by Nate Wildermuth
Only say the word and I shall be healed
On December 16th, 2003, I was discharged from the United States Army as a conscientious objector. On Easter of 2004, I was confirmed into the Catholic Church.
“Therefore, the sacrament by which spiritual strength is conferred on the one born again makes him in some sense a front-line fighter for the faith of Christ. And because fighters under a prince carry his insignia, they who receive the Sacrament of Confirmation are signed with the Sign of the Cross by which He fought and conquered.”
- St. Thomas Aquinas
Today at mass I was struck by the prayer we say right before receiving communion, the last prayer Catholics say before consuming the body of Christ. It is the earnest groaning of a ‘front-line fighter’ – the humble plea of the Roman centurion who met Jesus 2,000 years ago: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” (Mt 8:5, Lk 7:1). In this story, the local Roman commander asks Jesus to heal his dying slave, but refuses to let Jesus come under his roof, claiming to be unworthy. In Luke’s account, the soldier feels so unworthy that he refuses even to meet Jesus, and instead sends out messengers to greet him.
And so I said this prayer of the centurion, and I reminded myself of my own unworthiness – recalling my life of sin. And suddenly a question occurred to me: why did the centurion, a pagan of power and honor, feel unworthy to be in the presence of a Galilean carpenter?
A more immediate question may help – why was a Roman centurion there in the first place? A brief history: In 63 BC the Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem, killing thousands. In 6 AD successive Roman procurators began ruling over a rebellious Judea, one of whom was Pontius Pilate. In 70 AD, after a Jewish uprising against the foreign rulers, the centurions of Titus crushed the rebellion and destroyed Jerusalem. Jesus was not the only one crucified during this 100-year period. Thousands were. Their dying bodies lined the highways as examples of those who dared to resist the imperial might of Rome. And Roman centurions were the ones who crucified them. Roman centurions crucified Jesus.
Recalling this history, and recalling that Christ was murdered along with two ‘revolutionaries’, the story of the centurion becomes particularly compelling. It sends a chill crawling along my flesh, for I too was a centurion. I swore oaths of allegiance to banners and leaders. I declared my undying service to the eternal Republic, and fought back tears of pride, devotion, and love. Being a soldier wasn’t just some job. Being a soldier meant something. It went deep – into my heart, a truth of my existence, of who I was. I was an America Soldier: a centurion of the greatest nation since Rome.
And I was just like that Roman centurion. Though we served Caesar, something within us compelled us to seek Christ. Something was burning us from the inside and revealing our unworthiness and sinfulness, letting us know that something was missing. Caesar might own us, but only this Christ could heal us. And so we went out to him.
The Gospels don’t record what happened to the centurion after Jesus met him. Did he return to his life as a centurion of Rome, worshiping Caesar as a deity? Or did he sell his possessions (including his slaves), lay the money at the feet of Christ, and become a disciple? Did the centurion remain a soldier of the Empire and go on to help crush the Jewish insurrections? Or did he follow Christ to the cross and become a martyr?
I don’t know what that centurion did afterwards. All I can share with you is my story, a story of how I was reborn as Christ’s Centurion.
I enlisted into the Army on February 8th, 2000. I joined for all the typical reasons – I was a middle class military brat who’d wasted his time in college drinking and doing drugs, and in the process, had lost my grip on life’s meaning. Maybe I had never had it. But somewhere along the way I pulled together all the different threads of all the ‘wisest’ men’s sayings and found: “If you want to be happy, if you want meaning out of life, then serve others. Don’t live for yourself. Live for others.” With college debts piled up, with my family living a continent away, and with feelings of futility about my ability to do anything else, I joined the Army. The military told me that I’d get $20,000 to become a forward observer. I didn’t care what kind of job they gave me. If it paid that much, if it was being done in order to serve others, if my friends and family all applauded my decision to ‘get some discipline’, then heck yeah – I’d do it. So I did.
Three years later I was in a bunk at West Point, the United States Military Academy, crying. It was late at night, so I was trying not to make any noise. I didn’t want to wake up either of my two roommates. What would they think? I’d been an elite Army Ranger. I was one of twelve out of more than one hundred to graduate from Ranger training. We’d gone through hell and come out burning for more. We were killers, everyone knew that. A Ranger would take his bayonet, stick it in your throat, twist, pull, plunge again, and then piss in your face as you drowned in blood. If America needed someone dead, anyone dead, it’d call us. And we’d do it. We’d hop in an airplane, spend 14 hours chanting about napalming churches and machine-gunning nuns, and then we’d jump out, land, pull out our bayonets, and start to kill. And then we’d come home with medals and laugh and laugh and... and now I was at West Point, and I was going to lead others in wars that I had only dreamt about. I would become a Green Berets officer, and I’d fight for their motto – De Oppresso Liber: “to free the oppressed.” I would kill, yes. I would train others to kill, yes. But I would serve, and I would free those in darkness.
So why was I crying? Wasn’t I an American Soldier? Wasn’t I a steely-eyed killer? Hadn’t the Army given me pride and purpose? Didn’t my parents love me for it? Didn’t men and women buy me drinks at NYC bars, clap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re a hero, soldier. You’re a goddamn fucking hero. Now go kill those fucking terrorists!?”
So why was I crying? What was wrong with me?
The same thing that was wrong with me before I joined the Army, the same thing that’s wrong with every human being. It’s that emptiness we feel inside us. It’s what divides us from one another, causing fights between loved ones, starting wars between nations. It’s what the Church calls original sin – what makes us sinners instead of saints. But we don’t need the Church to tell us that evil exists in the world. We already know it does. We only have to look inside ourselves to know that. And that was exactly what happened to me at West Point. I looked at my life, I looked at my heart, and I broke down and cried.
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I hadn’t joined the Army because of Christ. I hadn’t become a centurion for Christ. I’d done it for America, for my family, for my friends, and ultimately – for myself. And I was still as wretched of a sinner as I’d been before. I still only knew Christ from the fringes of half-forgotten liturgies and half-said prayers. And the last traces of faith were dying within the spiritual vice of Caesar’s Army.
But then, I did what the Roman centurion did 2,000 years ago. Knowing that I was unworthy, knowing that I had no right to approach Jesus, I put away my pride and shame and walked out to him. And when I knelt before Christ, and opened my ears to his Word, he finally spoke. Jesus didn’t want my oaths. He didn’t want declarations of faith. He wanted something more than words. He wanted me to wage his war against our true enemies: death, sorrow, evil. He wanted me to become a front-line fighter for the faith. He wanted me to be his centurion. And in three words, I received my new commission – Christ’s mission: Love your enemies.
These three words contradicted everything I had learned. The world had taught me that we could only fight against evil by being strong and powerful, by crushing our enemies. But Jesus hadn’t been strong or powerful. Instead, looking down from the cross, Christ’s bloody eyes spoke of another way: we fight by loving our enemies, by conquering evil with good. Instead of killing sinners, we convert them. Mercy is our weapon. Sacrifice is our hope. Love is our Faith.
Christ died to save his enemies. He died as the Father’s perfect warrior.
Across the ages, countless centurions have served Caesar and found him lacking.
St. Maximilian, martyr: “I will never serve. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.” St. Marcellus, martyr: “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors.” St. Martin of Tours, bishop: “I am a soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.”
And add St. Victricius, St. Primus, St. Cyrinus, St. Theogenes, and all the other centurions who were persecuted because they refused to fight for Caesar. And we can’t forget St. Francis and St. Ignatius. All of these men had once fought as centurions of the world, but in the spiritual prison of bloodshed, they turned to Christ for freedom. They had all been sinners. They had all been Caesar’s centurions. But they became saints, and are now Christ’s Centurions forever.
Who are we going to be? We can fight for Caesar or for Christ, but not both. One uses violence to forge its empire, the other uses love. One uses force, the other faith. Empires crumble, but the Body of Christ lives forever. For whom are we going to fight? Who will we be? A Centurion of the Empire or a Centurion of Christ?