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.