Out of the Night

Verkamp, Bernard J.

CHAPLAIN FROM THE APOCALYPSE OUT OF THE NIGHT THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF VIETNAM VETS William F. Mahedy Ballantine, $13.95, 144 pp. Bernard J. Verkamp Several years ago. on Good Friday...

...Following the anonymous, fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, he advises the vets to learn "to be at home in the darkness" by linking their own experience of the "absence of God'' with that of Job on the dungheap and Jesus on the cross...
...Father Mahedy confirms these rumors on the basis of his own three-year tour of duty there, and admits that it was largely deserved...
...Commonweal welcomes letters on subjects treated in its pages...
...Nor is he blinded to Augustine's understanding of concupiscence as it surfaces in the wild sexual impulses of the soldier on leave, or as it finds expression in the libido dominandi of the combatant...
...It is precisely in terms of the libido dominandi that "beastly desire" or furor, ferg, and berserkir, as George Dumezil has called it in his study of the "dark side" of the Indo-European warrior that Father Mahedy locates the primordial sinfulness of all wars, just and unjust alike...
...Psychotherapy, with its tendency to deresponsibilize the returning soldiers by lumping all their feelings of guilt and shame under the label of "post-traumatic stress," was unable, Mahedy concludes, to provide the "deeper probing" required by the vets' moral questions...
...In his classic World War I novel, Soldier's Pay, William Faulkner presented as the father of the wounded hero an Episcopalian rector who, because he had long ago lost his faith, could not cope with the truth of his son's wounds, and during the very season of Easter had to rely on false, purely naturalistic hopes...
...Father Mahedy sees the hand of God in all these secular affairs, and is obviously proud of the role he has himself played in expediting them...
...Not only were they unable to answer the soldiers' questions about the "absence of God," they actually "contributed to their loss of faith...
...The church, he says, was the one agency that could have understood and interpreted "the vets' spiritual journey in darkness...
...Out of the Night is a chronicle of how he and his fellow Vietnam vets have been faring on a dreadful trip into a dark night of the soul...
...Much of what it records about the barbarism and savagery of the American soldier in Vietnam, or about the corruption of his spirit, his loss of innocence and faith, as well as his tragic experience of rejection upon returning home, has been published previously...
...Notwithstanding his departure from the Augustinian religious community to which he once belonged, his subsequent marriage, and his entry into the Episcopal church, Father Mahedy has lost none of his familiarity with the Doctor Gratiae...
...Still, like any other humanistic attempt to find purification (such as the fishing trips and bullfighting festivals of Hemingway's war-wounded heroes), the performance could not really vent the kind of rage against God that so many Vietnam veterans have felt...
...This does not provide the vet with the cheap divine intimacy so typical of contemporary religion in America...
...That is where Mahedy's book makes its greatest contribution...
...on Good Friday evening, I had occasion to attend a live performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem by the Indiana University School of Music...
...Mainly through the eyes of the men he was serving, he discovered the sinfulness of the war, something more than an apocalyptic trek through Death Valley...
...This lack of proper training, coupled with too close an identification with the "green machine," left most of the chaplains blind to the "sin of war," and in no position to give the men "the kind of spiritual direction they needed...
...But it is especially in pointing a way out of the darkness that the author shows his lingering Augustinian sensibility...
...For, given his unique perspective as a chaplain, Father Mahedy is able to document, as no one has before, the extent to which the American churches have failed the Vietnam veteran...
...His book is exactly what has been needed, and not only by the veterans...
...Letters of not more than 250 or 300 words naturally have a better chance of being published...
...In some few instances, Mahedy grants, this happened, and as an appendix to his book, he includes a "Liturgy of Reconciliation" which was used at a number of special religious services and Masses for vets...
...Having received next to no theological training specifically oriented toward the kind of mission they were undertaking, the majority of chaplains, he says, came to Vietnam with the same mistaken religious assumption as the troops the assumption, namely, of American civil religion that God was on our side and, like John Wayne, would sooner or later come to our rescue...
...He knows Augustine's just war theory well, and applies it with devastating effect against the global warplanning of politicians who were responsible for sending American youth off to fight in Vietnam...
...Father Mahedy is one Episcopalian priest who, even after Vietnam, has not lost his faith, and who, therefore, has had the courage to face the truth of his own and his fellow vets' wounds...
...Here again, Mahedy, who has spent the last fifteen years of his life working closely with veterans' groups, agrees...
...Other recent studies have hinted in passing at the high degree of hostility many American soldiers fighting in Viet604 nam came to feel toward their chaplains...
...William P. Mahedy went to Vietnam in the late 1960s as if on a crusade...
...As a chronicle of the descent into the night, Mahedy's book is not all that original...
...The better part of his book, however, is given over to describing how he has been trying to direct his fellow vets out of their dark night along biblical and mystical lines...
...Several chapters of this book describe how the vets have been trying to do just that, by banding together at Vet Centers and elsewhere for "rap sessions," symposia, seminars, and the like, and by engaging in political activities of the sort that will, as Robert Jay Lifton has suggested, "animate" their feelings of guilt...
...But unlike a Fulcher of Chartres, the quintessential medieval chaplain, who could wallow in blood up to his knees in the Holy City itself without ever questioning the sacredness of his mission, Father Mahedy apparently came to see more than the misery that a war can bring on...
...With its heart-rending libretto from the war poems of Wilfrid Owen and the Missa pro Defunctis being sung by a two-hundred voice choir, it was a most cathartic event, discharging, I suspect, a variety of turbulent, Vietnam-related, emotions, and bringing to all in the audience a sense of peace and reconciliation...
...Still, the book should send shock waves through the Christian community in this country...
...But for the most part, he says, the churches have made' 'no attempt to reach out or to assist the vets," thereby driving the vets still deeper into the "dark night," and leaving them to themselves to find a way out...
...But it will help him see how in his absence, God is "making room for sin within the boundaries of humanity," and "calling forth a longing in [his] disciples...
...A Roman Catholic priest at the time, he belonged to the Army Chaplain Corps, whose motto Pro Deo et Patria left little room for any doubt about what side God was on...
...Out of his nihilism ("It don't mean nothin', Chaplain") the vet may be able to fashion a "cloud of forgetting," walk away from his rage and hatred, and in the experience of his "lowliness," like Mary, find cause again for joy and peace...
...They need the church to help them examine their consciences, to clarify their feelings of guilt, to find absolution, and a way of making amends...
...Still other studies have pointed out in recent years how little our American churches have done for the Vietnam veterans upon their return home...

Vol. 114 • October 1987 • No. 18


 
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