The wall on Goddard Street, Newtown 2042

I have in my lifetime broken enough promises to my Lord and God [or to myself for those gentle readers who might share a different cosmology to mine] that I do not need for ‘the wall’ to remind me. The wall in question is on Goddard Street, Newtown, where I spent the early years of my life. I still walk up that little street, turning left to continue onto King Street, where our ancient café the Reno with other names continues to exist. Whenever I am in Sydney I will come here to chew the cud and to reminisce with my old ghosts. This week I was in Kingsgrove to spend time with Mother who was having eye surgery and to visit Father who is sleeping in Rookwood. ‘The wall’ is the side of an old building now splattered in graffiti. Years ago it ‘belonged’ to a notorious Greek nightclub, the Mykonos.

There are things which burn into the subconscious making them hard to forget, and typically they are events or encounters which contribute to our identity. Today I was in Newtown walking up Goddard and where normally I might simply acknowledge ‘the wall’ to move on, this time it was different. I had been thinking how long it had been since my last confession and I stopped to brush my left hand against it in self admonition. This was close to the spot where thirty-six years earlier I had slammed the underside of my closed hand in frustration, and in the process making one of my first [and ill-conceived] promises to God. When we “promise” something we quite literally ‘send it forward’ by making a declaration or giving an assurance.

Not surprisingly, soon afterwards I broke this promise.

I would make it a second time being none the wiser, in different places and in faraway worlds, in deserts and in cities, the same result. I broke it again. And I would struggle with this ‘thorn’ in the flesh for decades. But this is not the reason for this little journal entry. What I want to do here, is to especially encourage my younger readers to not despair if they have broken a promise, or indeed even a vow to our Father, Who art in heaven. Often enough our big promises to God and still to our earthly companions, could be made out of an anxiety to express the true intention of hearts or to reveal solidarity in a common cause. There are many reasons why we might feel strongly driven ‘to give our word’ to the deity or to a friend. It should not shock that most of us will in the end fail, that we will stumble and before too long become confronted with yet another instance of our breaking a promise. The feelings are more intense and dreadful for the religious if they feel they have ‘perjured’ themselves against their Creator. It does not help to spend the remainder of our lives in recrimination or self-blame and so becoming blind-sided to the many tremendous opportunities of visiting grace. We are not speaking here of impulsive promises or oaths, they should be resolutely avoided. And pledges should in no way be made lightly. So what to do if in a moment of spiritual fervour or youthful zeal we make a promise to the Most High only to have it broken soon after?

I hurt for having been too quick in the giving of my word. For a long time it was a yoke around the neck. And though I struggled much with the knowledge of the broken promise I did not despair that restoration would one day arrive to bring its consolation. For in the end, what does matter is the true intent of the heart [or the “will” which is behind all things as one of my favourite philosophers argued]. It is this honesty to be found in our souls [or in our “fragmented wills” as another profound thinker has said][1] and the desire to give the very best to our Maker that should comfort us. Ironically, it was this which is the authentic promise, the intent itself. We have not broken our word if only we should continue to strive towards its fulfilment. It is one of the most comforting and encouraging paradoxes to be found in the wisdom literature of the great religions that there are ways to make amends if we should go back on our word.[2] In this atmosphere of the spirit we are not dealing with ‘worldly’ contract law which can be terribly unforgiving.

I would remember these words from the psalter and weep, “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips (Ps 89:34) and yet from the same book I received both my comfort and hope, “[t]he steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.” (Ps 37:23-24) We can be severely harsh with ourselves and this will rob us of wonderful opportunities and dim too much of our natural brightness. I still make promises to my Maker, and still I break them. Whether this is because of spiritual weakness or physical infirmity or the abiding desire to express my love to Him through grandiose declarations: “I promise that from this day onwards I will always be the first to ask forgiveness from the other.” [Okay, then, from this Monday…  the New Year at least… I start again]. Sounds familiar, does it not? I remember also, and alas, too well, those times when I was very close to losing my life in heavy seas off the New South Wales south coast and in the stormy skies above the Caribbean flying over to Puerto Rico, and the solemn promises made should I be delivered from the approaching darkness. These promises too, broken.

But when was it I first supposed that making a promise to change something was any more powerful than the simple joy of trying to do it.

 

[1] The two references here of course to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in the first place and to Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) in the second.

[2] In Islam, for instance, a broken promise to Allah is a serious act but there are a number of opportunities for expiation, such as to engage in acts of charity, or alms giving, or fasting. In Buddhism it is heavy karma to break a promise but once committed the direction is to straightaway get back into the path. In Judaism if a vow is made in error or unwittingly or if the person was not fully aware of the ramifications, the vow or oath can be declared to be null and void by a rabbi or a sage.

A heart-warming return to the past

I was happy that Katina was able to recover this little segment from an old Vox Populi programme of long ago. [1] Not necessarily that it captures me in a more enthusiastic and youthful phase in my life, but also for the documenting of my parents George and Helen in our ‘pre-historic’ café, the legendary Reno Café [where I have elsewhere in this journal written about]. Where incidentally, they were to add at least another twelve years to their more than a few decades in our shoppe on 341 King Street, Newtown. As for that stretched red Volvo outside the shop? I still remember the delight in Mum’s eye when it was delivered one memorable afternoon from the previous owner, and the jibes from my mates that I had joined the ranks of the much maligned ‘Volvo driver’! The opening segment to the clip is not from the actual graduation of my class but presumably stock footage held by SBS [you would have noted the beloved Sir Roden Cutler inspecting the passing out parade and the former ‘colourful’ minister of police Mr Bill Crabtree]. In the picture I am with my younger cousin James and my two friends in the café are Dom and Linda. The place of worship where I am lighting a candle and where I would attend the Divine Liturgy on most Sundays, is the Church of Saint Demetrius [2], the patron saint of Thessaloniki, a fine example of Byzantine religious architecture located near the Aristotelian on Egnatias Avenue. The clip though short was a time-consuming process originally intended for a longer story, it is why I am bearded in some places [the segments shot in Thessaloniki, Greece] and ‘moustachioed’ when the filming was done here in Sydney, Australia. I had completed my first year in the School of Theology at the Aristotelian [3] in the north of Greece where I came impossibly close to topping the year and had just returned home after it was determined that I should continue with my studies as one of the inaugural students at the newly established Saint Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College [4] in Sydney. On a personal note it was encouraging to show my children that their Dad’s philosophy of life has pretty much remained steadfast despite the many ‘twists and turns’, and that there was a time when he too was living in a younger man’s clothes.

Listening to my ad hoc ‘commentary’ and reminding myself this is a young fellow in his early twenties, I am not too embarrassed by what I hear. But I would not speak in such absolute terms today having crossed over into the fifth decade of my life. “Time passed”, as Pablo Neruda has said. Though I was learning and growing in some encouraging ways, there remains a naivety to my words. It is perhaps telling that it was not too long after this interview I would be ordained into the priesthood. The simple truth, I was not ready. The naivety has long since gone, I would hope, and the fundamentalism [‘the overtly spiritual confidence’] has been considerably tempered and in places broken, by the “twists and turns”. Yet, for the most part, outside my wife and children this could well be my only true success in life, that when I look into the mirror despite seeing a face too often unrecognizable, I still deeply connect with that passionate young man. At the foundation remains the incontestable purpose behind our individual ‘journey-making’, the challenge to become a decent human being (Ludwig Wittgenstein).

“Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_Populi_(SBS_Current_Affairs_program)

[2] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Church_of_Saint_Demetrios_(Thessalonica)

[3] https://www.auth.gr/en

[4] http://www.sagotc.edu.au/

My departed Father’s birthplace

Paphos, Cyprus, November 2016/January 2017

From Sydney, via Dohar, to Larnaca; long haul flight over the Indian Ocean; please an aisle seat if possible; who will sit next to me; young man with sparse chestnut goatee; the ritual before I go on board; comfort shopping; buy a biography [Nikola Tesla]; a double-shot of Bombay Sapphire; since the near miss over the Caribbean; frightened of flying; Mark Webber in the next gate; not long ago it was Eckhart Tolle; and before that the happy songstress; to my right a distressed father of five; we jockey for the middle armrest; why does food taste differently on planes; more to do with smell rather than taste they say; I am repeating myself; Farfalle tossed with Arrabiata Sauce; will George hit his second fifty this weekend; your broken shoulder has healed well my boy; Katina manages amazingly without me; “I have loved you for a thousand years” (Christina Perri); the primary flight feathers of the Mute Swan; crosswind landings; angle of attack; the mythical landscape of Paphos; my changing face and my balding head; my departed Father’s birthplace; the deepest wound is silence; like a mark in the dark; your spirit gives life to the earth; Johann Sebastian Bach; punctus contra punctum [‘point against point’]; Nina Simone; the fingers are an extension of the voice; music smoulders down through to the large toe; C minor naturals and accidentals as required; I should stop for a drink; Zivania grape pomace and dry wine; nothing beats an icy cold beer; Bus 618 to the harbour; Apostolou Pavlou Avenue; Bank of Cyprus; Superior Real Estate; the earth stretches as far as the eye can see; to the end of silence; the suffering of the other is not ever far; Aleppo reveals the actuality of the new world order; Bana al-Abed keep safe under the giant wings of angels; long walk in the heat almost lost; local traffic signs are perilous here; step over cracks with the right foot first; great art like mystery inspires transformation; “The street had its own history/ someone wrote it on the wall, with paint” (Manos Loizos); Kallinikos Stavrovouniotis the inspired iconographer; preparation of brushes and woods; heated beeswax and coloured pigments; two young girls to my right are taking selfies; not long ago they would have been preserved in portraits; nine bus drivers on strike to my left; worry beads fighting a losing battle with cigarettes; no rain for three months; remember take quick showers; hot air masses over from the Sahara; gases and dust; the birth of stars; the big belt of Orion; second draft of the short stories done; “I journey inward seeking a language of lament” (Stephanos Stephanides); “How close we are/ to what we thought was so far away!” (Costas Montis); “Those who die in war, they sing the best songs for peace” (Mehmet Yasin);  true artists will bleed; your voice must bleed to give life to birds; without blood your poems will cease to exist; Aphrodite rises from the foam; Adonis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X); Pygmalion’s futuristic fetish gave birth to Paphos; most everything has been done and said before; even pixels and robotics; I need another blanket it is cold; two light bulbs burnt out; please make up Room 201; am I the last person on earth without a mobile; immunity from the network; the portable telephone will go inside the head; a 16 year-old Mother missing with her baby boy; we are all refugees; I have too many coats; “If you have two coats, give one away” (Lk. 3:11); scores of souvenir shops; the ridiculous mingles with the sublime; from nodding plastic Messiahs to the Virgin Mary of Kykkos; feather ice, fine as white Iranian Pashmak; figures of speech the folding doors at Pompeii; dreams the building blocks of images; globalism one of the terrible lies; to obliterate history; to deconstruct identity; the monopolization of food; “To the south, to the south, my time is running out” (Frank Turner); “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” (Leonard Cohen); “We all live in a yellow submarine” (Beatles); Saint Neophytos Monastery and Temple of the Retreat; a glorious Sunday morning histories and eternities turn together; the Divine Liturgy the summary of all things; Saint Barnabas Apostle to Antioch and Cyprus; Saint Spyridon the Wonderworker; Saint Sapricius the Bishop; mourning must not be wasted; the Berlin Christmas market attack; Russian ambassador assassinated in Ankara; babies freeze in Aleppo; wax honeycombs inside the beehive; synchronized wings; contract pollination; lightning in the form of ribbons; stories trapped in stone; Rock of the Greek; Saint Paul’s Pillar (1 Cor. 2:11-24); Paphos Castle; Tombs of the Kings; the Ancient City of Marion; who am I, dear Mother, and why have I become; what rests in the depths of depths; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me the sinner; sickening migraine tonight; wild galloping horses; anvils made of splintered diamond; Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9 in D major; you play music on the inside of my heart; it ends too soon; before we have time to say, this is who I am; a child is asked to decide on a Christmas gift; what will it be a dress or a toy; a small glass of milk, she says; thank goodness it is raining; Trinitarian mystery and supercritical fluids; “Lazarus, come forth!” (Jn. 11:43); I should tell Jeremiah to believe in the resurrection of the living; I should have been in Mexico; I should have brought another white shirt; Gennadios Taverna; White King Chess School; Papaconstantinou Bakery; my jaw is hurting again; oh please Lord, not for a third time; this codeine will not work; the ‘pigeon-toed orange peel’; it never existed Mr Eastwood; film can convince us of almost anything; Zeno of Citium; true good can only exist in Virtue; happiness depends on moral actions; truth is as recognisable as the odour under the armpits; go bald gracefully and delight in the possibilities; a middle-aged man with short-cropped hair waiting for Mediterranean mussels; an elderly woman with cat eye sunglasses is pushing away the past; a young couple bent over, lost forever in their mobiles; Marios Tokas Anoula tou Hionia; Michalis Kakoyiannis Zorba the Greek (1964); Christopher A. Pissarides “theory of search frictions”; a philosopher with broken hands taking notes; dark energy; dark matter; normal matter; expansion of the universe not slowing down; like stars racing on the edges of galaxies; the artist must for a short time forget; only then can he or she create anew; the palimpsest is a valuable example; beards are back in fashion; the Bandholz; the five-blade razor; birds made from old manuscripts and from the virgin’s hair; Pied Wheatear; Warbler Sylvia; Short-toed Treecreeper; Panagia Theoskepasti; Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa; Agios Georgios Basilica; Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” an ongoing prophecy; please read Albert Camus’ “The Human Crisis”; Dag Hammarskjold Markings; the Cyprus issue falters again; corruption is the mainstay; culture of co-existence a distant vision; the view of the Mediterranean coastline is mesmerizing; each flickering light a poem in the horizon; miles of soul sleeping tonight; “Let the stars appear/ and the moon disclose her silver horn” (Jane Kenyon); South Sudan conflict; another catastrophe; hunger in Yemen; United Nations ineffectual intoxicated on blind power; a rusted door knob; a shoe without a heel; a broken teacup; we become that after which we chase; Midas touched his daughter she turned to gold; let us chase after poetry; why are you reading these lines; have you visited before; would you offer a hat in my distress [or a rope, as he once did]; in Pegeia they speak in key signatures; the young ones still court at the ‘vrisi’; Coral Bay sprays new life into the ancient lithosols; I was a soldier here long ago; one day they prepared us for war; there was lots of crying in camp; House of Dionysos; House of Aion; the “Forum” [the Agora]; the first photo is never right; why do you forget; a wooden boat swaying gently on scattered sunlight; a group of children skipping on pebble skins; seashells on the knees of butterflies; Chapecoense LaMia Flight 2933; from one moment to the next; Alexandrov Ensemble Tu-154 crashes in the Black Sea; a new chorus of mermaids; you will spring from bed one night; the answer would have at last arrived; it will be the last and the hardest of your battles; “years have passed many changes taking place” (Hazel Durham); “what’s changed is you” (F. Scott Fitzgerald); “so take away my passport!” (Mahmoud Darwish); you said you were going away forever; yet I will look for you in the cities; “Or ancient mounds that cover bones, Or rocks where rockdoves do repair” (The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins); caution no entry; attention heavy vehicles; beware bumps on the road; Troodos Mountains; Pediaios River; Avakas Gorge; the way you clasped your hands; Latin-rig sails drifting into the distance; the secret remains in how we communicate the story; Cyrano de Bergerac and his talking earrings; I sing carols with old ‘Santa Claus’ Lawrence; December 25th Christmas Day; “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1); “Therefore Christmas, the day of the birth of the God-man the Lord Jesus Christ, is the greatest and most important day in the history of all the worlds in which man moves and lives” (Saint Nikolai Velimirovich); the parcel of land recovered; belongings were watered; January 11th time to go.

Kingsgrove on the stroke of midnight

Sydney, NSW

Singularity on the keyboards; cyborgs dancing without soul; eaters of electricity; he lifts his spirit like a heavy weight; Sisyphus does not let go of hope; technology delivers at a great cost; the makers of new-fangled dreams; lost in a sandstorm without a compass; a lone saxophone brings you home; moonless nights; Mother of God ‘I am lost’; clouds blowing in the west; what fear this fear; the sky alight with fire; not prepared for the revelation; an ancient fish bursting through the shallows; tentacles of water; mazes built from rusted steel; our beloved Ellul where are you; save our ship SOS; the pain of a broken friendship; a grand piano out of tune; strands of hair in the sink; the eye more easily deceived than the ear; truth will stand no chance; except for theatre; graffiti and poetry; and mouth to mouth; here in this house where philosophy bruised my fingers; properties lost in translation; like the Filioque; and proceeds from Love; the three child saints playing hide and seek in the kitchen; the last seal opened on our deathbeds; identity revealed through suffering; life is not meaningless; the whole thing is context; “Green how I want you green. Green wind. Green branches” (Federico Garcia Lorca); I touch the walls rekindling the past; byzantine icons in the other room; fragrant resin dripping from gilded brows; Patmos rising from beneath the chief sea; the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; hordes pressed against the fences; they search for the righteous priests; “May your priests be clothed with your righteousness” (Ps 132:9); the terrible Mark brings the great sore; who loves you when you stretch out your hand; Father when did you die; as you enter to your left; an iron bed by the window; sanitary walls painted grey; you will find the poem beneath the pillow; outside tall trees and little birds; Francisco Goya (1746-1828); “Disasters of War”; lead white canvas primer; to be burnt in order to become charcoal; here in this room where I first saw the dream; the outer darkness; the sword of Damocles hanging over my head; it is okay brother and sister we are forgiven; the Trisaghion hymn; they will find out; then you will truly live; time to sleep it is 1.58AM; “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou); temptation is the only constant; grace comes and goes; like the hands on the face of a clock; “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be” (Douglas Adams); time to sleep it is 2.11AM; I have heard that before; hickory dickory dock; we all like Mr Spock; top draw to the right; letters unopened from previous journeys; a broken London Clock; Miriam where are you; here are the tickets you said; Salamis Lines; Limassol to Patmos; radiant rings will speak of status; “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21); drones carrying prophecy; attacked by rogue  eagles; time to sleep it is 2.20AM; lucid dreaming; Freud psychopathology; Jung archetypes; Saint Joseph protect me; make me part of your dream; give me your breath; “Now my five senses gather into a meaning all acts, all presences” (Judith Wright); an old man in an electric wheelchair; a new-born in a layback stroller; for a brief moment their vision intersects; at that instant it is done; deliciously cynical; as beautiful as the Aegean; on Marrickville and Illawarra Roads; the tips of an angel’s wing brush the hairs on the forearm; and all this by the grace of God; “I have a world apart that is not among men”  (Li Po); though drained of life; call no man good; and he will be crushed and twisted; to be set straight before the final journey; share with me your greatest poem; burnt to fine powder; sunk in the black residue; “Who knows how to drink pain, and live?” (Gwen Harwood); Natalya Estemirova; Marie Colvin; Anna Politkovskaya; Mother is whining and coughing; these irritating noises will one day be missed; like the Great Vespers in the Cathedral of Kazan; Moorefields Road; Clemton Park; King Georges Road; Jacob’s vision at Bethel; rapid-eye movement (REM); “I got dreams to remember” (Otis Redding); Citalopram; Paroxetine; Clomipramine; fiant pilulae et pereat mundus; Thomas Szasz The Myth of Mental Illness; anti-coercive psychiatry; the roots in the lake; a straw-coloured moon; the Bucharest poem, dear Mother; here in these hallways where I grew taller; black-and-blue heart and knees; in these rooms I determined that life must go on; from this front door I left a layman; returned a priest; left again in a thousand pieces; “If we were humble the Lord in His love would show us all things” (Saint Silouan the Athonite); I saw my Father here for the last time; Cartoon Corner in the afternoon; toasted banana and peanut butter sandwiches; football training across the road; the Lion that devours in my bedroom; the ancient Dragon from the deep in my bedroom; Revelation 21 on the left wall; melodies unto a lovely madness; intricate gold sculptures; three-dimensional space; I envy how you run through the fields; it is now at last time to sleep 3.17AM; Jeremiah please pray for me; “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Polonius, Hamlet); which hat then do we put on today; the four winds hat; the pilgrim’s hat; “Hit the road Jack and don’t cha come back/No more” (Percy Mayfield); a blind sewing mistress; reading Braille by the stars; the sightless will lead the sighted; Oum Kalthoum keening before the Great Sphinx of Giza; there are four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly; Prometheus defies the gods three times; outside the horn blast of a car is getting louder; we have underestimated Baudelaire; “Always be a poet, even in prose”; words made right on the stroke of midnight; I am the restoring drops of rain caught beneath your collar.

 

Harper House School of Divinity

At the conclusion of the Bachelor of Arts in 1983 a number of opportunities opened up for me. One was return to the Police Force, another to try my hand at journalism or even consider the diplomatic service. Teaching was another appealing option. By this time as I have elsewhere mentioned I had become deeply interested in theology. Not only in the Church Fathers for I had also been reading Christian writers from the low Church Anglican and Reformed traditions. And though to my surprise I was offered the honours stream of my philosophy major it was this I decided to do, follow in the footsteps of my forefathers, great grandfathers and grandfathers, and study theology. After considering various options I was interviewed by Barbara Thiering for a place in Sydney University’s School of Divinity program at Harper House[1] (now long consumed by the Department of Studies in Religion).[2] With the formidable Doctor Thiering at the helm, who would later court considerable controversy with her reinterpretation of the New Testament,[3] this was a liberal school but one which was comprised of a strong cross denominational faculty. Theologians of the calibre of David Coffey, John Chryssavgis, Gordon Dicker, Graham A. Cole, and others, would regularly cross our paths and give classes. It was also one of the few university degrees which though a Bachelor was only open to postgraduates. A fellow student, the bespectacled and grey-peppered Patrick G., was one of the most well-read individuals I had ever met. Hullo dear Patrick. Yes, it is good to remember: what good is a prophet without knowledge (Aesop).

I enjoyed an initial semester at the school and was introduced to subjects and approaches to biblical studies not only new to me, particularly in the areas of exegesis and hermeneutics, but also confronting to my ‘literalist’ interpretation. Also in those early weeks, when studying the reception of the Pentateuch, we were enlightened to the critical distinction between orality and literacy.[4] A few weeks into the second session after having bumped into one of the guest lecturers, Archbishop Stylianos Harkianakis, I left however uncertain to accept an invitation from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and the Greek Ministry of the Exterior, to study theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in northern Greece.[5]

One of the great legacies of my first contact with Harper House (for I would later return to complete a postgraduate degree), was that I witnessed first-hand how fruitful the interdisciplinary and ‘inter-confessional’ model could be for teacher and student alike. That is, if there existed the genuine intention to listen and to learn one from the other. Ideally, the teachers would be charismatic and the students mature in their faith. Which in this place, I am happy to remember, it was often the case.

As an aside, but something which would afterwards relentlessly test my reserves (given the ‘terrors’ that had yet to unfold), I would set out to complete the Bachelor of Theology on three separate occasions and at three different academic institutions. At the minimum it should have taken me three years to complete this degree. In the end and despite the promisingly good results, it would take through some admittedly hasty decision making on my own part, at least seven years. And so time does pass.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Harper

[2] http://sydney.edu.au/arts/religion/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Thiering

[4] http://www.biblicalperformancecriticism.org/index.php/2011-08-26-20-28-44/articles-mainmenu-37/articles/64-kelber-review-of-botha-orality-and-literacy-in-early-christianity/file

[5] https://www.auth.gr/e