Monday of this week was a lousy workout day.

If you have been training for any length of time you know that some days are just lousy workout days. Some days you just can’t train like you usually do. Monday was one of those days. Part of it was my fault. We ate heavily in the early afternoon and then not again the rest of the day, so I was well into the fasted stated by 5:00 AM on Monday. Plus, I had too much simple carbs and alcohol (two drinks, I know, #lightweightheavyweight) on Sunday and was feeling heavy and sluggish.

Part of it was only slightly in my control. We let the girls listen to Celtic Women, and they had been obsessed with two of the songs “The Caelie” and “You’ll be in my heart.” So all my dreams had a Celtic Woman soundtrack in toddler voices. Needless to say my sleep was poor.

Part of it was completely out of my control. The YMCA was closed for some silly reason on Monday, so none of my regular equipment was available to me.

So the workout was weak and I couldn’t hit my regular moves. The video is long, I don’t expect anyone to watch the whole thing, so I’ll sum up:

  • I couldn’t keep a straight arm on the lever pullups, and could only do one rep instead of my usual three per side.
  • I couldn’t push out of the hole on the HSPU.
  • I couldn’t hit more than one weighted (24kg) pistol per side.

This is why it is important to master the basics of calisthenics and have a solid understanding of the progression of every move you are working on. Some days you will be feeling great and may want to hop up a level or two just for fun. Other days you will be feeling lousy and will need to take it back a level or two. Know your progressions, be able to transition up or down based on your body’s needs on the given day.

The one thing you must not do is nothing.

Moving into the stamina phase, my third round was rocky. My pullups were weak, partly because I was tired and partly because rings are just harder. I didn’t have a box to elevate my feet so I subbed out KB OH presses (32kg) for my regular pike pushups, and concentrated on form.

Drop back if you have to, just put in the work. Even if you have to right back to square one (aussie pullups and floor standing pike pushups) you still get in your reps and sets and rounds.

The secret to progress is really very simple. If you practice anything every day, 4 – 6 days per week, for a year or two, you will start to develop a certain proficiency at it. If you keep it up for 10 years, you will be quite good. If you keep it up for 30 years, you will master it.

Since no blog post would be complete without a reference to the spiritual life, let me point out my prayer time that day felt as sluggish and lousy as my workout. Or rather the other way round, since I did my prayers first, as per my custom.

Some days you will feel alive and alert and in tune with God and the Communion of Saints and all people of good will. The light of Eden will flow in your veins. When that happens, recognize it as a gift and take advantage of it. Give in to the call, say the extra prayers, read the extra chapter, spend the extra hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Do not worry about sustainability, just capitalize on the present gift.

More often, I think, you will find your thoughts wandering, your enjoyment sluggish, your insights shallow and halting, and your love pale and stunted. Some days you may not be able to collect yourself for one minute out of the whole hour.

Don’t worry about it. Just put in the work. Keep the discipline, say the prayers, leave the rest in the hand of God.

Calisthenics, when done properly, is a prayer of the body. It is a choice to glorify the God of the Incarnation by disciplining the body He designed and gave me to its maximum strength, beauty and usefulness. Like all relationships (which is what prayer really is) it has its up as downs, its highs and lows. The only thing that really matters is giving it your best, whatever that may be at any given moment, in every moment. If all you can do is one pushup, let it be a perfect pushup. If all you can say is one “Our Father,” let it be with your whole heart.

Even if we have to go all the way back to “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Let us never give up.

Over the last 90 days (ending on Easter) I have been undertaking the Exodus 90 disciplines for the second year. My brother and our friend Ronnie also did it this year. We had a larger group last year, and we met up more frequently. This year it was only us and we did not meet up at all, except for some family hangouts on Sundays.

During Exodus 90 I read a few books on my kindle relating to the alleged visions at Medjugorje, as well as listening to an audible book about the Fatima apparitions. I have also been working intensely on praying the Rosary, and writing down thoughts on how to teach our kids how to say the Rosary.

Finally, I have been fasting in reparation for my sins and the sins of others.

Just as importantly, I have been working in family practice, which brings me face to face with humanity in all its beauty, frailty, joy, stupidity and evil on a daily basis. I will be talking diet and exercise strategies with a 50-year-old pastor one minute, and trying to convince a sixteen-year-old boy that he should not kill himself in the very next appointment. It is a frontline posting in the spiritual war that we are all born into whether we like it or not. Many times over the last few weeks I have remembered the saying of Jesus: “This kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.”

I have learned several things from the experience, probably the most important of which is that I really have a very shallow and superficial relationship with Jesus and with His mother. Being the kind of person who likes to read and think and approach things through the mind, I have been reading and listening to audible books about Mary in the Scriptures, and about Our Lady of Guadalupe. As I said, I have been trying to pray the Rosary, more frequently and fervently.

But I have also come to have a greater appreciation for the importance of the home and family life Kathleen and I are trying to build here. We had some family over for Easter dinner and one of them paid us the compliment of saying we had a “very peaceful home.” There are some who think that is an extra, a privilege, or even an unfair advantage over the thousands, or even millions, who do not have the ability to live in peace and emotional security like our children do. I myself am prone to that thought, to feeling guilty at how well off we are when so many other people are less fortunate.

A few nights ago, it was probably a Thursday or Friday night based on how tired Kathleen and I were, we were trying to put the girls to bed, and they were having none of it. They still had tons of energy. It took an hour to get them even to want to lie still enough to snuggle. Then Ellie was in a clingy mood, and didn’t want to be put in her crib while she was still awake. Time was dragging on, and it was pushing closer and closer to 9:00, with laundry and work preparations still remaining to be done, and the knowledge weighed on me that we would probably be up with a snotty baby at least once, and that the jolt of the alarm was creeping inexorably closer and closer. I impatiently wondered why Ellie needed to be held right then. Why couldn’t she just go to sleep in her crib by herself?

For a brief second a picture flashed into my brain that I had seen on a news story or a facebook blurb or something like that. It was a picture of a little boy, probably two or three years old, who had been brought to a refugee hospital in Aleppo at the height of the civil war. I have seen the “thousand yard stare” many times in my life. I’ve probably worn it at least a couple times. But this picture was the first time I had ever seen it on a child’s face. It was a face that was worn, haggard, with huge eyes, completely catatonic, staring vacantly into nowhere.

I realized that holding our children when they need to be held is not an imposition, or an interruption. It is our most serious business, our most critical mission. Nor is it a privilege, or an unfair advantage for children to grow up valued, loved or emotionally secure, or to be read to at an early age. It is not a privilege, it is their birthright, as it is the birthright of every child ever born, to have a mother and a father who love them, and who model for them what real love is. The tragedy is not that some children get to enjoy a measure of this, but that many children do not.

I saw a little patient today, a sweet little boy with severe developmental delays and physical disabilities. His grandmother remarked in passing that we, the medical providers, had held him longer in the short office visit than his father had in his entire life.

I may not be able to love all the children of the world, but I can certainly love my own. I can offer everything I do from the moment the alarm goes off until the moment my eyes close (for the first time) at night as a sacrifice, as an act of charity and obedience, for all the other children that I cannot reach.

Right now it is Easter week. I am not sure how official it is, but I have been taught to think of Easter week as one long intentional celebration of the Resurrection. That means no fasting or abstaining. Instead, I plan on making pumpernickel bread and having bacon sandwiches on Friday this week, in gratitude for the glorious gift of bacon. This looks forward to the life of the world to come when God will “wipe away every tear from every eye.” It recalls that Jesus has risen, He is truly alive, and that He is with us always even to the end of the world. As He Himself said, “No one can fast when the Bridegroom is present.”

But He also followed that up with, “But someday the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15.)

We exist in the already and the not yet. So for one week out of the year, the week of Easter, we do not fast in celebration of the resurrection. But next week, Adam and Ronnie and I will take up fasting again. We will certainly not be doing all the Exodus 90 disciplines (cold showers are out!) But we all agreed that fasting seemed both the most essential and the most rewarding and we will be maintaining that to some varying extent.

Fasting is not a mental exercise, a spiritual workout. It is not about mind-over-matter or developing “self-discipline,” although it does those things. Fasting is an act of preparation for the Eucharist, first and foremost. It is a way of meditating with our body on “Every word that comes forth from the Mouth of God,” which is the “Word become Flesh, and dwelling among us,” “the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Secondly, fasting is an act of spiritual warfare. It is a defensive action that strengthens us against temptation. It is also an offensive action which, when offered for another, or offered directly to Jesus in union with His own salvific suffering (Colossians 1:24), is a fast acceptable to the Lord, able “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.”

Pray, do penance, go to confession, Celebrate the Eucharist, Love your Family. You will be helping to save the world.

 

Fort_Bragg_SignI have spent a good deal of my life at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It is the home of the Airborne and Special Forces, and I spent a little over two years there in my Q-course days. When I graduated I was fed up with that place. I had spent two years suffering there, what with the heat and the humidity and getting smoked and yelled at and the hardships of Special Forces training. Perhaps it was petty of my, but when I graduated my thought was, “Screw this place! I am done with it. I am never coming back here. Ever!”

I have since proceeded to return to Fort Bragg at least once per year nearly every year since. I do a medic refresher course every other year, of course. But it is also the home of the Special Forces. You want to go to a leadership school? You’re going to Fort Bragg. You want to deploy? You’re going through Fort Bragg. You want to do any cool shooting schools? You’re going to Fort Bragg.

Over time I have lost my hatred of Fort Bragg and eventually I have even come to regard it as a sort of messed up home-away-from-home. A huge part of that reason, both the reason that I stayed sane when I was in the Q-course, and why I don’t mind Bragg nowadays is the Catholic community there.

I have lived on half a dozen different military installations in my life, and I have never seen a Catholic community like St. Michaels in Bragg. The heart and soul of that community is the daily Mass, conducted every day at noon in Pope Chapel (so called because it is on Pope Army Airfield). There is a core crew of about a dozen retirees led by a retired General who attend every single day, but it isn’t only the old people. Every day there are at least a few young active duty folks. There are some single guys and gals who go, there are some married officers and senior enlisted, and often there are wives and children of soldiers there. And there is almost always at least one or two Q-course students.

Why that is the case, I do not know. It has been my experience that while Special Forces has its fair share of avowed atheists and functional atheists, it also has a higher number of truly committed, disciplined men of faith than other parts of the Army. Purely anecdotal, of course, but I can’t help wondering if the stress and danger of the life doesn’t call up a higher level of commitment in some of the men.

I also know that Fort Bragg has been very fortunate in having some extremely dynamic and charismatic Catholic chaplains in the last few years, and in having a couple of civilian priests on staff as well who can provide long term continuity.

Fort Bragg Chapel
The elderly gentleman in the blue plaid shirt is the General, preparing to lead the Chaplet.

Whatever the reason, it remains the thing I look forward to most whenever I am Braggward bound again. It is like coming home to break away at lunch time, make the five or ten minute drive to Pope Chapel and slip into my old pew near the back on the right. If I can get away early enough I can even take advantage of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and daily confessions. It does my heart good to see all the old soldiers and old soldiers’ wives slowly shuffling in. The General always recognizes me and asks how I am and how my family is doing. The Mass is reverent and celebrated with love and devotion. Afterwards they say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy Novena, or the Rosary. I usually can’t stay.

As I was leaving last time the General told me to stay safe and to do my best to keep the bad guys off their backs. I laughed and said I would, but I rather suspect that those old soldiers and their wives are doing more to keep the evil in this world at bay than any deployment ever will.

Recently I had the terrible duty of attending the funeral of a fellow Special Forces solder. He was an acquaintance of mine, we had gone to Thailand together once and done a few drills together, but other than that I didn’t know him very well.

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Funerals like this are the only reason I keep my Army Service Uniform ready at all times.

This is the third time in the last two years I have attended a funeral for a Special Forces soldier. Each time it gets harder. It also seems like each time the soldier is a little bit closer to me.

This one was especially hard because of his family. When I went to pay my respects at the coffin, there he was lying there in his service uniform with all his tabs and ribbons, and amidst all the regalia was a folded piece of paper with childish scrawl on it that said, “I love you Daddy.”

I could barely keep it together the rest of the day.

When I was in the Q-course I naively looked forward to the day when I would graduate and life would be easier. No more forced marches, never-ending testing, constant scrutiny. I looked forward to the time when I would have, in some sense, “made it.” As C. S. Lewis would say, I had not yet learned that usually the reward for doing one good deed is to be given the opportunity to do another, even harder one.

I learned when I got to the team that I had not made it. I was still doing forced marches (this time on skis, not what I expected, but not that bad. In fact, it became kind of fun). The worse problem was that I was still under scrutiny, I was still being tested until I had earned my place on the team. Even that was not a permanent thing. As they say, “You’re only as good as your last f— up.” Whatever reputation I had was not a made thing, but something I had to live up to every day until, eventually, living it became part of my persona, and then my personality. Even then, the job wasn’t easier, it was harder, because more was riding on my performance than ever before. In the Q course if I failed it affected no one but myself. On the team my failure could cost the life of a teammate or an innocent civilian. This was why team life was so much harder than the Q course.

I left active duty because I did not want to be gone nine months out of every year any more. I stayed in the guard because we were starting a family and needed the insurance. These days I live at home with my family and go to school, most of the time. I workout and train continuously because I still need to maintain some readiness, but it is not my full time job anymore, until I get called up. Then it all becomes real again.

The physical hardship is no harder to deal with than it has ever been, even if I don’t recover from injuries as quickly as I used to. Even so, the job is costlier now. I never worried too much about getting killed in combat because that was the job I had set out to do and there was no one who depended on me. Therefore, I never prayed for physical protection for myself in combat or training. I never prayed that my life would be spared, because there was no one relying on me to live. Now there is. I don’t want my daughters to grow up without me, and I don’t want Kathleen to have to try to fill my place and do the job I promised her I would do.

This means that continuing to be Special Forces now calls for real courage and trust. It takes no courage to face IEDs when you don’t particularly care whether you live or die. It takes very little trust to continue doing a job when the consequences for failure only affect yourself.

Now my family rides on my success or failure, my life or death.

There is no way to face that except by trusting in God. I must fix firmly in my mind that He loves Kathleen and Evie and Ellie far more than I ever could. I do not rely on Him to help me take care of them. I accept that I am one part of His providential care for them that spans eternity. I will live to care for them as long as He chooses to use me for that purpose, but even when I am no longer the instrument He wishes to use, that purpose will still hold. He will never abandon them or forsake them.

Again to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Whether He means us to live or to die, Jesus will be our good Lord.”

I pray that this upcoming deployment remains peaceful and that diplomatic solutions can be found for our differences. If there is war, however, I am even willing to pray that I make it out alive, for my family’s sake.

920x920In the wake of yet another shooting of dozens of innocent people, we are once again surrounded by shrill, desperate, angry questions:

“What can be done to save lives? What is wrong with our lawmakers in Washington? Why won’t they take action to stop the violence? Why is it so easy for deranged people to get guns? Why is there no political will to limit the death toll? Why is mental health service so hard to come by in America? Why did no one arrive to stop the murder until it was too late?”

These are important questions, but not the most important one. They are tactical questions, with tactical answers, and they don’t keep me up at night.

During my last mission in Afghanistan an  Afghani man blew up a car loaded with >300 lbs of explosives, with himself in the driver’s seat, in an attempt to kill American soldiers. I remember picking up one of his shoulder blades with part of the arm still attached, a few hundred yards from the crater, and wondering what drives a man to hate so deeply that he will spread himself out across the landscape just on the slightest chance that it might kill an enemy.

That was seven years ago, and I still ask the same question: what drives a man to hate so much that he will go to his death for no higher purpose than to kill as many innocent people as he can before the police or someone else catch him?

Where does such reckless hate come from?

image-adapt-960-high-auschwitz_13a
I did this.

 

Only now I know the answer.

It comes from me.

I am the sinner responsible for that man’s hatred and despair.

This world is all connected on a mystical level, and it is a battlefield. The fortunes of each tiny hidden battle here may influence the outcome of a physical battle separated by all of time and space but united in the mind of God. As Dostoevsky put it, “All are responsible to all for all,” and I have failed in that responsibility.

To put it more explicitly, every act of virtue opens this sorry world up to a little more grace. Every act of vice closes it a little bit more to grace. When I wash dishes, or change a diaper, or get up at the crack of dawn to say my prayers, I am cooperating with the grace of God, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, with the Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I fulfil the hopes of all the Saints and Angels in Heaven, and I form a little spiritual gateway to allow them access to the battlefield.

But I have not often done this. I have spent years of my life living mainly in lust and sloth. I have spent time and energy on filth and vanity in the forms of pornography and video games. I have neglected prayers, and I have prayed neglectfully. I have turned away from people who loved me because I didn’t want to be bothered and been proud of it. I have turned my back on people in need. I have used my words to hurt people with sarcasm and contempt. I have done so many evil things, and worse, I have left so many good things undone, and every one of those sins of commission or omission was a door closed to grace.

In the darkness behind the doors I have slammed shut or refused to open, evil has festered, and it has spread silently through the mystical pathways of our spiritual battlefield, weakening, sapping and corrupting other human souls in ways I will never understand until I see them revealed in purgatory.

That is why I must heed the command of Our Lord, and the constant warning of Our Blessed Mother, and of all the Saints of all our history: I must repent, pray, and do penance.

And it is not enough to do penance for my own sins only. I may not “offer up” some “sacrifice” for the sins of other people far away and think that I have done something quite fine. I have not. Doing penance for the sins of others is not an extra, it is just being honest about my part in those sins. I have not even broken even. I have not even begun to make amends for my own sins.

Only the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and His Mercy poured out upon me can ever do that.

When I heed the call to repentance, to prayer, to penance, I am opening myself up to the Divine Mercy, and allowing it to flow into me and begin the long, painful work of cleansing me and making me whole. It can also overflow me, for I am a very small vessel and the stream of Mercy is infinite, and again flow silently and secretly out through the mystical pathways of this spiritual battlefield, strengthening, healing and making whole other human souls, in ways I will never know until they are revealed in Heaven.

The first step to peace in my heart and in the world is to know myself a sinner, and to fall upon my knees and beg forgiveness. After that comes Mercy.Divine+Mercy+Jesus

 

417bk1a6bfl-_sx306_bo1204203200_The following is from St. Thomas More’s “The Sadness of Christ,” a meditation on the passion and death of Christ which he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting his own trial and eventual martyrdom. The immediate context is his thoughts about the apostles falling asleep in the garden of Gethsemane after Jesus had already asked them to stay awake, and what that means for us, who also have a tendency to fall asleep during our prayers:

“Nevertheless, such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us, in our gross human stupidity, misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we should wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.

Thus we must first pray that we may see the way and with the Church we must say to God, “From blindness of heart, deliver us, O Lord.” And with the prophet we must say, “Teach me to do your will” and “Show me your ways and teach me your paths.” Then we must intensely desire to run after you eagerly, O God, in the odor of your ointments, in the most sweet scent of your Spirit. But if we grow weary along the way (as we almost always do) and lag so far behind that we barely manage to follow at a distance, let us immediately say to God, “Take my right hand” and “Lead me along your path.”

Then if we are so overcome by weariness that we no longer have the heart to go on, if we are so soft and lazy that we are about to stop altogether,  let us beg God to drag us along even as we struggle not to go. Finally, if we resist when He draws us on gently, and are stiff-necked against the will of God, against our own salvation, utterly irrational like horses and mules which have no intellects, we ought to beseech God humbly in the most fitting words of the prophet, “Hold my jaws hard, O God, with bridle and bit when I do not draw near to you.”

But then, since the fondness for prayer is the first of our virtues to go when we are overtaken by sloth, and since we are reluctant to pray for anything (however useful) that we are reluctant to receive, certainly if we have any sense at all we ought to take this weakness into account well in advance, before we fall into such sick and troubled states of mind — we ought, in other words, to pour out to God unceasingly such prayers as I have mentioned, and we should humbly implore Him that, if at some later time we should ask for anything untoward — allured perhaps by the enticements of the flesh or seduced by a longing for worldly things or overthrown by the clever snares of the devils — He may be deaf to such prayers and avert what we pray for, showering upon us instead those things He knows will be good for us, no matter how much we beg Him to take them away. In fact, this is the way we normally act (if we are wise) when we are expecting a fever: we give advance warning to those who are to take care of us in our sickness that even if we are to beg them, they should not give us any of these things which our diseased condition makes us perversely long for, thought they are harmful to our health and only make the disease worse.”

I have been reading this passage over and over, meditating on the combination of dogged faith and hope with cagey realism about his own human frailty, redeemed by his absolute trust in the providence of God working all things out for good, even imprisonment, public disgrace, sickness, false accusations, mock trial and death. This confidence was his, I believe, because he prayed for it. Unfortunately it was not shared by his wife or most of his family, but I sincerely hope they came to understand eventually.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

Every morning I get up and pray. It is a struggle. Almost every day I have to force myself to

st-francis-de-sales-quote-on-a-wandering-heart
Borrowed from https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/9-tips-focus-mass/

get out of bed, make coffee, kneel in front of the crucifix and begin my prayers. I have to force myself to keep my mind on the words, on the presence of Jesus, on what I am doing and who I am doing it with. It isn’t even a matter of keeping my mind there, so much as continually bringing it back.

Over and over again I bring it back, usually with a sigh, to the task at hand, which is usually simply to trust in the Presence of God in the midst of a staticky sort of emptiness.

If this sounds discouraging, it isn’t. I am describing what my prayer life is like at this time in my life, but I am not complaining about it. After all, I have a prayer life. That is a gift. I didn’t always have a prayer life. Millions of people around the world do not have a prayer life. The mere fact that I do pray is a blessing and I am grateful for it.

In fact, that is the big danger, that I will become pleased with myself. I can easily become complacent and lose what intensity I do have. Prayer and training are much the same, in that regard. The hard part is remembering what they are all about, remembering that we are at war.

I saw it all the time in the Army, even when I was on active duty. I even saw it in Special Forces, from time to time. When you are in garrison in peace time, or only pulling occasional easy missions to Thailand or Nepal or Europe, where all you really have to do is train and party with our allies for a few weeks, it is easy to feel like the training doesn’t really matter. Everyone laughs at the crusty old team sergeant who always insists on that one extra run through the shoot house, or dragging out the tourniquets and running some trauma training. Sometimes it takes a funeral to bring it home to you.

We are at war. Training matters because training saves lives. And it isn’t the big, flashy, sexy training events with people jumping out of airplanes into the water and swimming up onto the beach with SCUBA gear. That is good for movies and recruiting videos and making generals feel good about their career choices. The real business of saving lives is the continuous, repetitive daily practice of the same old thing: drawing and firing the pistol; firing the rifle; putting on a tourniquet; whipping together a pressure dressing; running, rucking or lifting; managing vital signs; talking to people who want to kill you, or who just don’t like you; building common ground with ideologues from either side of the fence. These skills are basic, lifesaving, and necessary, and they save lives.

They are also boring.

I have an A-type silhouette on the wall in my garage and a training pistol that fires a laser instead of a bullet when you pull the trigger. Most days, before I leave for school (after morning prayer) I dry fire that or my rifle a few times, practicing my basic stance, presentation, sight picture, and movement, with and without body armor. It takes a couple of minutes to get in a few dozen good quality repetitions. Sometimes I feel like it’s a few minutes I could do without.

I do it because I am a husband and father, and also a soldier, and someday the muscle memory I build a little bit every day may be the difference between me coming home to my family or not. When I find that I am forgetting that, and starting to get lazy with my shooting or at the gym, or in my medical training, I deliberately remind myself.

We are at war.

Prayer is similar, but even more serious. I train for combat a little every day, but when I pray it is not just training. It is the real deal. That is actual spiritual warfare. In the air all around us, all the time, demonic and angelic forces are continuously locked in an epic struggle. The devils and all the powers of darkness and hate are ranged against us humans. All of us. Even our human enemies are less our enemies than our fellow casualties in this cosmic struggle.

Prayer is an act of war, an act of renewing our commitment to being on the side of Jesus and all the Saints and Angels. It is my daily call for orders, and taking my station, asking for protection for my family and friends, and making sure that my supplies and commo and gear are set before I go out into the day. It is also an offensive weapon, a direct strike against the devil.

There is no more important thing I do in any day than my first hour of prayer.

It is life and death.

The only hard part is remembering that.

Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above,   like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.

Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;

let justice also spring up!

Isaiah 45:8

I had an interesting insight this morning during morning prayer as I read this passage. One of the occupational hazards of being human, I suppose, is being distracted in prayer. One of the occupational hazards of being a military man is being distracted by a preoccupation with combat. So I had to pull myself back from mentally designing a rifle and pistol training event that I want to set up, to get back to the Divine Office. And when I came back in to read it, it was this passage from Isaiah.

When I read that, I had the image of myself standing outside of a very large burning building. I had a tin can full of water in my hand and I wanted to put the fire out but all I had was a tiny little tin cup of water. I was ready to throw that little bit of water on the fire solely as a gesture knowing that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. And then water came down from the sky, as a dew, or is a gentle drizzle, and slowly begin soaking the burning timbers until eventually, after a couple of hours the fire was extinguished.

It is an image, and like all images it is a way of suggesting the truth too complex to be apprehended logically, but graspable intuitively.

world_in_fire
Source http://parody.wikia.com/wiki/File:World_in_fire.jpg

Sometimes it seems to me that the world is on fire. Recent events in Berlin, Turkey, and Syria have reminded me, as if I needed any reminding, but the world is a dangerous place, full of hatred and violence. My response to the reality of violence has always been on the one hand to seek peace in my own life, but on the other hand to pursue what I call the Way of Training. By this I mean disciplined, consistent, long-term pursuit of the skills and abilities necessary to confront violence directly. These include, of course, combat skills, but also medical skills. In the simplest terms, not much is changed since I was a little boy and all of my games revolved around stopping the bad guys and healing the good guys. Life is not that simple, but that’s not a bad place to start.

The problem is that it’s so overwhelming sometimes, and we risk being like the me in the image, roaming around burning building, or even a burning city with my little cup of water, unwilling to keep that water to myself and not do my bit, but also not knowing how to spend that water in a way that will actually do some good, and not just be a waste of gesture.

I suppose my tin cup of water is my history of, and familiarity with, the use of force. Perhaps in a broader sense that represents all of the decent, honest, hard-working warriors in the world: military folks and police officers mainly, but a few private citizens in their own right. We all want to stop the burning, and just make the world a safe place for the innocent people, but no matter how many times and how many places we put the bad guys down, more just pop up somewhere else.

It’s important to remember that the use of force, and in fact all human effort but most especially effort centered around military options in the force of arms, are not and never can be final solutions. They are stopgaps. Only and ever stopgaps.

I am not sure that I want to call The grace of God a “final solution,” since that phrase tends to reduce complexity of the fallen world to some sort of Advanced math problem. However, the image of dew, or gentle rain fall, is a hopeful one. The water forms in the air in a million tiny little droplets. Unlike water splashed on from the outside, the rain forms within the heart of the fire. At first it seems like it has no effect because the heat just vaporizers it as it falls. But even the vaporized water goes back up into the clouds, cools again, and falls again. Each time the waterfalls and his vaporized it absorbs a little bit of the heat from the fire, and it burns that much cooler. Eventually, slowly and after an agonizingly long time, The fire is reduced to smoldering ruins. Then eventually even the smoldering embers are reduced to ashes, and the ashes become fertile soil, and something new grows in their place.

How is that hopeful? Am I basically saying not this world is lost and there’s nothing we can do but wait for God to come in and magically make everything all right? No.

I think it is about having a realistic, by which I mean humble, understanding of my own place in this fight. Putting out the fire is not my job. My job is to salvage what I can. Perhaps that means just keeping the walls of one little house damp, so that it doesn’t go up in flames. Perhaps it means putting out one little fire in one little back alley so that somebody can escape to safety. It means that I must be active and resisting the fire but not settle myself but the expectation of putting out the whole burning city myself.

There is one other thing that may be drawn from this image, if I’m not stretching the analogy too far. I only have a little bit of water, and if I splash it on the first conflagration  I come across, it will not put it out and I will be left dry. I don’t think that I need to use it sparingly, but I do need to have a good resupply plan. That is I need to maintain contact with the source of that water.

Nietzsche had a quote to the effect that, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster himself. If you stare too long into the abyss the abyss stares back into you.” It is too easy to get sucked into the pattern of the violence that you’re trying to resist, especially if you lose contact with the source of the water. This is why the heart of all apostolate, is contemplation. The temptation for well-meaning Catholics is often to focus on social justice and charitable action so feverishly that we lose, or let go of, the time for prayer. This may achieve some short-term gain but it never last long, because once you stop praying you are cut off from the source of all water. Being too busy for prayer is like a firefighter being too busy to hook the hose up to the fire hydrant.

Anyway, that’s what came to me during prayer this morning.

The more serious graces in prayer acontemplative-provocationsrrive only after purifications have made forgetting self a steady habit no longer needing arduous effort. But this requires also that outside prayer the sharper edges of self have been sanded down and even crushed. We have to play a part in this, but surely God assumes the primary role. And so the customary pattern of souls undergoing struggles with humiliation and aloneness, facing burdens and demands, and finding new release from trial as they are growing in the deeper life of prayer.

What God asks is that we except the hard truth of actual poverty in itself, the emptiness and everything so apart from him. It is always a certain desperation of need for God the draws his love in a deeper way.

Fr. Donald Haggerty, Contemplative Provocations pg 68.

Self forgetfulness is one of the hardest things I have ever tried to learn. How do you forget yourself? More to the point, how do you know when you have forgotten yourself? Does not the question assume that while undergoing the work of forgetting yourself, you are surreptitiously looking at yourself every five minutes or so to see if you had forgotten yourself? This of course brings you back to square one, and the very fact of that surreptitious glance makes it clear that you have in fact not forgotten yourself. You are still looking at yourself.

I suppose it’s rather like when someone tells you “Don’t think about a purple elephant.” The first thing you think about is a purple elephant. It is very difficult to empty the mind. In most cases it probably isn’t even desirable.  The mind was not designed to be empty.

Instead, in order to get rid of one thought, it is necessary to replace it with another. To get that annoying commercial jingle out of your head, you don’t try not to think about it. You play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, or Handel’s Water Music. The lesser is driven out by the greater, when the greater is attended to with the energy it requires and deserves.

So, I suppose, it is with forgetting of self. The self is like a bad commercial jingle, it won’t go away unless it is replaced by something else. Not nearly replaced, but driven out. I suppose we have all had the experience of getting lost in a novel, or a movie,or some other hobby or work of art.

In the Christian sense, self forgetfulness is what happens when the soul is completely absorbed in God. However, by a paradox, it is also the necessary prerequisite for the soul’s being absorbed in God. This is why works of charity are such a necessary part of the spiritual life, because service of others draws us out of ourselves and causes us to forget ourselves, if only for a moment.

But the truth is that the real work of self forgetfulness is not a work of our own. It is a gift, and a best all our effort is simply a struggle to receive what is freely offered.

*To “Wear your red hat” is a slang term in Army planning for the process of viewing a situation from the point of view of an enemy.

A while back, during some Army training, I had the opportunity to participate in a planning exercise. The scenario was that a small team of Special Forces guys (us) was going to be inserted into a country that had recently suffered a violent coup. We were to link up with the remnants of the legitimate government and begin working to enable them to cooperate with conventional U.S. forces in order to retake their country.

It’s a pretty standard scenario for SF, and has been since our legacy days with the OSS in WWII. That was a large part of the “special” warfare, preparing resistance forces to work with the Allies when they arrived. The details of the scenario don’t really matter, except to note that in our fictional Area of Operations (AO) there was an enemy infantry division of 6,000 troops garrisoned in the capital.

Now, part of the planning process involves looking at the entire situation from the enemy’s perspective and planning what they would do so that we can develop contingencies for our own plans. The official term is “war-gaming” but we often call it “wearing the red hat.” Of course the potential range of activities for the enemy is virtually limitless and it is impossible to foresee and plan for every contingency, so instead, by convention, we limit ourselves to two specific courses of action (COAs). These are the most likely (MLCOA) and most dangerous (MDCOA).

Without getting into all the details, we decided that the MLCOA was for the enemy to keep doing what they were doing in their area, continuing to consolidate their hold on the country, register people, disarm, conduct atrocities and war crimes and maybe launch an occasional small scale anti-guerrilla operation. The MDCOA, we decided, would be for them to take that division sized element, mass all 6000 troops in the various small towns throughout the AO, and conduct huge sweeping search maneuvers all through our territory. We reasoned that this was the most dangerous because it would pin us down and cause us to be surrounded by a vastly superior force, and eventually fixed and destroyed by their superior firepower.

I don’t know about you, but certain death usually counts as “most dangerous” in my book.

That was what we came up with, and that was what we briefed to the senior SF officer who was playing the role of our task force commander. After we had finished explaining that, we ended up contradicting ourselves by saying that our plan was deliberately to trigger that MDCOA to divert the enemy’s attention away from the oncoming friendly forces (and hope that our people could get to us before they did). Then we asked him if he had any feedback.

65076032He did.

“So, your MDCOA. If that is what you guys are trying to do to facilitate the war effort, why do you consider it the most dangerous?”

We reiterated the line about enemy troops massing, fixing, battering us with artillery, etc.

“I get that,” he said. “And yeah, I grant you having 6,000 dudes chasing you through the woods is probably pretty dangerous. But is it dangerous to you or to the mission?”

We were silent.

“I guess what I am saying is, if you can disrupt these guys enough that they feel they have to send in an entire division to hunt you down, some people would consider that a good example of you winning. That is what is going to draw the people to your side. That is what is going to make way for the cavalry to come in guns blazing and clean house. So yeah, you might get killed, but them coming after you isn’t going to damage the overall mission.”

wpaqixhAs we digested that he went on: “You know what would damage the overall mission? If they didn’t come after you, all guns blazing. What if, instead of launching division sized sweep and clear, they started beefing up their secret police? Buying out the local citizens? Sending out propaganda messages that de-legitimize everything you do? Bribe your fighters with offers of power, money and privilege? What if they slowly stripped away your support and then sent in little assassin cells to hunt you down quietly? Or even just capture you and send you out of the country? Do you think that would be more dangerous to your mission?”

All of a sudden it was a paradigm shift. We had been thinking in terms of what was most dangerous to us, and from a purely conventional mindset as well. Now we had to think what was most dangerous to the mission, in an atmosphere where the enemy could use any and every dirty trick in the book to get us.

It got me thinking. Isn’t that kind of how it goes in the Spiritual Warfare? Have you ever had the experience of trying to grow spiritually, maybe during lent, or Holy Week, or maybe you decide to start a novena or a ministry project, or a new morning prayer routine? And did you ever find that plan instantly beset on all sides by temptations, distractions, and even outright spiritual panic?

If you’re like me your first thought when that happens is, “What am I doing wrong?”

However, as a priest said to me in confession once, the question in such situations might well be, “What am I doing right?”

What is it that has caused Satan to ramp up his game against me? Why is he massing troops and conducting counter-guerrilla operations? Unlike in an earthly war where we might want to scale back whatever we are doing that triggered that, in the spiritual warfare, once we figure that out we need to keep doing it. Even when it feels like we are hemmed in on all sides and taking indirect fire every five minutes and about to be wiped out, we need to keep doing what we are doing. That is not his most dangerous COA. It is his most desperate COA. We have superior firepower on our side (that angelic air-force is badass!) and we cannot lose, even if we die.

I will tell you what his real MDCOA is. It’s that slow, steady, creeping discouragement, as prayer-spiritual-warfare-thumbhe slowly and methodically strips away all of our bases of support. Whenever he can convince us to neglect prayer, that’s a supply run that never happened. Avoiding Mass or confession is like not going out to get our resupply bundles.

Worse if he can bribe us with promises of money, power or privilege (or even just comfortableness) to give up Sunday Mass, or to commit a mortal sin. (Can you imagine the damage a Special Forces Team could do to a war effort if while they were inserted behind enemy lines they periodically defected to the enemy? That is what happens every Sunday that we do not go to Mass. That happens every time we commit a mortal sin.)

I guess what I am saying is don’t be discouraged by temptations, or even by sins. Just keep trusting and plugging away (this doesn’t mean be stupid about not avoid occasions of sin). Keep coming back to God, trusting that His mercy and love are enough and even my less than stellar attitude in the armpit end of a losing battle is raw material that He will use to bring about victory.

Absolute trust.

And damn the torpedoes! Full Steam Ahead!