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.

Pastoral experience and the practise of compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brave young friend Leo

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

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

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

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

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The wall on Goddard Street, Newtown 2042

I have in my lifetime broken enough promises to my Lord and God [or to myself for those gentle readers who might share a different cosmology to mine] that I do not need for ‘the wall’ to remind me. The wall in question is on Goddard Street, Newtown, where I spent the early years of my life. I still walk up that little street, turning left to continue onto King Street, where our ancient café the Reno with other names continues to exist. Whenever I am in Sydney I will come here to chew the cud and to reminisce with my old ghosts. This week I was in Kingsgrove to spend time with Mother who was having eye surgery and to visit Father who is sleeping in Rookwood. ‘The wall’ is the side of an old building now splattered in graffiti. Years ago it ‘belonged’ to a notorious Greek nightclub, the Mykonos.

There are things which burn into the subconscious making them hard to forget, and typically they are events or encounters which contribute to our identity. Today I was in Newtown walking up Goddard and where normally I might simply acknowledge ‘the wall’ to move on, this time it was different. I had been thinking how long it had been since my last confession and I stopped to brush my left hand against it in self admonition. This was close to the spot where thirty-six years earlier I had slammed the underside of my closed hand in frustration, and in the process making one of my first [and ill-conceived] promises to God. When we “promise” something we quite literally ‘send it forward’ by making a declaration or giving an assurance.

Not surprisingly, soon afterwards I broke this promise.

I would make it a second time being none the wiser, in different places and in faraway worlds, in deserts and in cities, the same result. I broke it again. And I would struggle with this ‘thorn’ in the flesh for decades. But this is not the reason for this little journal entry. What I want to do here, is to especially encourage my younger readers to not despair if they have broken a promise, or indeed even a vow to our Father, Who art in heaven. Often enough our big promises to God and still to our earthly companions, could be made out of an anxiety to express the true intention of hearts or to reveal solidarity in a common cause. There are many reasons why we might feel strongly driven ‘to give our word’ to the deity or to a friend. It should not shock that most of us will in the end fail, that we will stumble and before too long become confronted with yet another instance of our breaking a promise. The feelings are more intense and dreadful for the religious if they feel they have ‘perjured’ themselves against their Creator. It does not help to spend the remainder of our lives in recrimination or self-blame and so becoming blind-sided to the many tremendous opportunities of visiting grace. We are not speaking here of impulsive promises or oaths, they should be resolutely avoided. And pledges should in no way be made lightly. So what to do if in a moment of spiritual fervour or youthful zeal we make a promise to the Most High only to have it broken soon after?

I hurt for having been too quick in the giving of my word. For a long time it was a yoke around the neck. And though I struggled much with the knowledge of the broken promise I did not despair that restoration would one day arrive to bring its consolation. For in the end, what does matter is the true intent of the heart [or the “will” which is behind all things as one of my favourite philosophers argued]. It is this honesty to be found in our souls [or in our “fragmented wills” as another profound thinker has said][1] and the desire to give the very best to our Maker that should comfort us. Ironically, it was this which is the authentic promise, the intent itself. We have not broken our word if only we should continue to strive towards its fulfilment. It is one of the most comforting and encouraging paradoxes to be found in the wisdom literature of the great religions that there are ways to make amends if we should go back on our word.[2] In this atmosphere of the spirit we are not dealing with ‘worldly’ contract law which can be terribly unforgiving.

I would remember these words from the psalter and weep, “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips (Ps 89:34) and yet from the same book I received both my comfort and hope, “[t]he steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.” (Ps 37:23-24) We can be severely harsh with ourselves and this will rob us of wonderful opportunities and dim too much of our natural brightness. I still make promises to my Maker, and still I break them. Whether this is because of spiritual weakness or physical infirmity or the abiding desire to express my love to Him through grandiose declarations: “I promise that from this day onwards I will always be the first to ask forgiveness from the other.” [Okay, then, from this Monday…  the New Year at least… I start again]. Sounds familiar, does it not? I remember also, and alas, too well, those times when I was very close to losing my life in heavy seas off the New South Wales south coast and in the stormy skies above the Caribbean flying over to Puerto Rico, and the solemn promises made should I be delivered from the approaching darkness. These promises too, broken.

But when was it I first supposed that making a promise to change something was any more powerful than the simple joy of trying to do it.

 

[1] The two references here of course to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in the first place and to Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) in the second.

[2] In Islam, for instance, a broken promise to Allah is a serious act but there are a number of opportunities for expiation, such as to engage in acts of charity, or alms giving, or fasting. In Buddhism it is heavy karma to break a promise but once committed the direction is to straightaway get back into the path. In Judaism if a vow is made in error or unwittingly or if the person was not fully aware of the ramifications, the vow or oath can be declared to be null and void by a rabbi or a sage.

Kingsgrove on the stroke of midnight

Sydney, NSW

Singularity on the keyboards; cyborgs dancing without soul; eaters of electricity; he lifts his spirit like a heavy weight; Sisyphus does not let go of hope; technology delivers at a great cost; the makers of new-fangled dreams; lost in a sandstorm without a compass; a lone saxophone brings you home; moonless nights; Mother of God ‘I am lost’; clouds blowing in the west; what fear this fear; the sky alight with fire; not prepared for the revelation; an ancient fish bursting through the shallows; tentacles of water; mazes built from rusted steel; our beloved Ellul where are you; save our ship SOS; the pain of a broken friendship; a grand piano out of tune; strands of hair in the sink; the eye more easily deceived than the ear; truth will stand no chance; except for theatre; graffiti and poetry; and mouth to mouth; here in this house where philosophy bruised my fingers; properties lost in translation; like the Filioque; and proceeds from Love; the three child saints playing hide and seek in the kitchen; the last seal opened on our deathbeds; identity revealed through suffering; life is not meaningless; the whole thing is context; “Green how I want you green. Green wind. Green branches” (Federico Garcia Lorca); I touch the walls rekindling the past; byzantine icons in the other room; fragrant resin dripping from gilded brows; Patmos rising from beneath the chief sea; the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; hordes pressed against the fences; they search for the righteous priests; “May your priests be clothed with your righteousness” (Ps 132:9); the terrible Mark brings the great sore; who loves you when you stretch out your hand; Father when did you die; as you enter to your left; an iron bed by the window; sanitary walls painted grey; you will find the poem beneath the pillow; outside tall trees and little birds; Francisco Goya (1746-1828); “Disasters of War”; lead white canvas primer; to be burnt in order to become charcoal; here in this room where I first saw the dream; the outer darkness; the sword of Damocles hanging over my head; it is okay brother and sister we are forgiven; the Trisaghion hymn; they will find out; then you will truly live; time to sleep it is 1.58AM; “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou); temptation is the only constant; grace comes and goes; like the hands on the face of a clock; “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be” (Douglas Adams); time to sleep it is 2.11AM; I have heard that before; hickory dickory dock; we all like Mr Spock; top draw to the right; letters unopened from previous journeys; a broken London Clock; Miriam where are you; here are the tickets you said; Salamis Lines; Limassol to Patmos; radiant rings will speak of status; “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21); drones carrying prophecy; attacked by rogue  eagles; time to sleep it is 2.20AM; lucid dreaming; Freud psychopathology; Jung archetypes; Saint Joseph protect me; make me part of your dream; give me your breath; “Now my five senses gather into a meaning all acts, all presences” (Judith Wright); an old man in an electric wheelchair; a new-born in a layback stroller; for a brief moment their vision intersects; at that instant it is done; deliciously cynical; as beautiful as the Aegean; on Marrickville and Illawarra Roads; the tips of an angel’s wing brush the hairs on the forearm; and all this by the grace of God; “I have a world apart that is not among men”  (Li Po); though drained of life; call no man good; and he will be crushed and twisted; to be set straight before the final journey; share with me your greatest poem; burnt to fine powder; sunk in the black residue; “Who knows how to drink pain, and live?” (Gwen Harwood); Natalya Estemirova; Marie Colvin; Anna Politkovskaya; Mother is whining and coughing; these irritating noises will one day be missed; like the Great Vespers in the Cathedral of Kazan; Moorefields Road; Clemton Park; King Georges Road; Jacob’s vision at Bethel; rapid-eye movement (REM); “I got dreams to remember” (Otis Redding); Citalopram; Paroxetine; Clomipramine; fiant pilulae et pereat mundus; Thomas Szasz The Myth of Mental Illness; anti-coercive psychiatry; the roots in the lake; a straw-coloured moon; the Bucharest poem, dear Mother; here in these hallways where I grew taller; black-and-blue heart and knees; in these rooms I determined that life must go on; from this front door I left a layman; returned a priest; left again in a thousand pieces; “If we were humble the Lord in His love would show us all things” (Saint Silouan the Athonite); I saw my Father here for the last time; Cartoon Corner in the afternoon; toasted banana and peanut butter sandwiches; football training across the road; the Lion that devours in my bedroom; the ancient Dragon from the deep in my bedroom; Revelation 21 on the left wall; melodies unto a lovely madness; intricate gold sculptures; three-dimensional space; I envy how you run through the fields; it is now at last time to sleep 3.17AM; Jeremiah please pray for me; “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Polonius, Hamlet); which hat then do we put on today; the four winds hat; the pilgrim’s hat; “Hit the road Jack and don’t cha come back/No more” (Percy Mayfield); a blind sewing mistress; reading Braille by the stars; the sightless will lead the sighted; Oum Kalthoum keening before the Great Sphinx of Giza; there are four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly; Prometheus defies the gods three times; outside the horn blast of a car is getting louder; we have underestimated Baudelaire; “Always be a poet, even in prose”; words made right on the stroke of midnight; I am the restoring drops of rain caught beneath your collar.