“Twenty centuries of Christianity,” I said. “You’d think we’d learn.” I fingered the small cross. “In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.”

-Phil Klay, Redeployment

2014’s National Book Award winner is an unusual one in several ways. First, it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Its author is part of a new generation of writers who served in the War on Terror. And finally it goes beyond a simple celebration of the ‘other 1%,’ Americans who serve in the armed forces, and looks deeply and with a tone both tragic and colloquial into the moral and emotional casualties of a long, messy war. The unique lens of combat and its aftermath presents vexing questions for a Christian audience in particular. The intensity of war allows certain emotional realities, often hidden in normal life, to crystallize at the forefront. In the short story ‘Prayer in the Furnace,’ A Catholic priest deployed with a Marine infantry unit feels helpless to comfort the broken young soldiers that surround him. But more strikingly, he struggles with a problem less familiar to those in the civilian world. The question of how to maintain these soldiers’ empathy, compassion, and humanity in the harshest of environments, one where these men suffer so deeply that they feel alone in that suffering. One where they can feel so alone in their pain, to the point that only their fellow warriors can understand, that callousness and a dangerous ‘us verse them’ mentality develops as a coping mechanism. One where the isolating effects of enduring extraordinary hardships cut one off from God and one’s fellow man.

220px-Autorenfoto_Phil_Klay‘Prayer in the Furnace’ touches on topics that many intellectual Christians and particularly the writers here at Mockingbird, struggle to tackle. There are questions about the sometimes powerlessness of words and theology to comfort in the most extreme of circumstances. The inability of these neatly wrought theological concepts to bring about the social justice that our society desires. The priest in Redeployment feels impotent to help meaningfully change the desensitized attitudes ingrained in his fellow Marines by constant combat as well as the possible consequences of such apathy for the Iraqi civilian population. The priest starts as many of us would, attempting to use his influence and knowledge of Christ’s teachings to control the situation and manipulate those around him into behaving properly. But his own advice begins to change as he realizes that he too has no control over God or the chaotic events of the world.

“God offers forgiveness,” I said, softening my tone, “to those who are truly sorry. But sorry isn’t a feeling, you understand. It’s an action. A determination to make things right…” “A lance corporal,” Rodriguez said, “don’t have the power to make anything right.” I tried to explain it wasn’t about outcomes, which you can’t control, but about the seriousness of intent.”

The frustrated lance corporal, who recently saw a member of his unit killed by an IED continues:

“I used to think you could help me,” he said. His face turned vicious. But you’re a priest, what can you do? You gotta keep your hands clean.”

I tensed up. It was as though he’d struck me.

“No one’s hands are clean except Christ’s,” I said. “And I don’t know what any of us can do but pray He gives us the strength to do what we must.”

He smiled at that. I wasn’t sure he believed the words I was saying to him or if there were any words I’d believe in. What do words matter in Ramadi?

The priest grows frustrated and disillusioned with his inability to exert any control, any sense of moral rectitude, or any relief from the suffering surrounding him. He struggles immensely with the difficulty of releasing control, of submitting to God, of acknowledging the suffering of this world and looking to the next:

Not long after Sepion’s death, one of the Divine Office’s morning prayers was Psalm 144: “Blessed be the Lord, my help, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.” Kneeling against my rack in my spare little trailer, I faltered. I turned back to the previous prayer from Daniel: “Today there is no prince, no prophet, no leader, no holocaust, no sacrifice. No offering, no incense, no first-fruits offered to you- no way to obtain your mercy.” I stopped reading and tried to pray with my own words. I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew that He would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew he would not. I asked him finally for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.

What strange ideas: not only that there is no offering available to attain God’s mercy but that such a perfect offering has already been given and also that God’s mercy and comfort will not conform to our expectations for this world.

Klay in the middle.

Klay in the middle.

Such questions become harder to ignore in the crucible of war than in the relative comfort of civilian life but they exist in both contexts. Nearing the peak of his frustration, the priest writes in his journal:

I had thought there would be nobility in war. I know I exists. There are so many stories, and some of them have to be true. But I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by the inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance.

And yet I have a sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell.

The moon is unspeakable beautiful tonight. Ramadi is not. Strange that people live in such a place.

Parallels to civilian American life begin to become apparent. They range from the simple inability of most people, particularly the young, to look past this world and truly believe in the possibility of an afterlife. Or the ability of an afterlife to console during times of intense earthly pain and suffering. The difficulty of priests and others to empathize with that suffering when they have not experienced it themselves. The priest draws on two examples analogous to what he was witnessing in Iraq: that of St. Augustine who lamented the sack of Rome but did not experience it himself and the suffering of the father of a terminally ill child who the priest once struggled to bring any relevant message or meaningful comfort:

I didn’t think hope of life to come would provide comfort for Rodriguez, either. So many young people don’t really believe in heaven, not in a serious way. If God is real, there must be some consolation on earth as well. Some grace. Some evidence of mercy.

That father had despaired, but least he was looking at life head-on, stripped of the illusion that faith, or prayer, or goodness, or decency, or the divine order of the cosmos, would allow the cup to pass. It’s a prerequisite, in my thinking, to any serious consideration of religion. What, like St. Augustine, can we say after Rome has been sacked? Except Augustine’s answer, the City of God, is a comfort designed for the aftermath of a tragedy. Rodriguez, that lance corporal, Charlie Company, the whole battalion, they were a different matter. How do you spiritually minister to men who are still being assaulted?

When one man is hit, his NCO blames the fact that he was trying to stay cool in the Iraqi heat by shedding his protective helmet. But the priest realizes that such rationalization and categorization is just another attempt at imposing control over that which cannot be controlled:

Levin had been hit in the neck. PPE wouldn’t have helped. But I guess the sergeant major, like most people, needed death to be sensible. A reason for each casualty. I’d seen the same feeble theodicy at funerals in the civilian world. If lung disease, the deceased should be a smoker. If heart disease, a lover of red meat. Some sort of casualty, no matter how tenuous, to sanitize it. As if mortality is a game with rules where the universe is rational and the God watching over maneuvers us like chess pieces, His fingers deep into the sides of the world.

The priest, fretful and disillusion, writes his mentor in the United States, an elderly Jesuit priest, seeking advice in a time of dehumanizing war. The Jesuit’s response addresses what he can strive to do in an earthly, responsible, interpersonal context when set against the framework of historical context and divine truths:

Redeployment-673x1024First, you must forgive me, though, an old priest who has spent his whole life in relative comfort, for pointing out that your problem is nothing new. I don’t see why it qualifies as a “crisis of faith” to notice that formerly good men, under strain, experience a breakdown of virtue and become bitter, angry, and less inclined toward God. Suffering can indeed incline one to sin, but it can also be turned to good (think of Isaac Jogues, or any of the martyrs, or any of the mystics, or Christ Himself).

Your attempts to bring transgressions to command attention are salutary. But as for your religious duties, remember these suspected transgressions, if real, are but eruptions of sin. Not sin itself. Never forget that, lest you be inclined to lose your pity for human weakness. Sin is a lonely thing, a worm wrapped around the soul, shielding it from love, from joy, from communion with fellow men and with God. The sense that I am alone, that none can hear me, none can understand, that no one answers my cries, it is a sickness over which, to borrow from Bernanos, “the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly.” Your job, it seems, would be to find a crack through which some sort of communication can be made, one soul to another.

It’s hard to say the story takes a positive turn after this. But despite its bleak, realistic tone the reader sees priest begin to regain the sense of purpose he was beginning to lose. In one sermon he echoes the words of Matthew 25, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” by reading the poem of a decorated officer, Wilfred Owen, speaking about leading soldiers in WWI:

Owen writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work- teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.’

This somber tone is, to its core, an honest one. It’s not news we want to hear everyday but ultimately we can find solace in its essential truths. To quote the vignettes’ closing lines, ‘In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.’ But there is no greater discomfort than being alone and no greater hope than having Christ’s outspread arms to lean on.