Friday, January 29, 2010

Inch by Inch

The date was sometime in september of 2009. The days tend to run together. The dates that we assign in the outside world have very little meaning in SFAS. The days are numbered sequentially starting at 00 and going to the last day of the course. This was the second time I went and this time it was a fourteen day course, and so the only date that had any meaning was the number of the class day. Fourteen days can be an eternity. This was probably day 10 or 11.

It was team week, and actually the first day of team week. Up until now everything had been an individual event, but now we were being tested to see how well we worked on a team. We had rocked our first event, the ammo crate carry, largely because we had a tough, determined captain in the leadership position, and there were a few tough, fast guys on the team who could carry their weight and a little extra. After a short, bitterly cold break to down an MRE (once you stop moving the sweat and dehydration combine with the wind to make you feel like it's about ten degrees out), we were given our next task. This was a bit more complicated than the last one. Given some tires, some pipes, a rope, some webbing and a 55 gallon drum full of water, we had to move ourselves and all equipment along a designated route in a specified time. The time started as soon as we touched the equipment.

From the very first it was rough going. Everyone had an idea how to build the contraption. I had done this event before the first time I went so I already knew some of the worst mistakes. We avoided those, but still, it's not an easy thing to build. With time ticking away, we were forced to lash it together somewhat haphazardly, and move out. At first it looked like it might be pretty good. The wheels were too big for the pipe and so they would splay outwards or inwards, work their way off the pipe, or both turn the same way at the same time and steer the whole thing off the road, but as long as we kept some guys running alongside and kicking the tires back into place, they seemed to roll like they were meant to. That is, until we went down the first hill, and splashed into a creek. It was nearly two feet of water, and the tires slipped in different directions. All the lashings were soaked and began to stretch and loosen. After that it was miserable. We had to haul the thing up out of the water by main strength, and try to fix it as best we could. Time was still ticking, and it soon became apparent that we weren't going to make it. As soon as the time hack was up the Cadre was going to take over, and there were horror stories about what they would do. We had heard of teams who had been made to drag everything back to the beginning, take it all apart, rebuild it and start all over again. Others were forced to take it all apart in the road and run relay sprints with it, piece by piece, all the way back to Camp McCall. There was no way this was going to end well for us.

After we got it up out of the water and on the road again, things got worse. Camp McCall is mostly sand, and this route went through some of the thickest of it. We quickly figured out that what we needed was pulling power, so the three biggest guys, myself and two others, moved up into the rope harness. We were the only three guys on the team who broke 200 pounds. One of them had a rigger's belt on, so he turned it around backwards and snapped it to the rope with a carabiner. The other guy and I stepped inside the loop and thus began some of the slowest miles I have ever trudged.

How to convey the misery of that event... I have no words. I'm pretty strong, and the other two guys were pretty strong. The barrel only weighed 440 pounds. But the wheels, and the sand. It was a nightmare. We would roll a few feet, maybe a hundred, and then the wheels would splay again, or we would hit a particularly sandy patch and everything would stop. Myself and the two others would take a deep breath, and lean into it. We would dig in our heels, scrabbling for purchase until we dug through the sand to solid ground, then plant our feet and give a mighty heave. I can deadlift well over four hundred pounds on a bar, and the other two could probably do the same, but we would pull and strain, absolutely stationary, sweat dripping down our foreheads and rolling down our backs, sometimes for as much as a minute, before something would give and the whole blasted piece of junk would slide forward an inch. An Inch! a full minute of the hardest lift I've ever done in my life and all we gained was an inch! And this was the norm for that trip. Our apparatus was a piece of junk, and we were paying for it. One inch at a time, sometimes for hundred meter stretches. Every time we moved an inch, I could feel the uselessness of it all, the abject futility. There are 5280 feet in a mile. That's 63,360 inches. We had, well, I don't even know how many miles. Probably four. Maybe only three. My perceptions were a bit distorted at the time, but three or four miles would have been an average length movement. Every time we hit a spot like that, and every time we gave it everything we had, we moved about 1/200,000th of the distance. I crouch low, dig in my feet, push against the harness for all I'm worth, and nothing changes. At times I can struggle and grunt for what seems like eternity, with no result. There may be times when everything inside just wants to quit. Throw up the hand, say, "Hey, Sar'nt, I voluntarily withdraw from this course." Just one sentence, and then I can drop ruck on the side of the road, drink some water, snack on an MRE, and wait for the truck to come pick me up, while I watch the rest of the team picking up my share of the weight. There is no punishment for quitting Selection. In fact, there is immediate reward. We saw the voluntary withdrawals everyday, and they could shower, do laundry, and sleep whenever they liked, and not only eat hot chow, but eat as much as they wanted. No hazing, no stress, no stone faced cadre watching and watching and watching. They were just waiting for a bus back to Bragg and a plane back to wherever they came from. There is no punishment for quitting. All the punishment is in perseverence, in fighting for that 1/200,000 of the way back to the huts.

And yet, it wasn't useless. That was 1/200,000th closer than we were before. If all you can do is one inch a minute, that's still faster than zero inches per minute. And since I'm writing this, it did end at some point. We even did pretty well, all things considered. Only one team beat us back. A hurricane hit right after we got back to the huts and other teams were still out in it. One team was out in it all night. How did we do so well with such a rotten set up?

I think there is a lot to be said for sheer stubborness. We were legitimately giving it everything we had, as a team and as individuals. No one quit. No one whined. There was almost no arguing, and no disagreement with authority. We simply pulled, because that was what we said we would do. It's one of those things that you can't go through unchanged.

Sometimes God asks us to do things. He asks us to remain pure in an impure world. He asks us to remain hopeful in a despairing world, faithful in an apostate world, and loving in a hateful and indifferent world. It's pulling through the sand, and the devil is quick to point out how long the road stretches ahead. He's cruel like that, pitiless and spiteful. So you just got through one day without (insert besetting sin here). Did you feel how hard that was? How much you had to struggle, just to acheive that? That almost broke you in half, and what did you gain? One day. One lousy day. Tomorrow morning you will wake up and have to do it all over again. There are 365 days in a year, and you may live another 50 years. You do the math. You've taken one step, so what. And beyond that, even that step you've taken is useless. You struggled for nothing. You're going to fall again, it's only a matter of time. You'll slip, you'll fall back, and you'll lose even this ground you've worked so hard to gain. Why are you torturing yourself? No one will blame you. Just let it go. Let it go, and relax. Rest. Be at peace.

At times like these, there is something very fine, I think, in simply gritting the teeth and taking one more step. I may not be able to see the end. I don't even know what the end is. I just know I can take one more step. I know I can say one more prayer. I have to. I promised. There is something very right about taking that step, and saying that prayer, for no other reason than because in better times I promised I would. Maybe there is nothing left now but the decision, no happiness, no peace, no comfort, no glory, no hope, but there is always grace.

I call it Holy Stubbornness.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Story of a Wolf

Deep in a thicket, a wolf lived alone,
Scorning the pack he hunted on his own.
He fought the puma and the bear and stole their kill,
Roaming free, he lived by his own will.
Free and fierce and utterly untamed,
He killed and ate and did all unashamed.
He nothing knew or cared of pity, he stood apart
Exulting in his strength and hardness of heart
And fleet flying paw and earth gripping claw,
That flowed with power behind bone snapping jaw.
All love to him was alien and strange,
Until one day there came a deadly change.

He came upon a meadow and halted at its edge,
A lamb was running there, bounding through the sedge
In the marsh, and clover on the hill.
The wolf's cold heart shuddered and was still.
He watched the lambkin run and leap and prance
With joyous abandon, her young springtime dance.
For the first time he could not slay,
Though he was hungry, nor could he slink away.
He stayed to watch her joy. She spied him there
And danced to his side. Blithely unaware
He was her natural foe, she laid her head
Against his steel gray fur all stained with red.
Then she leapt away and turned with a glance
Most quizzical, inviting him to join her dance.
But he could not dance, his legs were stiff,
And she laughed at him, and pranced as if
He were just too ridiculous and needlessly grim.
Then she laid at his feet to sleep, fearless of him.

He has never left that field, he is wounded to his death.
He guards her now, and will until his dying breath.
Love for her has taken its dreadful toll
His heart drives him on his unending patrol.
Round the field he runs driving off the bear,
And snake and tiger. She is still unaware.
He is driven mad lest harm should come to her by some mischance.
He never lets her out of sight. And he has still not learned to dance.

So it is, and thus will it always be,
Until the Shepherd comes to set them free.

(Jeremiah 11:6-9)

I have been Changed

This one time, in Afghanistan, I made a stupid and potentially fatal mistake. I failed to check up on my driver to make sure he was doing his job. He failed to do his job, and as a consequence, we rolled out on mission one morning without water. It was the middle of June in the Helmand Province, and the temperature broke a hundred before 0900. It's not as hot in Afghanistan as it is in Iraq, in most places, but that is still a dangerous situation. Myself, my driver, and my gunner, we were stuck rolling around all day without water, in a Humvee with no air conditioning, and full body armor. Thankfully there is hardly any humidity to speak of in Helmand.

It wasn't until late afternoon that we got to the dam, where we were stopping to rest and refit, and we were able to restock our water. I will never forget the feeling of ice cold H2O going down my throat into my stomach. My body temperature was significantly elevated, so I could feel myself cooling down from the inside out. You know how if you step out from the warmth into the cold, you can feel the cold slowly penetrating your skin, and stealing warmth from deeper and deeper in your body? Well, it felt like that, only on the inside. Weirdest sensation ever. Absolutely the most delicious drink I've ever had.
It was the sort of experience that leaves its mark. To this day I always carry water with me. I'm not paranoid about it, but I do have a half gallon gatorade bottle full of water with me most of the time. I never go to bed without making sure it is right there, and full. I never leave for work without it. Not paranoid, since I don't take it if I think I'm not going to need it, but being caught without water is a very uncomfortable thing.
Also in Afghanistan, I went through a period of a few months when there were no priests nearby. It was amazing how often I had gotten the sacraments prior to then, just coincidentally happening to be stationed where there was a priest the majority of my time in country. Considering that there were only four Catholic chaplains in RC east at the time, the odds were against me, and yet God brought it about as only He can. So it was with great disappointment and some little surprise that I spent the last three months unable to see a priest. No confession, no Eucharist, just me, my Bible and my rosary.
Oh, and God. Almost forgot about Him.

I like the taste of water. I never really thought about it before, but now, after experiencing real thirst and almost ending my military career from heat injuries, I do notice it, and I like it. I like the taste of hot water. Have you ever drunk hot water on a really cold day? It's an acquired taste, but that is precisely my point. I enjoy something now that I didn't really enjoy before, and yet that something is no different. Water is exactly the same now as it ever was. It hasn't changed. I have been changed.

Why did God allow me to go all that time without the sacraments? Was He abandoning me? No. He was teaching me. I learned in that time of isolation that God is present really, even when not present sacramentally. You truly cannot get away from Him, and His mercy and grace are not limited. I began to appreciate the Presence of God in a way I never had before, because that was all I had. But God's presence hadn't changed. Only I have been changed.

Once I learned to seek out His presence in the ordinary world, and not just in the Church, well, the tour was over, we redeployed, and I went back to daily mass. I brought with me a renewed hunger for the Eucharist and a deeper appreciation that has not left me since. The sacraments are no different now than they were before. They haven't changed. I have been changed.

The Girl at the Gas Station

We can never tell who is catching a glimpse of our story at any given time. It is too wonderful for us. What's even more wonderful is why. Why is God doing this at this time?

Not quite a year ago, while driving from New York to Virginia, I stopped at a gas station in Pennsylvannia somewhere. Pennsylvania has always seemed, to me, kind of like the Wood between the Worlds in "The Magician's Nephew." Nothing really happens there, it's not even really a place, it's just somewhere you have to go through to get from Virginia to New York. In this case, it was a place to stop and get gas.

At this particular gas station, on this particular trip, I ran in the store to grab some snacks, beef jerky, if I remember right, and paid for them at the counter, like most people do. The young woman behind the counter looked to be about twenty or so, perhaps more, and she didn't have a nametag, but for some reason I felt the urge to say to her, "By the way, you have very pretty eyes." So I did.
In my whole life, an absolutely singular occurrence. I'm not given to complimenting random women on their appearance, but for some reason I just felt she needed to hear it, and I think I was right. Her face lit up like the Fourth of July and she said, "Thank-you." I nodded and left. Perhaps it was just that she looked busy and stressed out. Perhaps it was just the fact that I was in an uplifted mood (I was in a somewhat uplifted mood). Perhaps the Holy Spirit was using me as a piece in her story, one of those minor walk-throughs that writers put in that seem gratuitous at first, as if they have no purpose other than detail and artsy-ness, but which, after more careful thought, turn out to be deeply symbolic. Or perhaps He just wanted to see her smile. I would. It was a smile worth seeing.

Why really makes no difference. I was called in that particular moment to speak the truth. She needed to hear the truth, for some reason and in some way that is between her and God alone. I don't remember a thing about her appearance. God willing we'll meet in Heaven because it isn't likely we'll meet again here, and if we did I wouldn't recognize her (I have a horrible memory for faces.) It is enough that I was used, for a second, to do something for her. I don't know what it was. It's her story, not mine, but the Holy Spirit used me to do something good for her, and He knows what it was. That is good enough.

But the Holy Spirit is never satisfied with good enough. He used me, and in return, I have been richly blessed by the encounter. Whenever God uses us, He always gives us more than He takes. My story is richer for having been used to enhance her story, and that is a most beautiful gift of God. It is a hint, if you will. A hint of things to come.