A Table in the Presence of My Enemies
Fr. David Alexander · March 31, 2010
Fr. David describes what it's like to build and prepare an Orthodox altar for his Marines in Afghanistan, most of whom are not Orthodox Christians.
Good evening, my time, good morning, your time, from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. I have finally arrived here with my Marines. We have been in the country now for several days and done a bit of a tour around the country just in order to get here. There are not a lot of easy ways into Afghanistan, so we were able to fly through a couple of air bases. Along the way I was able to meet other chaplains from the Air Force and from the Army. I got to meet with some of the division chaplain staff from the 82nd Airborne which was a good time. But we’re finally here and we’re getting settled in.
We are not going to be here forever. I can’t say exactly where we’re going next and when, but we are preparing for something that is coming up. For right now everyone is trying to settle in and get over their jet lag, get briefings and a better idea of where we’re going and what we’re going to be doing. Everything’s looking toward the future. Still, even though we’re looking toward the future, preparing, getting everyone ready, I’m spending a lot of my time just getting around and seeing Marines.
Since we came over in a lot of stages and times, I’m seeing a lot of Marines I haven’t seen for six weeks even. So it’s been good to catch up with everyone. I really look at these Marines and feel like part of their family. We, of course, talk all the time about family. Of course I have a subtle but profound sense of fatherhood as a chaplain. I care for them and I really am glad to be back together with the unit as a family, as a whole.
We have all gotten our billeting where we’re going to be staying. It’s very nice here. The weather is really very nice. It’s been in the 60s and there’s been a little bit of rain, but it doesn’t stay for very long. There are very crisp, cool mornings and it gets warm during the day, which is actually my favorite kind of weather. It reminds me of a couple of different places that I have lived. I have really enjoyed putting on a fleece in the morning, a fleece on in the evening, but have been able to get down to short sleeves during the day. And that’s how it is here. It’s been nice for running, and I’ve been able to go out running with a couple of different groups. It’s not such a super dusty time—Afghanistan gets very dusty. It’s the rainy season, so it rains enough right now to keep the dust kind of together, congealed.
We have a chapel here in my living area. It’s very small. Actually, the last set of chaplains who are just leaving—we’re not replacing them exactly—a chapel staff that is rotating out built it with just stray wood and nails they picked off the ground. It’s a tent on the inside with a lot of wooden structure. There’s an altar and there are pews of sorts, tables and different things to hold Bibles and religious books. It’s really nice. It’s small, and I want to say it probably holds 50 people.
That’s been my altar in the morning. That’s where I say my morning prayers and where I hold morning devotions. We’ve already started doing that. It’s something I really believe in. I’m doing morning devotions starting at 0700, which is actually a little bit late. But when you’re on deployment, you tend to work really late and then sleep in a little bit later in the morning. So 0700 is just about when everyone has showered and eaten and they’re heading to work. The devotion is 15 minutes, and we read a psalm together, have time to meditate on the psalm, and then I say a few words and close in prayer.
I’ve been using, both in our training times and now as we’ve begun our devotions here in Afghanistan, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms. It’s really great. I’ve never read through the book fully. I’m reading it just before devotions and most of the time taking some fresh concept or something that struck me in the reading and offering it. It is something that helps me center and get ready for the day. It’s something I also offer to my Marines.
As we come up to this Sunday, I’ve been thinking today about what it means to take this wooden altar that’s been left here and prepare it and build it through consecration into a true altar where the Lord Jesus will be sacrificed for the life of the world—a table in the presence of my enemies. Even though I may be the one praying, it is he that builds the table, as David said. A table is built for me.
Another Orthodox priest at Camp Lejeune, which is where my Marines are stationed when we’re not deployed, Fr. Milton Gianulis, a priest of the Greek Archdiocese, has been the pastor of the chapel there for the last couple of months. I have been able to work under him instead of being by myself which has been great. He’s a great pastor and a good friend as much as he can be a friend, outranking me, so much as he does. Right before I came, he and his wife had my family over for dinner. We were talking and he said, “You know the first thing I do when I deploy is I build an altar—before I settle in and before I’m even fully unpacked, before I’m completely comfortable with my clothing and where I’m going to shower and where I’m going to eat—I find where I’m going to build my chapel. That is where I go every day. It’s what sustains me spiritually, it’s where I’m going to say my prayers for the battalion, my prayers for my family, my prayers asking God for help on my own behalf.”
That seemed really right to me, and it’s something I really wanted to do when I came. Although I find a wooden altar in shape here, I think it’s no less my work cut out for me to build this altar. I have a Silva compass, a flat-faced compass, that you can put down on a surface and it will obviously point in the cardinal direction. So I come in the morning, and have been for the last couple of days, and line up this altar to face East.
I built this altar in the midst of my people, far away from home, and yet it is home. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning—I go to the altar. It’s the last thing I do before I go to sleep at night—I go to the altar—and I light the candles and I say prayers. I say prayers for my family, I beg God’s blessing, I sing the troparia to St. Herman, and I’m ready for the day or I’m ready for the night.
I was thinking how ironic in a sense it is—I build an altar, an Orthodox altar, and yet people come in the morning to the chapel from all kinds of different Christian backgrounds. Near the altar, in offices next to the altar, I talk to people from all kinds of backgrounds—not just Christian. It’s an Orthodox altar that I build so that I can have the strength and the insight to minister to all people.
When I say “offices,” of course, I mean tents for the most part. There are a couple of plywood buildings, but I mean spaces where people work. It’s ministering to the many, coming from many different backgrounds, that is the difficult part. I know how to say my prayers, even though I’m not as faithful to them as I should be. I know what it means to be sustained by prayer. But it’s difficult to minister in a pluralistic environment. It’s something that we’re going to have to talk about if I’m going to do a blog on military chaplaincy, because it’s a very important and difficult, controversial part of military chaplaincy.
Pluralism is just what it sounds like. It is the state of existing in plurality. It is many different ideas, many different backgrounds, co-existing. Religious pluralism is an institution—like the United States of America at its highest sense, certainly the United States military—where people who are of different faith practices, and observant and passionate about those faith practices, exist together in peace. One of the chaplain’s primary duties—as certainly outlined by the Chief of Chaplains and by each of the branches of the service (each has a Chaplain Charter which goes through the responsibilities of the chaplain)—is always the defense of freedom of religion under the First Amendment to the Constitution of this country.
I recently listened to a podcast where Dr. Bouteneff from St. Vladimir’s (podcast, Sweeter than Honey) was interviewing a good friend of mine, Fr. Sean Levine, who is actually the godfather of my baby. He was an Army chaplain for some years and an OCA priest. Dr. Bouteneff asked Fr. Sean how much of chaplaincy is being an Orthodox priest, serving liturgy and the other services of the church and administering the sacraments of the church, and how much of chaplaincy is being an Orthodox priest just loving other human beings, from all different places and backgrounds, with the love of Christ. I don’t remember the exact percentage Fr. Sean gave but it was something like 75% or 80% or maybe even 90%. There’s not that many Orthodox in the military, certainly compared to Evangelical Christians or people of no professed faith or Roman Catholics. In fact, I think about a fifth of the Marine Corps professes to be Roman Catholic, whether observant or not. It certainly has the highest percentage of Catholics of any branch of the armed forces.
But it was interesting for me to hear Fr. Sean say that and to think about it in that way. I really appreciate the way that Dr. Bouteneff phrased the question. I completely agree with Fr. Sean’s answer. So much of this job is loving people with the love of Christ that has shown forth in our lives as Orthodox and loving people who aren’t Orthodox. It’s very difficult for a couple of reasons. I think pluralism forces you as a priest, as a chaplain, to decide what position you are going to take toward people who don’t believe like you do. Now an obvious extreme boundary of this sort of position is, one, you can be an utter chameleon. Unfortunately I’ve met some chaplains who are like this. They will generally try to be all things to all people denominationally. I actually met a chaplain one time when I was an enlisted man who said, “If you’re Jewish, I’ll be your rabbi, and if you’re Islamic, I’ll be your imam, and if you are Catholic, I’ll be your priest, and if you are a Baptist, I’ll be your pastor.” I think he actually was a Baptist.
Now very few chaplains, in fact I’d almost say none, will take this route to that extreme. But that extreme exists. That’s the one extreme boundary—to just be all things to all people and sort of serve any sort of faith group actively. The other side of chaplaincy, the other extreme boundary if you will, is to ignore your duty to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States which is the military officer’s oath and your role as a chaplain to uphold the First Amendment rights of all Americans and to secretly work against anybody who doesn’t come from your faith tradition to try to sabotage their ability to worship and to really impede their freedom under the Constitution. Again, very, very few chaplains would fall into this category, at least in its strictest sense.
So you can see the tension. I can’t leave the teachings of the Orthodox Church, but I also have to protect the freedom of those who aren’t Orthodox. I have to help Muslims and Mormons and other people whose world views are very unorthodox; not just unorthodox in a small way, but they’re not Christian. They certainly are not Christian according to creed. In the case of Mormons, although they consider themselves Christians in some ways, it’s been an issue in the Chaplain Corp. Mormon chaplains have been identified as Protestants at different times and this has caused big stirs.
But it’s very difficult for me. In my conscience, I am an Orthodox priest. It’s very difficult for me to help someone who is Mormon or who is Islamic or Buddhist to have the materials they need to worship freely. I certainly don’t lead any services, which is actually a common misperception about chaplains. I don’t lead any kind of service outside of Orthodox. I do a devotional that is open to all Christians—it’s a Christian devotional—and I do usually a study of Scripture one night a week. Although I use some patristic sources, it’s open to all Christians. I think most Christians would feel very comfortable there. But I don’t serve any liturgical services aside from Orthodoxy. And I don’t serve even Protestant non-liturgical services if you even want to say that exists. All have some type of a liturgy whether they would consider it such or not. And yet I still do have to provide for these individuals—Mormons and Muslims to name two, which are sort of starkly different religions.
When I was at chaplain school, there was a young Lutheran Missouri Synod lieutenant that was there studying. He was a seminarian and he left. There’s something called the Chaplain Candidate Program where during your summers at seminary you can intern with chaplains, go to chaplain school, and then you can leave at any time. It’s kind of a recruiting tool—a kind of “come, check it out, and see if it’s for you”. And he couldn’t do it. The reason he left and never became a full chaplain is for this reason: he said, “In good conscience I can never do this. I can never make sure that somebody from a faith group that I think is spiritually harmful… I can never help them.” In good conscience, he said, “Thank you, but no thank you” to the military, and I think it was a respectful parting of ways. In the military, as a Chaplain Corp, we certainly respect ministers’ positions.
That is one of the difficulties of being a chaplain. It’s very difficult. In some ways, it is a special kind of economy for chaplains to function as these representatives of the State. Even as we’re Orthodox priests, we wear the Cross on one side of the collar and we wear rank on the other. We protect people under our constitution which is built on religious freedom among other things. That’s the down side, that’s the difficulty. I build an altar here in the middle of my people and yet most of my people, the vast majority, are not Orthodox. So I build this Orthodox altar to minister to many people, almost all of whom can never receive Communion here. I was thinking of that irony today.
But let me tell you, in a few minutes, what the beauty is of pluralism, what the beauty is of this ministry in spite of its difficulties. As a chaplain, I get to be a light for the Orthodox Church in the midst of many people who do not know what they believe. I get to be a light of the Orthodox Church in the midst of people who believe in something that I think is extremely dangerous to their souls. I get to speak about my faith. I get to pray for them out of the Orthodox prayer book and the Psalms. I get to hold Scriptural studies and devotions where I speak about the traditions of the Church and about the salvation of the Lord Jesus.
I get to teach. I teach my NCOs moral leadership. I talk to them about what it means to be a moral person, the core values that we have in the Marine Corps, and how they are reflected in natural law, in nature itself, and what having a moral code that seems right to all us really points to. I get to teach men and women how to treat their families when they are deployed so that they can flourish. I bless convoys before they go out. Every day I bless our Combat Operations Center. I go in and I open my red prayer book, and I sprinkle holy water, and I read a prayer, and I make the Sign of the Cross. And they love it. My CO (Commanding Officer) asks me from time to time, “Chaplain, did you go to the COC (Combat Operations Center ) today and bless it?”
I have unprecedented access to my people in the military. If you have somebody you know who is hurting, if you have someone you have been talking to deeply about spiritual things, and they work for IBM, you can’t just show up at their work on Monday and walk up to their desk and say, “Hey, I’m here to see Joe.” And they’ll say to you, “Well, that’s great, and who are you? Where’s your identification, where’s your badge?” You say, “Well, I don’t have a badge.” They say, “Well, you can talk with Joe on his lunch break or you can leave a message. Here’s Joe’s number.” In the military, if you are worried about somebody or you’ve been thinking about them or you just want to say “hi,” you just waltz in to wherever they work. They could be turning a wrench, they could be cleaning a rifle, they could be on a range, and almost all the time you can walk straight up to them, and everyone will say, “Hey Chaplain, how’s it going?” You just breeze in there and you say, “Hey, can I talk to you a few minutes? I’ve been thinking about you.” You step aside and the two of you, right there, just talk. It’s incredible—the access.
I celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the middle of my people for the life of the world and for its salvation and for the life of my battalion. I pray for its salvation and I’m here. When they are sick or wounded, I’m there and reading from the prayer book. When they have questions, I’m here and I talk to them about all kinds of things. People come in and talk to me about marriage, divorce, fear, pent-up anxiety, wanting to get into the fight, and not wanting to get into the fight. They talk to me about everything and anything. They do it in an office, they do it in the dirt, and they do it at the chow hall. Everywhere I go, I can sit down with my people, I can eat with my people, I can walk into tents, and they can walk into my tent. It’s an incredible opportunity.
So here I am. I’m in Afghanistan. I’m in the scariest place for an Americans right now in the world. I will build an altar and I will pray at my altar. I will beg the Lord Jesus to bless us at this altar. I’ll beg him to bless us with his truth, his protection, his peace and his light. I’ll beg him here like the persistent widow at this altar. For Orthodox Christians and for all Christians and for people who don’t know the Lord Jesus, I will sit here at my altar, and I will pray. I’ll forgo the comforts of life. I’ll sit on a box for my chair, and I’ll sleep on the ground. I’ll wear dust from head to toe. I’ll shower in a tiny trickle for five minutes a day or every other day. I will eat and sleep and live far away from home, far away from my wife whom I love and miss so much and from my daughter, so that I can have this altar.
This is my post. It’s the honor of my life to stand here. I beg for your prayers for me and for my battalion, that as I worship the King of Glory here in their midst, that this light would shine like a beacon into their hearts and lives. Before I go to sleep in a few moments, I want to read this prayer—the Prayer of the Consecration of the Church, found in the Antiochian Service Book:
O Lord of heaven and earth, who with ineffable wisdom hast founded the Holy Church and hast appointed the Order of the Priesthood upon the earth in likeness of the angels’ service in heaven, do thou, O Lord, receive also we who now make our petitions unto you, not as being worthy to ask such great things of you, but that the exceeding excellence of your goodness may be manifested here; for you have not ceased in any way to be gracious unto mankind. And, as the greatest of your benefits, you have bestowed upon us the coming in the flesh of your only begotten Son, who was seen upon the earth, and shedding forth the light of salvation upon them that sat in darkness, offered himself as a sacrifice for us, and became a propitiation for the whole world, making us partakers of his resurrection; and after he had ascended into heaven, he endued his apostles and disciples as he had promised, with power from on high, which is the Holy Spirit, adored and mighty, who proceeds from you, our God and Father; through whom they also became mighty in deed and in word, administered baptism unto the adoption of sonship, built churches, established altars, and instituted the laws and precepts of the priesthood. And we, unworthy sinners, having preserved that tradition, do fall down before you, the everlasting God, and implore you, O loving and merciful One: Fill with divine glory this temple erected to your praise and show forth the holy altar here set up as the Holy of Holies: that we who stand before it, as before the dread throne of your kingdom, may serve you uncondemned, sending up unto you petitions for ourselves and for all the people, and offering the unbloody sacrifice to your goodness, unto the remission of sins, voluntary and involuntary, and unto the governing of our life, the attainment of an abiding with you and the fulfillment of all righteousness. For blessed is your all-holy name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.