Wesley Clark Discusses Spirituality

What had happened to me was, I had tried to go [to] the Protestant churches in England and I had sought out a Baptist church and a Methodist church. And that was during the Vietnam War and in both cases the sermons were anti- the American military and full of wildly overstated claims about how bad the American military was. My West Point classmates — my roommate was serving over there — he was killed during that period.

I wasn't about to go to church like that who didn't respect my friends who believed they were praying to the same God and serving their country.

We always believed in the 12th chapter of the book of Mark. That's what we were taught at West Point where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and they try to trick him and say "You say we're supposed to be loyal to God but you're being a traitor to Caesar." And he said, "Bring me the coin" and said, "Who's face [is] in this coin?" And the Pharisees say, "Well, Caesar of course." And Jesus says "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's."

That's the way we lived. That's what I believed. And when I saw and felt this animus out of these Protestant churches in England during the Vietnam War, it just turned me off.

The Catholic priest at the time was a guy named Michael Hollings. (He fought in WWII). He was a captain, a battalion adjutant. He was from one of the original Catholic families who had disobeyed Henry VIII's order to renounce the Roman Catholic faith. And he was just an incredibly educated, literate, bright, insightful, experienced man — a real leader.

Of course we'd go to Mass on Sundays but since I wasn't a member I couldn't take Communion. We went to some youth groups and various student groups and I determined I would convert to Catholicism based on his witness, but never had time to do it. In the next year I was back in the States getting ready to go to Vietnam and I didn't have time to do it.

It wasn't until I got to Vietnam that I got to a Catholic priest in division headquarters and asked him if he could help me convert. He put me through a very simplified course.

Beliefnet: During Vietnam, any moments when you felt closest to God or surest of His presence — and the flipside, when you had greatest doubt?

Clark: Well I didn't have any doubts in Vietnam. I wore a Saint Michael's medal [warrior archangel who led the good angels in the battle against Satan]. My wife had gone to St. Michael's academy. She sent me a St. Michael's medal, and I wore it with my dogtag. I prayed every day.

Beliefnet: Do you recall the prayers?

Clark: I said the rosary and I said the Our Father, as they call it in the Catholic Church. One of the things I learned in the conversion process was to say the rosary and I had a set of rosary beads. So I said Hail Mary, full of grace.

Beliefnet: Any moments where you felt divine support more than others?

Clark: Actually when I was wounded and recovering in Japan. I went to church there and I remember on the air base where their hospital was, I remember coming out of that church and feeling like I had been — at that point I just felt very, very close to God and that I'd done the right thing with my life. And I knew I wasn't going back to Vietnam. I just knew I wasn't going back.

Beliefnet: Any low points spiritually?

Clark: No I can't say that there was.

Beliefnet: Going back a bit chronologically, it was around the Oxford period that you were told your father was Jewish?

Clark: That's right.

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