Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor His Eminence Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know it. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive, are saying at their root core: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

Random Thoughts

In the first instance some random thoughts to myself:

Flower-Yellow-Wood-370256.jpg

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

Life changing talks with a song and a poem to boot

Used discerningly YouTube, the video-sharing website founded in 2005, is a truly incredible reservoir of stockpiled knowledge no more than a click away. The vital thing is discerningly for like many things in the online world this too can become quickly addictive. It is not difficult to stray in this electronically fuelled atmosphere, particularly with such a visual and captivating medium as film. It can become overwhelmingly seductive. Otherwise it is indeed a marvellous place to visit. And so what we hear about “the good and bad sides of YouTube” is without doubt true.

Elsewhere I have shared some favourite pieces of music. Here I would like to share a sample of life changing talks I will turn to. I will visit these downloads when I need an additional reminder that tomorrow is another day where new and exceptional things can happen. That even the next hour is full of great possibilities and salvation from despair. I am sure you will find some of these very special YouTube talks helpful if not for yourselves, then at least for someone near and dear to you. These profound presentations touch on various dimensions of life and the shared wisdom of the presenters can benefit us even if this might only mean becoming a little more compassionate and understanding ourselves. The presentations below have at least some very significant things in common: (i) The speakers have themselves experienced the deepest aspects of the journey which they describe and [like all “wounded healers”] have experienced the ‘wound’ themselves, (ii) they are not asking for your money or selling you a ‘secret’, (iii) self-realization and affirmative behaviour begin with a brutal self-assessment of why we find ourselves engaging in destructive behaviour; (iv) once the problem which is hurting us is realized there is set into action a hard-nosed plan and a fierce determination to see the resolution for change through.

These points are summarised best perhaps by the physician and addiction expert, the Hungarian-born Canadian Gabor Maté: “Something else is possible and you are worth that possibility.” Muniba Mazari, the inspirational Pakistani artist and motivational speaker, tells us how that possibility might be entered into: “Behind every inspirational picture there is an untold story of constant pain, persistent effort, and determination.” We do not have to agree with everything we hear in these talks, and in some places we might noticeably diverge, but there is too much truth and loads of sweet honey here to at least not stop for a while and to consider both the implications and the possibilities.[1]

 

[1] In all these testimonies we will find in the words of Jerry Long, a logotherapist in the tradition of Frankl and someone who had his own great challenges to overcome, “the defiant power of the human spirit” (Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1984, p. 171).

And a song and a poem, Leonard Cohen, Constantine P. Cavafy