As Remembrance Day approaches in the 100th anniversary year of the start of World War I, Toronto photographer Erin Riley is offering a collection of portraits of contemporary military chaplains online, entitled Vocation.
Vocation echoes the Latin motto of the Royal Canadian Chaplaincy Service: Vocatio ad servitium (“called to serve”— literally, “a calling to service”).
Previously working with the Canadian Forces in the Arctic as a participant in its program for civilian artists, Riley was struck by the seeming dichotomy of clergy—purveyors of peace—in the military.
“I grew up outside of any kind of religion, but in my head, I couldn’t reconcile why anyone who had chosen to lead a life of faith would want bring that into the Armed Forces. To me, it was counterintuitive,” says Riley.
But after her first interview with a chaplain at Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont., she realized her assumption was wrong. “I met Padre Michelle Staples. She was so eloquent in explaining that their role was to be there for soldiers who are put at a crossroads where they have to do things outside those most of us have to do—potentially to take someone’s life.” (Lt.-Col. the Rev. Staples is an Anglican naval chaplain.)
One of the spiritual care-giving roles of the padre is to ease the pain of young soldiers as they look into the abyss, and they must often do this in a non-religious way. “Faith doesn’t always come into it, but their counselling comes from a place that is very much rooted in what padres believe in,” says Riley. In the words of Padre Staples, “If we as chaplains can somehow help people through these crossroads moments, then I think we will have completed our mission—to be people of God who walk with people of honour.”
After interviewing 10 chaplains, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, Riley then photographed them in an attitude of prayer. She also asked each to share the religious passage that best summed up their call to serve as both men and women of faith and members of the Canadian Forces. These passages, along with excerpts from the interviews, accompany the portraits. For Padre Staples, the defining biblical passage was: “…ask…where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Among other personal testimonies that stand out for Riley is that of Lt. the Rev. Timothy Parker, another Anglican naval chaplain, who told her: “Part of our function is to show the fighting men and women what they are fighting for…And that is a world without arms. Chaplains are there to remind those who must bear arms on behalf of all Canadians that they are fighting for higher and nobler purposes than what they might be able to see in the here and now.”
Other compelling words came from Capt. the Rev. Dwight Nelson (retired), a tattooed Presbyterian padre who confronted faith-shaking cruelty and wickedness in Bosnia. “Evil exists. And evil wears a human face. Just as we say there is God, there is evil,” said Nelson.
Charged with giving spiritual care to soldiers of no faith in very dark situations, a military chaplain often faces a daunting task. But as naval padre Lt. the Rev. John Hounsell-Drover told Riley: “I am gonna find a way to let them know that they are cared about. If they are not willing to hear that God loves them, I will let them know that I love them.”