Thomas Merton wrote: “If I dare, in these few words, to ask you some direct and personal questions, it is because I address them as much to myself as to you. It is because I am still able to hope that a civil exchange of ideas can take place between two persons — that we have not yet reached the stage where we are all hermetically sealed, each on in the collective arrogance and despair of his own herd. If I seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of the situation that still exists, it is, frankly, because I sometimes feel it may not continue to exist much longer. In any case, I believe that we are still sufficiently ‘persons’ to realize we have a common difficulty, and to try to solve it together. I write this, then in the hope that we can still save ourselves from becoming numbers.”
These words, from the essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” have come to the front of my mind today for several reasons. The first being that, as has been frequently displayed on this website in recent weeks, the more that I read, the more that I pray, the more that I reflect late into the night and during the pauses of the day on the call to Christian discipleship found in the Gospel and vocationalized in Baptism, the more fervently I realize that the way of the Christian is the way of nonviolence. It is a challenge that remains uneasy, it is a truth that is at times difficult to grasp within the context of a broken and violent world.
The second reason being that many who only know me from my published articles or this website may not know the complexity with which my own personal narrative intertwines with the challenge of nonviolence and military service, perhaps one of the greatest obstacles readers of my work find in trying to appropriate these reflections. I am the son of a United States Marine Corps officer, a veteran, no longer in active duty. But the slogan is aptly correct, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” I was born, baptized and, for the first several years of my childhood, raised on military bases in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. I am not unfamiliar with the lives and deeply difficult challenges that face military personnel and families.
The third reason is that in high school — I attended a private Catholic high school — I spent three years as a very active member of the NJROTC program. Among the usual courses a student at a high school in New York State takes and those unique courses offered to private students at a Catholic school, I also studied Naval Science for three years, wore the modified uniform of the United States Navy for three years, went to a week-long bootcamp in Rhode Island, and spent time at a Naval Base in Virginia. I served as a chaplain during my junior year, coordinating, among other things, service projects for NJROTC students at nursing homes and elsewhere. And my senior year I was promoted to Company Commander, serving as the commanding officer of four platoons (half of the eight-platoon battalion). I was very good at what I did, promoted to the second-highest rank, second only to the Battalion Commander, and near graduation given the sword of a Naval Officer in honor of my service. Some of my close friends subsequently went on to serve in the military, one of which recently renewed his commitment as a Naval Officer for another six year.
I share these lesser-known details of my experience so help illustrate that my life is as complex as everyone else’s and that my interests are at times equally in conflict. I do not regret those experiences of my youth, begrudge my father’s fine service to the USMC or look down on my military friends — on the contrary, I have nothing but the highest respect for them and treasure my time in NJROTC, what I learned and the leadership skills I honed.
But my way of looking at the world has changed and continues to change. I don’t believe that I could enroll in such a program today, nor would I feel capable of military service as such. I have very mixed feelings about military chaplains, particularly Franciscan chaplains, yet I know several current and retired friar-military chaplains, including the two-star admiral and former chief of naval chaplains, who is a friar from my province.
In sharing these reflections I want to highlight that nothing is always as black-and-white as one side or another would like a situation to appear. Merton got it right in his recognition that there exists a real temptation to retreat into a zealous and close-minded perspective of this or that variety, excluding dialogue and understanding of the other.
I am committed, as best I can, to loving every person and meeting them where they are, while at the same time holding true to my commitment as a Christian and a Franciscan friar to nonviolence, respectfully raising the questions that challenge all, myself included, to strive more and more honestly to live our baptismal vocations. As I attend the ROTC commissioning ceremony this afternoon, supporting the students I have come to know this year at Siena College, I bear this complex set of feelings as one. I can only pray: “peace and all good.”