The Bittersweet Life in the Trenches


“Remember, Tod, life is in the trenches.”

– Dad

I remember it quite clearly when he said it. And it hit me hard. My dad was sitting across the table from me at a Burger King. My stepmom was sitting next to him. We had just walked away from a Sunday church service that was the culminating event of a weekend non-denominational retreat known as “Teens Encounter Christ”. While I had always heard good things about this retreat, my personal experience was simply stunning. From Friday night until Sunday morning, we slept in a church, listened to speakers of great Christian faith and example, prayed, sang, ate, bonded and were overwhelmed by the attention of volunteers who sought to drive the point home that we are immensely and undeniably loved by Christ. The finishing touch to the weekend was to walk utterly surprised into a sanctuary filled with our loved ones who surprised us with tender, loving letters they had written in our absence. The palpable sense of Christ on this retreat approached the mystical for me. Even now, as time and distance separate me from this weekend, I am still deeply stirred.

And yet…And yet. Walking away from this sublime weekend and into the anticipated stresses of life caused me to be despondent. To leave this community of love and support only to emerge into the cold, cruel world seemed a bit difficult to bear. Admittedly, I moped and lamented that the “real world” could never offer a similar degree of love and support. It wasn’t long before my dad picked up on this and imparted his tough, yet brilliant verdict. As a father, he is deeply loving, but also wisely pragmatic. He looked me dead in the eyes with the perfect blend of sympathy and firmness. “Remember, Tod, life is in the trenches.” Ouch. What, I initially wondered, was that supposed to mean? Here I was emerging out of this period of bliss and my dad is answering me with trench metaphors?

The trenches to which my dad was referring were those that deeply lined continental Europe during World War I. This war, originally dubbed “The Great War”, will be one hundred years old this very year. And yet in spite of the utter carnage that came out of it with nearly thirty-seven million dead, its details are nearly forgotten. So to truly understand my father’s metaphor required me to understand what a “life in the trenches” was truly like. It was not pretty. Day in and day out, soldiers slept in deeply cut, loosely reinforced earthen ditches. Youthful soldiers found themselves separated from loved ones, cold, hungry and constantly awaiting mortar shells, artillery fire, or a mad charge of bayonet-wielding enemies. If that weren’t bad enough, there was disease,

“If you have never had trench foot described to you, I will explain. Your feet swell to two to three times their normal size and go completely dead. You can stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are lucky enough not to lose your feet and the swelling starts to go down, it is then that the most indescribably agony begins. I have heard men cry and scream with pain and many have had to have their feet and legs amputated. I was one of the lucky ones, but one more day in that trench and it may have been too late.”

– Harry Roberts, WWI veteran

 Not to mention the rats,

“Whilst asleep during the night, we were frequently awakened by rats running over us. When this happened too often for my liking, I would lie on my back and wait for a rat to linger on my legs; then violently heave my legs upwards, throwing the rat into the air. Occasionally, I would hear a grunt when the rat landed on a fellow victim.”

– R.L. Venables, WWI veteran

Now, I will freely admit that returning to the stresses Roseville High School calculus, student council and football (although losing every game of my varsity career did have a certain gangrenous effect on one’s athletic self-confidence) was a far cry from true trench warfare. But I think my father’s point was ultimately well-taken. Indeed, the Sacramental Moments with God and the Body of Christ  (or the “thin places” as a Benedictine Oblate friend of mine would term it) like those I experienced on my retreat seem too short, too fleeting and too sweet to be able to last forever. We can thank our original sin for marring our pure communion with God from the beginning. But we can also recognize our subsequent ill-fated pursuit of surrogate sources of happiness in wealth, power, pleasure and honor. And while sin has created distance between us and God, we also fail to recognize Sacramental Moments that occur in the midst of everyday pain and suffering. As Flannery O’Connor once reminded,

 “A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

“Remember, Tod, life is in the trenches.” Yes there is pain and loss, sickness and heartbreak in these trenches. But that is not all. There is laughter and joy, love and friendship. There are wondrous Sacramental Moments of immense peace where Christ speaks through the cool breeze, sweet music, a tender hug or even a special retreat weekend. And there are deeply Sacramental Moments of profound pain where He sits silently, tightly holding us, holding us as only a Father can unfailingly clutch the child He would gladly suffer for…and did suffer for.

Yes. Yes, there are times I am impatient for Heaven. But I am not there yet. I am here in the trenches. And I will take those Sacramental Moments, be they sweet or bitter, and celebrate the glimpse of God I am allowed until years from now when I am able to openly and eternally rest in His arms.

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