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

Providence, Coincidence or Meaningful Decisions

homer.jpg

Providence is mostly connected to theological reflection and generally associated to divine purpose. Coincidence on the other hand is normally thought of in terms of luck, fate, or chance. In some other instances coincidence has been thought of in the context of meaningful decisions, perhaps it is here where it ‘coincides’ with providence.[1] Ultimately, whatever our definitions [throwing in the ‘problem of evil’ to boot], both can be understood as forces of influence which determine destiny. In the Homeric writings ‘destiny’ is more coincidence with providence connected to ‘divine intervention’. Destiny is fate [moira] for Homer, it cannot be escaped. Divine intervention, however, can manipulate destiny even with the direct involvement of human agency.[2] The stories of Achilles and Hector as described in the Iliad are good examples of destiny as a combination of divine intervention and human agency. And this complex interaction between divine action and free will is a fundamental principle in the New Testament, accordingly Saint Paul writes to the Christian community in Philippi that both human responsibility and sovereign control are at work in the Christian life (Phil 2:12-13). What is it that drives us to understand something of these impenetrable forces and to try to put a name to them? An illuminating response from a contemporary piece of literature can be found in Christos Tsiolkas Dead Europe. The protagonist and not irrelevantly a photographer, the young Greek-Australian Isaac, reflects in one place when asked to use his camera to document events of the past, “[t]his desperate need to confirm the relevance of history…”[3] I did have significant problems with some of the content in Tsiolkas’ book, but the masterly use of time and space in this admittedly disturbing novel leave their mark.

Flemington Markets

Katina had turned nineteen and was in the second year of her BIT at the University of Technology Sydney and I at thirty-three had started on the MA Honours at Macquarie University. I needed to find some payable work, we were managing with the help of our parents and our scholarships but our personal finances were starting to run low. My pride and self-belief suffered a severe blow when I joined the ranks of those on unemployment benefits. I was now no longer someone who was greeted with the respect accorded to a professional, let alone a clergyman. It did not matter too much during the time when I was alone. I had already lived in this ‘post’ existence of mine for a number of years, but now what affected me would also have an effect on my younger wife [who as events would prove was blessed with wisdom beyond her years]. From Reverend or Father I was now a “number” doing the rounds knocking on doors and looking for work. This could be anything from stacking sheets of tin in warehouses to selling encyclopaedias in shopping malls. It was humbling, I have to confess, to be asked if I understood or knew how to complete the paperwork relating to my new found unemployment. This process of ‘deconstruction’ had begun a number of years earlier upon my return from Europe where I had worn my favourite black cassock for the last time. Things were made all the more grim for my former “employer” the Archdiocese would not supply me with a reference. The exception was the heroic Father Themistocles Adamopoulo who by this time was himself persona non grata.[4] I asked some other good men from there as well, but their support was qualified. They wanted to know beforehand “where” their references would be going. Walking away from the priesthood is viewed very dimly. Even by formerly trusted friends. And I did understand. As I still do. I thanked them but declined.

It took some weeks getting used to, but I began to love going to my new job at Flemington Markets, more exactly at Paddy’s Markets.[5] It was a time of long stretches of peace and a new type of learning. I was hired as a cleaner: toilets, floors, potato conveyers, fruit crates, large vats, giant coleslaw mixers, windows, walls, and more. If it had to be cleaned, I was the man! But this had a potentially serious health implication for I had been using some very harsh chemicals without any appropriate protection. For afterwards during my service in the Cypriot National Guard the medical investigator was concerned with the state of my lungs, there were some “shadows”, he said. I was told it might be tuberculosis or lung cancer. On my return to Australia I was given the all clear and in another place I will say more on this experience both in terms of divine intervention and human agency. I was also proud of my new ‘vestments’: a pair of weatherproof boots, gloves, overalls, and a yellow raincoat with a hood. The hours as well, they suited an old night-owl like me. Work started eleven at night and I would clock off the following morning around seven, it was not full-time so I had rest days in between. There were many things I enjoyed during those few months that I was able to stay at Paddy’s before I left to entirely focus on the first dissertation, the one dealing with the infamous “666” and the antichrist conundrum. Each night I looked forward to greeting my new ‘con-celebrants’: the Asians who would cut and prepare the salads; the sunburnt farmers; the busy stall owners; the testy truck drivers; and every now and then the pest-control fellow who would also moonlight as a Reiki Master.

The coffee-breaks were history classes in themselves. I heard many stories in that small kitchenette by well-weathered men who had seen much and just about done it all. These were tough but honest folk, people you could trust and where you quickly learnt to "call a spade a spade.” They reminded me of the abattoir workers I used to help load meat trucks in the early hours of the morning to supplement my allowance when I was a student in Thessaloniki. They were also not lacking in the stories department. During this time at the markets I would read whenever I could steal a few minutes during the morning breaks or in between my scheduled jobs. The Philokalia[6] and the Art of Prayer[7] were invariably within reach, together with the lives of two saints whose personalities had especially attracted me, Saints Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstandt. Yet again I would be taught that wonderful and encouraging lesson often heard on Mount Athos: it is not the place, but the Way. Other times it might be as simple as the positive energy good spirits [people] release into the air. 

Given my earlier life at the café this was not unfamiliar territory. I was in my element in these environments. I look back over more than thirty years later when I first put on the cassock and I realize it is with these ‘straight-talking’ people at places like Paddy’s and King Street, Newtown and in the side streets of Egnatia Odos, where I am most happy and comfortable. And I would have stayed at the markets for much longer if not for my pride “this perpetual nagging temptation” as C.S. Lewis has so well put it and because I knew in the words of one Martin Heidegger that I had “unfinished business”.

Of course, much had happened even before this time. I had spent a lengthy period in the Palestinian desert with the monastic community at the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified [also known as Mar Saba] and had privately tutored and taught a number of subjects at secondary school. Later I will speak at length on these wonderfully significant experiences which would afterwards greatly impact upon my life. Providence, coincidence or meaningful decisions? To be at least prepared to walk through those doors which we might reckon belong to the right provenance. 

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/providence-divine/

[2] http://legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/crunyon/HRS101/Homer/03&4-Iliad/Fate_Schein.html

[3] Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe, (Vintage Books: Australia), 2005, 151.

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/programs/one-plus-one/2015-11-26/one-plus-one:-rev.-themi-adamopoulo/6978258

[5] http://paddysmarket.com.au/history/

[6] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Philokalia

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Prayer-Orthodox-Anthology/dp/057119165

Some fragments from a diary

When the delivery truck arrived (November, 1990) 

Members of the monastic community Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, England. In the centre the beloved Elder Sophrony Sakharov, 1990. Courtesy: Michael Family Archives.

On a cold and wet Essex afternoon a delivery truck arrived with the Elder’s celebrated masterpiece, Saint Silouan the Athonite,[1] 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).[2] 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,[3] 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.”[4] 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. Words cannot adequately capture the vacuum and horror of that single moment of spiritual disconnect that was to linger like a breath behind my neck well into the middle decades of my life. 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 despite the darkness which was to quickly descend upon me in the wake of my decision 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. It was there on the coal face of this ‘unseen warfare’ that I would set out to discover the truth of my redemption, if indeed, it was to ever come. 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.

Father Jeremiah (MG) in the Essex snow. Courtesy: Michael Family Archives.

Father Jeremiah (MG) in the Essex snow. Courtesy: Michael Family Archives.

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 know I could have handled better. The cause of my torment rested more with me and I must shoulder the blame for the greater part of my suffering. It was from this time that my struggles with depression would develop into unremittingly long periods of melancholia and bring me close to death more than once. I was no longer trusting in my Lord and God. Prayer had now become very difficult. There were months, long months on end, when I was in the condition of acedia, a spiritual negligence, a dreadful despondency, which feeds the passions and which Saint John Cassian calls "the noonday devil", but I would force myself to read something from the Psalter every day.[5]  It was better than nothing, a few drops of water can keep you alive. 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.[6]

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.”[7]

 

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Saint-Silouan-Athonite-Archimandrite-Sophrony/dp/0881411957

[2] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Sophrony_(Sakharov)

[3] http://www.thyateira.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=373&Itemid=1

[4]

[5] https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/06/26/priests-thoughts-depression-anxiety-soul-body-brain/

[6] https://www.amazon.com/Changing-Orders-Scenes-Clerical-Academic/dp/1876040866

[7] Sophrony op. cit., p. 423

Pastoral experience and the practise of compassion

“Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man.” (Henri Nouwen)

Many times I would be humbled if not completely heartbroken by my pastoral experience and it was this practical expression of the priesthood which often gave meaning and dimension to my calling. It was an education into the human condition not taught in institutions of higher learning and only occasionally captured in literature dealing with loss and suffering. It is difficult, if not impossible to be taught compassion. It is like a naturally good singing voice, you either have it or you do not. To be confronted head-on with absolute loss, some of this sudden and violent, some of it slow and agonizing, was a fast and hard lesson into the reality of unfathomable pain and the dreadfulness of death.

The one thing I could not accept even from the start of my little ministry was the ‘pious’ response to death, and I did try hard to avoid it. I am sure, however, that even with the best intentions I was not always successful. It was above all painful to listen to indefensible nonsense when it involved the death of a child when the words came from the mouth of a priest who should have known better, “A. is now with God, the Lord needed another angel.”  This is not the loving Creator of things both “seen and unseen” but little more than a cosmic psychopath. C.S. Lewis reflected with brutal honesty on the heavy grief of losing his beloved wife:

“It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”[1]

Mother Maria of Paris writing agonizingly and yet without the abandonment of hope, after the death of her beloved child:

“Into the black, yawning grave fly all hopes, plans, habits, calculations and, above all, meaning: the meaning of life… Meaning has lost its meaning, and another incomprehensible Meaning has caused wings to grow at one’s back… And I think that anyone who has had this experience of eternity, if only once; who has understood the way he is going, if only once; who has seen the One who goes before him, if only once- such a person will find it hard to turn aside from this path: to him all comfort will seem ephemeral, all treasure valueless, all companions unnecessary, if amongst them he fails to see the One Companion, carrying his Cross.”[2]

It goes without saying, I do not hold the answer, but I have made some reasonable peace with the hard reality of loss both in the context of my own faith and in the discernible movement of transfiguring love.[3] Like many of us, I too have experienced profound loss, and like most of us, it has for a season come close to paralysing me. I have yet to completely come to grips with the passing away of one side of our entire family or my darling Katina’s four miscarriages. I spoke of ‘transfiguring’ love, for this has been the implication and consequence of Christ’s own death and how from that darkest day in our human history, came the greatest solace to the human race, that death is not the end.[4] But this belief founded in a religious faith does not exclude those who are not religious, for the underlying lesson, the ‘meaningfulness’ of the resurrection [even if we should only accept it as a metaphor] is that death does not mean inertia. It is a movement and a response [both for the living and dead] from one condition into an other. There is hope for a better tomorrow, and should we endure through the dark night, there will come a time when at least something of our suffering, will make some sense. As impossible as it is to accept when pain has no words, a time of solace will come. And this ‘dealing’ will arrive for each one of us differently, at a different time and in a different way. For suffering is almost always an intensely personal experience. Even if in the meantime our loss is to be redeemed no more than with our dignity in the face of an overwhelming blackness, and our refusal to be fully broken.

My brave young friend Leo

I have been blessed to have encountered genuinely courageous souls, amazed at the vast and often immeasurable endurance of the human spirit. Hospitals and grave-yards are the unadulterated universities of our world. It is in these places of unmistakeable reality we can measure ourselves and learn to heal and to forgive. I met Leo when I was still in the early stages of my ministry, starry-eyed and believing that I could make a difference. I would often make unannounced visits at hospitals and do not remember ever being turned away. In a pocket to my cassock I kept a carefully folded piece of white paper. On it I would register the names of all those I would visit and next to their name put down the colour of their eyes. There you are, I share with you one of my great secrets. We should look into each other’s eyes more often. It is all there, the unabridged history of a life.

Leo K., a young man in his early twenties had been involved in a horrific accident with the worst of all possible results: quadriplegia with locked-in syndrome [LIS]. He was fully conscious but trapped inside his body. Neither able to move nor to speak. A drunkard had disregarded a stop sign and crashed head-on into the beautiful boy who was riding his motor-cycle. The next time my brave young friend was to wake up it would be without movement in his limbs and without his voice. Until his death a few months later, he would only be able to communicate with his eyes. I would pray some silent prayers. Other times I would want to hold him in my arms. Did he like to dance? I am sad that was something I never had the chance to ask.

Leo and I would communicate using a magnetic board with red letters. I would point to a letter and he would blink at the right place. Then we would move on to the next one, soon we managed to work out short cuts and this made things simpler. So we were able to drift into other places and explore additional modes of communication. Not once did he complain or express a desire to die. Often he would be smiling. His heart was at peace. Of course, needless to say nothing of this was easy. It took titanic strength. Years later when horrifying thoughts of suicide would unrelentingly torment me, I would many times recollect him and hold back until the next day. I asked Leo if it was okay for me to bring a recording of the Gospel of John. He replied, “Y.” I asked him if he still believed. It was the same response, “Y”. There were other things we spoke about as well, including rugby league. He told me he was a fan of the Sydney Roosters. Leo, who had the most penetrating green eyes, died from pneumonia a few days before he was due to fly out to Moscow for some cutting-edge treatment.

One afternoon I visited Leo with a new seminarian. He said to me, “[w]e have nothing to complain about, look at Leo.” This especially upset me. We should not find comfort in the suffering of another nor look upon suffering with pity nor patronize the wounded. ‘Feeling sorry’ helps no one and can diminish our companion’s understanding of hopefulness. On some bowed stringed instruments we find metal strings, they vibrate in sympathy with the stopped strings. These are not touched with the fingers or the bow. They are called sympathetic strings. Compassion is something like that, to feel sorrow for the sufferings or misfortunes of another. Compassion [from the L. compati ‘suffer with’] has much in common with that glorious word: sympathy. What is sympathy? It is derived from the Greek sympάtheίa which literally means “feeling with another.” It is good to be a ‘sympathetic string’. Yet it is not always easy and it can only happen in small increments of grace like the baby steps we take to enter into the mystery of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

At the conclusion of the last class when I was teaching regularly at the university, I would suggest a reading list to my students which was outside our information and communication technology (ICT) bibliography. This list included authors such as Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Viktor Frankl, and Jean-Dominique Bauby. JDB the editor of the French fashion magazine ELLE was made famous by his incredible book (which was published two days before he died), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.[5] In 1995 at the age of 43 he suffered the brain stem stroke (the brain stem passes the brain’s motor commands to the body) which causes locked-in syndrome. Bauby with the help of some good people, particularly Claude Mendibil, wrote and edited his memoir one letter at a time with the only part of his body that he could still control… his left eyelid. He did this similarly to the way I would communicate with Leo, by using a board with letters. This type of system is often called partner assisted scanning (PAS). And like Leo, he too, would die of pneumonia.

 

[1] The Quotable Lewis, Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root (editors), (Tyndale House Publishers, Illinois, 1990), 149f.

[2] https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

[3] ‘The paradox of suffering and evil,’ says Nicholas Berdyaev [whom Bishop Kallistos cites in The Orthodox Way], ‘is resolved in the experience of compassion and love.’ These oft quoted words point back to the Cross but also to Saint Paul who understands suffering as a participation in the mystery of Christ (Phil. 3:8-11).

[4] The Paschal homily of Saint John Chrysostom (c.349-407) read on the Sunday of the Resurrection continues to inspire and to comfort believers across Christendom: http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sermon.htm

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Diving-Bell-Butterfly-Memoir

Sworn in as a probationary constable September 1980

The NSW Police Force seemed the perfect career choice for the adrenaline charged eighteen year-old straight out of high school, a job which demanded high levels of fitness together with the promise of high octane excitement.[1] Growing up watching Crawford Production classics like Homicide and Division 4 and then afterwards drawn in by the glamour and brawn of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s vigilantism, it made policing and the pursuit of criminals seem honourable and right. Later I would learn of the many flaws and inherent ambiguities that muddied the concepts of law and justice, and even further their blurred connection to ethics.[2] The media and Hollywood did their best to confuse these high ideals still more. My goal, though, having managed to score a respectable Higher School Certificate (HSC) was to eventually study at university. I wanted to learn the reasons for why ‘things were’ and to get at some clues as to why we ‘think’ the way we do. Even though at the time, my philosophical conception of these existential questions could only be described as extremely naive. But I still came to the early realization that my ‘personality type’ and policing would not sit comfortably together. I decided to change course. Less than a year after having been sworn in as probationary constable at the graduation ceremony in the old Police Academy on Bourke Street, Redfern,[3] I handed in my resignation and once more prepared myself for the life of a student. Except, I should say, for a very brief stint as a private investigator!

It was around this time too, the whys and wherefores I do not exactly remember [except to being drawn by the book’s cover of a man struggling under the weight of a huge rock], that I would come across Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). I too, like countless other generations, would be forever hooked. The “absurd man” [A. Camus] versus the “Beyond-Man” [F. Nietzsche].

Freshly pressed and smart-looking in our dark blues and appointments,[4] class 168 which passed out that day included the current police commissioner Andrew Scipione whose gritty determination was there from the start (his shoes were always perfectly spit-polished) and one of my life-long friends Arthur Katsogiannis who has since risen to the rank of chief superintendent. There was also a future First Grade rugby league footballer in our class, and so too a long-legged Gail Petith the third runner-up from the 1974 Miss World pageant. The majority of our drill instructors (who were acting sergeants at the time) were veterans from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. They were tough, gruff, and fair. We were a group of young men and women from as diverse a background as you could get, but we got along well and supported each other through what is called the initial training. Most of us I must confess did really awful at the firing range. Many of us had never held a gun before, let alone fired a pistol at a distance. In this instance the standard NSW Police sidearm the Smith & Wesson .38 calibre revolver. The real sharp shooters were from the country. They were also allowed to ride the horses. We did better at the Saint Ives police driver training course. Though once more, a large group of us did not fare too well speeding about playing ‘cops n’ robbers’ in the infamous “oil pan”.

As I started to adjust back into civilian life, for I had been a member of the NSW constabulary in what was then called the Junior Trainee program months before, I could never have guessed, that I would soon be spending some fifteen-years of my life as an undergraduate and postgraduate student. And the idea of becoming a university lecturer, let alone co-ordinating my own course, publishing essays, and writing books, was beyond any reasonable imagination.[5] Ironically, not too far from the police academy was the place where a little over five years later I was to begin on the other much more life defining journey. The seminary which had yet to be established and to whose pioneering group of students I would belong, would in comparison make the hard months preparing to become a police officer [and even later where I would serve in the Cypriot National Guard] an afternoon stroll in the park.[6] Yet nothing is ever wasted of our life experience. A brief interlude or a long happening can be of equal value. All things and all encounters bring along their own special significance and fortune.

 

I have now for a long time accepted as true and considered it a vital component of our learning-process something which the German-Swiss poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse (recipient of both the Nobel and Goethe Prize), expressed in arguably one of his finest works, Siddhartha (1922)[7]:

“I have always believed, and still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

 

[1] http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/about_us/history

[2] A recent paper published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies by T.R.S. Allan, “Law, Justice and Integrity” is well worth the visit: http://www.laws.ucl.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Law-Justice-and-Integrity-TRS-Allan-2010.pdf

[3] In 1984 the NSW Police Academy relocated from Redfern to its current location in Goulburn: http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/159480/PW_20_07_09-LR.pdf

[4] These were the Revolver, Baton, and Handcuffs.

[5] http://works.bepress.com/mgmichael/

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

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddhartha_(novel)