“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”
When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.
Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic. What I had believed with absolute certitude before the experience of war was gone.
During that time, particularly when I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. I attempted to have enough faith to help others during their crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley and our staff. It was difficult because at the time I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.
It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied the absolute doctrinal statements as well the as cultural, political and sociological prejudices that I had grown up with.
I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist. As I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light. I discovered that the stories of the men and women that we venerate for their faith were more remarkable because of the doubt and unbelief that are documented in scripture. Some even disputed God and are still considered faithful. The Bible is full of these stories.
So when I hear of religious leaders who proclaim all that they say and allegedly believe as absolute truth I know that they are trying too hard. In essence they made their beliefs an idol that keeps them from facing the reality of the world and the reality of their own hearts. It such cases faith becomes fanaticism. It interjects a sense of self righteousness into all relationships and leads to the worst forms of pride, prejudice and hatred of anything that does not fit in their narrow understanding.
Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”
It took losing my faith to rediscover it and life as I anointed a man in our emergency room in December 2009. I call that my Christmas Miracle. Faith returned to to me, much to my surprise and I believe again. But I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day. And for that I’m grateful. It keeps me humble and has broken down the wall that had insulated me. and I am alive again.
That also gives me a certain joy and appreciation in ministry. Greeley wrote in his last Bishop Blackie mystery:
“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)
I guess that is how I approach ministry now, even outside the church or chapel. As a chaplain many of the people I serve may never darken the door of a church, they like me struggle with faith, belief and unbelief.
Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” That describes me pretty well.