Category Archives: Pastoral Care

Waiting for First Light at Slaughterhouse Five: PTSD and a Coda to te end of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am checking out of my current command to finish my career attached to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth Virginia. I am struggling. Not feeling appreciated and feeling like a cast off. This isn’t new, shortly after I was promoted to Commander, the newly appointed Deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me like a potted plant while making her rounds of the Generals and Major Commands. As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Slaughterhouse Five “and so it goes.”  My Problems in the Navy Chaplain Corps began when I went public with my struggles with PTSD. Somehow it seems that Chaplains can care for the wounded and those traumatized by war but if we admit that we are wounded we are expendable.

I read General Romeo Dallaire’s latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Struggle with PTSD a couple of years ago. General Dallaire had been the commander of the UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, men and women who were prevented from stopping genocide, and people who have been forever haunted by what they witnessed.

General Dallaire recounts a story of horror that never ended for him, and he details how difficult and traumatic coming home that neither appreciate nor understood what he had been through, including people in the military. I found so much in his story that was analogous to my own and in light of that I am going to begin writing my PTSD memoir.

It will be hard because I will have to write about things that are deeply traumatic and upsetting, especially how I was received and continue to be received by most of my fellow chaplains. Because I came and publicly discussed my issues with PTSD, the shattering of my faith in so many things, my wilderness experience of being an agnostic for two years, and the change in my faith since then, I experienced the rejection of my former church and many of my peers.

To many of my peers and Chaplain Corps superiors I am simply a broken Chaplain; and broken chaplains or for that matter broken ministers have no place and very few people who they can talk with. I remember my old Commodore at EOD Group Two, the late Captain Tom Sitsch ask me bluntly “Where does a chaplain go for help?”My answer to him was “not to other chaplains.” Sadly, he too was going through his own personal PTSD hell and with his life falling apart he committed suicide in January 2014.

General Dallaire recounts a similar experience, as like Chaplains, Generals and other senior leaders have no place to go, they like us are not supposed to break. General Dallaire wrote: “I received little support from my colleagues and peers; I received only a few messages from my sixty or so fellow generals – a couple of phone calls, and an e-mail from one old friend. The others appeared to be in two camps: those who were too busy to get in touch, and those who didn’t know what to say.” But I would also add, that there are those that do not want to know and others who actually turn their backs on men and women whose injury lies inside their brain, as well as some chaplains and ministers who seem to take a certain perverse joy in inflicting pain.

I still struggle with nightmares, night terrors, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. After more than a decade I cannot imagine life without them. Like General Dallaire, I still wait for first light.

So pray for me if you do that, if not send some positive thoughts my direction.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering My Dad on What Would Have Been his 84th Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, just a short article to remember my dad. He would have been 84 years old today had not he been stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease and died in 2010.

I miss him. Although I was the oldest child he was closer to my brother. He was deployed or assigned to posts with much travel and family separations during much of my time in grade school and junior high school I developed a very independent streak. When he retired in 1974 my brother was just turning 8 years old, while I was turning 14. It was a time of a lot of change for the family, and I had grown quite an independent streak that I maintain to this day. But my dad loved me, and even as I grew away from he he continued to love me. From him I learned integrity, honor, courage, and the respect for others.

I am sure that my brother Jeff, absorbed and learned much more from him from the fact that despite being almost six years younger than me, he has always been more mature. My parents used to say that he was 8 going on 40. He is serious, dedicated to work and family, and practical. He has not moved from the city that my dad retired in, and still lives under a mile from my mom. His oldest son just graduated from Marine Corps Basic Training. His middle son is starting college while working for the school district that we both attended and in which he now serves as a principle. His youngest daughter is a junior and from all I know about her is academically brilliant and athletic.

On the other hand, I am a dreamer, afflicted with wanderlust and military glory. It wasn’t the intentional product of how my parents raised me, it was just how I absorbed the life and culture that I grew up.

Within months of my dad’s retirement I was about ready to go to high school, then college. When I got my commission as an Army Second Lieutenant in June of 1983, my dad and brother, as well as my soon to be wife Judy were there. My dad got to see me make the transition from the Army to the Navy in 1999, something he was very proud of, and in 2006, before I went to Iraq and while visiting injured Marines at a burn unit in Fresno, dad and mom met me. I was a Navy Chaplain in a Marine Corps uniform, but my dad was proud. I didn’t know it at the time but he was already to be suffering from the initial effects of Alzheimer’s. By the time I returned from Iraq in 2008, he was struggling. By 2009, he hardly know me. I got word of his death the morning after I had been selected for promotion to Commander, June 23rd 2010.

He received a full military funeral with honors. His funeral was officiated by a Navy Chaplain and friend. He had an honor guard of officers and Chief Petty Officers, and an Air Force honor guard fired a 21 gun salute as a Navy Bugler played taps. My mother was given the flag by a Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer.

My dad didn’t take shit from anyone and didn’t stand aside when others were ill treated by the Navy. He demonstrated the current Navy ethos of Courage, honor, and commitment well before it became our motto, but he taught me about it in real life. We had a rocky relationship at many points in our lives, but I miss him and I am proud of him. In his latter days he also showed a tremendous love and appreciation for Judy.

I miss him terribly and wish that he would have been alive to see me retire from the Navy next Spring. At the same time I know that he will be with me in spirit.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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A Klassiker Drubbing, A Wedding, and a Reunion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was a good day. I was able to do a limited amount of work to help Judy around the house last night and today as we get ready for her second knee replacement surgery Friday, and I will continue with that tomorrow. It hurts and I have to use a cane to get around, but we are making progress. I have my own appointments for my knees on Monday and Tuesday and submitted my cancellation request for my voluntary retirement on Friday so I can get my knees, hips, and other medical needs fixed before I leave active duty.

I helped Judy to the extent I could today and she allowed me to watch on the ESPN app the progress of the Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund “Klassiker” match since Fox Sports dropped it to their Spanish channel which needs a subscription to view. That pissed me off because Bayern blew out Dortmund in every sense of the meaning of blowout by a score of 5-0. Bayern Striker Robert Lewendowski scored his 200th and 201st Bundesliga goals in the beat down. In which Bayern controlled the ball 59% of the game, had 22 shots, 10 of which were on goal while limiting Dortmund to 4 shots, just one of which was on goal, taking command of the race for the Bundesliga title, leading by a point with a 15 goal differential. The difference between today and the winter break for the Bundesliga when Dortmund had a 9 point lead on the table and had beaten Bayern 3-2 in a thrilling game made Dortmund the team to beat. But since then it has been all Bayern, as die Röten chipped away at Dortmund’s lead battling injuries and questions about their first year coach Niko Kovac and finally took the lead on Dortmund with 6 matches left in the season. If Bayern can finish strong it will be their 7th straight Bundesliga championship, but the first one in years that has had been such a thrilling title chase. It’s not over yet but I think, as I told my NATO German friends back in January, when it is done Bayern will be on top. Of course to understand this you have to be a fan of a team which has big rivals and a tradition of winning. For the record, Bayern has won a total of 70 league, National, European, and international championships or cups. There are not that many other professional sports teams that have such a record of championships. I expect they will add to that this year with another Bundesliga title and probably another German Cup, but I digress…

In other news I had the honor of officiating the marriage of a dear friend and colleague from the Joint Forces Staff College. She is a wonderful woman, brilliant intellect, retired Navy Commander, with a great personality and sense of humor. Over the years she has gone through a lot of hard times, but with grace and dignity. When she asked me to conduct her wedding and to meet her fiancé I was overjoyed. I had never seen her look so happy and to at the same time discover that her fiancé was a gem. It was an honor and joy to marry them this evening.

Likewise, the event was a reunion with a lot of my friends from the Staff College. That was a remarkable time. I have missed them since transferring to Little Creek in April 2017. Today I got around with the help of a cane. Last year I was walking and running 5-15 miles a day 5 days a week and would go to Gettysburg and Antietam and walk up to 20 miles a day with a pack on my back across those hallowed battlefields. My friends there want me to come back when my voluntary retirement is canceled, which it should be.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Did He Know, When Did He Know It? The Question that Now Haunts the Papacy of Pope Francis

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Please do not get me wrong, this is a difficult post to write. Those who know me will understand that this is not an ad hominem attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Though I am not Roman Catholic I have always loved it as our Mother Church and I have been an admirer of Pope Francis since he ascended to the Papacy when Pope Benedict resigned. Likewise I am not a particular admirer of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò nor his faction of the Church, his charges that Pope Francis was of the crimes of Cardinal McCarrack shortly after he was elected Pope seems within the realm of the possible.

Whether it is true or not I do not know, but the Vatican and especially Pope Francis himself must deal with these accusations before they destroy the Church, and left alone to fester without being refuted and disproved that will happen and the results are unimaginable, unless you are a historian. The last two times the Church split, in 1054 and 1517 the results were dreadful, nit just from a religious point of view but from a human perspective.

But the question of what Pope Francis knew and when he knew is is not only a good question, but a necessary question; what did this Pope know and when did he know it?

If I can ask that of a political leader that I despise, I can ask it of a religious leader I respect and admire because I value truth more than sentiment. While I acknowledge that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former top diplomat to the United States, and a conservative reactionary who often seems to be attempting to justify himself against criticism from across the spectrum of the Roman Catholic Church could have less than honorable intentions when he released an 11 page accusatory diatribe against Francis, I cannot simply dismiss his accusations. They are well within the realm of the possible, no matter what his motive.

The fact is every Pope in recent memory has been covering up scandal after scandal to protect their allies, the Roman Catholic Church, like all churches or religious organizations is a political beast and has been since Constantine. However, unlike what was said by Archbishop Viganò, this is not the fault of homosexuals. It is the fault of a secretive culture, absolute monarchy, and rules about celibacy which are not normal. Celibacy has to be a special grace, it is not the normal order. For a man or woman to maintain it is difficult. I know this for a fact because between 1996 and 2013 I spent 10 of 17 years away from my wife due to military deployments, schools and assignments. It was voluntary celibacy to remain true to my marriage vows when it would have been very easy to violate them and keep my reputation clean in the process. I cannot imagine trying to do that for life. Likewise, while it is probably true that some, and maybe even a sizable number of Catholic Catholic clergy are homosexuals, as were some of the offenders listed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, but the problem is bigger than them as was shown in that report.

I knew a Navy Catholic Chaplain who was removed from the service for multiple affairs with married women who were members his Navy Chapel parishes. Most were officer’s wives. He was turned in by a jilted woman who had was shacking up with until he told her to leave his home. She had the good on him and contacted close to 30 other women who corroborated her allegations which she sent to his Bishop as well as the Marine General commanding his unit, who by the way was Catholic.

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He was a sexual predator masquerading as a priest. He, as most predators was sent to a retreat center for such clergy. Unlike others, this man was such a sociopath that the retreat center, run by a world renowned Catholic pastoral care and psychologist sent him back uncured. He was not in the slightest bit repentant. He told me that when his bishop saw the accusations that all he said was “at least it wasn’t little boys” and before he was kicked out of the Navy tried his wiles on one of my neighbors.

The Navy had the courage to throw him out and remove him from service with an Other Than Honorable discharge, an administrative separation that is the equivalent of a Dishonorable Discharge without a trial by Court Martial. However the Church was slow to respond, after he was discharged from the Navy he retained his clerical faculties for many years. He is finally listed as having his faculties suspended and being forbidden to represent himself as a Catholic Priest as of the dates of the initial accusations, but that did not occur for years, during which time he took on a Ph.D. and spoke at many Catholic conferences.

Sadly the culture of the Catholic Priesthood, as well as many other religious vocations across the faith spectrum is attractive to men who want power. They do so in an institution that normalizes such power and for which the protection of offenders is the default setting of Church leaders regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative. In fact they don’t even have to be Roman Catholic. The Bishop who ordained me in a conservative Anglo-Catholic denomination in 1996 was hit with multiple accusations which took down him and the religious community that he had founded. I knew some of the accusers, the Bishop and that community were attempting to be more like the Roman Catholics of a century ago than the current Roman Catholic Church. If you want to know more details sent me an email and I will put you on the trail to discover that this is not just a Roman Catholic problem.

Likewise, this is not simply an American problem, it can be found around the world in the Roman Catholic Church and is bolstered when the Church is also the State religion or the religion of the colonial regimes whose native descendants rule in autocratic fashion. Of course other religious and other Christian denominations have similar issues, but they are not the Roman Catholic Church which for good or bad is so often the face of Christianity at large than it is not.

Regardless of this, there are many faithful priests and bishops who are not criminals and regardless of their sexual orientation have never harmed anyone. I personally know many of them who are disgusted by the power hungry prelates that scorn justice and defend the indefensible. They are men who I have served with in the military and in the civilian world, men who helped Judy and I in our spiritual development. Likewise there are the Nuns who helped and cared for both of us along the course of our life and faith.

That being said, I want the Church to face its demons, and reform. If it does not I am all for the State exercising it’s legal duty to protect citizens by investigating the Church, uncovering the truth, and bringing the guilty wherever possible to justice even if it brings shame to the Church. The same goes for any other church or religious body which allows such crimes to continue and attempts to cover them up.

I read a columnist today who noted two pathways to reform in the Church, that of Saint Francis of Assisi, and that of Martin Luther. As a historian, theologian, and student of both Saint Francis and Martin Luther I think that is a bit simplistic. There are reforms that take place within the Church, like Francis, and those that thrown out and branded as heretics for their dissent like Luther. But even with the Church there are “reforms” that are either progressive or reactionary, defensive or redemptive. There are many examples of all of these movements in Church history, and not just in the Roman Church.

As far as the costs of being a reformer who started in the Church and got thrown out like Martin Luther, I understand that. I got thrown of my former church about this time of year in 2010 for publicly stating my views about favorable views about women’s ordination, homosexuality, and Muslims. Thankfully, I had others who were willing to take me in to continue to serve as a priest, and that my former church was not the state religion. The ironic thing was that the Bishop who threw me out was later thrown out and stripped of his episcopate for attempting to go behind the backs of his fellow bishops to remove the nearly 25 active duty military chaplains to a different denomination. He extremely duplicitous and got his comeuppance.  If you want call it Karma.

But this is reality. If the Catholic Church does not face it the results will be more catastrophic for it than the Protestant Reformation. Wise leaders, and I really do pray that Pope Francis is one of them recognize the trends of history and the necessity to stand for justice and mercy even if it is costly. Truth and integrity matter. If religious leaders and institutions cannot stand for truth and integrity, if they cannot cry out for justice, and if they instead try to protect themselves and project an aura of infallibility, wrapped in historic myth they will only destroy themselves.

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As Luther said to the Emperor, princes, and prelates of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms:

“Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.”
(“Here I stand, I can do no other”)”

If that pisses off Catholics or Protestants, or for that matter members or leaders of any other religion or cult, even the Trump Cult, I am not sorry. Truth is truth, justice demands justice and as much as I admire Pope Francis, the truth must be told. It may not be pretty, and it may for a time seem like a disaster, but it will be the salvation of the Church. The same is true for the leaders of other Christian denominations and non-Christian religious.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Forgiveness Will Not Change the Past, but It Could Change the Future: Dealing with the Aftermath of a Painful Experience

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
As my regular readers know I went through a decidedly difficult time over the past coupled of months. If you are a new reader or have not read the post in which I wrote about this experience let me explain.
In mid-June I substituted for one of my chaplains so that he could have a weekend off. The preached from Second Corinthians chapter five regarding Christian responsibility towards other people and the creation. I discussed how the Trump Administration’s border policies were in opposition to that. I explained that the words used by the President and administration about darker skinned immigrants and refugees was dehumanizing. That the use of terms such as “animals” and ‘infestations” while labeling them all as “rapists” and “criminals” of the worst kind was little different than what others had done in the past. I used a number of historical examples; including the American experiences dealing with the extermination and forced relocation of native American tribes, slavery, Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, and the Nazi treatment of Jews and others deemed “subhuman.” I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others to emphasize that such treatment and demonization was in complete opposition to the teaching of the Gospel and the Christian tradition.
It was probably one of the most powerful and heartfelt sermons that I have ever preached. One of the chapel members present told one of my staff chaplains that it was like “hearing the voice of God thunder from the pulpit.” 
For that I had a member of the congregation try to have me tried by court martial for conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt towards the President of the United States. The man accused me of many things including comparing the President to Adolf Hitler and law enforcement officers to the Nazis. I did no such thing but that is what I was accused of. I was investigated and had to retain an attorney. The investigation confirmed that I had not done what the man said and exonerated me.
Since then I have tried to work through my feelings and emotions and decide what to do. I talked with a number of people and decided that I would need to address the subject before the congregation at a future point.
So I did that today and am pleased to report that my talk with the congregation regarding went well. I was very nervous and fearful going in to the service and during the half hour or so before the service while sequestered in my office I thought that I was going to throw up. 
 
I talked for a little over 8 minutes and humbly explained what happened without any judgment on the man or the congregation. In fact I confessed my fear about even coming before them. I explained that of all the things in my 37 year career that this was the most difficult, including going to combat, getting shot at and dealing with PTSD. I explained that I never expected anything like that. I explained that I had thought that even if someone disagreed with the sermon that they would come to me as is taught in the words of Christ and the writings of the Apostle Paul and not try to have me punished by attempting to have me punished. 
 
I explained that I had worked through my anger but that I was still hurt and that I did not feel safe with the congregation. I invited anyone that wanted to see me either after the service or make a time with me to talk over coffee, lunch, or a beer at a later time. I discussed forgiveness and remarked that even though I had gotten through the anger and forgave my accuser and those who turned their backs on me after that service that the pain remained and that I did not feel safe or that I was fully able to trust them. I also asked forgiveness for anything that I might have said to offend anyone present. I noted that forgiveness will not change the past but could very well change the future. 
Likewise I explained that during my anger I had considered taking revenge on my accuser by suing him in civilian court for libel and defamation of character. But I realized that if I did so that it would not be helpful to anyone. When I was binge watching The Blacklist over the past few weeks I remembered a comment made by Raymond Reddington. He said: “Revenge isn’t a passion. It’s a disease. It eats at your mind and poisons your soul.” 
When I completed my remarks, I exited the pulpit and handed the service back to my Protestant pastor and waited in my office.
 
The response was good, I don’t think that I could have asked for more. A number of people came to me after the service and were very kind. Two of them were men who in their interviews with the investigating officer refuted all of the accusations against me. The response of the people who came to me was quite touching and very encouraging. 
Since I do not know what the man who made the charges looks like I do not know if he was in attendance today. At the end of my talk I announced my plans to retire and that I may not preach again at this chapel, but that the decision was not final. Those who visited with me all told me that they wanted me to continue to preach the truth, all of them said that it was badly needed in our chapel if it were to survive. One elderly couple said that the congregation was dying. I haven’t decided if I will preach again because I am not there yet, but I haven’t ruled it it. 
As far as forgiveness, I do forgive, but it is a process, but it is impossible to forget. Maybe that is one thing that makes us human. The memories of such experiences will always be a part of us, and just maybe that is a good thing. That may sound strange because so many people say to “forgive and forget” as if that is part of scripture or a Biblical command. In fact that the phrase is not found anywhere in the Bible. I believe that we should forgive but that because we cannot forget we should remember what was done so that we learn from it and are able to move on and do better ourselves.
So for tonight I thank all of my readers for your kind words, thoughts, and prayers over the past two months.
Until tomorrow.
Peace
Padre Steve+

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Reflections on Holy Week 2018

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow this blog and people who know me know how much I have struggled with faith since returning from Iraq ten years ago, especially during Holy Week. Truthfully it has been one of the most difficult times of the Church year for me, but over the past year I have rediscovered faith, yes I still doubt but I believe a lot more than I have for quite a long time.

Holy Week is over but the Easter Season has just begun. Likewise it will be about another week before I get some real time off after pretty much working every day for the past two weeks. That being said though tired and a bit emotionally worn down from it especially with the sudden death of our Army Deputy Base Commander on Monday night which led to a very full day on Tuesday which also was my 58th birthday, a funeral on Wednesday for one of our long time Catholic parishioners who like my father was a retired Chief Petty Officer who died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, our Ecumenical Good Friday service, various medical appointments, and Chaplain duty supervisor tasks culminating in our oceanfront Easter Sunrise Service at the First Landing monument at Fort Story and ministry afterwards.

Tomorrow will be full getting ready for the memorial service for our Deputy Commander which takes place Tuesday. Wednesday is filled with meetings, Thursday I begin working with children of our German NATO contingent to get them ready for their confirmation in May. I’ll conclude the week with medical appointments for my Sleep Apnea and checking to see how my C-Pap machine is doing.

But all of that being said I emerged from Holy Week doing a lot better than I thought. For the first time in years sensing a certain amount of joy in my faith, a reaffirmation of my priestly vocation; and this despite all injustices I see and threats of war, especially in the threat that I feel that the President poses to the country and the world. Despite the sadness of my Deputy Commander and friend’s death I was comforted by the Orthodox Prayers that I had the opportunity to pray over his body in one last time with him. Part of those prayers from the Trisagion service was a reminder of the promise of Easter in between the reading of the Passion Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday:

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, You trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…”

As I studied for my Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services I was drawn back to the writings of the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann and the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

One of thing Moltmann wrote really struck me in regard to Good Friday. I finished that sermon quoting and then discussing it for a few minutes:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Two quotes, one from Moltmann and the other by Barth really stayed with me for the Sunrise service. Moltmann wrote: “In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgement to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself,” as did these words of Barth:

“What happened on that day (of Easter) became, was and remained the centre around which everything else moves. For everything lasts its time, but the love of God – which was at work and was expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – lasts forever. Because this event took place, there is no reason to despair, and even when we read the newspaper with all its confusing and frightening news, there is every reason to hope.”

For the first time in years I could truly exclaim the Easter Alleluia, that Christ is Risen.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christmas Eve 2017: Light, Life, and Love in Hell, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is late on Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. This morning I preached in my Chapel from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, the same passage I preached on a week or so ago with the German NATO contingent. The story of the incarnation, of God coming in the weakness of a tiny baby who would grow up and be crucified not far from where he was born is of profound importance for my faith, because it is not a pie in the sky promise of prosperity and power, but God who can be present in midst of the human made hell of war.

In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen. In December of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump I began to hedge my bets, but a year later I do believe that it can, and very well may happen again. So in such a world I must try to find hope wherever I can find it, especially as I seen the pattern of a descent into authoritarianism which has been so much a part of 20th Century European history developing in the United States. I worry about that because I can see nothing good coming of it, and notice friends, including Christian clergy openly advocating against the safeguards, the checks and balances put forth in our Constitution and laws to ensure that the President has unchecked power; and that means the power to plunge the nation into war.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

drkrop

As the brutal siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

I praying for an end to war and likewise that the United States will not fall victim to a lawless authoritarian leader who seems intent on stoking the fires of more wars.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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