A few years after the Vietnam War, I left active duty and joined the Army Reserves. As a battalion chaplain, I noticed an interesting pattern with some of the other vets. It seems that they were returning to the military for no other reason than to sort out their war experiences with others who knew what they'd gone through.
Many of them had been exposed to such assaults on human sensibilities that sights and sounds were seared on their minds, haunting them. These soldiers had done whatever they could to get through their tour of duty, but when they got back home, they didn't leave behind the mental impressions and the emotional turbulence.
Often when I talked to a vet, he wanted to know if I was a vet too. Empathy helps. Certainly my tour in Vietnam broke open my shell of self-interest and evolved a greater sympathy for the sufferings of those around me. And I was so grateful for others whose sympathy let me know that I wasn't alone in encountering feelings I'd never experienced before.
Ultimately, I found that my sympathy was most helpful when I recognized something else we had in common: that we were children of a loving God, dwelling in a spiritual reality that was untouched by the imprint of war.
Jesus knew that there was a more substantial reality than the material world and its impressions. He called it the kingdom of God. His birth, healing works, and resurrection broke the barriers of mortality and illustrated the effects of this spiritual reality in human lives. The most devastating of experiences can never affect this spiritual reality of being. He said, "My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
This promise was made before his crucifixion and pointed to his ultimate resurrection. Witnessing Jesus' crucifixion must have been overwhelming for his followers. In Jesus' life they'd come to know and trust a God of love that made sense of life. To them, the crucifixion appeared to be the total defeat of good. In a sense, it was their crucifixion too.
Afterward, on the walk to Emmaus, two of his disciples were talking, trying to make sense of the horrific events they'd witnessed. Then, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them and patiently persisted in penetrating their grief and calming their fear until they could recognize him and understand that he was risen. Evil and hate didn't have the last word.
In a sense, all of us who have witnessed suffering that has pushed us to the margins of human stability are on a walk to Emmaus. The Christ is with us, doing what it has always done. The Christ, so fully expressed in Jesus, is the ever-present spiritual reality of being making plain to disturbed and disoriented human thinking our well-being in God's love.
Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy glimpsed and then explored this reality that healed her in her desperate search for meaning in life's tragedies. She shared in her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "Take heart, dear sufferer, for this reality of being will surely appear sometime and in some way. There will be no more pain, and all tears will be wiped away. When you read this, remember Jesus' words, 'The kingdom of God is within you.' This spiritual consciousness is therefore a present possibility" (pp. 573-574).
A war vet experienced that encouraging promise when he read her book. After suffering for decades from some physical impairments of war, he was healed. He wrote in a letter reprinted in the back of Science and Health: "My peace of mind is giving me a rest which I never experienced before during my life, and I have ceased to look away off for the divine presence that was always near, though I did not know it" (p. 675).
As you sympathize with soldiers struggling to recover, let your sympathy evolve into a prayer that acknowledges the presence of spiritual reality making itself known to them in a peace that is untroubled and unafraid.