Climbing CarmelMinistry of Presence

June 13, 2012

I thought I was done discerning. After almost a decade of wandering the desert of my vocation journey, I had finally developed the eyes to see what God was showing me and the ears to hear the invitation He had been speaking to my heart. In the Carmelites, I had found my Promised Land. I was so grateful to have finally found my spiritual home; I wasn’t particularly concerned about what I would eventually do as a Carmelite. When the time came for that decision, I figured, God and the Carmelites would lead me to it.

But God wasn’t done with me yet.

Over the years I have gotten pretty good at knowing when God is calling me. That is why it is always startling to me to realize how cunning I have become at turning the other way, even when I think I am saying yes. Back in November, I saw a program on TV about veterans returning home with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and struggling to re-connect with their families as they tried to manage the mental and physical disabilities of what the program called the “invisible wounds of war”. I remember how deeply affected I was as I watched these veterans try every means available to them to get the help they needed: therapy, medication, meditation, even shamanic ritual. I remember saying out loud to my sister-in-law, “If I was a priest, I would like to minister to them.” Soon after, I looked the other way and forgot all about what I had seen and what I had said.

About a month ago, my office hired an Army veteran, who served in Afghanistan and is currently in the Reserves. He sits across the aisle from me and we talk every day. A few weeks ago, he saw the Carmelite shield I keep on my computer desktop and made the comment that he recognized it from when his mother would take him and his seven other siblings to visit the Carmelite nuns in Eugene, Oregon. We started to talk about our faith and he admitted that while he was serving in Afghanistan, he attended Mass once in a while when it was available but fell away from the Church pretty soon after he entered the service. This time I did not turn away from God’s invitation. I started to research Army chaplaincy as a ministry if I ever become a Carmelite priest. I decided to walk into a new place in the desert and see what God wants me to learn there.

Mass at a forward operating base in Afghanistan

Although Catholics make up 20% of the military, the largest single religious denomination, only 8% of military chaplains are Catholic, and the number of Catholic chaplains in the Army has declined by about 46% in the last decade. There are approximately 216 active-duty Catholic chaplains in the Army, who serve about 275,000 Catholic soldiers. This equates to one chaplain for every 1,300 soldiers. There is a saying in the military that chaplains are “chaplains to all, pastors to some”, meaning that chaplains in the military serve everyone, regardless of religious denomination and this is certainly true. For Catholic servicemen and women, however, this means that a majority of the chaplains they encounter on base or on deployment will not be able to hear their confession or consecrate the Eucharist—the very source of Catholic spiritual life. Some soldiers, serving in combat zones or forward operating bases where enemy fire is most likely to occur, may not see a chaplain for months at a time. Isolated on installations or in small rocky enclaves in the mountains of Afghanistan far away from friends, family and anything normal, these soldiers are literally living in the spiritual desert of their lives, in a place and circumstance where God seems a universe away and yet fear and death are so intimately close.

I do not romanticize war or the military. In my heart, I am considering this not because I want to be a patriot or because I subscribe to the politics of this military action or that one. I am considering this because God invited me to come and see the spiritual burden His Church bears in the military and, after seeing what I have seen, I want to stand with those who think they are far from God. I want to bring God to them in the sacraments. I want to bring the spirituality of Carmel to them in my presence as a consecrated Carmelite among them, doing what I can to lead them to prayer, listening to their hearts, sharing their spiritual desert with them, and perhaps, for a few, leading them by their own paths to their own Promised Land.

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