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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

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In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Faith and Doubt

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Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without an element of despair even in thie consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” Miguel de Unanumo

The idea of God, any God is a wonderful idea. In fact when I read about the numbers of people in the United States who when polled say they they “believe in God,” or “believe the Bible” or claim to be Christian when answering poll questions I am always amazed. I say this because I am beginning to believe that what is being affirmed is not a belief in God, which presupposes all of the problems inherent in any real relationship.

If we truly believe in a personal God, or to use the Evangelical terminology to have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” such relationship cannot be reduced to mere intellectual assent or even fervent belief in impersonal dogma or fanatical orthodoxy.

Relationships are inherently messy. They involve risk and vulnerability and they evolve over time. That includes the relationship of the believer to God. The Christian and Jewish scriptures are full of the accounts of people, reckoned according to the various authors of scripture to be been found faithful or righteous by God. Doubts, faith, disappointment and anguish are shown to go both ways in the relationship of God to his people, individually and collectively. The Bible is actually quite an earthy book when it comes to these relationships. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Jeremiah, Job, David, Peter, Paul and so many others and even God himself according to Scripture are shown to deal with disappointment, doubt and anguish in their relationships with one another.

Likewise there are numerous instances in the Old Testament of God’s stated disappointment and anger with his people, and even regret for delivering them from Egypt and other oppressors. The fact that Moses more than once has to talk God out of destroying the Israelites in the wilderness is evidence enough. But add to this the various times of national apostasy where God is claimed to have given Israel over to her enemies as punishment for rejecting him. Then consider the story of the prophet Hosea who is told to marry a harlot as a symbol of how God feels about his people and you get the point. If we as Christians believe our own Scriptures it is apparent that they record an often volatile relationship between God and his people. They record the story of a God who doubts and often regrets his own choices. I don’t think that I have heard anyone preach on that lately. Maybe God is admitting in this that he too makes mistakes and has doubts but in the end his love and grace prevail over his anger and wrath. I think that should give us some hope and consolation.

Some of the great Christian writers and thinkers echo this. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Paul Tillich correctly noted that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” I think that it is a pity that so many Christians as well as other religious people regard doubt as a sin, weakness or failing, when in fact the entire narrative of God’s people found in the Bible testifies that it is both normal and quite often an element of faith’s triumph.

This has been the case in my own life. I can safely say in my life that when I was a younger Priest and more cocksure about things I would write often fiery polemics mostly condemning the errors of others. I had studied scripture, the Church Fathers, knew the Creeds and Councils, historical and systematic theology, philosophy and was well schooled in history, including Church History. I was even published in a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review. I wrote with a bombastic certitude and since the church that I had been ordained in was going through its own theological conflicts, conflicts which eventually tore that church apart, I was willing to turn my guns on others in the church in defense of the institution.

When I eventually went through my own crisis of faith resulting from my time in Iraq and struggle with PTSD I found that the certitude with which I could enunciate my faith was not enough. As I went through that valley of dark despair in which I could safely say that I wasn’t even sure of the existence of God for nearly two years, years where working as a critical care chaplain in ICUs and dealt with death every day I had to re-discover faith. In my sea of doubt I had to be present with other people, all walking through their own “valley of the shadow of death.”

It was in that time that faith returned and when it did it was not the bombastic faith of one who fervently believed the dogmas of the faith but as one who had experienced the grace of God in that dark valley. Looking back I can see the wisdom of God to allow me this experience. I believe that my previous faith, the faith of a man consumed with such certainty that I felt compelled to attack or counterattack those that did not believe correctly was a compensation for my own doubts. I think that Reinhold Niebuhr made an accurate assessment of that kind of faith when he wrote that frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but doubt.”

I have come to believe that faith is incomplete unless there is a corresponding doubt, because absolute faith is not really faith at all because it can only be faith in an idea, not in a relationship. In fact the late American Existential Psychologist Rollo May noted that the “relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. Relationships be they with people or the Divine are dynamic or they are dead. There is a give an take in any relationship. The accounts in the Christian and Jewish scriptures attest to this time after time.

As I wrote in my previous essay Belief and Unbeliefthat some people substitute an absolute belief in an ‘orthodoxy’ of some movement…and cling to it with unbridled fanaticism,” as a substitute for their lack of belief in either themselves or the God that they cannot see. While this is seen most often among religious people non-believers as well can become fanatical in their commitment to other “orthodoxies” especially political and economic theories that they believe will usher in a new order. Communism, Fascism, Socialism and Capitalism are examples of such ideologies which when embraced with the fervor and certitude of a religious movement rapidly become intolerant of dissent and persecute those who disagree.

Doubt and faith. Belief and unbelief. Eric Hoffer wrote that it is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.” I think that is equally amazing how much doubt is necessary to make real faith possible.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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