Columnist John Paradis: New era of spiritual awakening

  • Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3104 Commander Brian Willette claps following a speech Feb. 16, 2017, during the first South Hadley veterans' recognition breakfast at South Hadley High School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, January 11, 2018

While taking down the Christmas tree in my family room last Saturday, I saw reports of Pope Francis delivering a homily during an Epiphany Mass at the Vatican.

Following Christ, he said, is to help the poor and to give freely without expecting anything in return. Don’t make the pursuit of money as the goal of one’s life. People, he said, must resist “inclinations toward arrogance, the thirst for power and for riches.”

Before I go further, I should state that while I celebrate the transcendent story of Christmas and greatly admire the leadership of the pope and the many good deeds of the Catholic Church, I don’t worship Jesus as the son of God or as the savior or the messiah.

During my years in the service, before a military deployment the chaplain would hand me a nickel-size pewter pocket angel to guide me and protect me. He would say the angel should remind me of God’s love and that God was watching over me from above.

I’d thank the chaplain but by then my religious leanings had changed from being raised Roman Catholic to how I would best describe who I am today: a Unitarian and humanist who just wants people to lead ethical lives and to help the greater good of humanity.

In the military, they say that there are no atheists in foxholes, but my experience was quite the opposite. By the time I got to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, my prayers to Jesus had already gone unanswered after losing some close friends and family. And in a world in which religious zealots blow themselves up and kill in the name of God, where priests have assaulted children, and politicians quote scripture in crafting public policy, I had become quite disillusioned with organized religion and those who would use faith to sow division.

Most of the veterans I have come to know in the Valley, and who I consider friends, would say they have a religious personality without a professed religious belief. And the younger the veteran, I have found, the less likely they are to go to church or belong to a religious denomination or faith.

But veterans are hardly alone. Surveys have consistently found that more Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics, nearly double the number in surveys taken just a generation or two ago.

It seems each succeeding generation is less religious than the preceding one but yet, as a community, we all, veterans and civilian alike, need comfort in finding something that would otherwise be missing.

This likely explains the appeal and growing popularity of programs like Cathedral in the Night, an outdoor Christian community in downtown Northampton, and Building Bridges, a local initiative started by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts to provide free luncheons for veterans.

At the luncheons each week at the World War II Veterans Association —The Deuce — in Northampton, you won’t hear Bible readings or religious rituals, although a blessing is said before the meal is served. Instead, the centerpiece is communal bonding and an informality that appeals to an otherwise disparate array of veterans and differing views.

The same is true up in Greenfield where lunch is served each Thursday at the Elks Lodge and at various other luncheons in the lower Valley, including West Springfield and in Holyoke.

The luncheons are filling a void in focusing on what people value. Over a warm plate of meatloaf or lasagna, it’s also as much about satisfying one’s appetite as it is satisfying any spiritual yearning.

Veterans also like being challenged to fix problems and to help with problems affecting our community and making the world a better place. In the Valley, veterans have taken leadership roles on issues such as homelessness and the luncheons serve as a place to get together and just share thoughts and ideas.

This month, on Jan. 17, the luncheon in Northampton will also feature a TED Talks-style presentation with veterans talking about their experiences after they left military service and about continued community service as a way to inspire others in the veteran community and to dispel stereotypes.

Last Saturday, many Christians observed Epiphany to recall the three wise men who followed a star to find the baby Jesus. It was the same Jesus who would one day overturn the tables of money-changers in the Jerusalem temple.

In his homily, the pontiff asked what star have we chosen to follow in our own lives. Some stars may be bright, but do not point the way, he said. “So it is with success, money, career, honors and pleasures, when these become our lives,” the pope added.

As I carefully boxed the star that was on top of the tree in my home, I reflected carefully on the homily of Pope Francis and wondered how many of us will keep the holiday spirit all year long.

Life can be lonely and challenging and we all want and need to be part of a supportive community. There’s a new era of spiritual awakening out there that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a pew on a Sunday.

“In fact it was Jesus himself who was the very example of outreach — he took his message outside of the formality of the temple, the church, and to the people,” says Rev. Christopher Carlisle, the director of the Building Bridges program and special assistant to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

In this time of great national cynicism, I can rejoice in joining friends and family in spiritual reflection. Church can be anywhere that people can find something meaningful about their lives and something greater than themselves that they can connect with.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System, and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.