Kevin Power’s book, The Yellow Birds, is his first novel and one of the best written accounts of the life of a Soldier in combat that I have read since coming to the Army nearly 35 years ago. It is fiction but Power’s combat experiences are real and it is clear that he has seen into the hearts of many combat Soldiers in a most brutal environment.
His main character, Private Bartle, is a young man with a gift for prose and poetry who joins the Army against his mother’s wishes. He immediately deploys to Tal Afar, Iraq during a time of visceral give and take between Sunni insurgents and the US brigade fighting for control of the city.
Powers contrasts life in combat with life trying to return to normalcy at home by alternating scenes between home and the Army. Bartle struggles to maintain his humanity in combat and to come to terms with his combat experience when he returns home. He finds it difficult to be near family, friends, and a community who cannot understand the very different life he experienced in Iraq. He and his fellow Soldiers had to make hard choices among harsh and ugly alternatives and witness the barbarity visited upon the Iraqi people by the insurgents.
While waiting for his plane home from Germany, Bartle goes AWOL to be alone with his memories and to find solace. On his way to a part of a German town where Soldiers go to drink and seek the company of women he passes a Cathedral. The Cathedral’s beauty draws him through the doors and as Bartle contemplates depictions of Saints’ being martyred, a Priest attempts to befriend him. As they sit next to each other in a pew Bartle’s demeanor and nervous habits prompt this tender Priest to ask him about his burden. “Would you like to talk” Father Bernard asks. “Like confession?” Bartle responds. “I’m not Catholic or anything like that.” “No, just talk” says Father Bernard. “I made a promise years ago that people could tell me things they could not tell others. You know, there is an old saying about situations like this…..we are only as sick as our secrets.”
His comment is one of the most insightful spiritual truths that I have come across. It was as if that sentence had been waiting to reach me because it struck me so intensely. I immediately thought of the woman at the well and the conversion and joy she experienced after feeling compelled to shed her secrets to Jesus. I thought of the mute man from whom Jesus drove out a demon and the woman caught in adultery and their new found freedom.
Over the years I have talked with many non-Catholics and Catholics who don’t understand or see the need to confess their sins to a Priest and do Penance. I offer Jesus telling the Disciples that they have the power to forgive sin. I talk of the sacramental grace bestowed in confession and penance and the need to receive the Eucharist worthily. Rarely have I felt that I succeeded beyond planting a seed. But the fact that in confession we can shed the burden of our secrets and hence the source of our sickness is compelling. I pray that this insight will be helpful and make a greater difference to others or plant a seed with a greater chance of germinating.
I don’t believe that most of us are aware that sin bestows a lasting burden that weighs us down. It further dulls our conscience, creates defensiveness, and diminishes our internal and external moral authority. It reduces our capacity to love others. By fully examining our conscience using the proper guidance, we uncover what we have repressed or hidden. By telling a Priest, we unburden ourselves to another human being and we hear the words of absolution, assuring us of God’s mercy and forgiveness. I recently read a line that said “God’s greatest desire is to forgive.”