This Thursday November 11th, Feast day of St. Martin, patron of soldiers, is also the 103rd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. The violence and tragedy of that war was up until that time unprecedented. It would only be surpassed in horror and death by the mid-20th century wars: Japan’s invasion of China in the mid-30’s and, of course, World War II. To give some perspective, the total amount of war deaths in Vietnam (French, US and Vietnamese combined) was roughly 2 million people. The death toll in WWI was ten times that. The war “officially” commenced when a Serbian nationalist, Gravilo Princip, shot and killed the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie. Princip’s home country, Serbia, lost over 16% of its population (and that is just the low estimate.) Again, to give you some perspective, that would be like the US going to war and suffering 55 million war dead. We often hear about the dark times we are living in and there is some truth to that. Society seems to be getting more cynical, vulgar and superficial by the day. But there is simply no comparison to 100 years ago. In theological terms, it seemed as if the devil had won. In France alone, over 1,200 churches were destroyed.
The 103 year anniversary of the armistice acknowledges a stop to the hostilities — the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War I would not be signed for another two months — but what caused it all in the first place? What was the cause of the War to end all Wars? I could bore you with geopolitical details about treaties, mobilizations, insecure Kaisers, vacillating tsars and the multiple -isms — communism, socialism, anarchism, you-name-it-ism — they were all raging at that time. But none of them completely explain why the world seemed to march into the inferno. Reflecting on all of this, we tend to concentrate on the large scale conflicts. But some will point out quite accurately that many wars don’t happen on such a global scale but happen right in our very own homes. As some of us painfully know, many families have been torn apart by conflicts as destructive to them as anything happening in many countries far away. What causes these wars? Without oversimplifying it, is there some common thread? And where can we find peace?
We are at the time of year when the days are getting shorter and darkness seems to be closing in. But right at that time of year, when the day and it’s light is as short as it’s ever going to be all year, we celebrate the birth of the Light of the World. When we remember Jesus, when societies remember Jesus, when we truly drink in His words, consciously strive to live as He has called us to live, when we make Him the center of our lives, and Sunday the wellspring of our week, things change. The change begins on a small scale, to be sure, but they do have an effect. When we remember our Lord, when we begin praying for those who persecute instead of seeking opportunities to persecute them back then tensions get ratcheted down rather than up. When we remember Jesus, we become more generous and empathetic, perhaps trying to understand others with whom we disagree instead of shouting them down first thing. When we remember our Lord, we work on our own morality before we judge others on theirs and we become holier and more credible to them as a result. Big wars start small, they start right in the human heart.
There is always going to be an element of conflict in the world because some are not interested in Jesus, they are not interested in inviting Him into their hearts. (Sometimes, I think, they simply can’t hear Him. Too many headphones, TVs, and non-stop cable drowning Him out.) But if we truly invite Jesus into our heart — really, if we take this seriously — we will see a change. Our words and actions truly have a direct effect on a global scale. If we see, for example, a coarsening of language in the world and shake our heads in dismay and then think it has nothing to do with our own coarse language we are deluding ourselves. If we get frustrated because politicians don’t talk to each other and yet we don’t communicate with our own spouses or parents or children, we shouldn’t be surprised. If we want to stop the big conflicts in the world, we start with the small ones in our families. Cardinal Mercier once wrote of this “starting small.”
Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, lived in the early part of the 20th century and he was an outspoken eyewitness to the horrors of WW I. Today he is remembered for his courageous protests against the monstrous crimes and barbarities of the German invaders. At Christmas in 1914 he wrote a letter to be read by the priests in every church. It detailed the horrors of the German onslaught. He called the Belgium people to resistance, patriotism, and endurance. He was arrested for his outspokenness. In that letter he wrote, “May human conscience triumph over all sophisms and remain steadfastly faithful to the great precept of St. Ambrose: Honor above everything.”
Cardinal Mercier was a great example of holiness and he shared his secret of holiness, the secret of starting small, he said, “I am going to reveal to you the secret of sanctity and happiness. Every day for five minutes control your imagination and close your eyes to the things of sense and your ears to all the noises of the world, in order to enter into yourself. Then, in the sanctity of your baptized soul (which is the temple of the Holy Spirit), speak to that Divine Spirit, saying to Him: O Holy Spirit, Soul of my soul I adore Thee! Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do; give me Thy order. I promise to submit myself to all that Thou desirest of me and to accept all that Thou permittest to happen to me. Just make me know Thy Will.’ If you do this, your life will flow along happily, serenely, and full of consolation, even in the midst of trial. Grace will be proportioned to the trial, giving you strength to carry it, and you will arrive at the Gate of Paradise laden with merit. This submission to the Holy Spirit is the secret of sanctity.”
When we are filled with the Divine, with the Blessed Trinity, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when our hearts are filled with the divine, peace happens. When it happens small, it very often starts to happen big. If we want peace in the world, let us start by cultivating it right in our own hearts.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley