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Remembering Dag Hammarskjöld – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Br. Geoffrey Tristram

On this day, in 1961, there was a plane crash in Central Africa and it took the life of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was an extraordinary man, and in the calendar of the Church we keep him on this day. He is kept as a memorial in the Church firstly because he was a man tirelessly committed to the cause of peace, who was willing to undertake the greatest personal sacrifice on its behalf. In fact, the plane which crashed in Africa was taking him on a very dangerous mission and most of the people in the UN didn’t want him to go, but he was very brave. He was going to negotiate a ceasefire between warring factions in the Congo.

The second reason Dag is remembered and honored in the calendar of the Church is because of what was found in his apartment in New York shortly after his death. It was a manuscript and it was full of journal entries. He wrote in it every day, and there were poems, and they (i.e. the journal entries) covered a period of several decades and revealed a rich, hidden life. No one knew it existed – and no one knew that this was what was going on deep within this man, within his inner life. They revealed a man of deep faith, whose courageous life of self-sacrifice was a direct result of what went on in those times of silence, often very early in the morning – times of passionate (prayer), sometimes wrestling (with God), sometimes commitment to God.

The manuscript is extraordinary.  It consisted of short aphorisms and reflections and represented what he called “my negotiations with myself and with God.” They were, after his death, very soon published under the title, Markings.  It’s a beautiful book and full of very moving writing. Markings proved to be a great surprise to the world because Dag was such a private man and very few of his closest friends had any idea that he had any religious preoccupations.  And yet, it was this hidden life which gave strength and meaning and purpose and direction to his remarkable public life of service.

Dag, I think, would say with St Paul, “My life is hidden with Christ in God.”

But what I find most compelling about this man, Dag Hammarskjöld, and his writings and Markings is that his faith was not … its source was not creedal, let’s say. He didn’t grow up in the church. He didn’t learn his faith through church teachings. He came to faith through profound and honest struggle, struggle with making sense of his public life. He was fully engaged in living life and then struggled – often in the early hours of the morning – to make sense of it; and as he struggled, certain truths came really, I think, directly from inspiration from God.

First of all, he came to believe that there is a God. He writes, “I don’t know who or what put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering but at some moment, I did answer yes.”

Secondly, because of the reality of God, he knew then that his life had a purpose, which was incredibly important for him, as it is for us. He writes, “From the hour that I said yes, I was certain that existence is meaningful.”

Then, thirdly, and this really was the central dynamic of his life, he discovered through wrestling with this “Stranger,” I guess, originally, rather like Jacob with the angel … Through his wrestling with this Supreme Reality in his life, he came to discover that the only authentic way of living life was through service to others. To give his life authenticity and truth and meaning, he had to offer his life back to God and offer it in service of others. He writes, “From the hour I said yes, I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal.”

It’s no accident the gospel appointed for the day is from St. Matthew and those absolutely fundamental but very hard words of Jesus: “Those who want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life or lose it, those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Well, what I find amazing is that we may embrace this through our understanding of the gospel, through the preached message, through years of attending church and slowly coming to faith — but for Dag, it was, as it were, a direct revelation from God and his own struggles.

In many ways … (he was in the early 1960s)… In many ways, you could say he was a sort of patron saint of those today who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which I think is an interesting position to have but I would say those who would say they’re like this, I respect enormously so long as they’re struggling, so long as they’re actually truly seeking. I think this is incredibly encouraging and I would give them Markings as a way forward, not coming from some creedal position but saying in an honest struggle with God and if you’re open to the spirit, how exciting to see what may come of it.

What also draws me to Dag Hammarskjöld is this man came from a very wealthy, eminent Swedish family. His father had been prime minister of Sweden. Dag himself had served in a variety of high ranking government positions before achieving the great honor of Secretary-General of the UN. Outwardly, he appeared the consummate diplomat — suave, charming, part of the elite — yet his personal commitment to a hidden life of prayer and struggle with God drew him, in his very guts, away from the charmed life in New York, to know that for him, the truest life, the most fulfilled life, could only be found in giving it all away in service and self-sacrifice. There, he found peace and an authentic life. He writes, “No life is more satisfactory than one of selfless service. My life in self-surrender has a goal.”

Well, fifty years later in the United States, 2017, these words are perhaps more prophetic and counter-cultural than ever before. We look at our society today, in so many ways a society which bombards us through much disturbing political rhetoric, through the media and advertising, with anything but self-surrender or service to others as something to aspire to. The Rule of our Society describes the concern with individualistic fulfillment and for private security which prevails in our culture — a culture, our Rule says, which “defines human beings primarily as consumers and gives prestige to those who have power.”

Such a glamorous temptation was unable to trap Dag Hammarskjöld because of the power of his hidden life with God, that rock-like commitment every day — it was every day — to spend time in meditation, in prayer, in communion with his God.  And I believe that his witness can help us as we struggle to live an authentic life in this very troubled society of ours, as we struggle to model our lives on the life of Jesus, the call to live our lives in service to others in the midst of a society which more often seems to value self-centeredness, power and personal gain. I commend to you the writings of Dag, Markings, which were beautifully translated by his friend, the English poet W.H. Auden. The pages kind of ring out with the truth that he had discovered through his life with God. He discovered a life beyond anything he could have imagined in his career prospects, a life of selfless service.

Perhaps a couple of questions to ponder in your own life of discipleship: First, do you have a hidden life of prayer and struggle with God? How faithful are you to it? Secondly, how do you respond practically in your own life when you hear those words of Jesus, “if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it”? Dag Hammarskjöld found his life through losing it, through self-surrender and service to others. How might God be inviting you to lose your life?

“I did answer yes to someone and from that hour, I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal.”

Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, whom we remember today. Amen.

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