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

These are your terrifying moments of cleansing

Shellharbour, NSW

What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away. This terrible nauseous pain which goes by many names and which in reality answers to none. But, no, your heart must never turn to stone, not even for an hour, for that would be an hour where you would stop loving, where you would lose all capacity to forgive or ask to be forgiven. No, you must never ask for your heart to turn to stone, not even for an hour. Not even for the time it takes to suck in your breath. And so, suffer all of the calumny, the blood-letting rejection, and in the night close your eyes to the horror vacui of your rooms. As tempting it might be to stop the pain, to dry up the flow of tears, to wipe away the bad memories which become increasingly beastly by the minute, do not ever wish for your heart to turn to stone. What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

But this pain like an old guilt does not easily go away. Both have changed you and for a season you will only exist and move about in the shadows. That's why think on those whom you might have comforted on their deathbeds when you whispered into ears straining for light [for their eyes had now shut]: “Let go, it is good, now is the time to leave.” Remember the unmerited grace you have received which has covered the multitude of your iniquities. Be grateful there is water in your home and you will not thirst tonight when your throat burns. Get up, wash your face, and write a loving message to your enemy. Like an Armenian flute suspended over the Syrian Desert. In a little while feel the heavy load upon your heart start to lift, even for a moment. And for now that is enough. Begin again. Like the free-flow juice pressed and crushed from the grape. These are your terrifying moments of cleansing, one way or another, you have earned them. Do not waste them.

The shadows, too, for a while, do not be afraid of them. They would not exist if the light was not after you. It is after you. You cannot outrun it. These prayers have nothing to do with the rubrics as does this pain which has little to do with the nerve fibers. There are the spaces of the entering into your becoming, the unveiling of your true self. From here, out of these all-consuming green fires, you will step out to greet the world.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin

August 30th Monday, 2011

Brasov, Transylvania

One of the more popular gifts and souvenirs shops which tourists to Brasov will visit. You can see MG's reflection on the window. MG Michael archives

One of the more popular gifts and souvenirs shops which tourists to Brasov will visit. You can see MG's reflection on the window. MG Michael archives

I would like to experience a winter liturgy in this faraway place. Brasov must be even more charming when arrayed in her Carpathian white. I remember particularly the winters in Jerusalem, and Berne, and Rome, and London, and Istanbul, and in the north of Greece when without ever realizing it, I was starting to fall apart. Yet winter remains my favourite season. Maybe it is the heavy downpours when the rain writes its poetry on our roofs, on our umbrellas, on our heads, or the hot baths we might take which take on the guise of wombs and arks. Perhaps, too, it is those wonderfully unguarded moments when lightning strikes to be followed by the peal of thunder, when “clouds collide” as the ancients once believed. Impossible things become possible again. “You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance” (Ps. 68:9).

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin on the east side of the city square, Brasov. MG Michael archives

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin on the east side of the city square, Brasov. MG Michael archives

Most of our departures are tinged with a certain kind of sadness. ‘Departure’ is at the centre of our most beautiful music and has inspired some of our greatest art. This strongly felt emotion is not always connected to the specific attachment of a place. More often it is the onset of nostalgia “the desire to be at home”, which for von Hardenberg was the essence of philosophy. Other times we know that things which we desperately want to hold again, are even now out there somewhere, but they are forever gone; or as Nabokov has written when reflecting on a similar awareness, “[t]he pity of it is that I’ll never find them again – never.” If it was possible I would stay here in Brasov for at least a fortnight. I am forced to leave sooner than I would have liked. Built in 1896 the ‘hidden’ Cathedral Church [it is lined up with other buildings] on the east side of the city square, Piata Sfatului, with its imposing Eastern Orthodox iconography and richly gilded panels, the frankincense ignited into the air by the burning charcoal, and her venerable old priests who come and go like veteran angels in a city that I had never known existed, is rekindling warm memories in my heart. It is overwhelmingly beautiful once inside that you could have stepped into a huge ‘gold box’. Moreover, it is noticeably silent for it is a consecrated space given over to intercession after the example of the Holy Theotokos, in whose honour the Catedrala is dedicated. Planted on the door to the Assumption of the Virgin on a weathered piece of green paper is a prayer: “Bless all the Christians who will go over the threshold of this holy church with the patron of ‘Assumption’, devoted to the Heavenly Almighty Father, Son of God-The Saviour and to the Holy Spirit, enlightener of our mind and souls. Joy to those who come, peace be with those who remain, blessing for those who leave!”

Yet the world still waits outside and prayers can sometimes take a long time to be heard… like an echo from the other side of the world. Reality can quickly set in. I must hold onto this overpowering mood which I cannot properly describe, except to speak of it in terms of a sweet surrender. Today as well, similarly to that agonizing evening before leaving Australia for Tolleshunt Knights all those years ago, and in one or two other places, I hold in my heart an irresistible love for those who might have brought pain into my life. It is during such merciful times that we come to the wonderful, almost maddening realization that a lot of what is good in us we owe to our “persecutors”. They teach us patience, endurance, and the practise of forgiveness. It is now, days like these, that we can let go of large loads of built-up pain but also ourselves to ask forgiveness of others. We are in this dance together. Afterwards it is good to quickly move on, to not exaggerate the moment, or to go too deeply into it. This is a glorious afternoon made all the more tremendous by this increasing sense of resignation in me which started sometime after our first child was born. The busy main square, the Council Square, is bathed in a downpour of golden sunlight; a busker is playing a beautiful tune by the spiral fountain. I have my writing pad; a collection of Mircea Eliade’s short stories; some cigarettes; and I am waiting on my second espresso. And though Dracula’s Castle is just ‘up the road’ to remind me of the other side, I do feel happy. Whatever might happen tonight or tomorrow and however long this all-consuming fire endures, for in my life it has come and gone in dribs and drabs, I have by the grace of God been loved as deeply as I too have loved. It is enough. If for some moral philosophers Life is the highest good, then surely it can be argued that Love is its highest measure.

Random Thoughts (2)

dandelion.jpg

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

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