It is a cold day in Brussels, the light is shining though the window of my Hotel room in the EU District of Brussels, a new day and a new start in the sterile EU District of Brussels.
I turn my phone and flick through the tweets and comments, the squabbles and the jealousies written on our media rich lives. I am reminded of what I was doing on this day over the past five years; looking through the Facebook comments, Twitter feed, the half remembered events, and cryptic statuses whose meanings elude me now, and then I come across the name Edith Cavell.
Her story, her almost martyrdom, has been learned over a period of years. It started in London and the words ‘Patriotism is not enough’ on her stature near St Martins in the Field, probably overlooked by most. An Anglican Nurse who was instrumental in founding the Belgium healthcare system, she was in Brussels during World War One, declining to leave because she was still needed to heal the wounds of the war. Refusing to discriminate between the German wounded and the Allied wounded she treated both – a radical notion even now – and arrested for aiding the escape of Allied Soldiers. She was tried and executed.
It is 12 October 2014 and I decide I should visit one of the two memorials in Brussels to her, it is 99 years since she was killed.
I stood in front of one the monuments to her, a simple and elegant affair – situated next to a Health Clinic that bears her name in the ‘Churchill’ district of Brussels (perhaps the Health Clinic is her true memorial). It is a cold, crisp day. The streets are quite, empty apart from the occasional Jogger passing by, carpeted in a raggy covering of brown leaves. The air is clean and life gently goes on amongst wide streets of Brussels, though people walk there is a stillness, a tranquillity today. There is little traffic to disturb my thoughts as I look on and think of that day 99 years ago.
I look and imbibe the calmness of the day. I think what it must have been like on that day, what was happening that day, the stillness of the street envelopes, its cold autumnal cover gathers around me, what was it like on that day, was it like this? I can hear the gunshot from the Firing Squad echo through the streets, breaking the silence, shattering the grace that took her from a quite, parochial existence to facing a German Firing Squad. The shot brutally rips into the silence of an autumn morning in Brussels through almost a century of time to today, to now. The sound ricochets along the street in my mind, as the bullet leaves the Rifle, it echoes along streets off the walls of time.
The echoes of her legacy and her example to us today as sharp as that shot. Her words. Her deeds.
What is her example to me? For one it is striving not to hate anyone. Saying not hating anyone in today’s world is almost impossible, but then again saying as await execution most be even more difficult. We, I, need to connect with my humanity that sees people as people and not as nationalities or political supporters, and a humanity that sees people as people who hate me. I have been given this example, I have seen what love is, what it does, I have to have that love for others.
My love must be unconditional, or else it is not love.
The words of the Pastor who publicly vowed to take action if he found out one of his Sons was gay, was to love him, unconditionally leak into my mind, love, such an old fashioned word. He said:
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love
I look at the Memorial, recount the story, and I do not see great Armies facing each other, terrible battles betweens Empires, or the hatred of countries, I see a woman making a difference, making an awful situation a little better, I see hope in the darkness. I see humanity in physical form. I see a woman loving her fellow men, regardless, in spite of the differences and political wrangling of Empire.
The sentence and execution of Edith Cavell was lawful and just, and yet we see it as a crime, and crime it was. Justice has to be served but also with justice, and justice is relative, there has to be mercy. Whilst sometimes I think ‘they deserved it’ I now have to question that conclusion, yes they deserve it, but is justice, can I exercise mercy in my judgement. I stand in front of the firing squad of her sacrifice, it is not Edith who faced the judgement, it was the Court that had to be judged. We are so easy to judge, so quick to justify, just as the Court did in 1915.
Edith Louisa Cavell was a Christian woman whose behaviour can only be explained by the fact that God exists. I am sure she thought she was nothing special and probably would have felt embarrassed by the State Funeral she was accorded.
Let her epitaph be her own words:
“I am thankful to have had these 10 weeks of quiet to get ready. Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.
God help me to have that kind of love.