Talking about faith, or keeping the faith, is like trying to grab a fish in the water with one hand. It’s an elusive and very difficult concept. And the easiest way for me to approach it is to talk about that time in my life when that word first took on meaning for me.
It was a sultry day in August 1961. The air was pungent and I was sitting in a small elegantly decorated chapel at Bard College, located at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. I was attending a five-day church youth conference that was designed to teach us something about our Christian heritage; and it was the first time I had ever been away from home. I was 14 years old. It was the third or fourth day of the conference, and I was very stimulated by everything and everyone that I had encountered. Here I was sitting in a chapel as I had done so many times in those last few days, and this priest who had been giving the keynote talks each day was hitting us again. But rather than talk again about the book "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, he was relating this book somehow to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind, the Easter story. Even by the young age of 14 I had heard that story 100’s of times in movies or at church or at home. I had heard it so many times I was numb to it. But this priest really had my attention. He was speaking our language and talking about things we could relate to. And when he talked about the Christ story this time in that chapel, in the company of 70 or so other young people—I heard the story as if for the first time. I comprehended; the light went on; and I got a glimpse of what that story really meant. I began to grasp the nature of the sacrifice that was made 2000 years ago. Christ became a real person for me for the first time, and I had spent years in Sunday school prior to that August day. It was so real to me that I walked out of that chapel with tears streaming down my face, much to my heavy embarrassment. I was shuddering inwardly at what I had just heard. I was awestruck by the beauty and the glory of that Christ story. Why did I hear it now in such a different way?
And the answer to that question has to do with the feeling I call—‘Christ the offense’. When I hear the Christ story and the details of the crucifixion and His day of resurrection, and I don’t feel anything—I’m at the crossroads that is ‘the offense’. It’s at the crossroads that I’m either grasped or held by the wonder of ‘faith’, or I am held by the ‘offense’. But how does Christ, the Son of God, offend me. Two ways come to mind.
When I allow myself to comprehend the events of Christ’s life, I have to admit to myself how high He is and low I am, and I also have to accept the immensity of the sacrifice He made for me and how indebted I am to Him as a result. Personally, I don’t like to be in debt to someone, and I don’t like to be made aware of how base I am on the scale of righteousness. So being in His debt is the first big offence, and the second offense is no smaller.
I can sum up the second offense by saying that the Christ story is too good to be true, and if in fact it were true, I would have to give up some of my well-guarded personal sovereignty or control over my life. I would have to admit there is something else out there that has a greater claim over my life than I do myself. Look what happened to the early Christian martyrs or even our contemporary martyrs. When they accepted Christ as their head and master, it ended up costing them their lives if they wanted to stay true to their ideal. What an extraordinary price.
I think what happened to me in that chapel at Bard College was that the priest allowed me to break through the first big offense. That priest really loved Jesus. He was excited and intense as he told us the story. Christ was real and alive to him—and he shared his passion and his belief with us. This priest exposed himself, and shared the most important and emotional part of his life. He made himself totally vulnerable. Courage, love and passion filled the air of that chapel. He helped me to visualize the real sacrifice that Christ made. Some of us write off or dismiss that sacrifice in so many ways, unconsciously sometimes. It is easy for us to say that if Christ were the Son of God, it would be easier for Him to sacrifice His life than it would be for one of us. We’re not divine. He was. Looking at it from a different perspective, let us focus on the fact that Jesus was a human being. He was a real person of flesh and blood. He had feelings, fears, emotions and desires. I find it helpful to visualize the person of Jesus and the depth of commitment He has for us through the use of a story. For example, let us imagine our own father taking us on a fishing trip. We get into a small motorboat and ride far out into a large body of water. We have our fishing gear, our lunch and great expectations of successful fishing. Afternoon arrives sooner than we think and with it comes a fierce black storm. We try to pull up anchor and start the motor to return to shore, but the motor fails. We try and try again to no avail. The wind starts blowing and torrential rains beat down upon us. The boat is taking on water and rocking back and forth wildly. The bow of the boat is sinking more and more as the boat slowly takes on more and more water. Father and son look into each other’s eyes with the growing knowledge that they are not going to make it to shore. A sudden awareness flashes into my father’s eyes as he realizes that the boat might stay afloat if there were only one body instead of two in that boat. With full knowledge of what he is doing my father commits the ultimate sacrifice without hesitation by jumping overboard—giving up his life so that I might live . . . If any of us had ever lived through such an experience, we would never be the same. When we could finally grasp the immensity of love that our father must have had for us, to voluntarily slip under that cold water to certain death; that fact would grasp us for the rest of our living days. This, in part, is essentially what Christ did for us and much more. It takes more love to make the ultimate sacrifice for someone you have never met, i.e., us, than it would for a father for his son. When you get a feeling for how great that love and that sacrifice was; when it’s real enough to you—you can break your way through the offenses that have to do with feeling ‘in debt’ and giving up control over our lives. We can visualize that Christ and His Father in heaven belong at the head of our lives; and if there is any sovereignty regarding our life, it belongs to Him. His is the resurrection, the truth, and the life, and that is the vision that that priest passed on to me one August day in a small college chapel. It began the transformation of my life. It was the first step in my journey with Christ and the germinating seed of my faith.
It’s one thing to believe the Easter story, and it’s another to hold onto it and to assimilate it into one’s life. As strong as one’s initial conversion experience may be, maintaining and living in the life of faith on a day-in, day-out basis requires more than a revelation, no matter how earth shattering.
For instance, when I was 17 I went off to college to a very competitive engineering school in Cleveland, Ohio. I was sort of a whiz kid in math so I took the next step to fame and glory by throwing myself into my studies with a vengeance. I would go to classes all day and put in six or seven hours homework every night. I was carrying 21 credits, mostly in math and science. Well, I did that for almost one year and succeeded in losing myself. I was chasing the gods of achievement and success and I lost my focus and my way. Toward the end of that year I started to invest as much energy chasing women and having a good time as I was in my studies. That meant I had to almost give up sleeping. At the end of the spring semester I broke enough of the colleges regulations governing social behavior to get myself expelled. I returned home a very angry, exhausted, and frustrated young man. I felt lost. I black cloud hung over my life. Despair and melancholy enveloped me everywhere I turned. The gods of achievement and success had failed me, and I had failed myself. In the back of my mind I knew I was way off course. So I got a job and studied at night. I took a philosophy course because I needed answers, and I found those answer in two books by Soren Kierkegaard. One was called ‘Fear and Trembling’ and the other was ‘A Sickness Onto Death.’ On my weekends I would take long walks into deserted woods. I would find a clearing near a small creek and read those books for hours. I was overwhelmed by the answers I found. But it was more than just finding answers—I was reestablishing my relationship with Christ. I was communicating with Him again and He with me. His light penetrated my darkness and drew me back to Him. I put Him back in His rightful place in my life. His life became my ideal. I reconnected that vertical relationship between Christ and myself. The great writer, Martin Buber, called it the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. I didn’t feel lost anymore. It felt right, and I had a real sense of peace in my life that I had not had in a long time. It was that same peace that I had known as a 14-year-old boy. It was like coming home. That was back in 1965 during the great hey-day of the military draft. The Vietnam War was in full swing at that time, and Uncle Sam wanted me to play my part in it. I was drafted into the Army June 6, 1966—a day that will live in my memory forever. But I was never to lose that vertical relationship between God and myself again. It certainly allowed me to survive my military experience, but I was to take the first step in learning another dimension of faith that I was unaware of because I had always taken it for granted. And that was the horizontal direction of faith, and by that I mean knowing Christ through other people. So there is the vertical dimension, the ‘I-Thou’, and the horizontal, where Christ speaks to us through other people. Together they symbolically form a cross.
So I went off to Vietnam for 16 months in the latter part of 1968 after having served stateside for a year and a half. That was just a few months before the Tet Offensive which was the bloodiest and most devastating period for the US soldier in Vietnam. There were several hundreds of thousands of men trying to maim, kill and obliterate another group of like size. That is a straight fact of war that most people are incapable of grasping. We’ve seen too many war movies on TV and heard too many news broadcasts that reduce similar events to a 30 second sound bite. We simply cannot grasp the horror. We are incapable of visualizing the scope of human suffering and agony. We are numb to the reality that is war. And thank God we are to some extent, for it would challenge our sanity.
War --any war--is about broken bodies--broken minds--and broken spirits. I spent two weeks in a Vietnam medevac hospital in Long Binh for personal health reasons. I saw the troops that were brought in from the field. I saw their wounds up close. I spoke with them; we shared; and they touched my mind and spirit. They became real people to me. They weren’t just statistics anymore. You see my military job was to be in charge of the classified documents of the Army Surgeon General. We had documentation on all mortality and fatality data relating to all Army personnel in Vietnam. We had pictures and documentation on the most grotesque medical cases that occurred during that War. I organized, filed, and tracked all the data of the physical suffering of those young soldiers. But now it was made real to me—before my very eyes—the sounds and sights of broken bodies.
But for the dead, the moral debate over the Vietnam War exists no more. Only their loved ones survive, permanently scarred by that loss—forever remembering the beauty of that human soul they knew as their nephew, or their husband, or their son. This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The environment within which this theater of horror takes place snuffs out not only lives, but people’s spirits and their desire to touch or be touched by other people, their desire to reach out and to share, and sometimes, even their desire to live. Although 57,000 US soldiers died during that conflict, 70,000 Vietnam vets have taken their own lives since the end of the war. Many of the returning vets were in a daze, almost an emotional stupor, even ones that hadn’t seen active combat. I was one of them. I couldn’t react emotionally to anything. Everything and everyone seemed trivial. I had no desire to form bonds with other people. I could see other people’s suffering without flinching an eyelid. I was incapable of crying. I saw Christ in no one. That was in stark contrast with my life prior to the war.
I was back about six months sitting in church one Sunday morning looking at the weekly bulletin when I red about a group of suburban people who would go down to the ghettos in New York City and help the residents of those ghettos try to clean them up. Something about cleaning up rather than tearing down appealed to me, so I decided to join that group and I spent about six weekends down there getting dirty and having fun. I met some people there; the likes of which I thought had gone out of existence. I rubbed shoulders with some real Christians. They were of different denominations and they worked together just fine. They were just there to help out someone else in need. I met a black fellow by the name of Don. He was to become one of a number of people that God put in my life to illuminate my way. Through Don I met a super group of committed Christians. They were an incredibly active and involved group. They were constantly reaching out and helping others. They did not want me to be any particular kind of person, other than who I was. Each member of the group had his or her own personal ministry in addition to their regular jobs. But although each person was an individual, they would come together to celebrate their faith through the Eucharist and in song. It was something they could do as a group and at the same time praise their God. They also kept in touch with each other. They made it their business to be aware of each other’s needs as much as was possible. They prayed together spontaneously. Their deepest needs and desires were shared in prayer. Each person was transformed and supported by their communal efforts to carry out God’s plan of creating His Kingdom. What a startling contrast it was for me. Instead of trying to destroy God’s Kingdom, they were trying to sustain and create it. To see the face of Christ in one of our brothers is a terribly humbling experience. When God touches us in that way, we can only feel a sense of debt and want to repay that debt by working to build up other individuals. I was beginning to experience the horizontal dimension of faith where Christ speaks to us through our brothers and sisters. I was beginning to experience wholeness in my life that had been absent for years. It was not a substitute for the I-Thou relationship I had with God, but it opened a whole new dimension of life, and it fleshed out, in a manner of speaking, my faith. It did make it more tangible. And it did draw forth out of me an awareness of the many human needs around me, and that I had to respond in some way to those needs.
God was not through with me yet though. I had been leading the single life for 25 years, and there was a deep yearning within me, albeit a genetically programmed one, to find the woman that I would call my wife. One of my friends in the community had told me that when I really wanted to find that special person, I would pray with a real passion for that happening. And I did pray once, and only once, with a passion for that woman to join me in my life, and within a week or two I met the woman I was to marry. In less than a year of our meeting we were married, and my faith community expanded to include my wife. We became involved together in an interdenominational Christian retreat movement for the physically handicapped. We worked intensely together for the next five or so years with the handicapped. We shared many intimate friendships with the Christians involved in that loving community. The personal sacrifices of time, energy, money, and emotion that were constantly offered by these workers more than revived my faith in my fellow man. My wife and I grew together through our work. We taught each other many things. Our life as a couple was much enriched by our involvement in the handicapped movement.
We, of course, had our difficulties like any other married couple. One, which was especially bitter for me, was the discovery that I was infertile. We had tried a long time to have children and when nothing happened, we went through the usual medical workups. I later found out that it was not uncommon for Vietnam vets to be either infertile or to have chromosomal damage that could lead to birth defects. The use of defoliants such as Agent Orange and other insecticides may have contributed to this. After much thought, we decided to attempt an adoption. Infant adoptions in recent years have become extremely difficult. Problems associated with availability of infants, as well as medical tests and background studies that take months require much patience. After two years of waiting and a few major hurdles, such as the time I lost my job and the agency stopped the processing of our application because I was unemployed; the day did arrive when we were notified that a baby boy was waiting for us. We had 24 hours notice. I remember driving home on the parkway after hearing that news. I was stunned, but my feelings were running deeper than that. I had accepted the fact that I couldn’t father a child—I’m good at accepting bad news that I have no control over. But what I was seeing here was that God was giving us this child. Yes, this child was coming via another woman whom we would never know; but he was coming to us from God. I was completely and totally humbled by this gift of life. It was not something I had earned or had a right to. It was a gift freely and lovingly given. I found myself driving down the highway trying to see the other cars through a veil of tears that wouldn’t stop. At the time I didn’t understand what was happening or what I was feeling. It took a while to sort out. This wonder child has been a challenge, a joy, and a mysterious blessing ever since that day.
Looking back on my life, I have come a long way since I stepped off that plane returning from Vietnam. I have been blessed with a wife and a child, with a wonderful group of wonderful Christian friends, and a strong family willing to extend a hand when necessary. That horizontal dimension of faith had gone from zero to near overwhelming. My life was full of people reflecting the love of Christ to me, and we celebrated that love in song, in the Eucharist, in our prayer life, and in our work together.
Faith, simply put, is our love relationship with God. Despair in any of its many manifestations is ‘the sickness unto death’. Despair exists in our hearts anytime our relationship with God is not right, when it’s not together, when we deny our bond with Him, whenever we find ourselves separated from Him for whatever reason. This kind of despair is the most serious illness or malady that we are capable of suffering. It is the ‘the sickness unto death’. It is more terminal than death. Our love of God has to be the number one priority, our central focus, our raison d’etre or the ground of our being. He was most earnest when He said, "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me." We must get past the ‘offense’ that is at the crossroads of faith. We must be willing to be in God’s debt and to know that He is sovereign and not we ourselves. Our efforts must be in trying to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love—love that would be willing to sacrifice His Son, our Lord for our redemption. And our work is the building of His Kingdom. As Jesus told Martha in the Gospel according to St. John (11:25): "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."
Thomas Vaillancourt, June 1985