In 1940, the English feared they were going to be overrun by the Germans. They had fought with the Poles and Norwegians, in what amounted to lost causes against the relentless German tanks and planes. And then the French, Belgian and British forces ended up with their back against the English Channel and their troops had to be rescued from Dunkirk, France. Every ferry boat, fishing boat and pleasure craft was pressed into service. From May 26 to June 3, 1940, from the shore and harbor 198,229 British soldiers and 139,997 French soldiers were rescued. This operation was dubbed “the miracle of the little ships.”
The heroic story was immortalized in such movies as Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler and starring Greer Garson, Walter Pigeon and Theresa Wright). The day after the rescue, Prime Minister Winston Churchill growled to the House of Commons his famous speech on June 4, 1940, about defending England by continuing to fight on the beaches, the landing strips, the fields and the streets and the hills (“We shall never surrender”). It inspired the British people to keep going. The “Dunkirk spirit” refers to the ability of the British to rally in the face of great adversity.
I continue to be impressed by “the Greatest Generation,” as newscaster Tom Brokaw calls those who fought in World War II, but especially by the courage of the British homefront. The wonderful PBS series Foyle’s War recounts some of these stories and shows the plucky spirit and bravery of the civilians.
In 1939, the British government created a poster to prepare people for the German invasion, which seemed inevitable. Luckily, it never had to be released. With true British understatement, the poster simply advised, “Keep calm and carry on.”
It astounds me in how many situations this slogan offers wisdom. Right now, I am taking comfort from it as we struggle out of this downturn-recession-depression in which the United States has found itself. The news of fewer jobs, rising unemployment, raised debt ceilings, real-estate stalemate, etc., is still all bad. And our recession is contagious, as the recent G-8 summit showed.
Families face demanding times, dealing with reduced incomes, perhaps with alcoholism or handicapped children. They, too, have to learn how to “Keep calm and carry on.”
We all can rely on the promises of the gospel. Jesus has reassured us that God cares for us like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. “If God is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” the popular hymn goes. It’s hard times that bring out the best in people. It’s fire that refines gold.
I thought about that as I wrote my recent article in St. Anthony Messenger magazine (June article, “Fire: Sparks From the Divine”). I was also thinking about the fire we had in our apartment when I was 10, to which I refer in the article. But for all Catholics, the image of fire also comes up in connection to Pentecost, because Acts says that’s how the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles.
As we build up to this feast on Sunday, let’s keep in mind the many effects of fire. All the adversity we face now will make us stronger, we hope. In fact, that’s the message of a Norwegian mathematician, Piet Hein, who wrote Resistance poetry during the WWII. His “Maxim for Vikings” goes like this:
“Things that don’t actually kill you outright make you stronger.”
That’s true—as long as you keep calm and carry on. In the end, persistence is what matters. The British example tells me we can endure anything.
Featured Photo: “Dunkirk, 1940, Wikipedia, (c) fair use.