Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor His Eminence Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know it. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive, are saying at their root core: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

Random Thoughts (4)

What is friendship this elevated expression of love between two souls which beforehand were nameless one to the other. The Creator, Himself, has in one place called us His friends (Jn. 15:15). Mourning is not a difficult emotion to feign during a time of sorrow and so surprisingly this is not always a true test of friendship. In the same way, though we would expect for our friends to be there for us in times of our need, this does not always happen. Sometimes they might be suffering at the same time and in another world, more desolate than ours. This is where friendships have been lost because trust and the benefit of doubt have been removed. Rather, the true test of friendship is the unbridled joy we might experience when news arrives that our friend has been the recipient of a wonderful success. Heartfelt joy cannot be feigned and is hard to pretend for more than a few minutes and an hour. It is the absence of envy, then, this “green-eyed monster”, which is the truest indication of the depth which two souls are travelling together.

We can experience loss in many different ways. And unlike pleasure which is quickly passing, loss can remain with us for a long time. There is the inexpressible loss of loved ones or the devastating sense of abandonment a child can experience. Then there are other losses still very difficult but the impact of these stop at a given place. Once trusted friends walking away from us never to return, work opportunities not given to us after years of labor, the loss of our youth and health, the loss of dreams no longer attainable, the lost opportunities at reconciliation. But there is a greater loss still, the loss of ‘the light’ every time we deny the other a show of compassion. Every time we say no to the movement of grace and ‘rob’ Love of its work. Every time this happens, we die a little more.

If we had knowledge of the peace and comfort we could bring to a suffering brother or sister with one single paragraph and the insufferable pain we might cause them for holding back on this kindness, our hearts could break. We wait for the moment to be heroes by jumping into the freezing waters to save a stranger from drowning, a time which will probably never come for most of us. And if it did, can we be sure we would dive in? What if it was a burning car? Yet we would withhold a generous act which would take no more than a few minutes and which might allow for another human being to break free from the heavy weight of our shadow. Love is more often revealed in the small and sympathetic acts of everyday encounters, like pieces of sunlight which suddenly break through into a dark room.

Idols cannot and will not replace the living God. So we create gods to live amongst us in our own image and likeness. We call these men and women ‘stars’ and nowadays too, ‘influencers’. And when they betray or rob from us, and demand of us that we lay down our lives for them in war or in servitude, we are initially dismayed and shocked. Why do we continue in this folly? One of the explanations that perhaps somewhere in our subconscious we have comprehension we are created for something ‘higher’. For some hidden reason we despair of reaching that height ourselves so we throw that mantle of light away and look to place it on another’s shoulder. There is an otherworldly agitation within us all which goes back to that divine spark from creation. It cannot let go and it will tug at the ears of the soul to our final day.

Clichés will often speak the truth with a stunning simplicity. ‘Do not judge a book by its cover’ we say. People who we might dismiss on account of their appearance or social status could carry within them the greatest of treasures. So magnificent can this treasure be that its brilliance can easily blind us to its great worth. Like the secreted potential of the humble young donkey waiting to carry the Son of God into Jerusalem a week before Easter Sunday. We have walked past the finest poets, the most beautiful singers, the smartest minds, the bravest people, the most heartbroken and repentant of the fallen angels. We have not stopped. And we have not said a word.

There is nothing new under the sun. Even the Homeric school paid homage to the poets who came centuries before. True originality exists and moves in our daily expressions of love, for Love itself draws upon an infinite and inexhaustible source of creation. All else falls into varying degrees of imitation ranging from the breathtakingly sublime to the cheaply crass, whether to do with the finest art or the cruelest tyranny. Acts of love alone remain uniquely inimitable like the unmatched patterns of a snowflake or the membrane ring behind the cornea of your eye.

If I cannot find meaning in the existence of the other, whatever dreams I might build will collapse all around me, like words I might speak devoid of sentences. I become alive and experience the breadth of life by entering deeply into the joyful-sorrow of the one opposite me. There are many examples from all facets of life where this can be experienced. A telling model is that of marriage with the exchange of the crown of thorns, or when a child is adopted into its new family. Another way to experience this life-giving synergy is when we practice the noble art forgiveness.

If you can live with the revelation that your dreams were oftentimes your greatest obstacle, that no one will ever see you ablaze with love, or take in your finest scent, or that your enemy will never hear you praying that they be blessed with gifts you will never taste, or that your best poetry is forever lost, or that the beautiful woman who yesterday crossed your path will never know you at twenty-one, or that you will never be reconciled to all those things which need your reconciliation, that soon it will all be gone and death is the one undeniable truth of life, then you will be happy and you will be beyond the reach of any sadness. If you can live with the knowledge that it is not beauty which will save the world but compassion, then all of this will make some sense to you.

In the end we can only heal ourselves, and this is one of the hardest truths. This is why the Nazarene, that great investigator into the mysteries of the human soul was able to say, “Physician, heal thyself” (Lk. 4:23). Others can and should help us when they can, but that kind of help however needful and valuable, cannot and does not last long into the night. So why do we persist looking for healing outside ourselves knowing that it will in the end prove short-lived like a painkiller for a toothache which will return. Is it not because of the need to confirm we still matter and that our suffering must not remain anonymous and unacknowledged? Our ontology demands such recognition. There is also a marvelous term we find in Buddhism, Vipassana, to explore reality [‘reality as it is’] within oneself.

So what then is this journal all about?

September 22nd 2011

Saturday, Bucharest, Romania

N.B. The two little paragraphs below are lifted from my journal which I have oftentimes been happy to share with you. They were drafted on a pleasant September afternoon in Bucharest in 2011. I hope one day to publish it if I can manage to get it into some controllable order. Here I was struggling with the definition of the journal which is a commixture of various literary types ranging from: autobiography, to memoir, to confession, to a history of surveillance, to travel journal, to dream analysis, and to storytelling. But the real question then, as indeed still is now, what is its authentic purpose and what are my true motivations?

… … … … … … … … …

Truth is the correspondence between language and reality, a simple definition which probably sits well with most. Then what of truth in literature?[1] How are we to understand metaphor, myth, or even fairy tale for instance? Is there a better example of the evident stresses that this ‘correspondence’ will often elicit than the battle over the exegesis of the biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis? What is the cognitive value of this universal ‘story’ and what kind of ‘truth’ is it meaning to convey? And what of the ‘spiritual truths’ put in the mouth of the Starets Zossima by Dostoevski in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov? Or how ‘true’ is Plato’s famous allegory of the cave? An autobiography, a memoir, a life-journal, for example, to what extent are they both literature and science? And how long does a text or document maintain a stable and determinant meaning before the deconstructionists get to it and challenge its structures and propositions? These questions became especially problematic for me from the moment I made reference to method and hence appealed to one of the great canons of science.

One way to arrive at some kind of practical resolution is to think in terms of context.[2] In this specific instance the style and genre framing the journal (whether the narrative as a whole or its smaller constituent parts), would determine the exegetical approach that the reader is being asked to follow in the quest to interpret the text. That would assume, of course, that we have come to some agreement as to what we mean by text in the first place![3] As a case in point, it could mean that if the author makes reference to a “dream” then it is a “dream” and not a “vision”, this might seem to be a subtle distinction for some, but in-between a dream and a vision lies another world. So when Samuel Johnson writes “[t]he value of every story depends on it being true”,[4] it all comes down to how we comprehend ‘story’ and what we expect each time we turn the first page of a book. From the moment I reference this document as a life-journal the reader comes to it with certain well founded expectations. First of all, that it is a ‘true story’ which can be tested and weighed up against its fundamental expositions and that it is not a work of fiction (though there might be elements of fiction scattered throughout, i.e. segments of ‘magical realism’).

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/truth-lies-and-literature

[2] https://www.etymonline.com/word/context

[3] http://kontur.au.dk/fileadmin/www.kontur.au.dk/OLD_ISSUES/pdf/kontur_07/jan_ifversen.pdf

[4] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=GFtVAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA61&lpg=PA61&dq

Random Thoughts (3)

Source: http://www.lovethispic.com/image/36213/leaves-in-the-wind

The most unmistakable expression of Love is compassion. If I do not suffer with the other or at the very least if I do not try to alleviate the pain of the other the best I can, I have done nothing. My art, too, it will mean nothing.

A friendship which demands ‘my enemies are your enemies too’ is one that needs to be quickly broken. It will destroy the one and rob the other. Do not permit for another to exercise any form of dominion over the arc of your embrace.

The world resists us all, both the righteous and the unrighteous. We are all subject to gravity and to the unbearable weight of grief and loss. There is none amongst us who desires to be hated more than the need to be loved. And in the middle of all this we shift between the states of lukewarm.

We make use of noise to numb us to our wounds. We are all wounded and seek out different ways to forget. This is one of the principal reasons why social media has taken hold of the world and choking it of its life-force. It has become increasingly painful to think and to swim upstream.

First the eye becomes corrupted then the heart. That is, the flesh first wages war against us and then should we lose this battle, it is the turn of the heart which is the seat of the soul. This is where the hardest of all battles are to be fought, that is, in the heart. Here it is where most is to be gained and most is to be lost.

Why is it we so quickly tire of carnality and become too soon bored with all manner of sensual pleasure? Is it not the case that we are for the most part looking for someone to speak to? To say: this is who I am, see me, in all of my nakedness and trembling.

The other of the great deceptions is that technology will solve most of our problems. But we have found that for every advance new problems are created. And even more alarmingly we are creating autonomous systems which will neither thirst nor hunger. On top of all of this, they will not forget.

And yet life really is beautiful, to be celebrated and to be lived out to its end. Satisfying your thirst with an icy glass of water; moments spent loving another human being; saying I love you for the very first time. For such simple pleasures as these and many more, life can really be beautiful.

Do not die without trying your best to become the man and woman you were meant to become. Aim for the highest in you and make that good reach towards the fullness of your capacity. For one day beginning with those moments just before your death, the man or woman you were intended to become will confront you for the last time. They will give you their hand and you will be left with no other option but to take it.

Few things are sweeter than the practice of forgiveness from a heart which overflows with the rivers of mercy. Few things are bitterer to the spirit than a forgiveness which is given but not forgotten. We find forgiveness difficult because we often confuse it as a pardon for the act itself.

At any given moment when you look into the eyes of your neighbor irrespective of their office in life, there you see the Christ before you. You will discern Him more clearly in the eyes of those who mourn (Matt. 5:4). To think too highly of ourselves is the surest way to becoming lost.

Rocks and pebbles exist in a community of cooperation. They do not discriminate in the presence of the other, nor do they heckle or shove for position. They wait in quiet offering shade and protection to the life around them. Some are under the soil, others covered in moss, and many are under the water shifting only under the draw of nature. They wait patiently to be discovered one afternoon as you recite the Beatitudes.

A thousand winters, written like this, could be no more than a week. All of a sudden, perspective is God.

These are your terrifying moments of cleansing

Shellharbour, NSW

What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away. This terrible nauseous pain which goes by many names and which in reality answers to none. But, no, your heart must never turn to stone, not even for an hour, for that would be an hour where you would stop loving, where you would lose all capacity to forgive or ask to be forgiven. No, you must never ask for your heart to turn to stone, not even for an hour. Not even for the time it takes to suck in your breath. And so, suffer all of the calumny, the blood-letting rejection, and in the night close your eyes to the horror vacui of your rooms. As tempting it might be to stop the pain, to dry up the flow of tears, to wipe away the bad memories which become increasingly beastly by the minute, do not ever wish for your heart to turn to stone. What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

But this pain like an old guilt does not easily go away. Both have changed you and for a season you will only exist and move about in the shadows. That's why think on those whom you might have comforted on their deathbeds when you whispered into ears straining for light [for their eyes had now shut]: “Let go, it is good, now is the time to leave.” Remember the unmerited grace you have received which has covered the multitude of your iniquities. Be grateful there is water in your home and you will not thirst tonight when your throat burns. Get up, wash your face, and write a loving message to your enemy. Like an Armenian flute suspended over the Syrian Desert. In a little while feel the heavy load upon your heart start to lift, even for a moment. And for now that is enough. Begin again. Like the free-flow juice pressed and crushed from the grape. These are your terrifying moments of cleansing, one way or another, you have earned them. Do not waste them.

The shadows, too, for a while, do not be afraid of them. They would not exist if the light was not after you. It is after you. You cannot outrun it. These prayers have nothing to do with the rubrics as does this pain which has little to do with the nerve fibers. There are the spaces of the entering into your becoming, the unveiling of your true self. From here, out of these all-consuming green fires, you will step out to greet the world.