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)

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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

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