. New symbols and sustainable values are needed to sustain the hard work of nation-building.

Every major crisis presents an opportunity. While the usual impulse is to go back to the old and while the wholly new is utopian and unrealistic, a crisis can be an unexpected mirror. It shows what we are capable of in working as cooperatively as possible. It also shows what we value. But it also highlights the disparities in our society. Thus, it highlights both new possibilities and our glaring needs that are often kept hidden and have certainly been neglected.
With multiple recent royal commissions into the church, the banks, aged care and other sectors of society, one thing is clear – our social institutions are in many ways ethically flawed. Given this disturbing reality, the solution is not simply more organisational efficiency and scrutiny. We need to recover the more basic human values of care, servanthood, self-sacrifice and a commitment to the commonweal that should characterise this commonwealth. By all means let us work for new policies and programs, but we need to become better human beings. And for that to take place we will need to face the difficult task of ideological and ethical formation. The kind of transformation that is implicit in such formation, is both one of truth-telling regarding past wrongs, processes of reconciliation and healing, strategies of cooperative learning and visioning, and a life-long implementation of the older mantras of love of neighbour, empowerment for the least, and service to all so that together we may live well in these challenging times of a pandemic, global warming, ecological destruction, vast social disparities, and changing empires.

Too many big issues face us. Our safety silos and echo chambers and our narrow political agendas will not serve us well in these circumstances. Communities of conversation may at the very least be a starting point for the “new” to emerge. And such communities need to face the past wrongs of colonialism and empire, the hubris of past narratives of dominance, and the present narratives of denial. At same time, such communities need to embrace present realities in humility and grief and face the future in hope that calls all to sacrifice and to work for the common, rather than the parochial, good. Doing this implies sacrifice on the part of all.

Charles Ringma, tssf.

JOINING in a time of distancing

We are all only too aware that the current covid-pandemic has brought about many changes, great distress, and real suffering. These have been more significant in countries where the pandemic has had a greater impact. Thus, we do need to be careful that we don’t over-generalise.

But we are not only aware, but also deeply disturbed, by the conflicting responses to the pandemic that we have seen in various countries. Tensions have been rife. This has been most clearly seen in the push on the part of the authorities for lock-down, social distancing, and covid-testing, and the protests of people who insist that they should be free to live and do as they like, and not have their “freedoms” restricted.

And somewhere in all of this, there lurks a tension that has to do with cooperation on a massive scale on the one hand, and on the other, the important role that social distancing is meant to play in keeping us as safe as possible. Thus, we have here a dialectic: joining and distancing or that of joining and separating.

One way of putting this is to say that we are to join together in the art of separating. However, this may be nicely said, but is fraught with all sorts of problems. The most obvious is that participating in the “dance” of joining and distancing, we undermine one or the other of these dimensions.

The most painful is that the more we practice social distancing the more we undermine joining and the bonds of social relationships that are so important to human well-being and flourishing.

We are all deeply touched by the elderly in aged-care facilities who died without family members being there to comfort them; weddings and funerals with many not being able to attend; and religious services where faith communities can longer gather in the usual way.

What all of this means is that there is pain and loss in living this tension.

But this current crisis, can also be used to reflect on past realities and future possibilities with regard to the tension of joining and separating. Let’s explore this and see what may surface.

The first, is that our pre-covid joining was fraught with some problems. The main, I would argue, was that our joining was marked with the fault-line of a rampant individualism that left our sense of joining in an acute state of precarity. We joined in marriages, joined companies, joined clubs, political parties, and religious groups, only to abandon them again when problems arose or at a mere whim or fancy. Keep our options open was more the mantra, rather than the challenge of making deep commitments.

The second and related issue in our pre-covid world, has been that our joining has led to exclusivity. I belong to this group and therefore have nothing to do with that group! We have seen this most clearly in matters of race, religion, politics and gender.

Just in the light of these two factors alone, and I not seeking to be exhaustive here, we may conclude that our sense of joining has been rather marred and fractured. To put that in other words, many of our societies have been both wonderfully diverse, but also deeply divided and fragmented. A sense of joining that has led to both solidarity and a commitment to the common good, or to the “common-weal,” has been sadly lacking.

And to see this from the other side – that of social separation – we see people living with both the pain and anger of not-belonging, victimization, and social exclusion.

All of this is not a wonderful picture, let alone a mosaic!

But what of the future? Can the present realities of joining and distancing anticipate a new way of being in a post-covid world? Many would say, not. We are most likely, they would claim, that we will revert to the old realities. They may well be right.

But let us dream. Is it possible that in learning in our present circumstances to cooperate is social distancing, can we learn to cooperate in other areas of social life that are pressing in on us. Can we join together in the challenges of responding to climate change? Can we join together in responding better to poverty and social fragmentation? Can the realities of distancing and fragmentation lead to new ways of mutual listening, relationship-building, joining, and cooperation.

Yes. It is possible! What would you suggest? How do you see future possibilities?

Charles Ringma, tssf.

Beggars I Have Met

by Pirrial Clift tssf

St Francis’ famous encounter with a leprous beggar was transformative. My dear friend and onetime parish priest Val Rogers said the only way the rich will get into heaven is if the poor come out and lead us in by the hand. If this is true, I imagine St Francis will be carried jubilantly through the pearly gates on the shoulders of a great crowd of poor people.

Val’s words are sobering, especially when I consider beggars I have not dealt kindly with. That woman on my Moscow hotel steps in ’98 at 1 am, persistent and shrill in her pleas for help for her 3 children. Another woman walking beside me, repeatedly demanding assistance in Derby St. Newcastle…. I gave nothing to either of them, but they are permanently ingrained in my memory. Sometimes I am caught unawares – my coping mechanisms don’t seem to be in place – and I just want to close the beggar out. This happened again in Beijing as I left St Joseph’s Church. A man pushed forwards and thrust his two stumps – where once there had been forearms and hands – right in my face: I recoiled in horror and walked away. Just walked away.

In St Mark’s Square Venice I gave a woman something, and was immediately confronted by another woman, beautifully dressed and groomed. She scolded me for my gift. They’re employed by the Mafia, she said. They’re all rogues and Gypsies. They’re frauds and liars: you are wasting your money, she said. I pondered this afterwards; what motivated a wealthy woman to accost a complete stranger with warnings about wasting money on beggars? In the Square people were enjoying enormous gelatos – they could be said to be wasting money on those gelati, but my ‘friend’ saw no need to reprimand them. In Istanbul a shopkeeper left her shop unattended to cross the street and utter similar warnings after I gave to a ragged Syrian boy whose shoes barely hung together, flapping as he walked away.

Of course there are tricksters and frauds amongst beggars, as there are amongst every social group; one memorable example was the woman with the horribly twisted and deformed leg outside St Peter’s in Rome. I just happened to be around when she folded up her fake leg and popped it in a bag, stretching out the whole limb she’d had tucked under her skirt before rising from the dirt and walking away. C’est la vie I said ruefully to myself, thinking of the money I and others had parted with. Still, she’d certainly worked hard for it, sitting there in the hot sun all day with one leg cramped up beneath her!

The thing is, I can’t tell the genuinely needy person from the others. After being duped and conned a few times at the Rectory door I surrendered to cynicism. The next fellow who knocked received a cool welcome, although I scrounged up some food and brought it out. That poor man stood right where he was and ate and ate – he was so hungry. Since then I find it better to obey the Lord’s command to give to everyone who asks of you; at least when I have my wits about me.

Ten weeks in Canterbury, UK brought me into contact with beggars regularly, on St Peter’s St, which was lined with stalls, buskers and beggars. I loved the buskers: some were accomplished musicians, others scratched out doleful melodies on un-tuned instruments or sang tonelessly with one eye on their hat, upturned in hopes of a few coins. How can I forget the girl who appeared to have got dressed in the dark out of the rag bag, with her hair stuck out in all directions and her baby in a pusher, singing ‘I’m getting married in the morning….’ on one note?

It seemed de rigueur to have a hat of some kind to collect money; a beanie, a sunhat; any piece of headgear. My favourite beggar had an old cap. He made no effort to entertain the passer-by, just sat in the same place night after night huddled against the wall, his head drooping disconsolately, shoulders hunched.

One night when I dropped a few coins they missed his cap. I stood appalled as he scrabbled in the dirt to pick them up, a hot feeling of shame flooding me. What was I doing, throwing money at him like scraps to a dog? I am so sorry, I said. That’s alright, he responded as he tucked his coins away. Thank you, and God bless you. Oh my! Here was I, the priest, being blessed by the beggar. I had not offered him a blessing, but he was blessing me. Like the drunk and Mother Teresa in Noel Rowe’s poem And so he says to her, our roles had reversed, the beggar was ministering to me. He taught me a lasting lesson about our common humanity. I resolved never to drop money like that again; and whenever it is possible to put the money into the person’s hand, and look them in the eye, offering God’s blessing. And maybe there’s time for a few words about the weather or the state of the nation.

Outside the Forbidden City in Beijing a long line of beggars sat in the baking sun without shade all day. It was like running the gauntlet of human suffering. Ancient ones clothed in rags, barely able to stand; someone accompanying an adult suffering Downs Syndrome doing pathetic little tricks for a bit of change; people with all manner of deformities. One young man haunts me; his horrific burn scars, and that missing arm that seems to have been ripped out of its socket – dear God! How can it be that he must beg for his food? What’s to become of him?

Another sight never to be forgotten was a tiny girl of about 5 sitting quite alone against a long stretch of the old city wall in Istanbul, a scrap of cardboard on the pavement asking for donations. Probably a Syrian refugee like many we encountered, the first being another lonely child – a boy of about 13 huddled into a corner of a building, crouched there, head low, a picture of abject misery. How long would it be before these children fell into the hands of predators? We passed them in the comfort of modern transport, in the safety and security that is ours by chance.

As Luther famously said, we are all beggars before God. Everything we have is given to us; the very breath in our lungs, our Sister Mother Earth with her fruits and grains and her tender and sometimes rugged beauty which opens our spirits to the presence of God. Our innate talents, we call ‘gifts’ – teaching perhaps, or painting, or organising – who but God is the Giver? Everything good in us, every rising hope or wave of generosity is God’s work in us; each spark of Life, be it temporal or eternal. If God turned away from us, we would cease to exist. Personally, I am always begging God for something.

St Francis said the only thing that is ours are our sins. Everything else is for sharing. Beggars are often on my mind. So many meetings – was one of them Christ? Did I turn away from him?

Dresden – reflections of a Christian historian

Dresden – by John Davis tssf

On Sunday 16th August 1970 I caught a train from Prague to Dresden. I had a compelling connection to a place I had never seen. ‘My city’ I called it in my travel diary. The visit had been four years in the making, against quite considerable odds. Anyone who knows me reasonably well will have sooner or later heard me talk about Dresden, with an evident depth of feeling and commitment. This expanded reflection is a COVID-19 lockdown project from the last few days that might go a way to explaining just a bit more. It is offered with love and respect to the people of Dresden, both today and yesterday.

‘Dresden’ needs to be seen in the context of my broader conviction as an historian that attempting to wrestle deeply with what happened in and to Germany in the first half of the 20th century offers opportunity for a careful case study in the human condition. Taking that idea further, ‘my city’ has to a significant extent been especially formative for me, for my struggle to come to grips with the problem of good and evil and in particular the confronting truth that good people can be complicit in bad things. The struggle too to acknowledge that ‘we’ are part of our past and finally that compassion for the helpless and the vulnerable is a heartland virtue. To a very considerable degree these issues have remained with me all my life both as an historian and as a priest. Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why I keep returning to this intellectual, geographical and indeed spiritual space, that I feel compelled to write about it now, fifty years later.

The origins of this intellectual and emotional searching go back to a University of Adelaide history honours stream tutorial in 1966: Military history with a special focus on Nazi Germany and the Second World War. That was only 21 years on from the end of that upheaval. Our lecturer and tutor had himself been with the British Army, including the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp near Hamburg. So the wartime generation was all around us, now in their 40s and 50s. Until then I don’t think I had heard about the bombing of Dresden or the broader moral issue around the bombing offensive. It was a total revelation. I can remember being quite unreasonably angry with my poor father as representative of that generation. The closest he got to Dresden was in the medical corps in Tobruk. He did what he had to do in his generation. I was in the process of working out what I had to do in mine.

The destruction of Dresden was of course just one series of events in amongst all the tumult that was the Second World War but somehow for me it became a developing focus, a clarifying prism. ‘Dresden’ became shorthand for all those pivotal questions that I could engage with, that I had to engage with. That conviction has never left me.
It was all of this that confronted and shaped the eighteen year old me in that history tutorial group. It was hard enough trying to put it all together at that age without the fact that my number had come up that year in the conscription ballot. In Australia in the late 1960s war and the conduct of war was not an abstract or distant issue. It wasn’t for me either.

Within the broader context of my study of military history and my own personal struggles, it was however this particular set of events, this breaking understanding, this whole confronting complexity of issues, this example of appalling human suffering and the willful destruction of our common cultural heritage that was for me so revealing of the demeaning ugliness of war.

At least for me, the obvious fact that the regime and the system we were at war with in WWII was itself one of the clearest manifestations of evil imaginable did not take away our own moral obligations or remove the ongoing implications of our own acknowledgement of a shared humanity, as we ourselves went through our decision making processes for our actual conduct of that war. That question is not merely specific to those decisions and actions in early 1945. Ultimately it is to do with values. Values that endure.

It occurs to me that throughout this narrative there are so many ordinary people, attempting to go about doing ordinary things in times of the utmost stress or danger. Most of them have no names – they are mostly categories of people like refugees or young children or old people or young mothers with prams, or rescue workers, or indeed young frightened airmen far from home. They are also the many people I talked to over the years about these things. People in the opera house, people at the City Museum, people on trains, people in churches, former air crew, the young me or indeed my young father. All these ordinary people populate these pages or are very close by. Many are dead but they are here in their thousands. There is a certain solid human dignity often to be found in the facing of overwhelming odds which is also often other-regarding. There is honouring to be done for those who suffer terribly at the hands of others. There is the question of truth telling and justice. There is reflection to be done about how things might be. This story is for all of them.

During and following that history tutorial year I had read everything I could find about the devastating British and American bombing raids on the pretty much untouched jewel that was Dresden just before the end of WWII. For a couple of centuries it had been an absolute must on any Grand Tour of Europe. It was a centre of learning and high culture with all the layered nuances of a large regional city going back to mediaeval times but with a particular flowering from the 18th century on. Elegant 19th and early 20th century residential areas featured treelined streets and fine squares. There was pride in the history and achievement of the prosperous capital of Saxony. Its relatively remote location near the Czech border had seemed to add to the sense of invulnerability. This was the chosen target.

As it happens, the air raids started at 10.13pm overnight on Shrove Tuesday and then again through Ash Wednesday. The steadily advancing Russian Red Army was already well into Saxony, only 80 km away at the time, with all that meant. Indeed advance units were just a couple of hours away. The city was overflowing with refugees from the east, perhaps just then as many as a million at any one time coming and going quickly, because the entire ethnic German population of the eastern provinces was on the move. At the actual time of the raid there was a long distance express night train for Munich filled and ready to depart, about to take people westwards at the only relatively safe time. That night the Allies had total air supremacy. Dresden had no air defence or anti-aircraft positions. It was not considered to be a likely target. The Allies certainly knew that.

The fate and the careful loving rebuilding of just two buildings in the centre of the Altstadt that I have had close contact with will offer a small illustration of what has unfolded for me and indeed for Dresden herself over these 50 years since my first visit. Looking at just two buildings out of tens of thousands is one way of approaching the enormity of it all. One of them was to all intents and purposes the symbol of the city and the dominating feature of its skyline while the other, in a strange thing to say about a palace, is more domestic. Buildings that were loved and cherished. Buildings again to be loved and honoured now.

The first of the two is the distinctive bell-shaped domed Frauenkirche, built in the early 18th century. It was one of the largest and grandest Lutheran baroque churches in Europe, later immortalised by Canaletto. The second is the Taschenbergerpalais – a smaller palace next to the royal palace and the Catholic cathedral – built on neoclassical baroque lines at around the same time.

As it happened in February 1945 each of these buildings was well within the two broad points of the triangular street plan template of the city that the 245 bomber first raid RAF planes had instructions to drop all their bombs into. This was in order to achieve the maximum devastating effect and the planned resultant immense firestorm. A second wave of 550 bombers, more than twice the size of the first, was three hours behind them with the same orders. The broad top of the area to be bombed stretched across the entire width of the old city taking in some government buildings on the north bank of the Elbe. The third pin point of the wedge was just to the north of but not including the main station. About 2km x 2km x 3km. Just about every structure within that whole large area was to be destroyed, including those two particular buildings I want to come back to. It was the cultural, religious, historical, administrative and commercial heart of the city.

Such concentrated area bombing of course resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in that central part of the old city that evening. If they did not die directly from the bombing or the resultant huge fires, very many died of asphyxiation. If the first raid did not get them, the second did. There was just no oxygen left to breathe.

The British Air Force specialised in night raids. Of the two that took place on first night, the second was the much more devastating though the city was already totally ablaze. The Americans preferred daylight and around midday the next day their initial huge raid took on the task. Huddled survivors on the banks of the Elbe found the city again under attack. Before that, rescue workers flooding into the city in the morning from all over the region had found many hundreds of bodies in that packed night train at the station. Hundreds more were silently sitting around the edge of the large emergency water storages in the market squares. The water had in some cases boiled dry. Here and there was a gap, where a body had fallen forward: like gaps in the mouth from a lost tooth described one eyewitness. All dead. Funeral pyres were later to add their smoke to that from the still smouldering fires in the surrounding ruined buildings. There was simply no alternative with casualties on that scale. Yet another follow up American raid took place the day after as well. Over 1200 heavy bombers in all, over the three days. The final area of utter devastation was very much greater than the initial target zone by the end of all this. It encompassed the whole inner city and all the adjacent residential areas stretching for many kilometres in every direction, though particularly eastwards because of the wind. The city simply burnt.

There remains no evidence that the war was at all shortened by such a particular policy of area bombing. This is at the heart of both the controversy at the time and during these now many decades that have passed since. Once air warfare stopped being a very imprecise blunt instrument (which happened quickly as the war continued) did area bombing actually achieve anything strategic other than terrible needless destruction and mass suffering? In the very last weeks of the war was there perhaps simply a quiet satisfaction of dishing it back to a hated enemy when Western land armies were still a long way away and an increasingly powerful Russian ally was about to occupy the capital (or indeed a completely intact Dresden), taking the spoils of war? Is that being too cynical? After all, huge raids including a firestorm had flattened Hamburg as early as July 1943 to no discernible effect (apart from on the people of Hamburg). The war then had a long way to go. But then there was Magdeburg just a month before in January 1945. Did that do anything other than disadvantage the Americans who would take it within a couple of months? Of course Berlin itself had been constantly bombed for years, including large swathes of residential areas. In April much of Potsdam was destroyed, even as the Russians were in the outer suburbs of the adjacent capital. The air war went on. This particular type of air war went on. The British Bomber Command was at the centre of it. Churchill himself was specifically and directly urging it on. I have the letter.

Strategic bombing, such as on particular key infrastructure or industrial targets, like ports, bridges, airfields, transport or the supply chain, is a totally different matter. That can bring a city to its knees quickly and it was completely technically possible at the end of the war. A further American raid on Dresden in April did exactly that, achieving very effectively what the February raids had not. What then was the justification or the motivation to follow one highly contested policy over the other?

Germany fought to the absolute bitter end (which came on May 8th) because the alternative was said to be simply too horrible to contemplate. The relentless steady advance of the Russians already terrifyingly in control of half the country was resisted ultimately block by city block. But the broad intentional long distance ‘carpet bombing’ destruction by the Allies of whole cities with enormous numbers of civilian casualties meant that they too like the Russians could with some justification also be characterised as monsters. We too, actually. The mutuality of war.

In 1970 after many deferments I very narrowly avoided finally being conscripted into the army to fight in the war in Vietnam, a war that for many of us had its own huge share of moral ambiguities. Shortly afterwards I left the country to take up a graduate history doctoral scholarship in Canada, which was how I got out. But first to Europe and to Germany on the smell of an oily rag carrying all that I had in a rucksack.

Which gets me to Sunday 16th August 1970. There were time constraints. It was certainly off the beaten track then to travel and indeed to travel alone ‘behind the iron curtain’. So this particular adventure journey between a fairly shabby Vienna and a beleaguered (West) Berlin was a testing of the waters for me and that midday arrival at the pretty much fully rebuilt Dresden main station was my first brief time there. Only 24 hours. I would come back again and again over the years.

That first day I remember walking from the main station into the shock of lots of open space and very ordinary modern buildings, constructed on a new grid street plan so very different to what had gone before: totally unsympathetic in contrast say to what was done in Cologne using the former street plan. Outside the station at first sight there seemed to be hardly anything at all pre war left. I knew plenty about what and who had occupied those empty spaces, about what had been so deliberately and intentionally destroyed in the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ and in what manner. It was deeply shocking.

In my wide-eyed walk from the station towards the Elbe river that day I somehow found myself at what the street sign said was the Postplatz, on the corner where the main post office and central telephone exchange were located on February 13th 1945. I knew that odd snippet of information because for some reason the passages about it in one of the first books in English on the bombing ( David Irving’s controversial ‘The Destruction of Dresden’) had stayed in my mind, along with the terrible fate of those, mostly young women, who worked there that night of the firestorm. No one in that very central area of where the bombs were dropped stood a chance. It was the same story at the Army headquarters a few hundred metres away. Heavy concussive bombs, then incendiaries and then the firestorm.

An air raid firestorm is a particular phenomenon that does not happen all the time. It is much more than very extensive fires. The few examples largely came later in the war. It had to be worked on. But when the combined conditions are in place the result is truly horrific. The firestorm generates its own hurricane force winds that drag everything that moves into the inferno and anyone attempting to cross a street was simply sucked away. Destruction is general and complete.

That was the fate of all those at the main post office and telephone exchange that evening. Twenty five years later what I found next to the somewhat incongruous cobble stone street at that corner was half a metre or so of the base of the solid dark stone walls of a large building and inside those remnant walls waving summer grass, browned off by the August sun. Empty space. Somehow that was a place where those murmuring voices of ordinary people seemed close. A place to pause.

Then I walked further. Not too far away was the Altmarkt – a very large square – with nothing old around it. The Frauenkirche – to Dresden as St Paul’s is to London – was a very substantial heap of stones. The Saxon royal palace and surrounding buildings were burnt out wrecks. The distinctive Zwinger galleries were there but battered, with some folk dancing going on in the huge courtyard. There was bright music speaking powerfully to less complicated more innocent times, as beautiful young women and strapping young men danced in colourfull embroidered local costumes for an appreciative older crowd in the sunshine. The adjacent heavy bulk of the Semper opera house was still burnt out. All these glimpses were like passing vignettes in a Fellini film. They were there and then they were gone. There was so much to take in.

I had to get back to the main bus transfer by the station because believe it or not my camping place voucher on that night was for the grounds of Schloss Moritzburg – a grand abandoned place some 20 kms out of the city, the former royal hunting lodge, so there I needed to go. Wandering visitors to the DDR (East Germany) in 1970 had to have documentation for exactly where they were supposed to be each night. The cheapest option was for a camping place – although as I soon found, provided you had the paperwork, things could actually be quite interestingly flexible.

That night I shared a tent with a very tall New Zealander. The two of us needed to get back to the city. Next morning having missed the early return bus we did the only thing we could – set out on the road back hoping for a ride. We saw a truck coming up over a slight rise and put out our thumbs. It was in fact a Red Army troop transport. The officers all turned their heads away, the soldiers cheerfully laughed. It was a funny moment. Shortly afterwards a ride was offered in a simple DDR Trabant by a student at the Technical University. We managed to squeeze in, rucksacks tent and all. Neither the rich nor the military offer rides.

That afternoon I travelled on to Berlin – East Berlin – to spend a night with a family I had met on the train from Prague two days before. They had no English and my scrappy German had to do. They were so welcoming and friendly, like just about everyone non-official you met in the DDR. So eager to talk and to discuss. Just to be human.

A couple of years later I was back from Canada having completed my Masters and the doctoral course work, to begin researching newly released WWII cabinet documents and various personal papers on an unrelated field in London. I also could not resist checking out files relating to the bombing. That explains the Churchill letter mentioned above.

I was able too to visit Dresden properly. I first met up with some American friends from my Canadian university who were by then studying philosophy and art in (West) Berlin. The deeply broken city was then a remarkable divided but very creative space, full of memories and with much evident war damage. The Wall was brutally obvious. A somewhat wild city of students and widows. I crossed the border at the Friedrichstrasse station and took the train to Dresden via Leipzig from the main eastern station. At that time there were huge magnificent steam trains doing mainline service on the still-named Reichsbahn. I love rail travel.

I took my time on this visit to Dresden going everywhere I could. Walking endlessly, taking trams, listening, searching, sorrowing at the bleak ugliness of so much of the wider rebuilt urban area, taking delight at in every direction finding that sudden divide where the fires had actually stopped, taking in what was left of the museums and galleries, noting the slow tentative beginnings of the renewal that in later years would once again see the word Dresden associated with much more than a war crime. If that sentence was breathless, so was my exploration.

Once every ten years or so after that, I have returned.

Both the Frauenkirche and the Taschenbergerpalais were to be left as heaps of stones for the best part of 50 years after February 1945. When I saw them first 25 years later, that was how they were. The East German authorities had no interest in or resources for doing anything with such structures. It took the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989 to see the start of their reconstruction and rebuilding. Their remarkable renewal alongside that of at least some of the most recognisable and wonderfully whimsical lost or terribly damaged jewels of the Saxon capital is quite a story. A new Taschenbergerpalais opened as a luxury five star grand hotel in 1997. The exterior, the main entrance, the grand staircase and the courtyard fountains were familiar, the rest was necessarily different. The spectacular Frauenkirche rebuilding funded by generous donation from around the world to the original 18th century plans was finally complete in 2007 and since then the immediate built context has returned as well.

On the night of the bombing the Taschenberger was very busy. The former royal residence for the Crown Prince before the revolution in 1918 was during the war the regional headquarters for the Wehrmacht, the German Army. Everyone in the building that night was killed. Not that far way the Frauenkirche like every other church in the doomed city would have been the location of the light-hearted Fasching festivities for Shrove Tuesday, including fancy dress for the children and special tasty treats ahead of the beginning of Lent the next morning. Were church bells allowed to ring at that stage of the war? The huge Frauenkirche bells that might have been ringing that last evening would have joined those from all across the city, echoing off the nearby hills of the Elbe valley along with the equally large bells of the Catholic cathedral just across the road from the palace. The high dome of the Frauenkirche remained standing for a couple of days after the fires. Then the whole thing collapsed.

The bells for me are an important part of this story. In January 1988 I took up a German government scholarship for a Goethe Institut intensive language program at Chiemsee in Bavaria. My excellent kindly and long-suffering teacher (who shook her head at my mangling of the finer points of grammar) told me that as a child in 1945 she and her family had walked hundreds of kilometres through the winter snow across the Bohemian hills of the Sudeten borderlands heading for Bavaria ahead of the invading Russians moving in from Silesia. They had seen the huge plumes of smoke, ash and burnt papers falling from the sky, that had been Dresden.

So the story was never far away. At the end of that course and with my German much improved I again took a train to Dresden this time planning to coincide with February 13th. I did not know what to expect.
On the evening of the anniversary I got a ticket in the very top ring of the traditional horse-shoe shaped opera house for a special performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Three years before on that same date the Semper had finally reopened wonderfully restored 40 years on from the bombing. It was a performance like no other. The place was packed. Two women next to me were talking beforehand to each other about actually being in the city the night of the raid as teenagers. There was obviously an intensity in the air. The occasion and the quality of the offering utterly transcended any potential Verdi operatic excess. At the end, instead of applause and so far as I could see without any direction or prompting, the whole gathering – orchestra, chorus, soloists, conductor, audience, attendants – simply stood silently in their place for what seemed a very long time of heavy silence. That was around 9.45 pm. Afterwards it was completely quiet like leaving church on Holy Thursday, though again the sense of the presence of the many was powerful. We were holding them but they too were holding us.

Outside in the Opera Square there was a light dusting of snow. Alone I walked slowly across by the front of the cathedral towards the nearby Elbe Bridge. There was no one else immediately there. I was just on the first arch of the bridge looking out across the river when at exactly 10.13pm the bells began to toll, first just a few then very many, both near and far. The cathedral bells were the loudest and closest. Across the bridge and from surrounding side streets heavily coated rugged-up people started to appear, carrying lantern type candles, all heading towards and through the narrow streets that led towards the ruins of the Frauenkirche. The bells just continued to toll. I have no memory of any ceremony or speech of any kind, just the silent forming a huge circle of light around that heap of stones. The next morning at mass in the cathedral the bishop preached on the text ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. It was the most powerful and deeply moving sermon I have ever experienced. There were very definitely many more at mass that morning than I could see.

By 1998 the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche was very much under way. Whatever stones that could be put back in place were though the light gold of the new stone hugely predominated. By then the crypt was functioning as a church and the major external walls had reached their full height. The dome and the rest of the superstructure was yet to come.

In 2009 we stayed at the wonderful Taschenbergerpalais hotel, one of the loveliest hotel experiences ever. We had taken a taxi from the station this time. It was January so it was cold. As soon as we had checked in we had to go walking. Rob and I had seen the new skyline of the city as our Berlin train crossed the Elbe railway bridge from the Neustadt. We knew where we had to go – down by the side of the cathedral into the street nearby. Walking onwards and around a small bend suddenly there it was, the beautiful golden bell shaped dome of the Frauenkirche, glistening in the sun. I simply burst into tears.

Later we went to a special lunch time organ recital and an address that explained the special importance of the place. Afterwards I went up to the layman who had given the talk and told him how deeply special it was for me. I told him that as a young student I had wept over these stones and for the suffering of the war. That simple Saxon late middle aged man in his formal suit took my shoulders and kissed me. Perhaps a most gentle act of absolution.

In 2022, after all this current pandemic is over, I am hoping to take one final trip to Dresden. To spend several days there, to do something special in the Frauenkirche and to stay at the Taschenbergerpalais.

John Davis
August 16th, 2020.