Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Faith, Hope, Love and the USMC

I generally refrain from writing personal testimony on this blog, because I find myself the most boring of subjects. But I feel compelled to write the following so I can acknowledge a few people from whom I have learned so much.

As a young man, I was faithless, hopeless and loveless. I did not believe in God, my fellow man, or much else, but I saw my condition for what it was, one of despair, for which I can thank God (now - I didn't then). And I knew that I either must find something to believe in or continue the downward spiral of despair. About the only thing I did believe in was my country, so I applied for and was accepted to the USMC Officer Candidate Course starting on Oct. 8, 1986.

I learned the meaning of faith from Staff Sergeant Brown. Faith is putting yourself at risk on the basis of a conviction about the hidden nature of another.

I learned the meaning of hope from my wife. Hope is not optimism, but the conviction that circumstances, whatever they are, cannot possibly separate us from what is truly good.

I learned the meaning of love from my parents. Love means being for someone when they are not for anyone else or maybe even for themselves.

SSgt Brown was my platoon sergeant at Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS). During the final few weeks of OCS, after more than half of our original platoon of candidates had either quit or been kicked out, I became a special target of our platoon commander, a captain. He told me to my face that he was going to do everything he could to see that I left OCS. From then on, he played a series of mind games with me. Nonetheless, on Dec. 12, 1986, I managed to graduate, and I felt that I had gotten the better of the captain.

It turns out that I had not beaten the captain at all. Just after the graduation parade, SSgt Brown pulled me into his office, opened a drawer, and handed me a stack of papers. They were demerit chits, candidate violations, or whatever the things were called, that the captain had written against me in the final weeks, plenty enough to get me hauled up before the ninth week review board - an encounter I was expecting even though I didn't know about the stack of chits. One of the captain's games was to regularly tell me he was sending me before the review board, that I was doomed, and I might as well leave now and save myself the humiliation. SSgt Brown had actually submitted only a portion of the chits that had been written, and had hidden the rest in his desk. In effect he had emptied the captain's gun of its bullets. I knew the staff sergeant could have gotten in trouble for this, but he told me that he saw something in me, thought the captain was unjust, and did not want to see me leave. We walked outside, he gave me my first salute and then shook my hand:

In case you think the captain was just a jerk, as soon as I got my butter bars, he shook my hand and congratulated me. We later drank beer together when we both served at Camp Lejeune. That's the kind of people you meet in the Marine Corps.

I thought of SSgt Brown when watching the Passion of the Christ this past Saturday. When I think of faith and the Passion, I often think of the faith of Christ in God the Father. But perhaps Christ had another type of faith as well, faith in his fallible fellow men. I mean faith in Peter, faith in Caiaphas, faith in Pontius Pilate, even faith in Judas. God the Son took a chance on men, seeing in them the possibility of repentance and conversion, and so became incarnate in the hope that they would respond to him in kind with faith. He overlooked their sins and their faults, in a way of course more profound but still similar to the way SSgt Brown hid my demerit chits. SSgt Brown took a chance on me, and if I had failed during those final weeks of OCS, or folded under the captain's pressure, or later in my Marine Corps career, I would have embarrassed him. I know I didn't do the first two and hope I didn't do the latter.

I wonder if Christ was embarrassed during his Passion. Humiliated yes, but also embarrassed I think. Christ is man's advocate before God the Father. God the Son had so much faith in man that he became one of us, betting that we would respond in faith to him. Instead, we crucified him. I see him hoping that Pontius Pilate will not order his death, not so much to save himself from suffering, but because he knows that Pilate has it in him not to do it. When Pilate washes his hands, Christ is embarrassed for him before God the Father, the way SSgt Brown would have been embarrassed had I let him down those final weeks at OCS. Christ's embarrassment is all the more deep because he has become one of us, taken on the very nature that is now responding with so little faith. And Christ's faith is such that even when we betray him in faithlessness, he finds a way to save us anyway.

One thing that surprised me at OCS was the way I was able to put up with all the harrassment and abuse - plenty of it from SSgt Brown! Partly this was because I had psyched myself up before going in - they can kick me out, but I won't quit, that sort of thing. But it was also, I discovered, because I had met a girl in the few months prior to the start of OCS. Something unprecedented (for me) happened - love, I suppose, but I didn't know enough about it to tell one way or the other. What I did know was that she would be waiting for me however I got of OCS - kicked out, commissioned officer, or otherwise. She didn't care.

This was the "true good from which we cannot be separated by circumstance." Because I was certain of a good outcome to things, no matter what happened, I went through OCS with a certain fearlessness that I would not otherwise have had. I think the captain interpreted this as insolence or indifference, but it was far from it. It was hope. Whenever things got rough, I just thought of my girlfriend and it wouldn't bother me anymore. Chesterton discusses something similar in Orthodoxy with respect to the paradox of courage. The courageous man, he says, is the man who saves his life by being indifferent to it. If he thinks about the breadth of the chasm over which he must leap to save himself, and how horrible it would be to die, he will not be able to bring himself to make the leap and he will die on the mountain. If he forgets his life or has hope even in death, then he will make the leap with confidence and save himself. I went through OCS with a confidence I gained from the hope I had in the girl who was waiting for me no matter what.

Naturally I married her as soon as I could after graduating.

I learned about love from my parents. They have always been for me even when I was not for myself, or for them. It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I realized this; actually, until I became a father myself. Now I know why God is imaged so often as a Father in the New Testament. Did God the Father suffer during the Passion of Christ? The only thing worse than being crucified is watching your son being crucified. The Passion of the Christ shows this dramatically through Mary, but what about Christ's Father? I don't know the theology on this.

After my experience at OCS I still did not believe in God. But I did believe in SSgt Brown, my wife, my parents and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Semper Fidelis.


Steve said...

Hey Dave,

Good post. This is Steve Hennessey, aka the professor. (Do you remember the delusional reasoning comment from your old professor you recieved on one of your papers - I think it was Syd Thomas the professor that also played tennis?) Anyway I am glad to see that you are doing well and it sounds like you have accomplished much. Joe shared with me the video of your kid's soccer skills - looks like you have plenty to be proud of with them. [Man - I remember you, Joe, and I at their age like it was yesterday.] I am sure this site is helping people. Keep it up - good luck.


David T. said...


Send me your email address and let me know what's up with you. I'd like to keep in touch. No friends like old friends.

Yeah, Sid Thomas. But, in fairness, I knew he was a nut when I signed up for the course.