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The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

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It is hard to believe because it seems like it was yesterday, but six Years ago tonight I got off a plane, home from Iraq. The final flight on a commercial aircraft going from Philadelphia to Norfolk was crowded, but the people on board were polite to us, both the flight crew and the passengers, but it was like I had returned to a different world. What I entered was the same as it always had been, but I was different.

Guy Sager, an Alsatian who served in the German Army in World War Two wrote at the end of his book 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.” 

About a year after my return, actually on February 16th 2009 I began writing on this site. I began it in large part to express my inner angst and as a means to my own healing as well as to help others. The beginnings came out of my initial therapy with Dr Elmer Maggard, who I sometimes refer as “Elmer the Shrink.” Elmer asked me if I was willing to open up and share my story even though I was still very broken and vulnerable, feeling abandoned by God, the church and most clergy.

At the time I was a practical agnostic. My collapse from PTSD and the moral injuries that I had sustained in Iraq were severe, it was if God had abandoned me, and try as I might nothing worked. In the months before I began writing I had hit bottom. That was then.

The last five years of writing my journey home has been illuminating. As I look back at things that I wrote, surveyed my moods, emotions, intellectual and spiritual development since the beginning of Padre Steve’s World I am reminded of the words to the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ because my life, especially since Iraq has been “a long strange trip.” 

That may seem kind of flippant, but it is true. My journey has been strange and I could not have predicted it back when I got my orders to go to Iraq in May of 2007. I was a volunteer for the mission and what I experienced changed me forever.

I don’t know what the future holds. I was shaken when my Captain Tom Sitsch, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two committed suicide a month ago. I know far too many men and women who have died by their own hand due to the after effects of the trauma they sustained in Iraq Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. What I experience is not unique to me, and that comforts me.

I have been busy this week, between storm recovery, home restoration and catch up at work I have had little time to muse about what the years have been like. I still feel a sense of melancholy as I do every time this year. My difficulty sleeping, nightmares and night terrors still plague me, some nights are better than others but the insomnia that has plagued me since my time in country is still all too real. My anxiety and panic attacks, though diminished still remain.

Faith, which had disappeared has returned, but even that has changed. What I knew to be sure in 2007 is often at best doubt plagued in 2014. For me faith is still often a struggle. Thus I have great empathy for those who do not believe, those who have lost their faith or struggle with doubt, and I cannot condemn them. Sometimes this puts me at odds with other Christians who strongly believe, but who have no tolerance for differences of opinion regarding things which cannot be proven without reference to faith in things that we cannot see. I am okay with that. What I believe about God is more open and less doctrinaire than it was before I left for Iraq. I agree with the late Father Andrew Greeley who wrote:

“I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.”

I am thankful that I have had the chance in a number of venues to share my story. That is a gift that has been given to me and I am thankful for those who at various times have reached out to me, encouraged me and shared their stories of service, faith, struggle, doubt and loss.

In the past five years I walked with and have heard the stories of many people, veterans and their families, both in person and comments made on this site who like me still struggle, with PTSD and moral injury, as well as others who suffer from TBI and other physical injuries. They are comrades. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his book  All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”

In the next week or so I will share some more including my first article, written for my former church while I was still in Iraq around Christmas of 2007.

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Faith, doubt. War, peace. Madness, sanity. Isolation, community, loss and gain. So much still to learn, explore and experience despite everything that has happened. It has been a long strange trip and I expect that the long strange trip will continue. T. E. Lawrence wrote to a friend years after his war in the desert:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That is all for tonight as I have much to ponder as I sit with Judy. Our dogs Molly and Minnie passed out beside us, and I hope that tonight I will sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

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

Muddling Through PTSD Recovery: A Chaplain’s Story of Return from War

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“Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again” Counselor Troi to Captain Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation after his encounter with the Borg.

Coming home from war can be harder than going. At least it was for me. I have always been a hard charger. When I was at war in Iraq I was at the top of my game but when I came back I was broken. I experienced things there that changed me forever and it has taken a long time to find myself again.

I came home with chronic, severe PTSD, anxiety and depression. I suffer severe Tinnitus and pathetic speech comprehension. The ringing in my ears is non-stop and in any kind of group setting or conference I struggle to understand what is going on even though my hearing loss measured in decibels is minimal. The loss is neurological and when tested I measured in the third percentile of people, meaning that 97% of people understand speech better than me.

I still suffer from chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares and night terrors. I still struggle with agoraphobia, hyper-vigilance and occasional road rage. Thankfully none of them are as bad as they used to be but they are ever present. I have had my ups and downs with prescription medications that were used by my doctors to manage my PTSD symptoms and sleep disorders.  For a while drank too much just to help me make it through the nights. I am told that this is common for many who return from war.

When I came home I felt abandoned, especially by church leaders and many chaplains, many who I had thought were my friends. That is understandable as I was radioactive.  My faith had collapsed and for two years I was an agnostic desperately hoping to find God. As such I have a certain bond with those that struggle with God or even those that do not believe. This makes a lot of religious people uncomfortable, especially ministers. I think the reason for this is that is scares the hell out of people to think that they too might have a crisis of faith because they too have doubts. 

The first person who asked me about how I was doing spiritually was not anyone from my church or a chaplain, but rather my first shrink, Elmer Maggard. When faith returned around Christmas 2009 it was different and so was I. I tried to express it and began to write about it. For my openness I got in trouble with my old denomination and asked to leave because I was “too liberal.” Thankfully a bishop from the Episcopal Church who knew me recommend that I seek out Bishop Diana Dale of the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. Thanks to that I have a loving new denomination and since we do not have a local parish of the ACOC I have found  St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Virginia as a place of refuge. It is the historically African American parish in the area and I love the people there. They helped me when I was in my deepest times of struggle. 

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My struggle was really hard on my wife Judy. Before I deployed I was the strong one. Afterward my contribution to our marriage was minimal and I was often a complete ass. I was in survival mode and and barely making it. I couldn’t reach out to her, I was collapsing on myself and she felt it as rejection. Our marriage suffered terribly and both of us thought that it might not survive. But over the past 18 months or so it has been getting better. I can share with her again and she has become a source of added strength. We enjoy being together again and we recently celebrated our 30th anniversary with many of the friends who helped us make it through the hard times. 

In time I gathered a support network. There are some Chaplains that I can be absolutely honest with, as well as my Command Master Chief, Ed Moreno. Likewise I have friends outside the military, including people I have known for years who still, despite all my flaws care for me. I have found other places of refuge where I have relationships with people, one is Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides Baseball team, another was Grainger Stadium, former home of the Kinston Indians. I have a couple of places as well that are like my real life version of the TV show Cheers

Baseball brings me a great deal of peace, especially when I can go to the ballpark. When I was in dire straits the management of the Tides allowed me to go wander Harbor Park during the off season, just to take it in.  Running on the beach is something that I have come to cherish here in North Carolina, I will miss the easy access that I have here when I return home to Virginia in two weeks. 

Writing on my blog has been good therapy. As an introvert I process information by taking things in. Being constantly around people wears me out. I am good at what I do but it takes a great deal of effort to do it. 

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My unflappable little dog Molly has been a life saver, she insisted on coming to stay with me about halfway through my tour. She helped me recover my humanity and her presence gave me something outside of me to care for and because of that I ended up seeking out people again instead of holing up in my apartment.

My spiritual life still has its ups and downs and I discovered that I am far from perfect, and I hate that sometimes. However, that being said I do feel more connected with God, people and at peace despite my ongoing struggles.

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Picard breaking down

It has not been an easy road, but it has been worth it. I find it interesting that the Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager series help me process many of my feelings, thoughts and emotions. I quoted part of a Next Generation episode at the beginning of this article, one where Captain Picard is recovering from the trauma of being abducted by the Borg. I find the episode compelling on many levels. Part of that episode deals with Picard trying to figure out his life again. After a tumultuous visit with his family he and his older brother engage in a fight, during which he breaks down. Picard’s brother realizing the importance of what was happening said to him “So – my brother is a human being after all. This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You have to learn to live with it…”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Faith and Doubt: A Reflection on Christmas

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

There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Not that that is in any way a bad thing as difficult as it is.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

In the past year I have still had my times of struggle but have also found others that have gone through similar times.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good. I am fortunate. I was talking with my Bishop recently in regard to the struggle that I have had in recovering the disciplines of the spiritual life. Thankfully she does understand and was encouraging. I guess that is why now when I have more compassion for someone when they tell me that they “lost their faith” especially those that have been changed by their experience of war or other trauma. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them because I am quite obviously still figuring it out myself. However as I found sometimes it is not the person with the answers but simply the person that takes time to listen and care that is more important to a person when they struggle, especially for those that before the traumatic event had been strong believers.

I’ll write a bit more about Christmas and faith but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Religion

Introduction to “I Believe please Help Me Believe: The Apostle’s Creed for those Who Struggle with Faith”

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

This is the first of a series of essays on the topic of doubt and faith related to the Apostle’s Creed.  There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

My journey through the words of the Apostle’s Creed will be less of a doctrinal exposition than a pastoral narrative of rediscovering faith. It is my hope and prayer that this feeble and imperfect attempt to experience the Apostle’s Creed will be of help to people.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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