In March of 2007, less than a month after I had turned twenty-two years old, I was deployed to Afghanistan with my engineer unit. I would remain in Afghanistan, with the exception of twenty day’s vacation in January of 2008, for the next fifteen months. At that point in my life my faith was quietly growing from a very important part of my life, to the most important part of my life. I had been receiving the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist at least weekly all my life, and had been saying the rosary and reading the Bible daily for a couple of years, and it was at this point that I think all of these habits were really beginning to bear fruit, particularly in the shape of a strong desire to go to Mass, every day if possible. During my pre-deployment leave I went to Mass every day while I was at home.
The military has a chaplain corps, and some of those chaplains are Catholic priests (although at the moment the Catholic Chaplain strength in the army is at about 1/3 of ideal.) Stateside there is at least a couple of priests assigned to every installation. Afghanistan, however, is a different story. The country is big, the terrain is rugged, and American troops are spread out across hundreds of miles of winding mountain passes. There are only a few large bases, a handful of medium sized ones, and then dozens, or perhaps hundreds of small, isolated outposts spread out throughout the country. When I was in country there were only two or three Roman Catholic chaplains and one Greek Orthodox chaplain in the eastern half of the country. There was guaranteed to be one priest in Bagram, since that is the biggest base in the country. Kandahar might also have one, and for a while there was a priest, an Air Force Major, in Sharana (who was one of the kindest and holiest chaplains I have ever met. Looking back, I realize that I owe him an unpayable debt for his patience and dedication to his vocation, and to my shame I do not even remember his name.) These few priests were run to the limits. Some would say as many as six or eight masses in a single day, each one separated by a helicopter flight of an hour or more. Others would travel for hours by convoy to far flung bases in order to minister to any who would show up.
So here I was, with a newfound hunger for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, suddenly stuck in the middle of a country in which priests were rare, harried and hurried. Throughout the fifteen months I was there my platoon was shuffled around the country. I don’t think we stayed more than two months at any single base. It was nothing short of miraculous how often I was able to get to Mass. Priests would show up just as I was off mission. We got stationed in Bagram for a short time, and while there I was able to go to Mass more than once a week, and there was even a Eucharistic chapel. I got moved to Sharana and about that time the Air Force chaplain showed up.
There were, however, times when I just couldn’t get to Mass. The spring of 2008, from the end of February almost to the end of the tour, I did not see a priest even once.
The lack of Confession was the most frightening to me. Since I was still a sinner, I still needed forgiveness as often and as direly as I ever had, but was unable to seek it out in the way I was accustomed to. I was still required to risk my life every day, unshriven. The fear of getting blown into little pieces with my soul all heavy with unconfessed sins was a very real thing that I had to come to terms with and doing so has forever altered and deepened my understanding of the Sacrament of Mercy. I may write about that someday.
However, right now I want to write about what that abstinence, just then, did for my understanding of the Eucharist.
The Air Force chaplain told me, “What we do here, in this little plywood building, does more good for this country than all the missions the military has ever run.” In those long, empty months of spiritual isolation I came to understand that, in a way that transcended understanding. I was not sensible of any deep emotional hunger, but I knew that I was missing something. Furthermore I knew, with the cold clear light of reason, that it was not something but rather Someone. I knew who He was, and I knew where to go to find Him. I watched my spiritual and emotional state slowly crumbling, my confidence in myself and my abilities being eroded (despite unparalleled success in all my missions). I learned the logic of nothingness, that I am emptiness needing to be filled. The Eucharist is the Fullness of He That IS, desiring to pour Himself into my emptiness.
When I returned home I began going to daily Mass. Every single day, if I could, I did. I didn’t always want to. I didn’t always feel like it, but I knew that there was a time when I had felt the need. It was as if, by withdrawing Himself for that time (under one mode) God had given Himself more fully in another mode.
In the years since Afghanistan I have continued to go to daily Mass every time I get the chance. I still, don’t always feel like it. There are times I want to take a day off, and go take a leisurely lunch instead (on the very rare days when I actually have enough of a lunch hour to make Mass feasible.) But I made my choice four years ago in the desert and now it is just a matter of living up to it.
I was able to go to Mass this morning after a long, hard week of training. In my worship of the Eucharist I have so much to be thankful for. God has been shaping things. Opportunities for Mass still arise, seemingly out of nowhere (during a trip to Thailand this spring I got stationed in the one of the only cities outside of Bangkok with a Catholic Church and school) and today, after Mass, I realized something. It hit my heart with a shuddering clarity of wonderment, that my desire for the Eucharist, for union with Jesus in that Blessed Sacrament, is a mere nothing. It is a shadow, a distant echo, of His desire to receive me in the Eucharist. For as surely as I receive Him, I am received up into Him, and this could only happen by His desire. He will, and Has, moved Heaven and Earth, to draw me to Him. Every moment of my twenty-seven years He has been working tirelessly, ceaselessly, gently, to enkindle in me a spark of desire for Him. Even at my most desirous, that is all it is, a spark. Like trying to start a fire with tinder and flint, My desire for Him is just the tiny red glow on the very end of one miniscule filament of dried moss. It cannot sustain itself. It can be killed in an instant by a ghost of too much breath, or half a molecule too little breath. It cannot be fed twigs, or even straws yet. It wouldn’t know what to do with them. This tiny little glow is barely holding its own, unsure whether growing into a bonfire is really worth it, or whether it wouldn’t be much less bother simply to die out. But He will never quench that smoldering wick.
And God? God is the Sun! God is the boiling furnace of a thousand times a thousand suns, a blazing inferno (pun intended) of desire for me. God is the Love that exists from all eternity, Love that loved me into existence, Love that loves me into love with the Triune Love.
This is why I go to Communion! Not because I am so in love with God, but because He is eternally in love with me.
As of this writing I am facing the prospect of a very long time in a desert where there are no priests. At first this panicked me, but now I am at peace with it. The God who has worked so hard to bring me to Him (despite my best efforts to the contrary at times) will not abandon me. If it is His will to starve me for a year, or for the rest of my life, then starvation is what is best for me.
What saddens me, though, is the number of people who starve themselves. Millions upon millions of Americans live within walking distance, or ten minutes driving distance of a Catholic Church. Millions of people, all living next door to the God of the Universe, and yet daily Mass is empty. A handful of elderly retired people and a homeschooling family or two, that is all the attendance you are likely to get at the Eternal Sacrifice. In Afghanistan I would give up sleep, shower, food and internet time without a second thought if there was an opportunity for Mass, but here in the states it gets crowded out so easily. I do the same thing. I get busy. Other things crowd out what is truly important. Then the other things get taken away and I wonder what I ever saw in them.
So these days, when I receive the Eucharist I think about the people who want to receive and cannot. I feel sorry for them, and I pray for them, but they are not that badly off. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. I am far sorrier for those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who don’t even know enough to be hungry for the God who is hungry for them. I pray for those who starve themselves, day in and day out, years at a time, out of pride, ignorance, apathy, laziness, fear, doubt, insecurity, or just plain old human woundedness.
Lord, make them hungry.
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…” J.R.R. Tolkien