Sunday, November 6, 2011

Demons, Coffee and Cheesecake.

In 1987 I was a young associate pastor at Saint Francis church in Bakersfield, California. One night, around 2 AM I received a disturbing phone call. It turned out to be the first in a series of such phone calls, all in the middle of the night.

The caller was not some abusive person; rather he was a Vietnam veteran suffering from extremely disturbing nightmares. In my extended conversations with him, I listened as he related his experience as an infantryman in Vietnam. “Walking point,” meant that he led his platoon down jungle paths on missions. The guy walking point was the person most likely to get killed, maimed, or seriously wounded by an enemy attack.

Additionally, he was the person who had to detect and disarm/avoid any traps that might have been set by enemy combatants. These could be ditches filled with hollowed-out, sharpened bamboo filled with human excrement and hidden with foliage. They could be spring traps that would pierce the sides of a person who unwittingly sprung them while walking on the path. They could be an anti-personnel mine that was discreetly buried just beneath the earth on the jungle path.

If you find reading this disturbing, imagine what it would be like to live through this not once, but on a daily basis for years. Imagine what it would be like to see a friend you had shared dinner or a beer with, impaled, shot or blown-up in your immediate presence. Imagine that, its latent effects, and the guilt you’d feel for having survived such an attack, while others were maimed or killed and you will begin to understand the meaning of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

These were some of my thoughts as I officiated at a Memorial Service for Vietnam veteran this morning. His brother had asked that I refrain from making the Service overly religious. “We don’t want to come off like hypocrites,” he said. John (not the deceased’s real name) was not very religious. I smiled when he shared that sentiment with me, because I have heard something similar on innumerable occasions. “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Nevertheless the deceased’s niece, who helped plan the Service, asked that I include some prayers and a reflection. I selected a passage from the First Epistle of St. John, Chapter 4, and Verse 16, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” Those words are etched in my mind and heart, because they were written in illuminated gold leaf behind the high altar at my childhood parish church. As a child, that was my definition of true religion.

I added a commentary ascribed to Saint Francis instructing Franciscans, “Teach the Gospel always, use words when necessary.” The heart of authentic spirituality is love. A love expressed concretely and practically to those we encounter on life’s journey.

The deceased had lived through hell on earth. He had ample cause to become embittered and to close in on himself. It would have been completely understandable if he had developed into a closed and sullen person. Instead, he chose to be a loving uncle and to reach out to those in his retirement home. He chose to love and not become consumed with hate. Yet, he did not consider himself a “religious” person. Maybe not, but perhaps that is due to a distorted understanding of “religion.”

It seems that in contemporary America, and certainly in the political campaigns we are currently suffering, religion has become a code word not for loving; but rather, for judging/controlling thy neighbor. Has this seeped into the ranks of the clergy too? I would argue that it has seeped from the ranks of the clergy. A critical read of the Passion account in the Gospel leaves little doubt as to who were the prime movers in visiting evil upon on an innocent man, or upon the prophets who preceded him. Titles and garb may have changed, but motives of power, vanity and greed remain firmly unchanged.

At the luncheon reception following the Memorial Service, an open microphone was offered to anyone who wished to share personal reflections. One gruff bear like man came up wearing a Vietnam veteran’s baseball cap. He picked up the microphone and said, “John wrestled with his share of demons, but I have never met a more loving and generous man, and that’s all I have to say.” I smiled quietly over my cup of coffee and half eaten cheesecake.

On the drive home, I thought about priests with whom I have been privileged to serve over the decades. I recalled one priest who decided to leave active ministry about ten years ago. He decided to return after a year away. When asked by the Vicar General (the #2 man under the bishop) why he had decided to return to active ministry, the returning priest said, “Finances.” The Vicar General looked down briefly, nodded and told him that he would be given a new assignment.

At the Personnel Board Meeting (the priests who advise the bishop on assignment placements), one priest angrily protested, “He has been off living a carefree life, while we have been struggling with the unjust stigma of pedophilia and now he comes back and we’re going to give him a nice assignment?!” Ironically, the returning priest is a highly introverted person, who has a Victorian view of sex.

When I found out the identity of the Personnel Board Member who had made that statement, I was aghast. That Personnel Board Member was known to go up to San Francisco and pay hustlers for sexual favors. The bishop looked the other way, “there are things a bishop shouldn’t know” he once quipped. The returning priest was given a highly undesirable assignment.

Years later, the Personnel Board Member apologized to the returning priest. He confided that he was gay, but felt that his family would reject him if they knew the truth about him. He had lived in fear, self-loathing and lashed out at gay people as a result. Not for a year, or a decade, but for decades. As you read these words, he is still imprisoned in that living hell.

Like the deceased veteran and the Personnel Board Member, we all have to face demons in life. How we respond, and whom become is entirely our choice. Speaking the truth will set us free from fear, but only practical love will heal and make us whole.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering where does someone at your age but with your theological background and practical experience go from here? It must be a somewhat daunting journey.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your kind solicitude on my behalf. I, like all the other seven billion people on this planet, simply go forward. Life is not as materially comfortable for me as it used to be; however, I am at peace and I satisfied that I am helping others achieve wholeness and peace.

In the Kitchen With Don said...

Father Geoff, thanks for being there. You are a good man and the worlds needs more like you. Had there been more priests like you, there might have been a lot less agnostic ex-Catholics like me. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog, Father. I'll be reading.

*A mostly hetero bear!