The Great War for Civilisation and St John Vianney

Today we commemorate two very different things: the centenary of the day Britain found herself at war with Germany — the Great War for Civilisation as it was called, which left 17 million dead — and the feast day of St John Vianney, popularly known as the Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests and a man singularly well-acquainted with the deceptions of sin and the frailty of human nature.

St John Vianney himself had a peculiarly tangled relationship with the military. Although a student for the priesthood, he was drafted into the French army in 1809 because Napoleon was anxious for troops to fight in the Peninsular War. Within two days he was ill in hospital. When sent to rejoin his company at Roannne, he stepped into a church to pray and fell behind the group. The guide he secured led him deep into the mountains where he lived as a deserter for fourteen months until there was an amnesty.

I daresay a psychologist might explain the illness and the falling into some kind of trance in church as an expression of St John Vianney’s deep-seated desire to become a priest and not to fight. One must certainly allow for the fact that the moral and spiritual revulsion St John Vianney felt at the idea of war had profound effects on his mind and body. He became incapable of fighting because of his strong desire not to fight.

A hundred years ago today, this country was deeply divided about war with Germany. There were many ties of blood and friendship between our two nations, and although Kaiser Wilhelm was widely regarded as a crackpot, not everyone was convinced of the duty to defend ‘plucky little Belgium’ with military action. When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, and the terrible carnage began to mount up, the division at home became quite bitter. The forcing of white feathers on those perceived to be cowards because they were not fighting was shameful, but it was a mark of how twisted minds can become under the pressure of war. You must be made to think as I do. Anything else undermines the war effort, and that must be avoided at all costs.

Today, when war is convulsing so much of the world, and the West seems incapable of brokering even a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, let alone encouraging warring nations to make peace, it can be helpful to reflect on the experience of the last hundred years and the number of wars in which we have engaged — at least partly, perhaps even principally — because we believe others should think as we do. We have a tendency to dress our actions up with fine sentiments about liberty and democracy, but who would not admit that we have sometimes deceived ourselves? I am certainly not saying that war is never justified, or that all the wars fought during the past century have been waged on unjust or insufficient grounds, I am merely asking a question that I suspect St John Vianney, and many of those who took part in World War I, asked themselves with great earnestness of spirit: why am I doing this, and is it right? It is a question we must answer as individuals as well as nation states.

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Bro Duncan PBGV Speaks His Mind

Leaving aside the snarky remark one of Them made, to the effect that I don’t have a mind, just two brain cells to deal with the important questions of food and sleep, I think it’s time I gave you my perspective on world events. After all, although I live in a monastery, I’m not ‘cloistered’ in the way most people use that word, and with my senses ever on the alert for prospective food supplies (postman, visitors, etc), I think I can safely say I am well up on what is happening.

It is quite clear that the world is going to the cats. Those who are not slumped in front of television sets watching some ball game called the World Cup are out and about murdering one another. When I asked BigSis what she thought about the Middle East, she looked grave and said from North Africa to Iraq, there is trouble. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting one another and may soon plunge the whole region (and perhaps the West, too) into all-out war. There is a credible report that ISIS has obtained 40Kg of radioactive material that could be made into bombs. If you look further afield, the continent of Africa isn’t doing so well, either. There is a darkness in Nigeria and the Central African Republic that makes people live in fear.

To me, all this is rather strange. I don’t understand why humans can’t live peaceably with one another. I bark at Rusty, a Ginger Tom who visits my place occasionally, but only when he’s outside and I’m inside. If we meet on the path, we give each other a wide berth. I respect him; he respects me. We have learned that it isn’t worth getting into a scrap. Why can’t humans do the same? After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with memory. Humans won’t let go of their history. When I said this to BigSis she said she would want to nuance that statement (a polite way of disagreeing with me, I think: she can be ever so diplomatic when she tries). She said that humans are often reluctant to let go of a particular version of their history, one that validates whatever position they have taken up in the present. So, for example, both Palestinians and Israelis see themselves as victims and, to some extent, have grounds for thinking that. But it’s not the whole truth, and unless or until someone can break the mould and do something far braver than shooting at one another, conflict will continue.

I suppose that may be so. As a small hound, I know I can’t do much except show forgiveness and tolerance in my daily life and put my paws together for others. But doing the little I can is important. Big changes begin with small ones.

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