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Faith, Doubt & Sacramental Encounters

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his mystery novel The Archbishop in Andalusia, “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” 

I firmly believe that, and this week I had the opportunity to be present at one of thos sacramental encounters.

People who know me well, and people who have read what I have written on this site for the past six or so years know that I struggle with faith, belief, and doubt. I am a priest, and have been so for nearly twenty years, but faith for me is a constant struggle, and as such, I pray that in my seasons of doubt, and occasional unbelief that I won’t screw things up for others.

Over the past two years my academic duties have been more a part of my life than my priestly duties because of the nature of my assignment at the Staff College. I have a chapel, but attendance is always sparse and if I get more than five people in attendance it feels like a mega-church. I also do some counseling as well as care for students or those on our staff and faculty who need pastoral care, but the bulk of my duties are teaching and writing. This has been good as I spent the five previous years in hospital ministry and before that ten of twelve years doing operational duties and the other two in base chapels and congregations.

My current duties are refreshing, and despite my struggles with faith I attempt to be sensitive to what is going on around me, and the people who I come into contact with. This has been one of those kinds of weeks. We had a friend get ploughed over by an inattentive driver who cut across two lanes of traffic to strike my friend on his Harley. My friend was not at fault but is busted up pretty badly. His recovery will take six months to a year. Judy and I were visiting him on Thursday night and when we were going out on the elevator, it stopped and an older lady with two large bags asked if the elevator was going down. I said yes, held the door and had her come in. Since she was taking bags out I asked if she had family there and if she was going to be taking them home.

She looked up and told me that her husband was dying and had just days to live. I asked if I could carry her bags to her car and she told us what was going on. Her husband, a 30-year Navy veteran, who she had been married to for 46 years, was taken ill just a week prior after coming home from work. She took him to the hospital and after exploratory surgery they were informed that he had cancer throughout his body and just days to live, nothing could be done. It came as a shock as he had not missed a day of work for over ten years, and the illness was the first sign that he was sick.

We walked her to her car and I carried her bags and told her that I was a Navy chaplain. I have few words to describe what happened next. When I said that she was moved to tears, but they were not tears of sadness, she said that God must have meant for us to be on the same elevator. I wonder about such encounter, often, if not most of the time, I believe that what happens to us is not directed by God; but rather chance encounters that we are left to do the best we can in; but I was not going to argue. I realized that many military veterans and their families, especially older ones, are often more appreciative of chaplains than civilian clergy; so I offered to do anything that I could. I took a battered business card from my wallet, scribbled by cell phone number on the back and gave it to her, inviting her to call me any time. Judy and I left her as she went home to clean up and await the arrival of her children before she went back to the hospital.

That night she and her husband weighed on my mind and late last night she called me and asked if I could come by the hospital Saturday or Sunday. I told her that I would be there this morning. I again thought of her and her husband and what I would need, and tried to get some fitful hours of sleep. I got up, and went to the office to pick up my prayer book and hospital stole, made sure I had oil to anoint him and then drove the twenty-miles back across town from the base to the hospital, where I arrived at ten a.m. I knocked, and she greeted me, a social worker from the hospital palliative care was there, as was her son. She greeted me with a hug and introduced me and let me know that her husband had passed away not long before. He lay in the bed and she invited me to sit with her by him.

She then told me of his passing, how she saw the room filled with angels and a golden hue, she asked God to wait to allow her son and his brother to arrive. He hung on and shortly after they arrived she could see and feel the angels taking her husband to heaven. She then spoke of their life, and relationship and all the hopes, dreams and joys that they had experienced over the years, and how she had always been jealous that he had kept his youthful looks while she had obviously aged. She asked if I would pray and then I did so, commending his soul to God. I was reminded of Greeley’s words “We are born with two incurable diseases, life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn’t the end.” The encounter re-impressed those words on me. We all die, but we live in hope that death is not the end.

After a while longer I left and went to visit my friend who is being discharged today, though he will need several more surgeries over the coming weeks an months. We are going to do all that we can for him and his wife to help take up some of the burden, because they, like so many of our friends from the bar at Gordon Biersch are closer to us than any church people that we have known here; and they have been there for us when we needed them.

So now we are about ready to go to a birthday party for another friend. All part of the cycle of life, and perhaps the cycle of God’s grace, love, and presence, even in those times that we do not believe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Believe and Not to Believe, that is the Challenge

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“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.
Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic. What I had believed with absolute certitude before the experience of war was gone.

During that time, particularly when I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. I attempted to have enough faith to help others during their crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley and our staff. It was difficult because at the time I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied the absolute doctrinal statements as well the as cultural, political and sociological prejudices that I had grown up with.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist. As I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light. I discovered that the stories of the men and women that we venerate for their faith were more remarkable because of the doubt and unbelief that are documented in scripture. Some even disputed God and are still considered faithful. The Bible is full of these stories.

So when I hear of religious leaders who proclaim all that they say and allegedly believe as absolute truth I know that they are trying too hard. In essence they made their beliefs an idol that keeps them from facing the reality of the world and the reality of their own hearts. It such cases faith becomes fanaticism. It interjects a sense of self righteousness into all relationships and leads to the worst forms of pride, prejudice and hatred of anything that does not fit in their narrow understanding.

Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

It took losing my faith to rediscover it and life as I anointed a man in our emergency room in December 2009. I call that my Christmas Miracle. Faith returned to to me, much to my surprise and I believe again. But I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day. And for that I’m grateful. It keeps me humble and has broken down the wall that had insulated me. and I am alive again.

That also gives me a certain joy and appreciation in ministry. Greeley wrote in his last Bishop Blackie mystery:

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I guess that is how I approach ministry now, even outside the church or chapel. As a chaplain many of the people I serve may never darken the door of a church, they like me struggle with faith, belief and unbelief.

Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” That describes me pretty well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Memory of Father Andrew Greeley: A Man Who Helped Me Believe Again

Andrew Greeley

“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.”Andrew Greeley 

By the halfway point in my tour in Iraq I was in the midst of a spiritual crisis that I could not comprehend. Nor would I understand the depths that the crisis would reach. However by November 2007 prayer was difficult if not impossible.  As I tried to comprehend the distress that I was in I continued in a downward cycle, only being out with my advisors and our Iraqis helped, but when I returned to base between missions and eventually when I returned home in 2008 I felt alone and began to wonder about the existence of God.

Since I have always been a voracious reader, primarily of history, theology, military history and theory and more difficult subjects subjects such as ethics and philosophy I tried to use that to get through my crisis. My favorite authors included such men as Carl Von Clausewitz and Von Molkte the Elder, Sun Tzu, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, David Galula, Roger Trinquier, Bernard Fall, Alistair Horne and a host of other authors that most normal Americans would never consider reading or do not know even exist. Fiction of any type was low on my list. About the only works of fiction that I had read were those of Tom Clancy and his Jack Ryan novels, W.E.B. Griffin and his Brotherhood of War series and the baseball fiction of W. P. Kinsella such as Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

I had a good number of books with me on the deployment. Some which I had packed for the trip and others which I had sent to me. However by November 2007 it was hard to read anything, much less pray. In between missions to Ramadi and the Syrian border I walked in the paperback lending library. I really didn’t know what I was looking for but I looked through every shelf in the small building. The non-fiction and biography sections were not worth the trouble, anything in them that I was interested in I had already read. So I began to look at fiction. I decided to look for authors that I knew, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth who had written a lot of World War II mystery and spy novels including Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed, Forsyth’s The Odessa File as well as Anton Myrer’s classic Once and Eagle.

The books were arranged alphabetically by author. Between Forsyth and Higgins there was the letter “G” and a number of books by one Andrew Greeley. I knew Greeley, at least I thought that I did. He was to be distrusted because he was a rather “liberal” Catholic Priest, sociologist and columnist for the Chicago Times. So I had been taught. However, I picked up a couple of the books, Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries, The Bishop Goes to the University and The Beggar Girl of St Germain. 

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In spite of my inherent prejudice from so many years in conservative churches I decided to take both of them. That night as I prepared for my next mission I started reading The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain. There was a section where Bishop Blackie was talking about a French Priest, very similar to many American televangelists. Quoting the priest, the charismatic Father Jean Claude, Blackie noted:

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”

The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

The words were an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing and strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

I was hooked. I began to read every book by Father Greeley that I could find. Any of the lending libraries that I visited I scoured to shelves to find Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries. When I returned to the Unite States I continued to read them. They were the only spiritual reading that I could manage. My Bible. Prayer Book, and other theological books were too difficult. In Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie I found a kindred spirit and in his books, full of flawed characters, an often corrupt ecclesiastical structure I began to re-discover God. Now I admit that the books were an interim step. It did take an encounter in our Emergency Room at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia when I was the duty Chaplain in December 2009 administering the “last rites” to a dying man that faith much to my surprise returned.

It wasn’t the same faith, or shall I say the same form of faith that returned. It wasn’t a faith of absolute orthodoxy, but rather a faith that still questioned, God and the Church, especially the very culturally American Church that I could find little solace in or honesty, a church consumed with the need to be in political power which derided those not like it. Eventually as I continued to write on this site I began to voice how faith had returned but how it was different. One of those posts in September 2010 got me asked to leave my old denomination. It seemed that I had become in the words of my former Bishop for the Armed Forces “too liberal.”

At first that hurt. It was traumatic, not only was I dealing with PTSD, a crisis in faith and the loss of my father just a couple of months before, but then being cast aside. I knew that it would eventually happen but it was a shock. Thankfully tow things happened. First I was helped to find a denomination in the Old Catholic tradition that was really where I needed to be. Second, those people that were friends in my old denomination remained my friends, including many current leaders in that denomination as well as chaplains. The funny thing was that the man who threw me out was himself removed from his episcopal office for an act of duplicity against his church and his brother bishops that involved every member of the military diocese. That happened barely three months after I was asked to leave. Some friends have speculated that the real reason for my dismissal was that he did not trust me to keep his secret. That I do not know, just that it was speculated by others that knew him and me for many years.

As it was it was a good thing in the long run and through all of it the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, fiction and non-fiction, theological and sociological helped me through the crisis.

Father Greeley died today at the age of 85. For the past five and a half years he had been struggling to recover from a traumatic brain injury incurred when entering a taxi-cab in Chicago in November 2008. The injury curtailed his writing and speaking but he lives on through those writings and in spirit through the many people that he inspired. However, before that happened he was a spokesman for the truth who did not hesitate to critique the church and care for God’s people.

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I am one of those people, like Blackie Ryan a “miscreant Priest” who has learned to believe yet question but most of all realize that the people that I meet in person or those that meet me on this forum are God’s people. That being said I realize that as imperfect and flawed as I am that I might be the only Priest, minister or Chaplain that they ever meet. A quote from Greeley’s last novel, The Archbishop in Andalusia sums up my understanding of ministry, both in the sacraments of the church and the sacrament that we call life.

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I have had ministers like the fictional Bishop Blackie in my life as well as those that did not embody that ethic that he represented. I had someone tell me recently that I was able to relate to anyone of any rank or position. In the military that is a big thing. Too often the higher we go in rank the more detached from lower ranking people we become. Thankfully, I think in large part to my dad, who was a Navy Chief Petty Officer, and my wife Judy, whose dad was a truck driver and who never lets me get too big for my britches have a lot to do with that. I think another part is how we have gone through many difficult times in our life and know what it is like to be on the bottom rung or society and the at times quite unfortunately, the church.

Father Greeley inspired me in many ways since I returned from Iraq and I am forever grateful. In another book “White Smoke” Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia make a speech which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us, the Christian Church, no matter what denominational tradition we claim. Likewise it speaks of what we can become:

“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.

Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”

I have missed Andrew Greeley’s new writings ever since he was injured. However, when I read how many lives that he touched, especially those who struggle with faith or have been hurt by the church I know that the Spirit of God will still use him and that as of today that freed from the bonds of his earthly infirmities that he will keep us in his prayers. That being said, I will always be grateful to Andrew Greeley. When I was despairing of life itself, his writings, particularly the fictional ministry and work of Bishop Blackie Ryan helped me rediscover an authentic faith.

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Greeley and the wonderful characters that he created will continue to help me and I’m sure from the comments I have seen many others. I also know that through them that he and his witness of Jesus will live on.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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