The Happy Pub

Bucharest, Romania, August 23, 2011

Humour has saved me more than once. Next to prayer it has been indispensable in helping me get through some of the more difficult days and has more than once stopped me from bayoneting myself on self-pitying introspection. “Humour” writes one of the most beloved Christian apologists C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside.”[1] It is important whatever our circumstances to try and find something of the amusing even during the testing times. The positive effects of humour on our disposition and temperament have been well proven. Discernible elements of humour are certainly not absent from our religious literature, including the New Testament itself often through its use of “exaggeration or hyperbole”.[2] 

 Happy Pub | Restograf - Restaurante Bucuresti

Happy Pub | Restograf - Restaurante Bucuresti

If we look deep enough the realization of the absurd will almost always bring a smile to our face. And, yes, there will be things for when this approach might not be the right way, but then context is rarely wrong. On the other hand affected ‘piety’ in religious folk is terrible. I have seen it destroy people’s joy for life and compassion for their neighbour. It is comical in men who attempt to suppress their natural reactions and responses to things. Conversely, it is especially sad in women who grow unfriendly and cold. I have not forgotten a telling admonition from one of the monks at Saint Sabbas [Mar Saba] monastery in Palestine, the iconographer eremite Father Theophanes. A pilgrim was taking an inordinately long time in the ‘hellishly’ hot midday hours of the desert prostrating before the icon of the patron saint. The tall and imposing middle-aged monk with the deep-set dark eyes, who bore a striking resemblance to Fred Gwyne of ‘Munster’ fame, turned to me and whispered: You know, brother, it’s the ‘piety’ which gets us in the end.

-Is the devil ‘pious’? I whispered back.

-Is he ‘religious’? The monk responded.

-Does worship of the ‘self’ count as a ‘religion’?

-It could I suppose, what do the books say?

When it comes to the overly zealous pilgrim, it could with some small qualification, be as simple as those famous words of the incomparable Miss Piggy, “Never eat more than you can lift.”  

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

[2] http://global.oup.com/obso/focus/focus_on_humor_new_testament/

In my bedroom early morning hours January 7th 2018

Gerringong, NSW

The heat almost unbearable tonight; like the years lost to phantasms; memories which mock till sucked dry; the roundness of my back a parachute; this body once carved from Greek marble; the teasing of a spirit which stays young; the soft flesh and decay of teeth; tonight this is not who I am; tonight I am a god smearing moonlight on my face; I am a poet until the sunrise; and my hair is thick and hiding a multitude of stories; Augustine of Hippo “ever-present eternity”; “[y]et the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness” (Khalil Gibran); “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise” (Dan. 12:1); I hear the waves crashing onto the shore; years ago the Pacific Ocean almost claimed me; the water has been after me since the womb; vodka; voda; little water; you can drift off nicely with a huge ear; tympanic membrane; Bugs Bunny “Rabbit of Seville”; Syd Barrett busking in Paris before his conflagration; Estas Tonne’s burning fingers whirling dervishes in Madrid; the blind guitar player on Piccadilly Circus looks my way; word association associative patterns; “[w]ild, wild horses we’ll ride them some day” (The Rolling Stones); Eleni wakes up to a nightmare; J.P. Morgan; the ‘1907 Panic’; the Federal Reserve System; do understand it is a private trust; this generation has been reeling in the darkness; algorithms are without soul; ‘number crushing’ will be reversed; to the right on top my side drawer four books; The Handmaid’s Tale; Titus Andronicus; The Robots of Dawn; David Brooks' The Fern Tattoo; to the left on top my side drawer; the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece; a pair of blue crystal angels; a prayer rope; a Rubics cube; a bronze owl from Istanbul; the stories from Paphos almost done; I enjoyed drafting these on the mountain; I might send them to Westerly; I am nodding off; I will sleep for a few hours; here on this bed you were conceived; 5.47 AM; “From bed and sleep hast Thou raised me up”; dreamt of my Father sitting on a ledge in his suit; episodic memory; aromatic incense; Lily of Aegina; 2 charcoal pieces; Surrealism and the unconscious; Salvadore Dali (1904-1989);  camouflage; concealing colouration; “[y]ou can close your eyes to reality but not to memories” (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec); it is a little cooler; remnants will be left behind; my pillow wet like London rain; I am getting a new laptop; I wish I did not need one; nobody needs Facebook; great alphabets are hidden in our backyard; “[o]nly the body remembers stillness”; Elvia Garcia Ardalani; back soon must quench my thirst; chilled tomato juice; savoury crackers and cheddar cheese; a short black; Boat Harbour Rock Pool; Seven Mile Beach; Cathedral Rocks; midnight Christmas services the Julian Calendar; typewriter patented on this day (1714); total fire bans are in place; motifs return in different keys; they come back on their head; Ludwig van Beethoven; Claude Debussy; Jon Lord; we are all connected; all things touch; except the “internet of things” which has no soul; but Charles Bukowski has soul (1920-1994); Iranian oil tanker fire leaves 32 missing;  “Aussie Flu” outbreak; Donald Trump ‘absolutely’ would talk with Kim Jong-Un; Titus Andronicus; pulp fiction; “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?” (Titus Andronicus); redemption; “the action of being saved”; recovery; Katina and the little ones at the beach; George gone fishing; my left leg folded under the right has gone to sleep; Tito Colliander (1904-1989); The Way of the Ascetics; searching for faith in a disbelieving world; Pythagoras’ golden thigh; speak to me great river; bite the head off the old serpent; 10:07 AM; I will take a shower; a shower like a baptism promises re-birth; healed in the waters of the Pool of Siloam and the Gihon Spring; blue sundew; purple garlic; dark orange; the dyers guild protected their secrets closely; the porcelain guild even more; my guardian angel above and beyond; Uberveillance is nearer than I thought; who will be able to resist; save your children; blood pressure 157/95; pressure in large arteries; sphygmomanometer; the explosion of colour; diffuse nebulae; interstellar matter; second breakfast: Melba toast, feta cheese, black olives, and a drop of Sangiovese; drafted a poem; revised two translations; listened to Loreena McKennitt; leafed through some old photographs; joyful-sorrow; translate to ‘double-edged sword’; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIS3Y-lZStU;  “I made my song a coat” (W. B. Yeats); Red Mashad Persian Rug; the Blueface Angelfish will dazzle in the Indo-Pacific; diamonds rain down on the surface of Jupiter; Katina and the little ones have returned; George is still with Pops; our neighbours mowing the lawns; the shrieking of Galahs; much cooler and “partly cloudy”; stratus; cumulus; stratocumulous; a postcard from Singapore arrived two days ago; a letter from the bank; an invitation to a wedding; remember Mary Wollstonecraft; she died giving birth to her daughter; the other Mary who wrote Frankenstein; “[i]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”; back later don’t go away; 9:47 PM; “The day has passed, and I give You thanks, Lord”; another ritual washing; at least the flesh will be clean; earlier a bowl of lentil soup, onion, olives, with crusty bread; a tall cold beer; a mild cigar; a secure roof; unqualified love; blessings beyond words and so my heart be silent and do not complain; “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever” (Ps.136); belief is action and movement; belief is not dogmatic it is ongoing counsel through the darkness; “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24); Jeremy bouncing a ball downstairs; Eleni drawing pictures in the big room; Frida Kahlo (1907-1954); look on the underside of the image; a magical realist acquainted with grief; I am upstairs in the bedroom; “Beam me up, Scotty” (Star Trek); Google maps; ‘view or edit your timeline’; what will be the truth; to the right of me the bathroom; to the left of me the walk-in wardrobe; and to the front of me “[t]wo roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Robert Frost); Siccar Point; time split into many points; creation and evolution; blue whale; white whale; grey whale; it invariably comes down to triggers; “Stories that educate and inspire those with OCD” (Stuart Ralph); tap… tap… Tao; the Titanic burned; the iceberg came after; like the new world we are building; “dance me to the end of love” (Leonard Cohen); Salome; Isadora Duncan; Martha Graham; chasse triple step; lock step; feather step; Rabindranath Tagore; Nandalal Bose; Niranjan Bhagat; contextual modernism; orchid; lotus; bleeding heart; last week I dreamt I was wrestling with myself; I had the ‘other’ in a tight headlock; subdue that which wars within you; courage; enlightenment; collapsing stars and gamma-ray bursts; all good for now; the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; from the shadow of death; light will dawn; it all goes too quick, the little bird lamented; let us cry together tonight.

Fragments from a diary continued

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The nose bleeds increased in frequency, this started to scare me because there were times when I could ‘hear’ little slingshot ‘explosions’ inside my head. It was the beginning of my lifelong battle with high blood pressure. Like the experienced painter, I knew that I would have to keep stretching the canvas. I remember, too, when sleep would finally approach to bow before the icon of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, and to entreat him for his intercessions for he knew better than most that place of the lamentations. I would then cross my body with holy oils from Mother’s collection to be ‘prepared’ for I could not be sure that I would live to see the next day. The thought of suicide had begun to again infiltrate my mind and would gradually become one of my most unforgiving demons. The more I wanted to put an end to my life, the more I wanted to live. It was this that made it all the more unbearable and excruciating. The unregenerate and the regenerate life-forces within me were fighting for control. They would oftentimes spill into each other, like unconscious memory which streams into the present.

This is close as I would come to some intellectual comprehension of the harmony and dichotomy of that heartbreakingly iconic pericope where most in Christendom have drawn their sense of faith and divine providence from, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39)

Organizations to a large extent help shape identity which makes individuals definable and recognizable. How much more faith-based institutions with their overwhelming references to community and fidelity. I had lost my identity or at least very large pieces of it. My identification with the Church was ‘total commitment’. It was everything for Christ. I felt abandoned and whatever gifts I might have once possessed I now considered wasted. Already in the grip of that horrible feeling of having the life sucked out of you, left with nothing: an empty shell.  There is a marvellous title to one of Philip Roth’s books that describes this condition perfectly, The Humbling, even the first line: “He had lost his magic”.

There were more pieces to the puzzle which would catch me by surprise and often enough shock me, this troubling restlessness within me and my inability to compromise were together friend and enemy. I had this overriding sense of a ‘constant homesickness’. It was nostalgia for something I had lost, or perhaps had never even possessed. Maybe, I had somewhere scribbled in a book of notes, it was something like the ‘youzi’: “the wandering man” of the great Chinese poetic canon of the Six Dynasties gripped by the need for spiritual fulfilment he would go on journeys both real and imaginary. But I knew, somehow I knew though I could never quite explain it to myself or to others, that while I had great appreciation for the drama and lessons of Sisyphus I did not too often, even during the most difficult of days feel myself to be condemned to a senseless cycle of repetitions. I could ‘see’ or ‘sense’ sometimes clearly and other times more dimly the light at the end of this long and dark tunnel.

We leave a place never to return, but we spend the rest of our life reflecting over it and going back, often without realizing it. For me this location is ‘Redfern’, it is both a physical and spiritual place. It is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and my religious name, Jeremiah. It is the priesthood and where I was tonsured into another existence. We never can wholly abandon these places. They become oracles to be written on the inside of our bones. It is like Joyce who was desperate to leave Dublin but never could, and Faulkner who thought he could escape Lafayette County, or more recently Armen Melikian in Journey to Virginland who cannot forget Armenia despite his exile from the homeland of his forefathers. These writers like many others, spend a great deal of their lives going back. The clever thing is to admit to our ‘longing’, to embrace it, to take what is good and to transform the rest. The nostalgia, this longing unto sickness to return, is not all bad and is the central refrain in one of our earliest ‘blockbusters’, the great Homeric epic, The Odyssey.[1]

 

As you set out for Ithaka

A number of Cavafy’s poems re-work the Homeric myths. Ithaka is the most famous and the last of these designated “Homeric poems”. The first time I heard this masterpiece read, in its original tongue, was when I was still an undergraduate studying Modern Greek at Sydney University in the early 1980s. It was either Michael Jeffreys or Alfred Vincent who recited it for us. Outside the poetry of the paschal canon it had struck me then as the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I could not have imagined then, young and forward-looking, that there would come a time when hardly a few weeks would pass when I did not ‘return’ to Constantine Cavafy’s luminous Ithaka. “And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”[2]

Dwelling

“It’s both a noun and a verb. It holds both spatial and temporal meanings. It has taken on a negative connotation of immobility and paralysis, and at the same time it is a word, like home, that evokes powerful positive associations. What is this strange split in our psyche, this ambivalence about residence? The word itself embodies the tension between our awareness of perpetual change and our desire to have something solid and unchangeable to hold on to as we move through the world. It is a beautiful word in just this way, balancing yin and yang, reminding us that it is always possible to find movement within stillness, and stillness within movement.”[3]

 

Saint Sabbas Monastery

And so I moved on, to the cold and fiery desert. But not idealizing any place for earth is still earth. “There never was, and never will be a place on earth free from sorrows. The only sorrow-less place possible is the heart, when the Lord is present there.” (St Nikon of Optina)

Founded by Saint Sabbas in 483 [478?] CE and overlooking the Kidron valley in the Judean desert, The Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified is reckoned the oldest ongoing inhabited monastery in the world.[4] In Arabic it is known as Mar Saba. To see this marvel of building ingenuity with its honeycomb architecture where one cell connects seamlessly to the next and a little chapel takes you through to another larger one; where hidden staircases and underground tunnels lead to secret antechambers and to escape routes; and deep blues and earthen reds and golden browns shimmer resplendently in the sun, is to imagine a mysterious jewel in the desert. On walls you will find the signed graffiti of young boy monks who grew-up to become old and venerated Patriarchs. I came to this legendary place once ‘heaven’ to hundreds if not thousands of monks (if you are to include the mountainous surrounds) now down to fewer than a dozen, after having resigned from my teaching post when I had not only discovered the name of my ‘benefactor’ but also found it increasingly difficult to settle into my ‘new’ layperson persona. This was no simple pilgrimage. I arrived seeking to make atonement in what is considered the harshest monastery in Christendom, to find a way with the help of Abbot Seraphim (who was one of the “three”) to make some small amends for taking my hand off “the plough”. I also wanted to discover if I could live here, in the desert where there are no games, as one of the monastic community.

And if Katina’s high school reunion was held a day earlier or a day later than on that fairy-tale February evening in 1994 where without any warning I asked her to marry me, I would have returned. My cell already decided [I had asked for the ‘luxury’ of a book rack and for the window to be repaired], there to spend the remainder of my natural life.

I’ve been through the desert

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, It felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert you can remember your name, ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

La,la,la,la,la,la,la,la,la…
— America

[1] Here is a very good little discussion on the relevance of Homer’s Odyssey which you can share with family and friends: http://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-homers-odyssey-82911

[2] http://www.cavafy.com/

[3] Andrew Peterson, The Next Ten Minutes, (Atria Books: New York, 2010), p. 251f.

[4] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Holy_Lavra_of_St._Savas_(Jerusalem)

You are in the army now

Greek Cypriot National Guard January/March 1998

It does not take much to strip us down to our skin and bones humanity, to our base ‘animal’ nature, for our repertoire of the most beautiful songs to turn into howls and screams. When our stomach is full, when we are not thirsty, when we live in a comfortable home and have decent paying work, it is not difficult to act sophisticated and cultured. How refined would we be if there were ten of us fighting over one loaf of bread? Trying to outrun each other for a cup of water to sate our thirst? These thoughts are disturbing not only in the context of our hierarchical needs and natural instincts towards self-preservation, but also when ‘self-preservation’ leads to questions of motivation, self-defence, and punishment.[1] I was faced with some of these implications during my short service in the military and could only imagine what this life on a long term basis could do to the spirit of a human being.[2] We are only weeks or days, even hours or minutes away of being stripped from the personalities and personas we ideally choose to present ourselves to the world, and according to which society rewards us. It is a sobering, humbling thought: from starry-eyed thoughts and profound pronouncements on Politics and Art to sinking deep into the mud and minding nothing for the stink of excreta. Self-awareness makes strong demands of us and it can be painful.

A week into boot-camp and the sewerage system in our block broke down.[3] We were not permitted to enter the quarters of another company. For the first few days shaving and making use of the urinals, despite the awful stench, did not overly concern us. The officers informed us that all necessary repairs would be made. As the days passed and the promised repairs did not eventuate, we started to worry. As a child and even later into my adulthood I was particularly sensitive to smells, and when it came to going to the toilet I was obsessive about cleanliness and privacy. After that first week most of us gradually started to give way to our initial strong hesitations of becoming overwhelmed by the disgusting surroundings. We started to make our way to the ‘sanitary’ block, no longer too sensitive or concerned with what was there. Here we were all equal. It did not matter whether you were a professor or a young upstart just out of high-school. Things of an ‘aesthetical’ nature which might have been highly important to us a week or two before, Homer or Hesiod, Bruckner or Mahler, or our different and sometimes extreme political affiliations, these now gave way to our other base and more urgent needs.

This experience with the sanitary break-down to our living quarters was not insignificant for it equipped me with vital insights when it came to doing future battle with some of my demons. This fast turn-about in thinking was especially revealing and would later help me to better engage with my OCD. I had seen first-hand how the mind can be strong and over-look certain prior dispositions, if only we keep moving ahead, remain busy, and allow for priorities. When it reaches the point when there is nothing else we can do, the priority of our natural human needs can overrule eccentricities, fears, obsessions, and taboos. Under certain conditions, much more catastrophic than what I have here described [especially in regards to thirst and hunger], theories of knowledge and philosophical systems unless serving to invigorate the human spirit and to address life with meaning, become completely useless.

Until the last of the repairs would be made to the plumbing we steadily grew accustomed to the overflow and reek, to the extent where it all became too normal. Many analogies could be drawn and made from this experience. Most of these have to do with the question of familiarity and desensitization, but also to the rise of corrupt regimes, inhumane corporate systems, and our turning away from human suffering. This truth, this reality which most of us know to be true, is one we would rather not have to face too often and is what the “corruptors” of the world prey upon and take advantage of. It is what the Turkish poet and political activist Aziz Nesin describes in his devastatingly confronting poem, Silence! Do Not Speak:[4] “We have swallowed our tongue. We have a mouth but no voice. We even formed an association: ‘The silent ones’/ And there were many of us…”

 

[1] This is not a literal reference to Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, for over time we have seen that the theory contains some glaring inconsistencies (i.e. a small subject sample) and omissions (the spiritual dimension). But for my purposes here it suffices.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypriot_National_Guard

[3] Though hard to believe it was rumoured these ‘sewerage problems’ were not uncommon. They were supposed to get the new recruits ‘desensitized’ to the stench of rotting corpses.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wv5PjJGlzEo

Random Thoughts

In the first instance some random thoughts to myself:

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Oh sweetest Jesus to exist in that moment when we act and are moved by selfless love alone.

Pure self-love is to practise compassion on your dying self.

Pure selfless love is difficult to practise because like light it reveals all which is not clean in our hearts. For a season this divine disclosure can hurt more than physical pain.

We shall be given a second chance to embrace the magnificence of humility as our death draws near. Let us hope our deaths are not sudden.

Few things are more beneficial for the soul than to pray for our adversaries that they might outlive and outshine us, but it is not easy and the revelation of that hour might disappear for many years.

We cannot practise love or any of the virtues outside our encounter with the other. Your spouse, your neighbour, the brother or sister at the check-out counter, the cook in the café, and particularly those who might will us harm.

Vengeance clouds the mind and is a sure step to a catastrophe. It has nothing to do with justice.

It is oftentimes more difficult to forgive ourselves than to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Outside our Creator nobody knows the depth and extent of our transgressions better than I who has committed them. So we continue to unnecessarily punish ourselves and without mercy.

It is a temptation which goes under many names, to dismiss the spiritual insights of those outside our own community of believers, but in so doing we would hold to no account the beckoning call of the Holy Ghost to all His children.

If we cannot acknowledge the Creator in the presence of our brother and sister through acts of charity and mercy, we would have accomplished nothing even if we should have gained the whole world.

Hold no high expectations from people, and particularly from those nearest to you, for similarly to you they are struggling and fighting to survive. This is one of the surest ways to peace, to recollect and to reflect upon our shared moral infirmity. To meditate upon our common brokenness.

It is important to remember the distinction between solitude [which is good] and isolation [which is bad]. Such is the difference as is between angels and demons. There can be community in solitude, but not in isolation.

Do not be deceived by those sleek presentations which promise fast paths to ‘inner knowledge’. In the beginning the path to inner knowledge is strewn with difficulties and it can be offending and brutal. At the start it is not at all comely to look at. Few would want to have anything to do with it.

The search for truth does not end, it starts afresh from a higher vantage point as revelation increases. We must be careful that ‘truth’ does not become our comfortable resting bed.

Belief comes before faith, like prayer comes before the heart which doubts.

Philosophy cannot teach us how to pray or to offer up ourselves as a living sacrifice. But prayer can reveal the truth of philosophy to us.

Truth and interior silence are synonyms. Noise is the great enemy.

Ego and pride will be the last to go. “Who am I?” When you are gone the world will go on without you. Who will weep for you?

Hope is not an illusion or a fantasy. I can place my trust in hope but not in an illusion or a fantasy.

The most useful tears are those that dry like herbs.

Despair, too, like all things, it will pass. It is not who you are, it is a response to those painful things which presently surround you. 

To practise discernment is to recognise that alongside the dumbfounding beauty of the world there also exists dreadful wickedness. And then to be able to judge well between the two.

To contemplate upon the great mystery of existence, and to look inwardly to discover that Creation has not stopped. You are aflame with stardust.

Compassion is the key to unlocking the deeper mysteries of love.

Gift your neighbour the benefit of the doubt and a thousand lives will be saved.

MGM