Essays















Meeting God in Iraq

Somebody recently asked me to explain, in as simple a way as possible, what it was for me to ‘meet God’. I can’t really do that, being too in love with sophistication of writing. But I will attempt it.

It took a long preparation for me to meet Jesus in life, and not merely, to ‘meet God in Mark’ (as Rowan Williams has it, in a reading of St Mark). What Rowan Williams means is, meeting Jesus in his story in the gospel of Mark is a way of meeting God. But it does not answer the question about how I personally met God, if I were to tell you that I met God by reading the Bible. It was something personal.

My approach to meeting God, which is also specifically meeting Jesus, took a long circuitous route, via poetry and philosophy and the army; and I would betray the truth if I did not also mention how poetry leads you to God. I was interested in ideas and poetry, so they were involved in my meeting.

I suppose you can meet God, and it would not necessarily be a matter of meeting Jesus. But for me, it was a case of meeting Jesus specifically. Because it may not have been like that, and it was specifically Jesus the man that I met, then I have some special explaining to do.

So, let’s get to it: the meeting, the fact that God is Jesus, and the poetry which led me there.

Around November 2007, I was outside Basra meeting the Scots Guards battlegroup stores convoy. We had been in Basra for nearly six months, and it was time for the new battalion to take over. I was in a Warrior armoured fighting vehicle that night; we were in the desert, with hardly a light of any kind for miles around; I suppose we were not far from the Kuwait border. I was not alone at the time; Lieutenant Kerr was in the turret with Barnard; I remember that a TA private was with me in the dismounted soldiers’ compartment, and two others who I don’t recall. What happened around midnight was not especially dangerous or even strange compared to other events during my time in Iraq. I had and would still do the same simple thing again many times. Our job that night was merely to protect the convoy of supplies as it came north to Basra, by monitoring the open ground around the road. Around midnight, Mr Kerr saw a vehicle pull up around a mile away; he saw a handful of men get out and start fussing around a bit, at the roadside. He and Barnard used their vehicle scopes to try to figure out what they were doing; I suppose that they were doing it along the route which the convoy was going to take. After about ten minutes the men got back in the pickup and drove away, back where they came from.

In order to find out what they had been doing, and maybe to question them (although it was by this time too late for that), our Warrior then drove to that exact place along the road. Mr Kerr opened the back door to the dismount compartment, and the four of us in the back go out to see what we could find about what had just happened.

It was not long before I found the pickup tracks and the gathering of footprints. It was at the start of a bridge. It was hard to see the bridge in the dark. It was very difficult to work out what was going on at all. The four of us had been in the back of the Warrior for about six hours, and smelling fresh air and seeing the world around always came as a shock to the senses. It was very dark and I had this big flashlight. I started looking at a particular plastic roadside object around which I imagined there were lots of footprints and signs of activity. I thought that it was a bomb. I told the others to halt and just wait while I looked at it more closely. It was about ten minutes later that, not finding any wires or actual evidence of a bomb, I told them to get back into the Warrior; I also told Mr Kerr that there was nothing to worry about.

I suppose that, in any normal world, what happened was this: five or six Iraqi men had made a trip across the desert. They had seen a plastic roadside object indicating a bridge. They got out, looked at the bridge, decided it was too weak for their vehicle, and then decided to chose another route. That would be normal life; and probably what, in this existence today, actually happened.

What happened to me was: I saw a bomb at the side of the road. It was crafted to look like a roadside marker. I did not see the bridge particularly, but I did see evidence of shovels, of digging, of invisible wires. I also saw the bomb explode in my face a few times. I do not know if that happened to me. Who knows what happens to you when you die, or when a colossal explosion kills you? Do you live on somewhere else, like in a computer game? But I realised that I was not dead. I began looking for the pickup truck, to see if I was being watched. I was also under pressure to decide about this thing: was it a bomb or not? I couldn’t decide. And I did not want to call out Bomb Disposal teams – which would embarrass me.

All through the time in Iraq, and for many years before, I had I suppose been very much like WB Yeats. I believed that a man creates himself and his own life. That the world is an illusion ruled over by nothing but me, myself. That there are gods, sort of like immortal people; and that they play a game with us. That the supreme values and attitude to life should be pride in the face of danger; that you should not be afraid – but play the game of life with danger and death, and win it. To be cold, indifferent to life; to be hard and to undergo hardships with indifference. And, romantically, to cultivate love for family; and to embrace a story of your life in which you are a hero. In my vision of life, I was a loyal servant of the Crown, a defender of my homeland, and of the Royal Welsh.

I was never afraid of death; I was afraid of being ashamed of myself. And the immortal gods were a part of my mythical world image. They were gods like Roman gods, of hearth and home, and family. It was a poetic life I led.

So, hard and self-assured, and a loyal fearless soldier of the British Crown, I took my lads back into the Warrior. Mr Kerr and Barnard drove us back to the original place we had been at, a mile distant. Somebody remarked that they thought that ‘this time’ they had found a bomb, but that it can’t have been, because I, Corporal Powell, had told them that it wasn’t.

That is when I started to doubt myself very badly; I suppose that my whole personality, after many months of something much worse, had finally given way. I must point out that the event I have just described was the most peaceful and calm event of the whole time in Iraq. And yet it was also the worst. To be brief: back at our starting point, I realised that, if that bridge were in fact loaded with bombs, then the Scots Guards convoy would be destroyed by them in some terrible way, and that it would be my fault. The idea of this was such a shameful thought that, inwardly, I began to search around for a way out of the terrible guilt and suffering which fell on me.

To anybody else, or to me at any other time, there would have been some simple expedient to hand. Ask Mr Kerr to go back there for another check; or, call the bomb disposal engineers; or, just forget it. But something about that so calm moment in the desert, and the almost blissful darkness of the night, and the gentleness of it all, the solitude at that bridge, seemed beyond anything commonsensical. It was the moment of my life when I was going to cause mass destruction, and live on in everlasting shame. That is what it looked like to me.

So, I began to look to my home, my gods, my family, my friends, my honour, and found in them nothing which could help me. Especially those gods, and my pride. The thought of these old friendly mythical things made me feel physically sick with panic. They didn’t care for me in the least. They, famously in the Iliad, actually wanted destruction and death because, as I used to tell myself, from Heraclitus: the gods love those who die in battle. They want people to die. And, the gods live our death, and die in our life. They come to life when there is destruction and human wreckage.

Then, of course, I put those gods aside, and became more 'ordinary', more like everybody else, without poetry (I don't know how other people live, but some of them might live without myths and poetry, I suspect. And I was able to do that, too, for the most part). In a commonplace view of what was going to happen, I was about to cause other people to die, and I would be to blame for not doing my job properly. I would be put on trial, and would carry on my 'normal' life as a guilty man, covered in shame and pity. It was unbearable. I put away every illusion and stood naked before the inevitable catastrophe: armour, rifle, orders, helmet, all lying around me uselessly, spiritually speaking.

Calming myself down, I began to find some essence of stability and calm in side myself, alone there before the universe and total spiritual annihilation. The other lads went on with their insolent and humourous dialogues and conversations, as usual. But in the quiet and darkness of my solitude, I cast about for help from within; deep in the highest solitude and quiet I remembered that there is a God who loves peace. Who was once a suffering man himself, and whose entire life embodied pure love of inner stillness and indifference to suffering, and yet also promised that he wanted not emotion, hate, and destruction; but rather, that guilt and shame and weakness were things which he could wash away because as God, he had suffered these things, and taken them away from people who loved him.

I suppose that I prayed in absolute quiet and stillness for the first time, driven to it be a terrible vision which I could not tolerate. I found calm, and God; but specifically that God, Jesus, the man, who when he was a human being, lived as follows: always focused in the heart on God; and always leading people to the supreme stillness of a person who despises the world because he is thinking of God; and yet, who takes part in our world of destruction and passion; even though he was eventually crucified by it.

A Christian lives in the world of danger and excess and passion, and pride, and competition; and, at the same time, all the time tries to maintain his link to God in the heart and mind, and therefore, to create a world of peace and order around him. As I then saw, this is what a Church is: a world of order inside a world of danger and chaos. I prayed to Christ fervently, and promised to be part of his Church; and, promised to try to be near to him more often. These are the two things I offered to the man, Jesus, if God would only take away the terror and world-collapse from me. It was a bargain with Jesus, but I thought that, as a man, he would understand. And that, with what remained of my life, I could do the two things I had promised. Encourage the Church and its peace for the world, and, do so in my private life too, throwing aside the stupid old gods, and the ancient pre-Christian ideas of poets, and making a new immortal life with God.

It would not be possible for me to live like Christ myself; but it would be possible to slowly move toward making a world where other people and myself could live as he did. That was the long term promise I made during my conversation with Jesus that night. That was what I offered.

In the short term, I wanted him, as Lord of Creation, to take away my total collapse and humiliation as a man, and let me survive. Having cried out to Jesus in this way that night, I found it possible to continue to live on through the following hours and days with assurance that everything would be well.

I believe that all people are made in such a way that the ultimate resolution of their most difficult problems, including their own death, or the murder of others, can only be resolved by a relationship with God. This occurs in an absolute stillness, where for that time of stillness, we can be without sin and error. And that attaining this condition is the point of being alive.

In addition, while it is possible to attain this condition and call yourself a Buddhist, or Hindu, or whatever, that only Christ was the Son of God, actual God. And that, he spoke to me, and I to him, not as a Lord on one side, and a servant and suffering error on the other (me), but as actual God as actual human being. In no other way could I have met God that night; nor could there be a society worth building and bringing the Church to, other than the one which holds Him as its highest ideal: in that Church, every Christian can be the friend and son of God. No other idea is worthy, or true.

This, of course, is a matter of faith. I express this view following my own experience.

A Note on Poetry

The notion of stillness was something with which I was only vaguely familiar before that night. I first caught sight of it in poetry, and in some philosophy. In the philosophy of Heidegger it was vaguely expressed. I had been studying his work for a long time prior to Iraq, and had just published a book on his works. So I was not totally unprepared. I offer the following remarks so that others can see and make preparation, so that when they are tested, they may see the signs, and know what to do, and make the right choice. So that, when called, you may hear, and hearing, listen, and then respond.

The attitude and ideas which I held before my conversion where very similar to those of the poet WB Yeats. But we can speak of this poet in another essay. What is important to say is that it is possible to continue to enjoy Yeats’s work, or the ideas of non-Christians with something like understanding. As an Orthodox Christian, I see his work, and other efforts in non-Christian directions as not something which I outright condemn, but which are always making the journey toward the truth; and not having quite made it.



Postscript

Careful readers will ask: did the Jesus which you spoke to at that moment do what you asked, and did you do what you promised? That is, was the whole course of time and space changed for your benefit, so that peace occurred instead of life-destroying terror? I can’t say, of course. But that is for me alone to mull over; but God can do that.



Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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