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 (2)

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It hurts too much to truly love, more deeply than the greatest betrayal, so we define love in the most absurd and mundane terms, forever failing to understand its ‘terrifying’ and unyielding power.

Do not put off the giving of your charity or the forgiving of your enemy for the day after tomorrow. With the blink of an eye your universe could go dark. And an opportunity forever lost to carry some small piece of light over to the other side.

You will be robbed of many things, childhood dreams and secret labors. The goal however was not the result of these things, but the response to these losses. This was the real purpose which deep down you always knew.

It is all too normal to oftentimes confuse romantic love with fleshly desire. There is common ground between the two, the longing and the lust. More truthfully it is the fear of dying alone in those depressing places which we dread too much to ponder on.

Hunger and thirst are the primary movers [and then afterwards the Creator if we should find some spare moments to reflect upon the divine], all else are choices with which we seek to define ourselves to the world for its crowns of dust.

We are by our nature both political and religious beings, it is how we are ‘wired’ and as much we might try to wash these innate inclinations away, it is not possible so we scrub and scour and still the ‘stains’ will remain.

Every time we silence our true voice we die a little more, like a beautiful song drawing quickly to its end.

If you have two friends rejoice daily. If you have three weep and fall to your knees. Blessed, blessed that you are.

Next to war there is no greater destructive consequence than our idolizing of other human beings, the ‘personality cult’. The elevating of another person to ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’ status is not only the beginning of the destruction of that person, but also reduces the giver of that status themselves. And is not the cause of all war the personality cult in the first place?

I will see light to the extent that I walk in the Light; I will walk in the darkness to the degree that what I do contradicts the truth which has been revealed to me. And it is the accumulation of these contradictions which can ultimately become our greatest ‘stumbling block’.

We are to be judged with how we have responded to the Light with our conscience “bearing witness” to the integrity of our thoughts and actions (Rom. 2:15). So be delighted enough to allow for each heart to discover its own path and its own way home. But you must remain faithful to that which was set aside only for you from the beginning.

The most beautiful things will remain hidden, the flower with the heavenly aroma hidden in the rocky cleft of the highest alp, the greatest poem forever lost in the draw of a demolished bedroom, the profoundest music not put down on paper, the most incomprehensible sacrifices seen only by guardian angels.

Your brother and sister, your next door neighbor, despite the violence and the suffering which we witness each evening on our television sets, they are by their very nature good people. There are far more ‘righteous’ people in the world than there are ‘unrighteous’. Have you asked a stranger for a cup of water and have been given a cup of stones?

Enlightenment is not a mysterious process available only to an elect group of people. We have without need complicated it with the passing of time. The first and perhaps most challenging step towards enlightenment, is to desire it in the first place. That is, to find ‘meaningfulness’ in that very moment.

I know how deeply you are suffering, but hold on a little more. This, too, it will pass. You have travelled far to reach this place and measured many distances upon this earth. For the present, for now, this is where you must be.

Nothing is insignificant, all acts and all things, touch upon the eternal.

I am neither more decent nor any more devout than you. And so I must all the time remind myself of this apocalypse by committing it to words.

MGM

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)

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

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