A beautiful thing to have done a good deed and never to have known.
For a number of years it has been my habit late in the evening to visit the Wikipedia “Recent Deaths” webpage. This not on account of any morbid curiosity on my part, but to discover who of those that have passed on will reveal new things to me. Necropolises are our greatest universities. The dead are our truest teachers. And I have left the richer not only to be reminded that I have been given another day of grace, but also with an addition of valuable knowledge from visiting these lives which have come full circle. People from all walks and schools of life. Lessons are everywhere to be found. Sometimes, too, these visits have been touched with an additional and deeper gratitude. I come face-to-face with men and women I have met at some time during my own life either incidentally or in a more personal space.
On the evening of the 1st of January 2016 I read of the passing of one of these people that I had encountered in those more personal spaces. A man who was a paper boy and a factory hand when growing up to afterwards wear a number of different hats with great distinction in the corporate, business, and academic worlds. I met Brian Johns for a brief but decisive moment in my life in one of his many personifications as managing director of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) 1987-1992. It was during this evening when I visited the “Recent Deaths” webpage that one of the clues for his compassion and affection towards me would reveal itself. But first something of the context behind our correspondence and the two meetings at SBS.
At the time I was living through one of the two life experiences which would in their own season and for their own reason, take apart and change me forever. I had made the heartrending decision to ask to be relieved of my priesthood and was seeing out the last months of my diaconate. I was increasingly becoming estranged from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Sydney and had fallen into a deep melancholia (a more correct word for depression). In short, outside my immediate family I was almost completely alone and on the edge of letting go of everything which I had up to that time lived and worked towards. Support from those places where I would have normally expected was not forthcoming and this was made known to me in some heartless ways. In reality, there is no one to blame, more often than not we move and respond from within a space we alone create and inhabit. I was a greatly idealistic twenty-nine year old who could now envision no future for himself. In a moment of desperation I thought my one way out (excepting for my ongoing battles with suicidal ideation) was broadcast journalism. I loved to write and to communicate with people and to listen to their stories. I felt I could do well in the media. It would have been utterly marvellous I thought, to do the research and then to sit down in a chair in front of an audience and do the interview.
This is when Brian Johns enters into my story, around late August or early September of 1990.
Somehow during those weeks of numbness and inertia I managed to put together a few words outlining as best I could my current situation and what I was hoping for in terms of the future. I addressed and posted this letter not to one of the department secretaries or programme directors, but directly to the SBS Managing Director Mr Brian Johns! And that’s where I thought it would end. Immediately afterwards I was embarrassed thinking that even if that rambling letter would reach this man what on earth would he make of me? A week or two had passed when a phone call came through to our home in Kingsgrove from the Managing Director’s private secretary asking to speak with “Father Jeremiah Michael”. Brian had actually received my letter, had read it, and asked to meet with me. It is not possible to spend our entire lives living in a world of pure perception. At last some little light at the end of the tunnel.
I was not the young man of even a few years earlier. My once unshakeable and booming confidence was very close to being completely shattered. I was frightened of exploring new territories and had decided to never again open up my heart. To make matters worse, I had started to binge drink in a futile effort to shut away the pain. But somehow, by the grace of God, I had always been able to find that extra bit of reserve I have needed to keep moving forward. And so I nervously made an appointment with Brian’s secretary to meet with him on an afternoon of the following week. I prepared the best I could, put the alcohol and those awful anti-depressants away, and read up on the basics of news media.
It will not be possible to forget the days leading up to my meeting with Brian. I was very much anxious during the cab ride and was fearful of becoming physically ill. I needed a drink or to be sick. It had become difficult to tell the difference. A few years earlier in 1987 in my mid-twenties during the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox Joint Declaration at the Vatican where I had been present to witness this historic moment, I was together with a group of young inter-denominational clerics introduced to Pope John Paul II. Certainly, I was nervous and anxious then, but not as apprehensive or hesitant as I was during the hours heading into this present moment. I had an entirely different perception of myself back then in Rome and now in lots of ways I was another man. Except for the fact that hope and my belief in the Creator, would refuse to wholly go away.
As soon as I walked into the foyer of the SBS building at Milsons Point (unless I am mistaken the move to Artarmon had yet to take place) I became positive and I allowed for an excitement to rush through my body which I had not felt for a long time. I was still a cleric and was dressed in my black and freshly pressed cassock. My shoes were spit-polished from the night before. More than a few quizzical stares came my way. I explained to the reception the reason behind my visit and was soon sitting in the waiting room leading into the executive offices of the Managing Director. There was a deep sense of relief as if I had succeeded in escaping from a dangerous place. Though I knew my present situation was complicated and there was more waiting for me, here at least were some lovely shards of light.
It was Brian himself who stepped out and invited me into his modestly furnished office. It was a room stacked with books. I remember from the start being impressed with his old world elegance and demeanour. Well dressed and softly spoken with a striking mane of thick greying hair, he cut an impressive figure. You knew immediately with Brian Johns, that you would have to bat straight to get his attention. On his desk, I was taken aback to find, that he had open and was in fact reading a typed MS of my poetry which I had included in my initial correspondence. It was I must confess what writers term juvenilia. Yet here was a man who had previously been a publishing director with Penguin Books taking interest in my earliest literary efforts. Even now as I write these lines, I smile at one of our first exchanges. Brian quickly asked me what it was “exactly that I wanted”. I was overwhelmed by this incredible opportunity and trust which was directly cast my way. I fumbled for a response and came out with a less then convincing “I would like to read the news.”
He smiled warmly and encouragingly, he asked a few more questions, and then said, “Okay, Jeremiah, we will speak again.” What happened afterwards and my reasons for not carrying through with Brian’s amazingly generous response is for another day. I wrote a letter telling him “I was not in the right frame of mind and that I was extremely sorry for robbing him of his valuable time”. But a few weeks later I back-tracked and Brian once more, unbelievably for someone in his position, reached out to me again. However, for a second time I told him I was in no condition to go ahead with such a “visible career move" when I was so close to “abandoning my priestly vocation” and that I was heading for England to enter a retreat.
I flew out to London soon afterwards as the First Gulf War (1990-1) was getting underway and the world was entering into yet another of its post WWII apocalyptic moods. I asked and was given permission to spend time with the monastic community of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, Tolleshunt Knights. The abbot at the time was the recently sainted Father Sophrony. At Heathrow Airport everywhere there were signs of the war, the surrounds replete with heavy armaments and soldiery. I, too, on a much smaller scale was to enter into my own private war. It was to last for many years with as many twists and turns as Tiamat’s tail.
The heart of these paragraphs has to do with the generosity and kindness that a man in a high professional post would express to another man whose life was at a crossroads. I started these paragraphs with the promise of revealing a clue which communicated to me in a profoundly moving way a hidden connection between myself and Brian, and why he seemed to understand where even some of my oldest and dearest friends could not. Here was a stranger, who discovered more in me in only a few hours of conversation, what others could not over the duration of many years. I learnt much about friendship during those agonizing months and it would become a subject of lasting fascination for me.
I did not know until a few days ago that Brian himself had been a seminarian at Saint Columba’s Seminary and was preparing for the priesthood. Incredibly and in another lovely twist, our vocations would again career into each other when much later we would both be awarded professorships.
My final correspondence with Brian was a quarter of a century ago. A letter sent from London a day or two after my arrival, and a postcard from Madrid a month after my request to be relieved of my priesthood had been granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Our lives are to be measured by good deeds and little else. It is where it all begins and where it will all end.
Thank you dear Brian, requiescat in pace.
 William Styron rightly made this distinction between depression and melancholia in his own memoir of his struggle with mental illness in the memorable Darkness Visible. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/the-hope-that-william-styrons-darkness-visible-offers-25-years-later/383406/