Contemplation and the Veteran’s Journey

I’ve been a civilian all my life. But my father was a veteran of three wars, and I’ve watched as people just a few years older than me served and died in Viet Nam, and now those not too much younger than me are serving and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whatever your political — or spiritual — persuasion might be, I hope you’ll agree with me that the physical, mental and emotional trauma suffered by those who serve in harm’s way is not only a significant social and psychological issue, but a crucial spiritual issue as well.

Now, a friend of mine named Andy Farris, who served in Viet Nam and whom I met through a writer’s retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, is working on creating a healing retreat specifically for veterans. He and I spoke yesterday about ways in which I could be involved in this kind of work.

I’m honored that Andy would even consider me for work this important. As he shared with me stories of his and other veterans’ journeys, including dealing with feelings of guilt over having survived, struggling to find faith that was damaged or lost in combat, and engaging in the long slow process of finding healing after trauma (whether physical or emotional/psychological), I came to realize just how vital it is for veterans to claim (or reclaim) a spiritual dimension to their lives and their healing process.

This isn’t just a Catholic issue or a Christian issue. But I do believe it is very much a contemplative issue. When I consider how much I have to struggle to embrace silence and serenity even in the midst of my rather pampered life, I am humbled when I think of the challenges a veteran must face as he (or she) strives to open their hearts to such an elusive inner peace. It seems to me that those of us who have made contemplation a priority in our lives ought to be available for veterans, who probably in many cases don’t have much in the way of deeply contemplative resources readily available to them.

If you have a moment, visit Andy Farris’ website, It’s a work in progress, but I think there’s already plenty of good stuff up there. Excerpts from the book Andy is writing can be found there, along with some ideas for Andy’s vision of veteran’s retreats.

I’d like to hear from anyone reading this blog who are themselves veterans, and/or who have loved ones who served, and perhaps died, in military combat. If anyone has any thoughts on contemplation as a healing tool for veterans who are in search of spiritual growth and inner peace, I’d love to see your comments. I’m particularly interested in hearing from veterans who meditate and contemplate or who have struggled to do so. I’ll pass on your ideas and thoughts and reflections to Andy, who is looking for input as he works on his veterans retreats (hopefully we’ll have one at the Monastery as early as 2011).

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Andy Farris


    You have succeed in capturing the essence of a combat veteran’s emotional and spiritual struggle. The path to Inner-Peace for veteran’s is through a spiritual renewal, a re-connecting with their God – and you understand this. Your appreciation and help is welcome, indeed.

    Thank you. Andy

  • Angus

    At Hell’s Gate is an autobiography of a Vietnam Veteran which might be of interest:

    Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, has run retreats for veterans. There is a film about him at:

  • Afterthought

    The story of Arjuna from the Indo-Aryan Mahabharata has always given me solace as a combat veteran (Iraq).

    In it, Krishna disguised tells Arjuna that contrary to some human ideologies, war is a part of nature and that a warrior pays homage to nature by playing his role in the divine drama.

    Ecclesiastes tells a similar tale: for everything there is a season. If you fought nobly and honorably, then come home and fight equally for peace. If you do so, you are not schismatic with the good.

    Zen takes a different approach: to think that slaughter is more maya than going to get a gallon of milk at a local store is wrong view; realizing that all is void is a path to liberation, not just from the memories of the battlefield, but from any thing.

    This dovetails well with scientific naturalism. While the veteran was “doing wrong” by fighting, trillions of fish were engaged in an oceanic shoah. We call that nature, and certainly do not consider it “evil”. Why do we impose ethical masochism on one collection of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen but not another to which it is related by descent?

    For those of a Christian background, which many in the West have, regardless of their upbringing, it is not so easy.

    One is never supposed to harm others, since

    1) There is an afterlife in which we are destined to spend eternity

    2) We are to use dramatic pedagogy in order to teach this even to our oppressors. By paying no heed to their worldly harms to us, all the while calling them to awaken to #1 for their own good, we offer the most appropriate witness to the truth of #1. In other words we tell our oppressors “I believe that this life is transient and subordinate to the next so much, that I am not even obeying my bodily instinct which tells me to preserve my mortal coil, by destroying you if I must.”

    E.g. Jesus not only scolds Peter for attacking those coming to arrest him “those who live by the sword die (spiritually?) by the sword”, he heals Malchus’s severed ear.

    Fighting in war is the opposite of that approach.

    Since most modern people’s faith is leavened with some doubt (putting it politely), they are struck with a double cognitive dissonance.

    “I am not a very good Christian. Actually, I am not a Christian at all.”

    It is a tough spot to be in, especially when such candor can threaten social safety nets at the moment they are needed most: post-battle recuperation.

    Thanks for hosting this important conversation.

  • Harmony Isle

    My dad joined the Marines and served two tours in Viet Nam right after high school. I think he went to prove himself to himself, as a rite of passage to manhood. He was a radio operator and as best I can tell not as directly involved in combat as many were, but he did get shot at. My attempts to get him to talk about his experiences didn’t yield much, which isn’t surprising.

    What strikes me most about veterans is the separation and alienation they seem to experience–from the enemy, but also from themselves, from the non-veteran family and friends they return to, from their comrades in arms, from their military superiors and/or subordinates–and accordingly separation from the divine. It amazes me that veterans can return home to “normal” life and continue or create new relationships with civilians, even get married and stay married, after having such a life-altering experience that the rest of us could never understand even if we attempted to really talk about it. I guess we all simply have no choice but to move forward through our lives, as best we are able. Maybe the mundane becomes incredibly precious, even if it can never again be experienced as it was before combat.

    So as one who is admittedly completely clueless on this topic, but with a personal stake, the two biggest things that I see contemplation having to offer veterans are 1) an important and loving space in which to swim or drift around with the big spiritual questions, untethered to answers and brimstone repercussions, and 2) tools to find deep forgiveness for self and others through compassion, and so reduce the separation and alienation.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    Fantastic comments all around. I’d have to second Angus’ recommendation of viewing the Hanh documentary. Of the many things he has to say to veterans of the war waged in his own country, one was particularly powerful:

    Who did the bombing? Everyone. Your President, your Congress, your Senate, your people. You were just the hand ordered to do that. Why keep the guilt only for yourself? Why keep the shame only for yourself? Why keep the regret only for yourself? If we begin to see, we have to tell people, so they will not force us to do it again.

    Equally of note are his remarks regarding his arrival in America to find “the pro-war people and the anti-war people, they were having a war”. Insisting that “there is a war inside all of us,” he implores us all “to defuse the bombs in our souls first.”

    Powerful, moving and filled to overflowing with profound, practical advice for veterans and non-veterans alike.

  • Bear

    Raised a low church Protestant, I was received into the Eastern Orthodox Church just months before my second deployment, a year in Afghanistan, from which I’ve just returned home a couple of months ago. Honestly, I believe it was the pursuit of hesychia, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and prayers to the Mother of God that helped me keep some semblance of sanity during this particularly difficult time. For me, the constant attempts to strive for silence in the presence of God gave me a sense of grounding or rootedness that helped me keep the mission going even when my soldiers and chain of command fell apart.

    My faith still suffered tremendously, it may take me years to sort things out and put my inner life back together (if it ever was together to begin with) even with the help of the sacraments, but I know that without contemplative prayer I would have suffered a complete “shipwrecking” of my faith.

    This retreat sounds like an idea who’s time has come; I’ve only deployed twice but I’ve known many who have been over as many as six times. I will keep you and your friends efforts in my prayers, please keep me in yours.

  • http://yahoo kathyrn montalvo

    my husband who i tried despretialy to rescue from hisself having 2 brnz stars and a silver star could not get peace without his beloved heroin and still woke up screaming every night i tried support groups that only seemed to make his dreams worse. Then i caught him in my mothers bathroom one day i kicked in the broom door and through everything out the window which caused him to enlist in a methadone program . i luv god and he was catholic , but his problem with
    that was he said the priest would go through the field and offer absolution when he said the commandants said thou shall not kill i hope he has found god as he died in 1990 and left me with hiv.I do not regret this cause he was the best and only friend i have had ececpt Jesus christ your sister in Christ Kathyrn