Could I have stopped the war?

March 23, 2009 | 24 comments

A couple weeks ago I was reading Seven Storey Mountain and came across a passage where Thomas Merton talks about the beginning of World War II, and says in passing:

If I had accepted the gift of sanctity that had been put in my hands when I stood by the [baptismal] font in November 1938, what might have happened in the world?

In the context of that section of the book, it’s clear that he was basically asking, Could I have stopped the war? At first I hardly noticed it, thinking of it as a poetic hyperbole to drive home the point that we should all try to be holy. A few pages later, however, that sentence still nagged at me. I went back and re-read it, as well as the paragraph that followed:

People have no idea what one saint can do: for sanctity is stronger than the whole of hell. The saints are full of Christ in the plenitude of His Kingly and Divine power: and they are conscious of it, and give themselves to Him, that He may exercise His power through their smallest and seemingly most insignificant acts, for the salvation of the world.

Those thoughts have continued to nag at me over the past couple of weeks. When I see distressing stories on the news or think of the issues that most disturb me, an inconvenient thought keeps popping into mind: Could I have stopped this?

What I mean, of course, is not that there’s any chance I could have done much at all through my own efforts; it’s a shorthand way of saying, “If I had really died to myself, if I had fully stepped out of the way to let God’s love and strength flow through me like a firehose instead of the feeble drip that the world sees now, what could he have done through me?”

Though it seems unlikely that God would use me to effect worldwide change on a major issue, it’s certainly not impossible. Also, as Amy points out so well, one thing that is certain is that people who truly surrender their lives to God will have a huge impact on the world in some way or another, even if nobody ever knows their names.

Later in the book Merton describes a Russian Catholic woman who moved into the slums of Harlem to help the people there. After observing the amazing things that God had done through her, he writes:

It is a tremendous thing, the economy of the Holy Ghost! When the Spirit of God finds a soul in which He can work, He uses that soul for any number of purposes: opens out before its eyes a hundred new directions, multiplying its works and its opportunities for the apostolate almost beyond belief and certainly far beyond the ordinary strength of a human being.

So could I have prevented any of those horrible things I hear about on the news each night had I been a saint? The weight of my sins starts to feel awfully heavy when I realize that the answer is, “Maybe.”

“If you are what you should be,
you will set your whole world on fire.”
~ St. Catherine of Siena


  1. marie

    You know I don’t know about changing the whole world. I do know that prayer is powerful and often we pray for people about whom we care deeply. My godfather was and self-destructive alcoholic. Prominant in his field, he lost everything. His marriage, his liscence to practice in his field, all his friends. He lived isolated and was bitter.He lived in squalor in what was once a beautiful home on the water.

    We only had a superficail realtionship but I thought there must be some reason that he was my God father. And so I prayed a bold prayer. I went before the Blessed Sacrament and said that if St. Therese could ask that Pranzini be converted before he reached the guillitine then the same could be done for my godfather surely I could know that my godfather was saved.

    He was on his death bed and I prayed with a bold confidence, inspired by St. Therese. Afterall, St. Therese wanted to save souls and so did I.

    Then my godfather died. No longer being close to his family I did not know what had happened at the end. By unusual circumstances it was revealed to me that at the end he requested that Ave Maria be put on the cd player and at the very end he asked for the annointing of the sick.

    What is my point. Be BOLD in prayer. Trust! I am helpless before God, but I need to trust in Him completely. Let us all seek the good, be courageous and lets us be as steadfast and determined in our faith as the Saints! AMEN.

  2. Emily

    That St. Catherine quote is one of my absolutely favorites. I try to live by it, but so often I fall so short. But maybe I am setting my little corner of the world on fire, and I don’t even know it.

  3. Gina

    Interesting post! I needed to hear that right now. Thank you.

  4. Lana

    That is a really great quote from Merton, I’ve never read that before.
    Really good stuff, and yes, very daunting. Whoa.
    It makes me think, again, of that question in your advent post: “do I live like I believe this?”

  5. papermoon

    i get this feeling a lot. nagging is the right word. it’s not even a matter of looking at tragedies or losses or things i decided not to do anything about when i heard about them… it’s literally things like war. i just start thinking about how much i deliberately shut myself off when i know i could surrender… and that’s when you start wondering what just your own heart might have done for the whole equation.


  6. Jess

    This post is the perfect one for me right now! I had an amazing experience a couple weeks ago at RCIA during a short period of Adoration and just sitting there thinking about nothing brought on a cascade of intense realization that what I need to work on is dying to self and taking care of my own family in a very loving way. I wrote a very long blog post about and felt very excited about it but the putting it into action is so much harder than I expected it to be. If I could only sustain that same feeling of passionate joy I had in the church sanctuary when I fall off track.

  7. Sarah

    Hi Jennifer,

    I have been reading your blog for a while now…and that post really spoke to me where I am right now. I don’t know if God is going to do anything big with me, but I want Him to have me to do whatever He wants to with. I’ve been going through a bit of a spiritually dry patch…your post, especially after a conversation I had this afternoon felt like God whispering to me that He’s not finished with me yet.

    So thankyou for blogging and may God bless you and your family!

    Sarah 🙂

  8. Kate

    The Russian woman Merton mentions wouldn’t happen to be Catherine De Heuck Doherty, would it? She is a wonderful example, and I am fascinated at the thought that she and Merton knew each other.

  9. ingridairam

    Auwtsj, interesting post, certainly something for everyone to think about.

  10. truthfinder

    I only know that when I yield completely to the Holy Spirit of God, amazing things happen in my life, but when I fail to yield — they don’t.

  11. Saint Maker

    I love Merton… nice post.

  12. Sarah (JOT)

    Now, I want to re-read Seven Story Mountain. I loved it the first time and knew I would eventually revisit it. Wonderful post.

  13. caite

    Quotes such as that remind me why I so loved Merton..
    And what he says id so true. Look at the example of one tiny, middle aged, Albanian nun and what she accomplished when she listened to what God called her to. Two religious orders founded, to quote Wikipedia, “over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.” Won the Noble Peace Prize…and most importantly, a level of holiness that was apparent to all who met her.
    I am speaking of Mother Teresa of course.

  14. Alyson

    What a powerful entry! Thank you so much. This has moved me deeply.

  15. Christine

    Following one’s call makes things possible one would not even have dared to dreamed about.


  16. Sara Torres

    Hello, my name is Sara Torres, 42, happily married, have two girls (13&4) and a boy (22mos). I'm a full time catholic music minister and love my catholic faith.

    I just read about you in the Register, and I couldn't pass by the opportunity to let you know the joy I felt in my heart by reading your testimony. You give me more REASONS to continue to evangelize, after all, it is our Lord who perfoms the miracles in the hearts of Truth seekers who humble themselves.

    I also like today's blog very very much. I have a passion for our much needed holiness. May the Lord continue to shower you with his Grace and Wisdom. Yours in Christ, Sara Torres

  17. Andrea

    I love the way you wrote about this. I was just reading (and somewhat confused at first by) Ezekiel 22, where God says that He is looking for someone to stand before Him in the gap on behalf of the land–my study Bible explained this by saying that “sometimes it takes only one courageous, righteous person to stop great evil.” In Ezekiel 22 there wasn’t anyone. I will be thinking about that…”Could I have stopped the war?” and the Catherine of Siena quote as well.

  18. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    I want to pray that.
    No dribble.

    Thank you, Jen…

  19. Heather

    This topic is springing up everywhere I look. I think God is waking up His church to their potential to bring His Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. “For I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me…The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20.

    Let’s keep pressing in and believing that God will do through us what He has said He will do: transform people, set captives free, heal the brokenhearted…

  20. Amy

    Great post as usual. I think another way to change things is finding holiness in the mundane things in living. That is how I feel my heart has changed. I was always waiting to get past this time to do something “big.” Then realized maybe right here and right now is the “big” time. Changing how I act towards people everyday everywhere could make a big impact. Thank you for reminding me of this.

  21. Elena

    Sorry, Jen, to use your comments to answer someone else’s question but the Russian woman mentioned by Merton was definitely Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House (located only 20 minutes from my house, yay!).

  22. Tara Sz.

    This post has been following me around all week. Such food for prayer…where am I holding back? What could God do with me if I would only let Him?

    Thank you Jen. This is going to take me through quite a few Rosaries and Holy Hours for sure. I want to be His firehose, too.

  23. Margie

    I just read two amazing autobiographies about real-life saints: If I Perish, by Esther Kim, and The Heavenly Man, by Brother Yu (with help from Paul Hathaway). I have given thought to the same question after reading the books. These Christians were strong enough in their faith to fast or offer their food to others, even when starving and tortured in prison. It’s clear that the Holy Spirit moved mightily across the world by their very actions. It’s much to ponder.

  24. firstcomeslove

    How often I feel the weight of my sin and often wonder how much more God could have done in and through me had I died to my self-love and lived for Him and Him alone. Thanks for the challenging post.


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