“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” Andrew A Greeley
Three years ago I had an emotional physical and spiritual breakdown as the life and faith that I had known for many years came apart at the seams as I was overcome with the full blown effects of PTSD a bit over four months after my return from Iraq. I should have seen the collapse coming as a vainly struggled to maintain control of my emotions, thoughts and faith. Nothing made sense as I drifted in and out of flashbacks, night terrors and sunk into depression isolated from my faith community which by and large did not understand and other clergy who didn’t seem to care enough to listen.
I tried; I maintained the discipline of praying the Daily Office and reading the Scriptures, I tried to attend church but it was too much. Church with all the people and crowded noisy space with lots of light and sound was too much. I was hyper-vigilant and didn’t feel safe in crowds except at the ballpark where somehow the sight of that magical diamond brought me peace.
June 16th 2008 was the day that the wheels came off. The nightmares, night terrors and flashbacks came together with fires in the Great Dismal Swamp which shrouded the Tidewater in a thick brown haze which looked and smelled like Iraq and a seminar on battlefield trauma. At the end of the day when the seminar was over my unit Medical Officer looked at me and said “Chaplain are you okay?” I replied in a broken voice “no, I’m not.” I briefly explained what I was going through and he asked if I was safe to go home. When I assured him that I thought that I could make it to the next day he agreed to let me leave and saw me the next morning. After his evaluation he set me up to see a Psychologist at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Deployment Health Center.
Looking back he made the right choice. I was very apprehensive as I had never been to a shrink before though I had referred many service members and their families to shrinks when I knew that I was in over my head. I was lucky because I got Dr. Elmer Maggard from Hazard County Kentucky. I soon developed a rapport with him because I knew that he was real. What convinced me was when he asked me “Well there Padre how are you doing with the Big Guy?” I hadn’t expected that question because no ministers, Priests or chaplains had ever broached the subject. I was falling apart and when I brought things up to ministerial colleagues about what I was going through including my assessment of my spiritual life I was ignored. It was like I was radioactive. I simply told Elmer that “I didn’t even know if the Big Guy even cared about me or existed anymore.” He didn’t flinch and he walked with me through the darkness until and after what I call my “Christmas Miracle” in December of 2009.
During that painful and lonely time where I was for all intents an agnostic struggling with faith and even the existence of God it seemed that contact with the Divine was sporadic at best and either came through baseball or the Fr. Andrew Greeley Bishop Blackie Ryan murder mysteries. I had started reading them in Iraq because I was somewhat familiar with Greeley’s writing although I had never read any of the Blackie Ryan series. The first book that I read was The Bishop Goes to the University and others rapidly followed as I rummaged through the giveaway paperbacks in the small MWR library at Al Taqaddum in between missions to the hinterland of Al Anbar Province.
It was the grace and love of God in those books that even in the worst of times gave me a fragment of hope as my life collapsed. I found in Bishop Blackie a kindred though fictional spirit who embodied what I thought the Priesthood should be. In those books I came to understand that the grace of God along with the practical expressions of compassion, mercy and love were much more compelling than pounding people into submission with my rather rich knowledge of theology, philosophy and Church history. I also found that they were necessary for me to be healed.
My recovery of faith came unexpectedly much like how it happens to the characters in the Bishop Blackie mysteries. It came in the middle of giving the last rites to a patient in our Emergency Department at Portsmouth. The man a physician was a veritable saint whose life and faith had touched his community for over 50 years. As I prayed the commendation prayers at the close of the rite following the anointing he breathed his last and it was almost if the cloud of unbelief melted away and the realization that God indeed was a God of love and that Jesus was actually to quote the Gospel exactly what his opponents called him “a friend of sinners.” In that moment it was if I had been reborn.
Now since then my faith has been evolving, not that I have surrendered the faith proclaimed in the Gospel or the Creeds but in the way that faith works itself out in relationship to others. I have to say that it hasn’t been easy and I still have times where I doubt but not like when I was falling apart. I think that the doubt is there to remind me not to become arrogant or exude a toxic triumphalism in my faith or proclamation. I read something that Greeley wrote which perfectly expressed my understanding of Christian witness going back to the persecuted Catholic Church of the Roman Empire. “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good-Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice” or as Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” It is amazing the diverse people, many hurt and wounded by war, abuse or even the Church and its ministers wander into my life at work and here on Padre Steve’s World. It doesn’t matter if they are conservative or liberal, Christian or not they tell me that “you’re different” and “I know that you will listen to me.” These people have become my parish. Greeley said it well “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.”
I used this site to work through many of the things that I struggled with during the process and eventually that ran me afoul of my former Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church which through my Bishop asked me to leave in September 2010 because I was “too liberal.” I knew that it had been coming for some time and had been making preparations and had been working with the local Episcopal diocese but the transition to that church could not be accomplished for at least a year and a half.
I was referred to my present Church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church an Old Catholic denomination by the Episcopal Church which once again seemed to be a miracle. Though small the Church embodies the faithfulness to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith with an inclusiveness and love of God for people that was exactly what I had become during my “dark night of the soul” and rebirth. There are still things that I am working out both in the personal aspects of my faith and how it works itself out in life.
But I do have faith again; faith in Jesus the Christ and the Triune God reveled in Scripture, Tradition and Reason and in the lives of the faithful. This belief is that God is love and is present and active in the world. This love of God is seen in the Sacraments, the Eucharist and in the lives of those dear to us, our families, friends, neighbors and those that we seem to randomly encounter. It is shown in the care of people who will sit with us in our pain and doubt, listen, care and lovingly put their arms around us or hold our hand. It is shown in the faith that others show to us when others are willing to cast us aside, those that see the potential of God’s creation in each of us in a rediscovered love that God is there.
Yes my faith is still evolving but I think that is what Paul meant when he said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:10-12)
Peace and Blessings