Life changing talks with a song and a poem to boot

Used discerningly YouTube, the video-sharing website founded in 2005, is a truly incredible reservoir of stockpiled knowledge no more than a click away. The vital thing is discerningly for like many things in the online world this too can become quickly addictive. It is not difficult to stray in this electronically fuelled atmosphere, particularly with such a visual and captivating medium as film. It can become overwhelmingly seductive. Otherwise it is indeed a marvellous place to visit. And so what we hear about “the good and bad sides of YouTube” is without doubt true.

Elsewhere I have shared some favourite pieces of music. Here I would like to share a sample of life changing talks I will turn to. I will visit these downloads when I need an additional reminder that tomorrow is another day where new and exceptional things can happen. That even the next hour is full of great possibilities and salvation from despair. I am sure you will find some of these very special YouTube talks helpful if not for yourselves, then at least for someone near and dear to you. These profound presentations touch on various dimensions of life and the shared wisdom of the presenters can benefit us even if this might only mean becoming a little more compassionate and understanding ourselves. The presentations below have at least some very significant things in common: (i) The speakers have themselves experienced the deepest aspects of the journey which they describe and [like all “wounded healers”] have experienced the ‘wound’ themselves, (ii) they are not asking for your money or selling you a ‘secret’, (iii) self-realization and affirmative behaviour begin with a brutal self-assessment of why we find ourselves engaging in destructive behaviour; (iv) once the problem which is hurting us is realized there is set into action a hard-nosed plan and a fierce determination to see the resolution for change through.

These points are summarised best perhaps by the physician and addiction expert, the Hungarian-born Canadian Gabor Maté: “Something else is possible and you are worth that possibility.” Muniba Mazari, the inspirational Pakistani artist and motivational speaker, tells us how that possibility might be entered into: “Behind every inspirational picture there is an untold story of constant pain, persistent effort, and determination.” We do not have to agree with everything we hear in these talks, and in some places we might noticeably diverge, but there is too much truth and loads of sweet honey here to at least not stop for a while and to consider both the implications and the possibilities.[1]

 

[1] In all these testimonies we will find in the words of Jerry Long, a logotherapist in the tradition of Frankl and someone who had his own great challenges to overcome, “the defiant power of the human spirit” (Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1984, p. 171).

And a song and a poem, Leonard Cohen, Constantine P. Cavafy

A heart-warming return to the past

I was happy that Katina was able to recover this little segment from an old Vox Populi programme of long ago. [1] Not necessarily that it captures me in a more enthusiastic and youthful phase in my life, but also for the documenting of my parents George and Helen in our ‘pre-historic’ café, the legendary Reno Café [where I have elsewhere in this journal written about]. Where incidentally, they were to add at least another twelve years to their more than a few decades in our shoppe on 341 King Street, Newtown. As for that stretched red Volvo outside the shop? I still remember the delight in Mum’s eye when it was delivered one memorable afternoon from the previous owner, and the jibes from my mates that I had joined the ranks of the much maligned ‘Volvo driver’! The opening segment to the clip is not from the actual graduation of my class but presumably stock footage held by SBS [you would have noted the beloved Sir Roden Cutler inspecting the passing out parade and the former ‘colourful’ minister of police Mr Bill Crabtree]. In the picture I am with my younger cousin James and my two friends in the café are Dom and Linda. The place of worship where I am lighting a candle and where I would attend the Divine Liturgy on most Sundays, is the Church of Saint Demetrius [2], the patron saint of Thessaloniki, a fine example of Byzantine religious architecture located near the Aristotelian on Egnatias Avenue. The clip though short was a time-consuming process originally intended for a longer story, it is why I am bearded in some places [the segments shot in Thessaloniki, Greece] and ‘moustachioed’ when the filming was done here in Sydney, Australia. I had completed my first year in the School of Theology at the Aristotelian [3] in the north of Greece where I came impossibly close to topping the year and had just returned home after it was determined that I should continue with my studies as one of the inaugural students at the newly established Saint Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College [4] in Sydney. On a personal note it was encouraging to show my children that their Dad’s philosophy of life has pretty much remained steadfast despite the many ‘twists and turns’, and that there was a time when he too was living in a younger man’s clothes.

Listening to my ad hoc ‘commentary’ and reminding myself this is a young fellow in his early twenties, I am not too embarrassed by what I hear. But I would not speak in such absolute terms today having crossed over into the fifth decade of my life. “Time passed”, as Pablo Neruda has said. Though I was learning and growing in some encouraging ways, there remains a naivety to my words. It is perhaps telling that it was not too long after this interview I would be ordained into the priesthood. The simple truth, I was not ready. The naivety has long since gone, I would hope, and the fundamentalism [‘the overtly spiritual confidence’] has been considerably tempered and in places broken, by the “twists and turns”. Yet, for the most part, outside my wife and children this could well be my only true success in life, that when I look into the mirror despite seeing a face too often unrecognizable, I still deeply connect with that passionate young man. At the foundation remains the incontestable purpose behind our individual ‘journey-making’, the challenge to become a decent human being (Ludwig Wittgenstein).

“Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_Populi_(SBS_Current_Affairs_program)

[2] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Church_of_Saint_Demetrios_(Thessalonica)

[3] https://www.auth.gr/en

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

My departed Father’s birthplace

Paphos, Cyprus, November 2016/January 2017

From Sydney, via Dohar, to Larnaca; long haul flight over the Indian Ocean; please an aisle seat if possible; who will sit next to me; young man with sparse chestnut goatee; the ritual before I go on board; comfort shopping; buy a biography [Nikola Tesla]; a double-shot of Bombay Sapphire; since the near miss over the Caribbean; frightened of flying; Mark Webber in the next gate; not long ago it was Eckhart Tolle; and before that the happy songstress; to my right a distressed father of five; we jockey for the middle armrest; why does food taste differently on planes; more to do with smell rather than taste they say; I am repeating myself; Farfalle tossed with Arrabiata Sauce; will George hit his second fifty this weekend; your broken shoulder has healed well my boy; Katina manages amazingly without me; “I have loved you for a thousand years” (Christina Perri); the primary flight feathers of the Mute Swan; crosswind landings; angle of attack; the mythical landscape of Paphos; my changing face and my balding head; my departed Father’s birthplace; the deepest wound is silence; like a mark in the dark; your spirit gives life to the earth; Johann Sebastian Bach; punctus contra punctum [‘point against point’]; Nina Simone; the fingers are an extension of the voice; music smoulders down through to the large toe; C minor naturals and accidentals as required; I should stop for a drink; Zivania grape pomace and dry wine; nothing beats an icy cold beer; Bus 618 to the harbour; Apostolou Pavlou Avenue; Bank of Cyprus; Superior Real Estate; the earth stretches as far as the eye can see; to the end of silence; the suffering of the other is not ever far; Aleppo reveals the actuality of the new world order; Bana al-Abed keep safe under the giant wings of angels; long walk in the heat almost lost; local traffic signs are perilous here; step over cracks with the right foot first; great art like mystery inspires transformation; “The street had its own history/ someone wrote it on the wall, with paint” (Manos Loizos); Kallinikos Stavrovouniotis the inspired iconographer; preparation of brushes and woods; heated beeswax and coloured pigments; two young girls to my right are taking selfies; not long ago they would have been preserved in portraits; nine bus drivers on strike to my left; worry beads fighting a losing battle with cigarettes; no rain for three months; remember take quick showers; hot air masses over from the Sahara; gases and dust; the birth of stars; the big belt of Orion; second draft of the short stories done; “I journey inward seeking a language of lament” (Stephanos Stephanides); “How close we are/ to what we thought was so far away!” (Costas Montis); “Those who die in war, they sing the best songs for peace” (Mehmet Yasin);  true artists will bleed; your voice must bleed to give life to birds; without blood your poems will cease to exist; Aphrodite rises from the foam; Adonis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X); Pygmalion’s futuristic fetish gave birth to Paphos; most everything has been done and said before; even pixels and robotics; I need another blanket it is cold; two light bulbs burnt out; please make up Room 201; am I the last person on earth without a mobile; immunity from the network; the portable telephone will go inside the head; a 16 year-old Mother missing with her baby boy; we are all refugees; I have too many coats; “If you have two coats, give one away” (Lk. 3:11); scores of souvenir shops; the ridiculous mingles with the sublime; from nodding plastic Messiahs to the Virgin Mary of Kykkos; feather ice, fine as white Iranian Pashmak; figures of speech the folding doors at Pompeii; dreams the building blocks of images; globalism one of the terrible lies; to obliterate history; to deconstruct identity; the monopolization of food; “To the south, to the south, my time is running out” (Frank Turner); “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” (Leonard Cohen); “We all live in a yellow submarine” (Beatles); Saint Neophytos Monastery and Temple of the Retreat; a glorious Sunday morning histories and eternities turn together; the Divine Liturgy the summary of all things; Saint Barnabas Apostle to Antioch and Cyprus; Saint Spyridon the Wonderworker; Saint Sapricius the Bishop; mourning must not be wasted; the Berlin Christmas market attack; Russian ambassador assassinated in Ankara; babies freeze in Aleppo; wax honeycombs inside the beehive; synchronized wings; contract pollination; lightning in the form of ribbons; stories trapped in stone; Rock of the Greek; Saint Paul’s Pillar (1 Cor. 2:11-24); Paphos Castle; Tombs of the Kings; the Ancient City of Marion; who am I, dear Mother, and why have I become; what rests in the depths of depths; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me the sinner; sickening migraine tonight; wild galloping horses; anvils made of splintered diamond; Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9 in D major; you play music on the inside of my heart; it ends too soon; before we have time to say, this is who I am; a child is asked to decide on a Christmas gift; what will it be a dress or a toy; a small glass of milk, she says; thank goodness it is raining; Trinitarian mystery and supercritical fluids; “Lazarus, come forth!” (Jn. 11:43); I should tell Jeremiah to believe in the resurrection of the living; I should have been in Mexico; I should have brought another white shirt; Gennadios Taverna; White King Chess School; Papaconstantinou Bakery; my jaw is hurting again; oh please Lord, not for a third time; this codeine will not work; the ‘pigeon-toed orange peel’; it never existed Mr Eastwood; film can convince us of almost anything; Zeno of Citium; true good can only exist in Virtue; happiness depends on moral actions; truth is as recognisable as the odour under the armpits; go bald gracefully and delight in the possibilities; a middle-aged man with short-cropped hair waiting for Mediterranean mussels; an elderly woman with cat eye sunglasses is pushing away the past; a young couple bent over, lost forever in their mobiles; Marios Tokas Anoula tou Hionia; Michalis Kakoyiannis Zorba the Greek (1964); Christopher A. Pissarides “theory of search frictions”; a philosopher with broken hands taking notes; dark energy; dark matter; normal matter; expansion of the universe not slowing down; like stars racing on the edges of galaxies; the artist must for a short time forget; only then can he or she create anew; the palimpsest is a valuable example; beards are back in fashion; the Bandholz; the five-blade razor; birds made from old manuscripts and from the virgin’s hair; Pied Wheatear; Warbler Sylvia; Short-toed Treecreeper; Panagia Theoskepasti; Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa; Agios Georgios Basilica; Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” an ongoing prophecy; please read Albert Camus’ “The Human Crisis”; Dag Hammarskjold Markings; the Cyprus issue falters again; corruption is the mainstay; culture of co-existence a distant vision; the view of the Mediterranean coastline is mesmerizing; each flickering light a poem in the horizon; miles of soul sleeping tonight; “Let the stars appear/ and the moon disclose her silver horn” (Jane Kenyon); South Sudan conflict; another catastrophe; hunger in Yemen; United Nations ineffectual intoxicated on blind power; a rusted door knob; a shoe without a heel; a broken teacup; we become that after which we chase; Midas touched his daughter she turned to gold; let us chase after poetry; why are you reading these lines; have you visited before; would you offer a hat in my distress [or a rope, as he once did]; in Pegeia they speak in key signatures; the young ones still court at the ‘vrisi’; Coral Bay sprays new life into the ancient lithosols; I was a soldier here long ago; one day they prepared us for war; there was lots of crying in camp; House of Dionysos; House of Aion; the “Forum” [the Agora]; the first photo is never right; why do you forget; a wooden boat swaying gently on scattered sunlight; a group of children skipping on pebble skins; seashells on the knees of butterflies; Chapecoense LaMia Flight 2933; from one moment to the next; Alexandrov Ensemble Tu-154 crashes in the Black Sea; a new chorus of mermaids; you will spring from bed one night; the answer would have at last arrived; it will be the last and the hardest of your battles; “years have passed many changes taking place” (Hazel Durham); “what’s changed is you” (F. Scott Fitzgerald); “so take away my passport!” (Mahmoud Darwish); you said you were going away forever; yet I will look for you in the cities; “Or ancient mounds that cover bones, Or rocks where rockdoves do repair” (The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins); caution no entry; attention heavy vehicles; beware bumps on the road; Troodos Mountains; Pediaios River; Avakas Gorge; the way you clasped your hands; Latin-rig sails drifting into the distance; the secret remains in how we communicate the story; Cyrano de Bergerac and his talking earrings; I sing carols with old ‘Santa Claus’ Lawrence; December 25th Christmas Day; “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1); “Therefore Christmas, the day of the birth of the God-man the Lord Jesus Christ, is the greatest and most important day in the history of all the worlds in which man moves and lives” (Saint Nikolai Velimirovich); the parcel of land recovered; belongings were watered; January 11th time to go.

Realizing the divine within

Gerringong, NSW

One of the great deceptions of our automated world, where people as well as perishable goods are earmarked with an expiry date, is the dreadful lie of the easy path to peace and enlightenment. These two ways are invariably sold and packaged together. The reality is more sobering and gut-wrenching. Most of us know, as if by an inborn instinct, there are no short-cuts to realizing the divine within. For some of us this struggle to realize our potential and come to terms with our “faith seeking understanding” will take many years, if not decades. Anselm knew well what he was talking about with his famous motto fides quaerens intellectum.[1] In other words, “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” And even after having arrived at this “good place”, where we have touched upon some little understanding, the struggle does not end. No one can fight this most important of battles for us; we are alone to work our way through the darkness until we come across one or two shards of blazing light. That is, until we go to sleep one fateful night knowing and believing we would suffer it all again...  All of it… to be at the place where we are at that very moment, when it seemed the heavens opened up for us alone that we might catch a glimpse of our true name: “…and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).  

There is no hidden secret to peace and enlightenment. If there are any secrets, they are evident ones we all discern and attempt to put into practice knowing in our hearts the truth is stumbling upon us rather than the other way round. Gratia urget nos, “grace presses on us”. There is a mystic in each one of us: we have all prayed, or have been dazzled by the stars, or have wept to music. The search for peace itself is mystical at its core. The problem is though these ‘secrets’ are plain enough to see, it is very difficult to consistently put them into practice. These universal truths, sagacious and sensible lessons, have been freely given to us and put down in writing by the wisdom teachers of our collective spiritual tradition. I lived by these few simple but life-altering lessons for many years until without realizing, I gradually abandoned them as I became immersed in the games and intrigues of the world. When I did begin to understand once more, it was almost too late. I thought that “I” knew better and tried to resolve the suffering in my life on my own terms. This is one of the fundamental mistakes which normally goes by the name of pride and is particularly dangerous for a religious who believes they are practising humility. Of course, there is and will be, that right moment when it seems the great resolution has come, but pride would make us blind to the fact that there are strong forces, even on the outside of ourselves, which influence our decision making and can often determine the journey ahead. These ‘strong forces’, opportunity or chance for instance, cannot be ignored nor can they be underestimated for they are always there. This interplay between the self and the outside is like the flesh and sinews which wrap around the bones of the living.

Everything which was good and peaceful in my life revolved around detachment, for example, making an effort to remain unaffected by either praise or criticism. Detachment is not indifference. [2] It is neither apathy nor absence; it is a dignified and quiet presence. It is from this place of stillness and self-control that most favourable things will flow. I will talk again about these lessons later, but they do revolve around three things: love, humility, and self-knowledge. Above all else self-sacrificing love. “Love, and do what you will” are the famous if not scandalous words of Saint Augustine.[3] But what he really is saying, that everything we do, should find its first cause in love: our silence, our tears, and even all that from which we refrain. Those who genuinely experience and participate in this communion of Love are incapable of causing intentional hurt to others. Admittedly, these are idealistic words and few of us will know what it is like to live wholeheartedly by their creed. Yet whatever our weakness or frailty, it should not exclude or discourage us from sharing in the ancient wisdom of such timeless revelations which have from the beginning been disclosed to the heart.[4] In the Gospels the “heart” is where both “good” and “evil” can be stored up (Lk 6:45) and it is the organ of our spiritual and moral cognisance (Mk 2:6-8). This is typical of spiritual literature and emblematic of the universal comprehension of the heart as the place of the subconscious, and seat of the emotions, passions, and appetites.

One of the enduringly hard questions for those interested in the religious experience of humankind[5] has been: why does it seem that the great religious traditions lead us on different, if not often times diametrically opposing paths. Is not all of this hopelessly misleading for our spirit, and can it not ‘twist’ us out of shape? I will not pretend to know the answer. All I can do is to share something of my own response as I have grappled with the question over many years and after having sat at the feet of some wonderful teachers. In my personal encounters with these wise men and women from both the desert and the city, I could not help but observe a discernible parallel in the philosophy of how “good religion” is both understood and practised. I was profoundly excited by this “discovery” for though it was certainly no hidden secret and it is there in plain print in our wisdom literature, it is a lesson that will not come easy. It is for the individual soul to wrestle with the revelation. None of this belongs entirely to the imaginary realm, but it is real like a deep cut to the flesh or the sharp sting of a red pepper on the tongue.     

[1] Saint Anselm’s Proslogion, Preface.

[2] If you wish to explore “detachment” at the profoundly deeper level and its connection to apatheia [‘passionlessness’ or ‘dispassion’] then please see: Anthony M. Coniaris, A Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia, (Light & Life, USA, 2004).

[3] In Epist. Joann. Tractatus, vii, 8.

[4] John Climacus: From the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain, John Chryssavgis, [Chapter 3 Kardia: The Heart], (Ashgate, England, 2004).

[5] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, (Scribner, New York, 1984).