When the delivery truck arrived (November, 1990)
On a cold and wet Essex afternoon a delivery truck arrived with the Elder’s celebrated masterpiece, Saint Silouan the Athonite, his book on the life and teachings of his spiritual father, Saint Silouan of Athos. The books were arranged in a number of large cardboard boxes, Father Sophrony asked me to open one of these boxes and to present him with a copy. I can still see him bent over his walking stick in his overlong cassock with his face radiant as ever. He asked me to take out a second copy which he straightaway placed back into my gloved hands. This volume was to be mine. To this day it remains one of my most treasured possessions and there have been mornings when I have woken up from sleep with this book resting on my chest. Prayer and the practise of love as revealed through the incarnation of the GodMan, two of the vital teachings which are exemplified in this modern-day spiritual classic, are not idle forces however we might define or understand them. It would be a mistake to underestimate their inherent potential, like solar super storms which take out power grids they can be responsible for seismic shifts in our life. This lifelong dedication to prayer and the divine love emanating from Jesus Christ were two of the enduring lessons from the blessed lives of Saint Silouan (1866-1938) and his disciple in Christ, the Elder Sophrony (1896-1993). And that they would pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:16-18), like the great John Coltrane from another world of whom it was said would never take the horn out of his mouth.
The letter from the Patriarchate
Two weeks after my arrival here at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, the old monk Procopius whose visible saintliness was an example in itself of the transfigured life, informed me in his customary understated way, there was a “big envelope” waiting for to me at the Old Rectory. Hearing the news I instinctively knew. I doubled over as my body collapsed from under me and started to sob like a small child. Father Procopius lifted me without saying much, but his encouraging embrace and quiet invocation of “Gospodi Pomiluj” was enough to keep me steady on my feet. The mail was indeed from Australia, posted by the Orthodox Archdiocese, but the letter inside was from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was as I had straightaway thought, a copy of the official documents confirming my petition of “re-entry into the ranks of the lay persons.” The reason for this appeal to be relieved of my clerical orders was correctly stated as being of my own request but also to do with issues of “mental health”. This additional explanation surprised me. I had never mentioned mental health as a ‘reason’ and if I had spoken of my battle with depression which I had, it was during confession to my spiritual father who at the time was His Eminence back home. Already I had clearly understood that anybody who had a confrontation with the Archdiocese whether be it clergy or lay person was said to have had issues of “mental health”. We were all insane or ‘mad’ except for the ‘kings’ who were governed by ‘sanity’ and ‘reason’. This is a silencing technique practised by most powerful institutions to protect themselves and if need be, to be able to promptly discredit any potential adversary. Especially sad to say this is an art brought close to perfection by some church communities who have ‘God’ and ‘authority’ on their side. It is very hard to argue against any perceived notions of infallibility.
Even to that moment in the Old Rectory, I was still not sure whether I had rushed into this irreversible decision of asking for my own ‘defrocking’ or what is more commonly known as voluntary laicization. Not yet thirty and everything that I had worked towards, all the dreams which I had aspired to, and the sacrifices (perhaps not for others but for me that is what they were) appeared at that very instant to have come to a fast and dishonourable conclusion. It was all deemed “over” with the signatures of a group of distant bishops presiding in Constantinople with no idea of who I was. And then the sinking, awful realization, that not long from now I would have to return to Australia and would have to explain to friends and acquaintances, why I had committed the unpardonable sin of walking away from the priesthood. After all, was it not I, who was known for the ‘all or nothing’ altar cry: “…everything, all for Jesus.” Why did I do this when I had a good understanding of what I had given up and where this would probably lead? My mind kept going back to Christ’s hard words, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:62)
It is tempting to make all this sound too deeply meaningful and complex, to launch into an impassioned pro vita sua. Yet it was relatively simple. Things did not work out. I did not like what I found. Certainly not in the Church herself, but in the church governance. And I was not in any way saintly enough to remain given my own weaknesses and to endure. I had made a serious vocational mistake, but one I had to make and to live through. And therein would be found the truth of my redemption. That is, as Father Zacharias of Essex has oftentimes said, “to find the deep heart.” Later on I would begin to complicate things and make life more difficult for myself by going in search for some sort of justification which I felt compelled to share with the ‘outside world’. Guilt, or even misplaced guilt, when it is not accepted as a corrective force or as an opportunity for change is a catalyst to self-absorbed shame and a quick path to self-destruction. It is exactly right what Watchman Nee has said, “[a]n unpeaceful mind cannot operate normally.” I was at the same time convinced that I could not live as a celibate without becoming bitter and resentful. Additionally, my ego was way too strong for me to be humble (in the way which I had understood ‘humility’ from my reading of spiritual texts), to be ‘worthy’ or capable of bearing any high clerical office that might have come my way. I realized early enough that if I was not cut out to make the grade as one of the Church’s holy pastors I was certainly not going to take the risk of becoming one of its closet devils. And the truth was I had it in my flesh to be more devil than holy.
My priesthood, however weak or strong it might have been, was the keystone of my life. Everything I did, or thought, or believed in, revolved around it. Importantly, it was the outward symbol of my faith. It identified me. A keystone is the wedge-shaped embellished voussoir at the crown of an arch, serving to lock the other voussoirs in place. Remove it and everything falls to pieces. It all becomes a pile of stone. Often too, I would think on the potter and clay imagery in the Old Testament and what it might now mean when I turned to God in prayer (Isa 29:16). Would He turn His face away from me? One of the challenges for the potter in using pattern on three-dimensional form we are told by those who have mastered the craft, are that of marrying the relationship of interior to exterior and the association that exists between them. What would now be my connection, not only between my interior and exterior life-worlds, but also with my Maker? This is one of the great temptations that we have to face as human beings, that we too readily identify ourselves and others with the brokenness. And playing on the inside of my head as if on a continual loop, [something not uncommon for an OCD], Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater to which I had become transfixed a few months earlier during my night drives out to the Cronulla sand dunes.
Taking my cassock off for the last time
Now there was the hard practical matter that would soon also face me, taking my cassock off for the last time. Afterwards in a little poem I would speak of it as the painful process of “scraping” it off my back. This I would put off until a few weeks later, when I found myself in Madrid. Here too in ‘the city that never sleeps’, as was happening throughout the world, the question on everyone’s lips was whether Israel had “responded” to the missile attacks from Iraq and what it would mean if they were drawn into the developing military crisis in the Gulf. I was in Europe during the early stages of Operation Desert Shield (August 1990-January 1991). It was an apropos ‘soundtrack’ to my own private war which I was waging secretly within. One thing would remain certain, that I would never forget having served at the altar of Christ and this would forever mark my life. Some experiences will burn us irrevocably. And all you can do is learn to live with them.
Had I been older and blessed with a lot more wisdom I would have transitioned back into lay life quite differently but often I felt like one of those animals in the night, startled by that sudden flash of headlight from an oncoming vehicle. I know from experience that I am not the only one in such a position who has felt this overwhelming brutalized emotion. There are a number of things I could have handled better. Later I would read the autobiography of my brilliant teacher who was very much responsible for instilling in me the love of philosophy and my lifelong interest in existentialism, the gentleman scholar Paul Crittenden. A catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney, he had left his own clerical orders to continue with his professorial teaching in the most seamless and dignified of ways.
I wonder if I am for all time lost
This would not happen to me. Nothing was going to come between me and my love for the Nazarene. Now everything is different. I wonder if I am for all time lost. I had been a conscientious student of the church fathers and especially of some of the harder hitters like Chrysostom and Augustine. Their collective voices which would later once again soothe and lift me up would now seem to be relentlessly condemning me. Kafka’s travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself a bug and I too suddenly find myself in the middle of something that I was not prepared for. And I feel ugly. I wanted to hide, to examine my hideousness in the privacy of my own world. In the end, a lot of what was happening to me after my departure from Tolleshunt Knights and then upon my arrival in Madrid where I learnt more on the meaning of La noche oscura del alma, had to do with a word in spiritual literature which has been much misunderstood, surrender. It means to “give up, deliver over”. It does not stand for giving up on the fight which are the battles of the soul. At a certain point we need to let go of the driftwood and give ourselves over to the tide. Years on the wisdom of a leathery trucker, someone I would befriend at the markets in Flemington where I used to work, would have been good advice: downshift when going down the ice.
Concerning Spiritual Warfare
“Everyone who would follow our Lord Jesus Christ is engaged in spiritual warfare. The Saints by long experience learned from the grace of the Holy Spirit how to wage this war. The Holy Spirit appointed their footsteps and gave them understanding and the strength to overcome the enemy; but without the Holy Spirit the soul is incapable even of embarking on the struggle, for she neither knows nor understands who and where her enemies are.”
 Sophrony op. cit., p. 423