On trying to become fully human

Tempe, Arizona

Photo by  Shahan Khan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Shahan Khan on Unsplash

Something ‘powerful’ is holding us back. It keeps us from flight. At times it might feel like a dam holding back a great torrent of water. What is more, we feed this hold over us to the extent that years could pass and we remain grounded to its biggest lie. Whatever this obstacle might be, this ‘big lie’, it is known to our hearts alone. Often it is guilt over something we have done, or should not have done. Other times it is regret at an opportunity not taken to express our love, or to ask for forgiveness. This lie invariably tells us we are “not good” and that we do not deserve the “good fortune” incumbent upon others. Many of these instances which stop us from moving forward have to do with our despondency to set things ‘right’. Then the dreadful moment when suddenly confronted with the reality that it is too late. That is, the best of our intentions can no longer be realized. What then? Do we spend the remainder of our lives weltering in self-recrimination? Perhaps a higher providence has seen best for things to fall precisely as they have. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). This was the only way. It was the only way for ‘self-recrimination’ to turn out to be self-revelation. To become fully human, that is, to the extent which such a thing is possible [the ‘unity between head and heart’ Jean Vanier], means to engage with these hard experiences and to live through them. The final destination is what matters. What is done is done. There is the next hour to be lived to its fullest.

Such unbridled joy it does bring to the heart when we happen to come across someone who we sense to be fully human, or at least striving for this end goal. This aspiration towards a human teleology is our spirit’s greatest work. We might discover such people in our everyday encounters “by the well”: our teacher, coach, doctor, grocer, pharmacist, gardener, postal clerk, or cashier worker. If we might borrow from Sufism these are men and women with divinity written on their hearts. Occupation and social status have nothing to do with this luminous heart which is set before us. It is a true humility which recognizes the potential in the other and which possesses a love which moves and breathes outside the margins. Such a human presence is not easily given to cynicism and is slow to judge.

Writing and receiving letters was one of the delights of the ‘bygone age’. Outside the pure enjoyment of the physical processes of pressing out the paper, writing the date on the top left hand corner, putting down the name of the receiver My dear or My dearest…, thinking carefully [‘playfulness’ not excluded] on what you write, and then the final endearments… truly I am yours. And all of it in your own unmistakable scrawl. The letter will often enough, too, carry the unique scent of the sender. What is more the joy of receiving a reply, or a surprise from someone who went to the trouble of looking up your address to then leave his or her ‘biometric’ on the top right hand corner of the envelope. Emails [together with their lifeless emojis] possess little or nothing of such special wonder. Haruki Murakami says it so simply in one of his novels: “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter!”

Little can compare to giving a fellow human being renewed hope, to encourage them through trials, or to inspire in the pursuit of new goals. It is as restorative as saying “I love you”. For love itself, if it be true, takes its first step in the movement of compassion. How can we do this? That is to offer renewed hope to a hurting heart? There are as many ways as there are expressions of love itself. First, the benevolent act of forgiveness. To forgive someone is perhaps the most liberating act for both the giver and the receiver. There are also secret acts of charity where they might most be needed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). A simple letter sent with kindness and genuine concern in a world where self-centeredness is becoming increasingly the norm can make all the difference. To begin with to offer someone hope means to accept them. And there is besides the constraining of the ego in allowing another in greater need to ‘appropriate’ some of our spotlight. Where there is selfishness, hope cannot deliver.

“It all goes too quick” we will from time to time say to ourselves. In the Old Testament in the Book of Job it is described thus: “For we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow” (Job 8:9). The English writer Jenny Diski who endured much as a young person would afterward as an adult add her own addendum to this reality: “Everything passes, but nothing entirely goes away.” We are caught somewhere in the middle. We all know too well it will go quick, but in the meantime we experience profound emotions and our actions leave behind a legacy. The desert dwellers approach this mystery head-on by holding onto “the memory of death”. This contemplation on our brevity upon the earth is neither macabre nor defeatist. It is an act of true anarchism. They joyfully accept our transience looking beyond and live each day with such actual ‘meaningfulness’ as if it was their last hour like leaves of an olive tree which rotate to capture every tiny bit of moisture. So let us hasten to do some good while we can. It is later than we think, it has also been said.

In what ways might I make a difference in my day-to-day encounters with the ‘other’? There are many ways. There are an untold number of opportunities in our everyday exchanges with our neighbor that might not only bring a smile to a needful heart but could also save a life. Are you holding back from sending a message to a friend who might be in need of a word of encouragement? Can you anonymously send a gift to a charity? Delete an email sent to you by someone during a moment of their vulnerability? On your way to work is there a homeless person you might stop to say hello and buy a coffee for? Might you send a card to an ‘enemy’ wishing them a bright day? Could you surprise a loved one with a gift letting them know how precious they are to you? Is it too difficult to nod the head at the stranger who has cut you off at the traffic lights? Make an impromptu visit to a hospital and ask if there is anyone in need of a visitor?  It all goes too quick and yet there is much we can do. In Japanese the word for charity is jizen. The characters of the word beautifully illustrate that at the heart of charity is mercy and compassion. It is amazing too, is it not? That in helping others we are at the same time helping ourselves. And it is no mere coincidence then, that in the New Testament, Jesus Christ would connect the love of God with the love of our neighbor “like unto it” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Many of the world’s problems stem from ‘egoism’. This is the condition where “self-interest” is at the center of one’s morality. One nation considers itself better than the next and robs the other of its rights and resources. And one person thinks he or she is superior to their neighbor so diminishing and blunting their potential. The first can lead to wars and to the spread of famine. The second will lead to despair and to the lessening of our brother’s or our sister’s personality which are the qualities of their character. Both are cruel and will only ever result in suffering, if not to catastrophe, whether on a universal or personal scale.

Farewell to Brian Johns (1936-2016)

A beautiful thing to have done a good deed and never to have known.

For a number of years it has been my habit late in the evening to visit the Wikipedia “Recent Deaths” webpage.[1] This not on account of any morbid curiosity on my part, but to discover who of those that have passed on will reveal new things to me. Necropolises are our greatest universities. The dead are our truest teachers. And I have left the richer not only to be reminded that I have been given another day of grace, but also with an addition of valuable knowledge from visiting these lives which have come full circle. People from all walks and schools of life. Lessons are everywhere to be found. Sometimes, too, these visits have been touched with an additional and deeper gratitude. I come face-to-face with men and women I have met at some time during my own life either incidentally or in a more personal space.

On the evening of the 1st of January 2016 I read of the passing of one of these people that I had encountered in those more personal spaces. A man who was a paper boy and a factory hand when growing up to afterwards wear a number of different hats with great distinction in the corporate, business, and academic worlds.[2] I met Brian Johns for a brief but decisive moment in my life in one of his many personifications as managing director of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) 1987-1992.[3] It was during this evening when I visited the “Recent Deaths” webpage that one of the clues for his compassion and affection towards me would reveal itself. But first something of the context behind our correspondence and the two meetings at SBS.

At the time I was living through one of the two life experiences which would in their own season and for their own reason, take apart and change me forever. I had made the heartrending decision to ask to be relieved of my priesthood and was seeing out the last months of my diaconate.[4] I was increasingly becoming estranged from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Sydney and had fallen into a deep melancholia (a more correct word for depression).[5] In short, outside my immediate family I was almost completely alone and on the edge of letting go of everything which I had up to that time lived and worked towards. Support from those places where I would have normally expected was not forthcoming and this was made known to me in some heartless ways. In reality, there is no one to blame, more often than not we move and respond from within a space we alone create and inhabit. I was a greatly idealistic twenty-nine year old who could now envision no future for himself. In a moment of desperation I thought my one way out (excepting for my ongoing battles with suicidal ideation) was broadcast journalism. I loved to write and to communicate with people and to listen to their stories. I felt I could do well in the media. It would have been utterly marvellous I thought, to do the research and then to sit down in a chair in front of an audience and do the interview.

This is when Brian Johns enters into my story, around late August or early September of 1990.

Somehow during those weeks of numbness and inertia I managed to put together a few words outlining as best I could my current situation and what I was hoping for in terms of the future. I addressed and posted this letter not to one of the department secretaries or programme directors, but directly to the SBS Managing Director Mr Brian Johns! And that’s where I thought it would end. Immediately afterwards I was embarrassed thinking that even if that rambling letter would reach this man what on earth would he make of me? A week or two had passed when a phone call came through to our home in Kingsgrove from the Managing Director’s private secretary asking to speak with “Father Jeremiah Michael”. Brian had actually received my letter, had read it, and asked to meet with me. It is not possible to spend our entire lives living in a world of pure perception. At last some little light at the end of the tunnel. 

I was not the young man of even a few years earlier. My once unshakeable and booming confidence was very close to being completely shattered. I was frightened of exploring new territories and had decided to never again open up my heart. To make matters worse, I had started to binge drink in a futile effort to shut away the pain. But somehow, by the grace of God, I had always been able to find that extra bit of reserve I have needed to keep moving forward. And so I nervously made an appointment with Brian’s secretary to meet with him on an afternoon of the following week. I prepared the best I could, put the alcohol and those awful anti-depressants away, and read up on the basics of news media.

It will not be possible to forget the days leading up to my meeting with Brian. I was very much anxious during the cab ride and was fearful of becoming physically ill. I needed a drink or to be sick. It had become difficult to tell the difference. A few years earlier in 1987 in my mid-twenties during the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox Joint Declaration at the Vatican where I had been present to witness this historic moment, I was together with a group of young inter-denominational clerics introduced to Pope John Paul II.[6] Certainly, I was nervous and anxious then, but not as apprehensive or hesitant as I was during the hours heading into this present moment. I had an entirely different perception of myself back then in Rome and now in lots of ways I was another man. Except for the fact that hope and my belief in the Creator, would refuse to wholly go away.

As soon as I walked into the foyer of the SBS building at Milsons Point (unless I am mistaken the move to Artarmon had yet to take place)[7] I became positive and I allowed for an excitement to rush through my body which I had not felt for a long time. I was still a cleric and was dressed in my black and freshly pressed cassock. My shoes were spit-polished from the night before. More than a few quizzical stares came my way. I explained to the reception the reason behind my visit and was soon sitting in the waiting room leading into the executive offices of the Managing Director. There was a deep sense of relief as if I had succeeded in escaping from a dangerous place. Though I knew my present situation was complicated and there was more waiting for me, here at least were some lovely shards of light.

It was Brian himself who stepped out and invited me into his modestly furnished office. It was a room stacked with books. I remember from the start being impressed with his old world elegance and demeanour. Well dressed and softly spoken with a striking mane of thick greying hair, he cut an impressive figure. You knew immediately with Brian Johns, that you would have to bat straight to get his attention. On his desk, I was taken aback to find, that he had open and was in fact reading a typed MS of my poetry which I had included in my initial correspondence. It was I must confess what writers term juvenilia. Yet here was a man who had previously been a publishing director with Penguin Books taking interest in my earliest literary efforts. Even now as I write these lines, I smile at one of our first exchanges. Brian quickly asked me what it was “exactly that I wanted”. I was overwhelmed by this incredible opportunity and trust which was directly cast my way. I fumbled for a response and came out with a less then convincing “I would like to read the news.”

He smiled warmly and encouragingly, he asked a few more questions, and then said, “Okay, Jeremiah, we will speak again.” What happened afterwards and my reasons for not carrying through with Brian’s amazingly generous response is for another day. I wrote a letter telling him “I was not in the right frame of mind and that I was extremely sorry for robbing him of his valuable time”. But a few weeks later I back-tracked and Brian once more, unbelievably for someone in his position, reached out to me again. However, for a second time I told him I was in no condition to go ahead with such a “visible career move" when I was so close to “abandoning my priestly vocation” and that I was heading for England to enter a retreat.

I flew out to London soon afterwards as the First Gulf War (1990-1) was getting underway and the world was entering into yet another of its post WWII apocalyptic moods. I asked and was given permission to spend time with the monastic community of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, Tolleshunt Knights.[8] The abbot at the time was the recently sainted Father Sophrony.[9]  At Heathrow Airport everywhere there were signs of the war, the surrounds replete with heavy armaments and soldiery. I, too, on a much smaller scale was to enter into my own private war. It was to last for many years with as many twists and turns as Tiamat’s tail.

The heart of these paragraphs has to do with the generosity and kindness that a man in a high professional post would express to another man whose life was at a crossroads. I started these paragraphs with the promise of revealing a clue which communicated to me in a profoundly moving way a hidden connection between myself and Brian, and why he seemed to understand where even some of my oldest and dearest friends could not. Here was a stranger, who discovered more in me in only a few hours of conversation, what others could not over the duration of many years. I learnt much about friendship during those agonizing months and it would become a subject of lasting fascination for me.

I did not know until a few days ago that Brian himself had been a seminarian at Saint Columba’s Seminary and was preparing for the priesthood.[10] Incredibly and in another lovely twist, our vocations would again career into each other when much later we would both be awarded professorships.

My final correspondence with Brian was a quarter of a century ago. A letter sent from London a day or two after my arrival, and a postcard from Madrid a month after my request to be relieved of my priesthood had been granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Our lives are to be measured by good deeds and little else. It is where it all begins and where it will all end.

Thank you dear Brian, requiescat in pace.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaths_in_2016

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Johns_(businessman)

[3] http://www.sbs.com.au/

[4] http://orthodoxwiki.org/Presbyter [I was ordained into the diaconate as a celibate with the view towards a bishopric].

[5] William Styron rightly made this distinction between depression and melancholia in his own memoir of his struggle with mental illness in the memorable Darkness Visible. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/the-hope-that-william-styrons-darkness-visible-offers-25-years-later/383406/

[6] https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2DIM1.HTM

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Broadcasting_Service

[8] http://www.thyateira.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=373&Itemid=163

[9] http://orthodoxwiki.org/Sophrony_(Sakharov)

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Johns_(businessman)