Breath Loss

(This article is being published in the Anthology of the Military Writers Society of America this month.)

Empty Vessel

Empty Vessel

12 November 2007

 Three years ago today, I held a man as he died. He was stretched out in the operating room like a crucified man, on his back, guts hanging out. I had overwhelming love for this man whom I had just met. I was exhausted from the war, embattled, depressed, and frustrated.

 And yet I could see in the dark murky moments…a sense of light. Edward opened me up to a world I never knew existed. The tear which gently and remarkably escaped his closed eye was a prism of light that flooded my soul. Honestly, I still can’t find the words, thoughts, or song to express what happened, nor what is continually happening to my being.

 As soon as this moment of love, joy, and sorrow broke into that operating room in Fallujah, Iraq, it seemed to slip out in a vanquished moment. How did I get there? Where did part of me go? I also left the room, and I continue to wait for the return of my mind, my spirit, my soul.

 Part of me was killed in action without a trace. My friends and family still look into my eyes and search for the Ron who has yet to return home, and may never return.

 Edward, the corpsman, the nurse, and I are still confined in that cramped little operating room that may no longer even physically exist. But it is there for me. Like a crime scene, the evidence of the destructive force of war and violence is waiting to be discovered and solved, or at least, to be compassionately closed and sealed forever.

 Thank you, Edward, on the anniversary of your death and resurrection, for coursing through my eyes, my writing, my blood, and my soul.

I love you.

Go with God and with Jesus.

You have nothing to fear.

Love: a wonderful joy,

Peace, joy, love,


[Excerpted from A Tear in the Desert (2010) by Ron Camarda]


God shines on us

We begin and end independent life on this beautiful earth with a breath. Along the way, there are times when we literally lose our breath. The loss of breath can be the most joyful, scary, stunning, devastating, spiritual, or exhilarating mystery. People use the term, breathless, to express the inexpressible.

Experiencing the first breath of an infant is an awesome breath loss. But I also remember times when I was a young priest grieving with parents whose child never had a breath to lose. I was also present for William’s last breath at 7 years and Rebecca’s last breath at 8 years. What could I say? How would I cope? Those losses changed my relationship with their parents and my worldview forever. We were experiencing a horrible breath loss! We still are. Holding the last breath, literally and figuratively has become my gift, cross, passion, grief, and vocation.

When I was a boy of three or four years, before I could swim, I would hold my breath when I rode on the back of my father as he plunged beneath the surface of Lake Winnipesaukee. It was a death grip around his neck. If I tapped him on the back, he would surface immediately.  I took pride in holding my breath longer than all my brothers and sisters.  I was joyfully able to be breathless. But there are many times that we do not have that choice.

I remember the time my little brother and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. After that incredibly long and sometimes contentious drive, Andy (12) and I (22) stood breathless at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Then I foolishly persuaded my brother to hike to the bottom and back in one day. As we started to make our way out of the canyon, I realized that he was in danger of dying. His belabored breathing terrified me. We literally crawled out long past sunset after gut-wrenching vomit, diarrhea, and lying in donkey dung. Another loss we endured was our dignity. That terrifying episode my brother and I endured has become our greatest gain and bond between us to this day.

When I was 40, I was present when my mother whispered, “I love you” to my father as she breathed her last breath. My mother could not eat anything for forty days before she died. She could not even take water the last week. Toward the end, as her prayer group serenaded her in the back yard, my mother complained to me that she was crying, but she had lost her ability to form tears.  I still mourn the loss of her tears and breath.  She could only breathe and whisper those last days, but something deeper was going on in her heart. Those breaths were so important and reverent! Loss of breath is part of the constant change in every human being’s journey. The last words formed by the last breath of all people are very important, if not the most important.

In his book, Helping Grieving People: When Tears Are Not Enough, Shep Jeffreys defines the exquisite witness as a person “who enters the sacred space between two human souls — having the deepest respect for the yearning, seeking, and wishful hopes of the other to diminish pain and survive in a new world after a loss.”

When Jesus of Nazareth, was dying on the cross, he could hardly breathe. The meaning of his life would be lost and meaningless if there had not been at least two exquisite witnesses to hear his final words and breaths. Among those exquisite witnesses was his mother. Not only did Jesus have to die a torturous death, but he had to helplessly watch his mother plunge into utter terror.

The last words of Jesus — “I thirst!” — are placed beside the crucifix wherever the Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta) serve. The power of those last words breathed by a dying man almost 2,000 years ago still motivate millions of people and me. I have prayed in those chapels just before witnessing the last breath of the poorest of the poor. My faith encourages me that the divine is present in all people, especially the dying, regardless of nationality, culture, or religious faith.

DSCF5916During my deployment to Iraq in 2004, I learned that Marines and Soldiers can have some really annoying and nasty habits. But when a person is dying, things change. I discover that even my irritation and annoyance melt and change to love. I do not think that we can ever learn enough about the complications and intricacies of loss and bereavement. For me, as a person and as a pastoral counselor, it will be an ongoing conversion both painful and joyful.

Many times, even in war, the breath seems to pour out of the person. I can almost see the loss of breath and soul just as I have seen the loss of blood. I did not believe that I was worthy to be a priest, never mind an exquisite witness. However, I have learned to recognize my gifts and foibles as a calling. In their book When Professionals Weep (2006), Katz and Johnson tell us that “Patients, their subjective experience of their own illnesses, their families, and their worlds — everything, in fact — is irrevocably changed with our entry into the helping relationship.”

When I am around the dying, I am naturally able to help people, to touch the living and the dead with meaning, moisten their lips, sing to them, hold hearts and hands, breathe with them, and say their goodbyes. When I enter their lives, I allow my life to be irrevocably changed.

Countless times throughout my life, and poignantly in Iraq, I have seen with my inner eye how a human soul detaches from the body and rises. Sometimes this loss of soul happens before the last breath and sometimes it happens long after the soldier violently dies in the battle or from a self-inflicted wound.

Sometimes I meet a human being for the first time at their last breaths. Most times I do not realize at the time of death the full impact of God’s need for me to witness the last breath. Later — when I am sharing their beloved’s story and their last breath — parents, family, and friends often surprise me with added meaning to what I thought was unimportant content. My love and care, like a spring that wells up, helps soothe the parched existence of the beloved dying, the beloved grieving, and those who will learn of the last breath of their beloved.

DSCF7548I am beginning to wonder if the many losses that we have, and continue to experience, in this life are preparing us for the loss of our last breath. Shep Jeffreys says often that all loss is like death. Those moments have caused me — and the people who listen to my stories — to be breathless and befuddled with the loss of breath.

I concluded my book, Tear in the Desert, with the letter that appears at the beginning of this article. It reinforces how we caregivers must be prepared to pitch our tent with the people who suffer devastating losses and bereavement. Compassion means “to suffer with.”  I only knew Edward for his last tear and his last breaths in this world, but not a day goes by where his last breaths do not disturb my being.

Grieving my losses of breath throughout my life journey has indeed pushed me in new directions, and these directions have resulted in some good and some bad days…and an acknowledgement of my gift of loss.

Still breathless and still touched by my breath loss!

Father Ron Moses CamardaBravo-Surgical

Jesus and Father John Lenihan

Beauty of My Sunset

Beauty of My Sunset

The founding pastor of St. Patrick’s
A soul, a blessing, a man, a friend
What I loved about Johnny was
his unholy holiness
raw love that could be abrasive
He mentored me here and there
Let me vent…
…and sometimes vented along with me!

John assured me of my goodness,
especially when I struggled with how others
believed in my lack of goodness.

Father John is to my left and behind me.

Father John is to my left and behind me.

Johnny was fun to be around
A true brother of no nonsense

A soul, a blessing, a man, a friend
Calling me to the same…
A soul, a blessing, a man, a friend
O my!!!

Standing tall

Standing tall

Father John Lenihan died this week. He is a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine. He was the first pastor of St. Patrick’s in Jacksonville. I was the 7th pastor.

50 Years of Edgar and Margaret

A few weeks ago
I went to visit Edgar
who was declining at the hospital
He didn’t seem to have much life
as in weeks
Body was shutting down.
Yesterday, just before Mass
Josie told me he would die that day
I told her we would pray
And then go after praising the Lord

So we praised the Lord, Our Beloved Jesus

I thank you God for my truck
It brought us safely
Josie and I shared how
we were not afraid of death
We both had brushed up against it,
peace and warmth
We remembered her husband, Jim,
two years ago when I was there
We enjoyed the ride.
Josie and I journeyed through the bereavement,
such good women at St. Patrick’s Church
Edgar wasn’t Catholic
But he always paved the way
for his beloved wife of 50 years and their children
The children went through our school
So here we were
gathered around Edgar’s deathbed
Renewed their vows
sang songs of love
kissed his ravished body
The Beloved is our Light and Salvation
of whom should we be afraid?

We peeked into heaven…
Edgar was leaving promptly
When I anointed Edgar,
I felt such a warmth
He smiled the best he could
Then, when I anointed his beloved Margaret…
I sensed that him leave his body

Their Marriage has left
yet it still remains
Heaven and Earth
Earth giving way to Heaven
This isn’t exactly romantic
but beyond comprehension
All the Spirit asked me to do
was to move her hand toward his
and clear the path for
their lips to lock and let go

Love, poverty of life, joy

You see, just before we die
we are the poorest of the poor
When our loved ones die
we are so poor and desperate
because we love to love
and need the food produced when we
love one another

God you are magnificent,
to create us in your image

Sing praises, Dance Eternal
A love
All One!

Suffer, we do
Die, we will
Rise, we are
In love
In joy
In peace… Alleluia!

Father Ron Camarda – 2004

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Journey of a Soul into Eternity

It doesn’t matter who we are, we all are on a journey in this life.

We all must be born and thrust out into the world usually against our will. We were all created from the sperm of a man and an egg of a woman. We strive to understand these donors as “Father” and “Mother”. Sometimes, because of circumstances that just are, others must step in out of love as foster parents to raise and love us.

Who would want to leave the warmth of our mother’s womb? We can’t fathom nor dream how total consciousness gets better and better. Human beings seem to be the only living creatures that are capable of contemplating the future and past. We think about an afterlife. Susi Pitman’s book, Animals in Heaven? Catholics want to know, contemplates whether our pets and animals will or are in heaven. We human beings can raise this kind of question, however animals don’t appear to “think” about it. Animals don’t write about thoughts like this article is doing, nor do they read and understand like you are doing at this moment. It isn’t good or bad, it is just an observation.

Sometimes, when life and being human becomes difficult, we wish we were like our pets. A dog or cat in a loving family really doesn’t worry about much. Nothing keeps them awake at night thinking. All of their worries and needs are in the present. Unlike our spouses, the more delayed you are in getting home, the happier the dog gets when you finally return home!

Basically, we are all more like animals than we are different. All of us strive to survive. We want to live. Even the person who commits suicide wants to live. The emotional, spiritual and physical pain has become unmanageable. The suicidal person, who basically has a “spiritual heart attack”, is hoping to get the life back flowing in their lives.

God is good, just look around. God doesn’t make junk. Too often, we focus and belittle ourselves mostly as sinners without looking at ourselves as a miracle of life. My experience of God is a loving Father and Mother. My hope is that God will always be this loving. God is always waiting for me to come home. God embraces you and me everyday with breath and a heartbeat. Mean dogs are only mean because they were trained to be mean by human beings. We are all first and foremost incredible, fantastic and beloved children of God. None of us would ever believe for a second that it is okay to abuse or injure a baby or toddler. And yet, we were all once just that. Loved. The only time a child is abused or aborted is when we fail to see the child as a one-of-a-kind and unique person like all of us. Those people are simply blind or dead to being open to the miracle of life and transcendence.

It is difficult to live. And it will be difficult to die. We see it coming and know that no one gets out of this world without dying. It is natural. I look forward to my death for it will be a journey, my journey. Don’t be afraid of living in heaven today on this earth. Life is an opportunity to journey and transcend our world and become more and more like our Creator. Amazing! Crazy! Fabulous! Forever.

Newborn babies don’t have a clue as to what is happening, but consciousness is a slow process. I suspect heaven will be the same. We are loved and God understands that we couldn’t possibly feed and protect ourselves from the beginning.

Trust God’s love for you and have a blessed day as a Steward of God’s Creation, which includes being stewards of our “thinking” and “birthing into heaven”.

Love, joy, peace,

Father Ron Moses +

Pura Vida


Alex C December 27 at 11:58am
Fr. Ron,

I wanted to share a story with you.

I have known you for several years when you have spent time at QOP, Gainesville. I have come to admire you and Fr. Jeff tremendously. I think that it is your enthusiasm for being priests, and your love of God.

I took a class with you earlier this year, about stewardship. I bought a couple of books from you and I asked you to dedicate one to my father for his birthday. My father is a Marine and was very proud of it. I sent the book to my father as a birthday gift. I asked him to read it and I wrote him a note describing you and my reaction to this beautiful book you wrote.

My father sent me a note later in the year. I remember being shocked because it this day and age, who takes the time to write letters anymore. It was nice to see his written words on paper. This is the Note:
El Paso, Texas
March 31, 2009
Hi Ale! (my Dad calls me Ale)
What a treasure! Father Camarda’s book is a magnificent treasure indeed. It made my day, although reading it brought tears and a deep reflection into what is truly important in our lives compared to the tragic superficiality and the hedonism that seems to surround us today. Father Camarda homes in on what should be our most important preoccupation: our courageous encounter with the lord when we are called out of this world.
Imagine what this world (or rather) our society would be if more men (and here I mean, not just mere males) would read and be touched by “Tears in the Desert”?
I am very happy that you met Father Camarda, for I know that you, my son are a very good son with a strong and loving heart, kind, cheerful, child like, and a little crazy, and Fr. Camarda, the “Padre” can be an excellent mentor and spiritual director for you.
Please give him my thanks for dedicating his book to me, but most importantly for his awe inspiring service as a catholic Chaplin to our country and to the people of God- especially the ones whom he tenderly touched. Thank him for his dedication and work to the kingdom of God here on earth. May the Lady of Lourdes bless him and protect him always. And may she protect you always from harm.

Your Dad

Two weeks later I received an e-mail from him, which was beautifully written, concerning an episode I had earlier in the year I had, where I truly feel I had a conversation with God. (That is another story, and I am not crazy…) My father died suddenly this past may, and these were the last real communications I had with him. I have come to understand my fathers imperfections, and admire how everyday he strove to be a good man, in spite of them.

I pass on this message, with tears in my eyes, from him to you. And I ask you to pray for my mother, and my family.

If your ever in Gainesville, with some spare time, I would like to take you out to eat. Let me know.

God Bless you Padre,
Merry Christmas
Alex C