From Vietnam to Centering Prayer

I remember 50 years ago riding in an UH-34D helicopter heading west over the South China Sea. A clear blue morning greets me under a cloudless sky. We are U.S. Marines heading for the landing zone in Chu Lai, Vietnam. I’m wondering if I will see my 20th birthday in 22 days or even my 21st birthday. I’m carrying a PRC-10 radio on my back and holding an M-14 in my hands straddled between my legs. I land without enemy fire. Marines move out to secure the area. Our strategy is to secure the area around the future airstrip. We dig in, setting up a defensive perimeter for the night. Our May 7th landing ends without casualties.

This is how I remember my first day in Viet Nam. My tour of duty was filled with lots of radio watch, night patrols, digging latrines, hilltop relay stations, sweeping operations clearing out Viet Cong from around the Marine Airstrip. We, the 1st Battalion 4th Marines, swept the surrounding area near the airstrip flushing out Viet Cong to prevent them from attacking airstrip.

Though I walk thru the valley of booby traps and land mines, I feared no evil. Well, not exactly…

Looking back over 50 years I know this was not true. I walked through rice paddies and between booby traps with stretched out trip wires. Sgt. Twinkle Toes stepped up to the trip wire that day and froze saving the lives around him. The command group was spared that day after just barely avoiding the three hilltop booby traps. I was only an arm’s length away from Sgt. Twinkle Toes, which we fondly called him afterwards. We finished the sweep and survived that day. I didn’t make time to be afraid, but it was there, festering inside of me. I was missed by the gunfire, avoided land mines, spent time on isolated outposts and went on night patrols with untrained Vietnamese civilians. It began the long, slow boil of fear simmering inside of me.

I came home outwardly uninjured –without a scratch– but not unaffected. I was subconsciously wounded. The Vietnam War changed everybody. My experiences in ‚ÄúNam‚Äù were not as horrific as I‚Äôve read about or heard other vets describe. I was affected in my soul and subconscious. As I look back I see now that I walked in God‚Äôs protection since there were many chances to be wounded or killed. Unknowingly the fear was building within me as the days and nights added up in my tour of duty.

Why was I spared the most horrible traumatic injuries and experiences while others died or never recovered? The question is always there, nagging away at every veteran. My pastor saw me when I returned home and said, “You sure answered a lot of prayers coming home uninjured.” I thought to myself that they weren’t any of my prayers. I had drifted away from my Christian upbringing. In the years that followed I went to church occasionally to please my mother. My childhood faith and upbringing had begun to slip away.

My childhood contained a stash of fears too. My earliest memory of my parents fighting left me with unrealized fears. I did not have the words to understand the situation, especially not my father‚Äôs drunkenness or his eventual absence before I was four. By the seventh grade I still didn‚Äôt know if my parents were divorced, legally separated, or whatever. We didn‚Äôt talk about dad or his whereabouts. I avoided subjects that I thought might bother my mother.                                                   

After my discharge I worked for a newspaper, and went to college. One day I met my wife to be, with her contagious smile, working in the office of my home church. She had reproduced the lyrics of the song “Sounds of Silence” in the church bulletin, which impressed me enormously. The lyrics seemed radical for a Lutheran church bulletin. I may not have met her had I not needed a paper cutter to trim photographs for a summer job interview. God alone knows what He is doing in our lives. God used her to change my life and renew my faith in Jesus Christ.

After 20 years of marriage and two children, I was rocked by the start of the Gulf War, my mother’s passing, and the death of a close friend, all within three months. I was obsessed with the war effort. What was to happen in the future with Air Force bombing Iraq troops in Kuwait, Marines off shore, and the US Army just across the border? What was the next move? How would today’s Marines fare in this faraway war? My worry and anxiety multiplied and this resulted in many sleepless nights. That’s how the 90’s went for me: anxieties, worrying, insomnia.

I sought relief in medication. My doctor prescribed sleeping tablets so strong that I received only 5. More anxiety, sleeplessness and ER visits to get more sleeping tablets dragged me thru the 90‚Äôs. One tablet and I was fine in the morning–wow! What kind of Christian was I that needed drugs to cope with living? Later I learned that my embedded fears from childhood and my war experiences were erupting inside me. What triggered them were many imaginary future events that never happened. Fear and anxiety had nothing to with my Christian maturity, but they were refining me to grow in faith and trust in God.

The 90’s were coming to a close with family crises, trips for myself to the emergency room, as well as additional ER visits in my capacity as a medical photographer. As part of this work, I witnessed the results of domestic and criminal violence. In 1998, I was introduced to RISEN, a program sponsored by the Catholic Health Care Association of Wisconsin which promoted organizational spirituality. Short for “Reinvesting in Spiritually in our Networks,” RISEN, presented by Sister Rhea Emmer and Nickijo Hager, introduced me to Image Guided Centering Mediation. Within the year I was led to Contemplative Outreach and Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating, which taught me the Centering Prayer Method.

I started practiced Centering Prayer occasionally after reading Open Mind, Open Heart. Shaken again by the events of September 11, I committed to practicing Centering Prayer twice daily for 20 minutes at a time as the method suggests. Even if the world was not going to be more peaceful, I needed to be. I couldn’t choose for the world, but I could choose for me a deeper peace in Jesus. After several years of daily practice I sensed God was more patient in me and for me. My sense of calm and security increased the more I kept my daily prayer, once before work and once during my lunch break.

After I returned from an eight-day retreat to deepen my Centering Prayer Practice, life returned to regular schedule. While I was painting the house using a fully extended ladder, I came to a point where I had to move the ladder. I know from 59 years of painting you don’t move a ladder with a full gallon of paint hanging from the top rung. I didn’t listen to my experience and moved the ladder anyway and the gallon of paint came crashing down. As the can hit the ground, I said to myself, calmly and unemotionally, “Oh, crap.”

My habitual response would be to call myself a dummy or to ask how could I be so stupid. Instead I calmly scooped up as much paint as I could with as little grass as possible. My usual pattern would be to spend the rest of the day beating myself up over this careless act. Centering Prayer made it easier to recover from my mistakes, but I still had other challenges.

I was still struggling with anxiety-causing insomnia. About that time, I was reading God’s Creative Power for Healing, Charles Capp’s healing verses from the Bible. His booklet recommends specific healing verses every day for 30 minutes. In the midst of another anxiety attack, I finally had had enough. I decided to start reading healing scripture for 30 minutes, followed by Centering Prayer for 30 minutes. If I’m truly closer to God’s Presence in Centering Prayer how can my anxiety exist? An hour later my anxiety was relieved and I went to sleep that night without any drugs or hours squandered in worry or anxiety. After several such episodes using this procedure I have not experienced major anxiety attacks like the ones I’d had in the 90’s. God’s Presence and Action within gives me courage and certitude to face present difficulties. God replaces my insecurities with the fruits of the Spirit, as I need them, in the present moment.

Centering Prayer is consenting to God’s Presence and Action within us. His Action within me has been to pour His love into me, pushing out my fear. “God is displacing my fears by renewing me with His love” (Zeph 3:17). “His perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). I’m still me and have anxious feelings, but I avert them by acknowledging God’s Presence and His perfect love that casts out my fears.

Thirteen years of Centering Prayer have taught me to entrust all my daily details to my Father’s care, and to hand over my future worries. It has helped me prioritize love of God first, followed closely by loving service to others. My things come last and if I lose them, God will replace them or teach me to live without them. In Centering Prayer, God is transforming me to trust Him more completely. I guard against taking credit: If I say, “I’m more patient, I’m more peaceful,” then for several days I realize I’m more angry and impatient. If, however, the thought comes to mind, “I’m more patient in You,” I can stay open to God’s Presence and then He can work more effectively in and through me.

Consenting to God’s Presence by sitting in silence seems strange to many; few people jump right into it and some reject it altogether. For many years now I have felt like a corn stalk in soybean field. I don’t expect everyone’s journey to be like mine. There are many paths bringing us nearer to God, and yet I have come to believe that a vital need in every Christian’s life is to take time to find God’s peace in the silence: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)

by David Jorgenson