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.

A small note on Mount Athos

Mount Athos or the Holy Mountain as it is often referred to, is the centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.[1] Occupying the greater part of the Athos Peninsula in Halkidiki it is an autonomous polity in the north of Greece comprising of twenty imposing monasteries and a number of other smaller monastic settlements. There is evidence of Christian monastic life on the mount since at least the fourth century, and if not earlier.[2] Mount Athos [Athos the name of one of the Gigantes from Greek mythology] is dedicated to the All Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, though paradoxically no woman is permitted to set foot on its grounds. This rule is strictly followed and is referred to as the ‘avaton’.[3] Young men come here to grow old mastering the art of unseen warfare to then die in anonymity and solitude. In so doing they dedicate their lives to God and pray for the salvation of the world.

“The Lord loves all people, but he loves those that seek Him even more. To His chosen ones the Lord gives such great grace that for love they forsake the whole earth, the whole world, and their souls burn with desire that all people might be saved and see the glory of the Lord.” (Saint Silouan the Athonite)

A large number of these religious are of high intellect and not few have left behind successful professional careers. They are doctors, engineers, musicians, teachers, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, scientists, artists, former police and army officers, and whatever else we might imagine. Some, it is true, are daydreamers and romantics. Others were criminals who have served their time or men who have lost everything to addiction except for hope. The monks here spend most of their day and night attending to the divine services or fulfilling their diaconate or alone in their cells with long prayer ropes made of knotted beads of wool practising the Jesus Prayer otherwise known as the prayer of the heart.[4] The day for the Athonite monk begins at sunset. To attempt to evaluate their vocation through the eyes of logic alone is to miss almost everything and to understand little. One of Aristotle’s truest revelations is that happiness is not just a feeling or sensation, but is the quality of the whole life.[5] The dumbfounding thing is the great majority of these men, for admittedly there are some sad and tragic exceptions, are profoundly joyful and possess an inner peace, a tranquillity of spirit which does radiate visibly from their presence. They are like ghosts from another world with obscure clues and tip-offs for those who journey to visit them in their spiritual ‘hide-out’. But be prepared for these angelomorphic presences are well versed in the game of ‘hide n’ seek’ and it is they who will find you. They are black clad rebels against the established order of decay and corruption who embrace the reality of death together with its promise of transfiguration…of whom the world was not worthy –wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb. 11:38)

I would visit Athos twice and both times with the dreadful feeling that I was one of those ill-fated seeds from the parable of the sower. Sown on rocky ground and scorched. (Mat. 3:8) On the first of these occasions I was still a layperson and student at the Aristotelian, and then a few years later I would return as an ordained clergyman. We go on pilgrimages and visit monasteries for different reasons. Some of us go looking for spiritual counsel; for redemption and for a fresh start; to confess our sins; to escape from our past; to re-new old promises or to make new ones; to learn the fundamentals of prayer. In the end it is simple enough, the ongoing quest for “meaningfulness”.

But do not go anywhere looking specifically for God, or for that once in a life-time ‘religious experience’. It is one of the great mistakes and most of us will make it, just like when we routinely connect beauty to goodness. The psalmist’s counsel is not without its good reason, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10) However, it is the doctrine of Creation that we cannot escape from. Depending on how we understand this teaching and respond to its far-reaching implications, it will largely determine what we learn of the Creator and ourselves when we set out on the journey which might very well lead to Athos or to other places where prayer fills the night skies as if pieces of flickering diamond.

…as I go walkabout the invigorating salt air mixed with the aroma of wild unpicked flowers refreshes my body and spirit. To my right a mythical landscape of undulating peaks and steep ravines which threaten at any moment to spill into the brooding Aegean Sea below. An hour earlier in a distant skete… “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Ps.51:1)… I was awash in the scents of exotic Arabian incense and burning beeswax…

Good Lord, how desperately I have missed these wonderful worlds.

 

[1] Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Penguin Books: England), 1993, pp. 129-132.

[2] Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, (Yale University Press: New Haven), 2002.

[3] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Mount_Athos

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Prayer-Bishop-Kallistos-Ware/dp/1860828930/and+jesus+prayer

[5] http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/