Douglas Mac Neil
I have thought about writing to you for some time now. The problem I keep coming back to is that you are omniscient. You have read this letter before I have written it. But I think also, that you knew Saint Augustine’s Confessions before he wrote them down, before he made them. In the world of the flesh, sometimes the need of the restless heart overrides the intellect of the brain. Beyond the needs of the heart there exists a place in my mind where I feel that you have been waiting for me to write this letter to you, and it is with this in mind that I do write to you. I have so many questions, but that is not why I am writing to you. You have heard my questions. You have listened to my petitions in my days gone past. As you listen to them in this very moment. And I know that you will hear them in the days that have not yet dawned. And I am so grateful for that.
Today I am sitting here in this Jesuit house by the north Atlantic thinking about you in all I see, in all I hear, in everything I touch, and in everything that touches me. I am here on a spiritual retreat. The entire world is waiting with bated breath for better days in 2021. We are more than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic. The political turmoil within the nation seems to be coming to a breaking point. In it all I am getting older, but I am not sure if I am getting wiser? This January the 17th will mark the 30th anniversary of the first Persian Gulf War. To mark this anniversary, I am taking a vow of silence to last from the beginning of the conflict to the end. It is a total of six weeks of silence in the dead of winter in New England, in the midst of a pandemic. God, what am I thinking? Part of this journey in silence and memory has brought me to this retreat. Here is a house transformed in contemplative silence. The voice of Father Bob at Mass is the only human voice that I hear each day.
Seasons of darkness are in full bloom. The ground blanketed in white is resting under the gunmetal skies that flow unceasingly over the earth in this revolution of winter, and I have come to you for help. I knew this day was coming but how it dawned took me by surprise. It is the month of my father’s birth, now passed from this earth. It is the month of my parents wedding anniversary. This year it would have been 57 years, if Dad had not died in March. Mom, trapped in her small apartment in an elderly public housing complex for the poor, marked the absence of the anniversary alone. And in all this season of darkness my mind returns to the war, to my youth, and to the journey in faith that you have witnessed. Arriving to this destination, I am consumed by a poverty of spirit, broken in grief, stricken and trapped in depression, and circling defeat in the self-imposed isolation of silence. And if it ended today, how would I end?
It amazes me, God, how I have been so convinced at various times that I was right, that I was making the right choices, and that I was doing the right thing. Only to later find out that I was so wrong. Wrong in my thoughts, in my ways, and in my choices. It has been 39 days since I have spoken to anyone outside of work. I was going to start my vow of silence on the anniversary day when the war started, but you brought me to silence on January the 12th to coincide with the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. As always, you were right. I will never forget the feel of the ground moving under my feet on that day. Nor, will I ever forget the sound as thousands of voices started to cry out to you. If I had not been running out of a building at the time that sound would have frozen me still. The thing is that it not only echoed across the island in that moment, but it continued through the night a chorus of terror, prayers of pleading, screams of grief. Natural destruction unfolding in front of me, around, and under me. Balanced against the designed destruction through the war all of those years ago, and I have not forgotten how you delivered me out of the fires of Kuwait and how you have held me safe ever since. In my thoughts right now, it is occurring all over again. And all I can offer it is the silence of my voice in contrition for the suffering my eyes have seen.
And as we enter into the season of Lent, I think of how Jesus was driven into the desert after hearing your voice, God. Days of temptation and silence repeat. I recall how I lost myself in a desert all those years ago. And now silence is returning to me. In the quiet, I meditate on those desert days in a winter war. I think of the path of Christ and where I have found it and lost it. It is a choice of faith and I have chosen to believe. It is in my belief, in this faith, that I have found the only true comfort that I have ever known. God, I do not know what is right and what is wrong anymore. I fight the doubt that breathes in my chest. Knowing the sideways spin of the world in sin and my hand in it all. I continue to wander this world searching for the redemptive moment, knowing I will never find it. The conflict in the human journey leaves no one untouched. Knocking on the door of the church, God, hear my heart, pity this sinful soul who has been so right and so wrong in so many ways, and please, God, hear my prayers that seek understanding and forgiveness for all these failings of mine.
Last night as I wrote, this fatigue was overtaking me. I made my bed in the Jesuit House. A single bed on a simple frame with a crucified Christ over my head. With ocean waves breaking in the near distance, I found sleep.
God, this morning I watched the sun rise over the eastern shores. The play of light and noise in the waking dawn of silence is really something to behold. In the last week, I struggled about coming here. The anxiety of traveling has risen, and I can’t suppress it. I thought about the quote from Hunter S. Thompson: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I thought about it when I was driving here, wanting, desperately wanting, to turn around, but I am taking the ride. Sitting this morning in a solarium, I watched the waves move to the shore, noticing some rolling in softly, quietly, and disappearing. I watched others form in the distance, raging towards the coast. The sea rose blue to white with an aqua green crushed between the waters, coming apart at the height. And I think of you, God, in all of this. I see the waves moving in visible motion. The clouds currently in imperceptible motion. The sun rising over the planet spinning around it, time passing, and where am I in it all? I feel like I am perceptually moving in it all. But under and in what direction am I traveling and to what destination? God, am I on the right course? Am I doing the right thing?
Watching the waves in the solarium, as I was eating breakfast today a fly landed on the table directly in front of me. We are far into winter, and I have not seen a fly in sometime. Like many people, I have an aversion to them, with a default reflex to try and swat it and kill it, but not this time. The Diptera stood on the table rubbing its front legs together and then washing them over its head. The visit lasted for all of one to two minutes before he took flight. The faint buzz, the sight of this insect, brought my mind back to Basra. In the marshlands of southern Iraq, we had found them, or rather, the Diptera had found us. I would never have been able to understand the power of this insect without that experience. Thousands upon thousands, likely hundreds of thousands of them, populated and controlled the marshes. At night, if you were brave enough to enter the tent in the red light of war, you could see the ceiling was covered with the Diptera and it was moving. The sound was not a buzzing, not a humming; it was an operated chainsaw with an amplification of madness and soon the sound of fear enveloped me. As they covered the tent, so too did they cover my body. I recall trying to eat one of the MREs, and as I removed a spoonful of food from the package, ten flies were on top of it. I shook the spoon, shook them away, and brought the spoon rapidly to my mouth, but not before two or three of them had returned and landed on the spoon. I ate them. It was unavoidable. At first, I tried not to. I tried to separate them with my tongue and then I tried to spit them out. That effort only made me feel sick. With the next bite, I shooed them away with my other hand, but they returned by the time the spoon made it to my mouth. I placed the food very close to my mouth and tried to cover the food with my hand, but it made no difference. They are on it, crawling on my hand and on the food package, and getting inside of it. I started to eat faster and the next bite the same thing, until I just started chewing and swallowing. Worrying, irrationally that they would lay maggots in my stomach if I did not kill them in my mouth, I started chewing them thoroughly. And God help me, I asked for you to help me in those moments as I ate them, and as I kept on eating them. And I recall how the nausea would lessen with each day. At night, if I could sleep, and we tried, I often woke with them walking across my closed eyelids, crawling into my open mouth. I would wake up spitting them out, slapping my face, screaming, especially when they were crawling on my ears, but it made no difference. Ten seconds later more were landing on my face. We stayed in the marshes for weeks. We stayed until we no longer heard them, until we no longer saw them, till we no longer tasted them. I think now that it was one of the first acts of penance for our part in the war. We consumed the Diptera that fed off of us. It was a special kind of hell in this world, manifest in the burning oilfields of Kuwait and now in the plague-ridden marshes of southern Iraq. The bill of violence was coming due. My body nourished by the tasteless, dehydrated food as my soul filled like an empty shell in blackness that lies beyond description. And this morning, this simple, beautiful creation of yours, God, brought me back to the marshes of Southern Iraq. And I was reminded, and I remembered, and for that I am so grateful.
I am trying to focus on the presence of you in my life, God. It is part of the reason why I am here in this Jesuit house. It is also a search for peace with the past, with the present, with the future. The capacity to focus in silence is difficult. My mind drifts. Until a simple fly brings me back into the heart of madness in the marshes of Iraq, and maybe it is okay. I think that it is okay. I keep rechanneling my thoughts when I go off track, but I fall back. As I think about it all, I see that you were with me in the marshes, as you were with me in Haiti. In all of this I look for you, as I have looked always for you. I see you in ways and places that are only visible to an eye of faith. I recognize the designer in the design. I hear your voice in the voice of man. I see blessings in deliverance, in perseverance, in tests of faith provided from you to me. God, as I close this letter I want to say thank you for not abandoning me in my hours of need. Tonight, I sleep with a less restless heart knowing that you are with me.
Douglas Mac Neil is an ER Nurse Practitioner and Gulf War veteran. This is his first published story.