It’s a quiet Sunday evening in Ieper, interrupted only on each quarter hour by the rhythmic and enchanting chiming of the bells in the Cloth Hall tower, and we are making our way to Mass at Sint-Maartenskerk. Fifteen minutes before six o’clock the tones of the cathedral’s sonorous bell sounded the call to prayer and we paid our bill for the coffees we had been drinking and made our way amid the quiet faithful over the road. Crossing over the street we could make out, under the bellow of the greater bells above us, the clanging of the bells of St. George’s chapel. We had decided to go Catholic today, perhaps for the sake of Frank who had received sad news of a friend’s passing from Ireland, or perhaps for my own sake; for the good of my soul no doubt, and to escape the death cult that the English church in Flanders appeared to be. For all the tales of horror we had heard, and for all that this city had experienced through two World Wars, the Roman Church transcended – in its twenty centuries of memory – the ugly fetishisation of the violence of the twentieth century. George may have lanced the Turkic dragon, but Martin remains a symbol of European brotherhood.
Maccabees XII tells us that it is good and pious to remember the dead in our prayers, and so today we had many a fallen friend and stranger weighing heavy on our hearts and minds. In a surprisingly Presbyterian fashion the missal was delivered up to the altar by a layperson to announce the beginning of the celebration of the sacred mysteries, and she was followed then by the procession of the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the deacon and the old Flemish priest. Naturally we didn’t understand a word of what was going on, but Flemish has a strange beauty to the English speaker. It remains foreign to our ears and yet, unlike French or German, sounds familiar – as though we ought to understand it. Catholic liturgy too is universally recognised by Catholic and Catholick alike. All the suffering that was here was the mystical suffering of the Christ, and in which all the tears and bloodshed of war and peacetime are enshrined. We could pray without owning a debt to memories that were invented to stir up base passions, and so we prayed and communed with higher things. Take this all of you, and eat it. This is my body… broken.