Tag Archives: daily office

The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

“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

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Recovering My Spiritual Disciplines during Advent: Celtic Daily Prayer

A few months after I returned from Iraq my spiritual life fell apart. It felt like God was no longer there. It had been that way for a while but in June of 2008 the frustration and despair of the situation coupled with an emotional collapse had gotten the best of me and I stopped doing the various spiritual disciplines that had been an important part of my life as a Christian and Priest for years. I think the last really meaningful times that I had spent with God had been in Iraq and the sense of disorientation, loss and abandonment that I felt when I could no longer pray the Daily Office.

Now for those that don’t know what the Daily Office is, it is a form of prayer that is structured to included Psalms, Prayers and Scripture readings. There are a number of variants within the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions each with somewhat different emphasis but all similar. I would alternate between those from the Book of Common Prayer and the Catholic Liturgy of the hours. One year I did the Orthodox daily prayers.  I found different things in each that were helpful and version I found a lot that I liked and some things that I didn’t like as much.  The most helpful thing about the Daily Office for me was that it helped build an internal spiritual discipline and order in my life. Contrary to being limiting as some would think it was of great benefit.

However with my internal compass messed up and wondering if God even existed, the mere act of doing what used to bring order and joy to my life became an exercise in futility. I tried different rites to see if it was just me as well as different physical settings to see if something would work. None did and my spiritual crisis continued to grow as I felt estranged from my former church and felt abandoned by God and by some parts of the Navy.  Although I was struggling and people knew it no clergy of any kind asked about my spiritual life, it was my therapist that first asked me “how are you and the Big Guy doing?” I had to admit that I was not doing well with the “Big Guy” and wondered at times if he even existed.

I went through nearly two years of spiritual emptiness with glimmers of hope. Last year in what I describe as my “Christmas Miracle” faith began to return in the midst of the Sacrament of the anointing of the sick in our ER at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.  In that simple act done on call at the in the final moments of a retired Navy doctor and Episcopal layman who had given himself to his church and the community faith returned.  He died as my hand was upon his head praying the final prayers of commendation. His wife said that he was holding on until I got there and a number of ER staff said that they had never seen anything like what happened.  When I left the next day I knew that something was different, I felt hope again and that maybe just maybe that God might very well exist.

This year has been a continuous yet slow time of spiritual growth. The act of prayer returned as did occasional spiritual reading and reflection. I also began to feel the sense of mystery and awe when celebrating or attending a Eucharist.  Now I was still struggling especially to rebuild my spiritual life, but after 2 years of not even knowing if God existed but it was a quantum improvement over being an agnostic.

Since moving to my new job I have been looking to see how to build structure back into my life using the daily office. I looked at the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the hours which I really like as well as the Book of Common Prayer which I had been using most recently but decided to wait until Advent and the new liturgical year to start. During this time one of my Chaplains shared the “Celtic Daily Prayer” of the Northumbria Community with me. I was hesitant to try something new at first but I respect this Chaplain who as an Evangelical Christian uses the Benedictine Daily Office of the Roman Catholic tradition.  One thing that attracted me to this variant of the Daily Office was its Celtic roots. Celtic Saints have played a part in my spiritual journey St Willibald of Eichstadt a Celtic missionary to Germany has the feast day associated with my ordination, his brother Wunibald an Abbott in Germany that of my Baptism, St Rupert of Salzburg my birthday and St Killian of Wurzburg  the Patron Saint of my first duty station as a Priest. I find great comfort and inspiration in the lives of these saints.

He loaned me his copy and over the weekend I began to explore it. Sunday night before going to bed I prayed the Sunday Night office of Compline.  Since the night is still one of my most difficult times when I struggle with insomnia as well as occasional nightmares, disturbing dreams and even on rare occasion night terrors related to my PTSD.  When I prayed this variant of Compline I felt peace descend and this morning I did the Morning Prayer. Of course I was at work and despite the fact that my door was closed it seemed everyone wanted my time. I was thinking, my God I’m trying to actually pray can’t I catch a break? I finally did and I really liked the order for Morning Prayer.  I am going to begin the Evening Prayer tomorrow and try to finish each night with the Office of Compline.   I am hopeful that the renewal that began last Advent in our ER will continue and become a major part of my spiritual renewal. I do like the basic vow of the Northumbria Community which is to live with Availability and Vulnerability
before God and others as one expression of living faithfully in a fragmented world. I have included the Sunday night Compline below.

Sunday – The Ita Compline

Ita, who died in about 570, was abbess of a women’s community in Killeedy, County Limerick in Ireland. She ran a school for boys where she taught: Faith in God with purity of heart; simplicity of life with religion; generosity with love.  Among those schooled by Ita was Brendan, who honoured her as his foster-mother and adviser. The Compline that follows is named after her because of its emphasis on examination of the heart, and the prayers of care and protection for each soul who crosses our path.

If this Compline is being used in a group setting the * notation indicates a change of reader; words in bold are said all together; words in bold italic are said by each person in turn; and + indicates where you might make the sign of the cross.

+ (silently)

The Sacred Three
to save
to shield
to surround
the hearth
the home
this night
and every night.

* Search me, O God, and know my heart.
Test me and know my thoughts.

* See if there is any wicked way in me
and lead me in the way everlasting.

O Father, O Son, O Holy Spirit,
forgive me my sins.
O only-begotten Son of the heavenly Father,
forgive.
O God who is one,
O God who is true,
O God who is first,
O God who is one substance,
O God only mighty,
in three Persons, truly merciful,
forgive.

* O God of life, this night,
O darken not to me Thy light.

* O God of life, this night,
close not Thy gladness to my sight.

* Keep Your people, Lord,
in the arms of Your embrace.
Shelter them under Your wings.

* Be their light in darkness.
Be their hope in distress.
Be their calm in anxiety.

* Be strength in their weakness.

* Be their comfort in pain.

* Be their song in the night.

In peace will I lie down, for it is You, O Lord,
You alone who makes me to rest secure.

* Be it on Your own beloved arm,
O God of grace, that I in peace shall awake.

Be the peace of the Spirit
mine this night.
Be the peace of the Son
mine this night.
Be the peace of the Father
mine this night.
The peace of all peace
be mine this night
+ in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. If you desire to find the Celtic Prayer of the Northumbria Community it can be found at their website: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/pray-the-daily-office

Prayer request. I have been called into the hospital regarding a very sick young man in our ICU. Please pray for him as he is not doing well.

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion