Trail Marks, Dag Hammarskjöld and the Spirit of Truth

During the Cold War period of the 1950s a unique person was elected Secretary General of the United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld.

A well educated Swedish economist with an aristocratic background, he was elected Secretary General in 1953 not only because he was experienced in Foreign Affairs but also because he was considered a good middle of the road candidate who, coming from neutral Sweden, would so to speak, toe the line.

However everyone, including ultimately Dag Hammarskjöld himself, got much more than they bargained for. For here was someone who was prepared to work for world peace at whatever the cost, including to himself.

In what’s sometimes been termed the Farewell Discourses in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks extraordinary words to 11 of his Apostles on the night before his crucifixion. Jesus knows his death is immanent and the Apostles are about to enter into a completely unknown landscape. He will no longer be physically present with them.

He urges them to keep his commandment of love: ‘those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ (John 14:21). He promises them God will send another Advocate. This word in Greek is Παράκλητον, Paraklēton: literally an Advocate or Intercessor, or a Comforter, or Helper. The paraklēton will enable the Apostles to abide in the Spirit of truth.

Reading a biography about Dag Hammarskjöld and the words in his personal journal published posthumously, we learn of a person who very much risked living in this spirit of truth that Jesus speaks of. Hammarskjöld’s work for the United Nations was not about making decisions behind a desk in New York. He chose to personally negotiate peace deals between world leaders. In 1957 he took the extraordinary step of travelling to China, speaking face to face with Premier (doe-enlye) Zhou Enlai. He sought, and eventually effected the release of US hostages from that nation. On another occasion, he chose to personally meet and speak with each of the leaders from both Israel and Egypt. And so resolved critical differences during the Suez Canal crisis. Such a commitment to and personal involvement in working for world peace however, came at a great cost. In 1960, as Hammarskjöld was being flown over the Congo to mediate in yet another dialogue. This time it was between two Congolese leaders with regards to imperial control over this land. The plane was shot down. Dag Hammarskjöld was alive on impact, but died soon after. Who exactly shot down the plane is still not fully explained today.

Give me a pure heart - that I may see Thee,

A humble heart - that I may hear Thee,

A heart of love - that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith - that I may abide in Thee.

This prayer is from a private diary of Dag Hammarskjöld's. After he’d died the diary was found with a letter describing it as ‘a sort of White Book - concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God.’ It’s called Markings and is a work of variously dated personal meditations and reflections over many years. It shows how one person sought to understand what it means to be alive in this world. What it takes and means to live in the spirit of truth and be a peace maker.

During his lifetime Hammarskjöld used to hike the mountains in the north of Sweden. When a climber passages up an unchartered mountain they make trail marks, a series of stone piles or cairns to mark their progress. These piles of rocks aid climbers on their descent so they should know their way back. The word for these way markers in Swedish is ’Vagmarken,’ translated as markings in English

Reflecting on this prayer:

Give me a pure heart - that I may see Thee,

A humble heart - that I may hear Thee,

A heart of love - that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith - that I may abide in Thee

and the meaning of the word Vagmarken or Markings, has prompted me this week to ask the question: What are the trail marks, the tokens of meaning in my life at this time of COVID-19 that can help me navigate my journey in this terrain? What are those signposts that can direct us home towards God? This new landscape is still very unfamiliar. Where is the comforter, the spirit of truth found? What is written in our White Books - our series of negotiations with God? In other words, what are our markings?

The beauty and value of the Gospels is that they reveal a new truth to each generation, and the different challenges encountered by people throughout history. Theologians, spiritual writers, even Christian diplomats like Dag Hammarskjöld help us unpack this story of Jesus in new ways. Like our Christian prayer tradition over centuries they offer ‘trail marks’ we too can turn to and find advocacy, comfort, and counsel from the spirit. Just as Jesus sent the Paraklēton to those first 11 Apostles, he has sent this same comforter and intercessor to each of us to help us abide in the spirit of truth at this time.