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.

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

After a few hours in Wollongong

Wollongong, NSW

Where have I seen these faces before; in a dream after I had prayed the Akathyst to the Holy Mother; in an aeroplane on my way to Estonia; double espresso; vegetable fritters with corn salsa; a small glass of cold water; Katina and the little ones in Tathra; I miss them after an hour; but now I can write one-hundred and forty-four words; a dark haired woman with a column of silver rings rubs her left eye; Geraldine is that you; a little child is crying; a young Mother bends down to whisper into her big ear; it doesn’t help; keep focused Michael, confess to the black wall; “[w]e need to search for our soul” (Carl Jung); the people’s heads are bent like a crooked elbow; mesmerized by their gleaming mobiles; wasting hours which turn into lost years; “I won’t have coffee with you,” Sophia once said to me; “you can’t kill time”; she was usually right; I will need to start for home soon; it is still raining; “Here Comes the Rain Again (Eurythmics); thirst will never lie; “I thirst” the GodMan cries out (Jn. 19:28); dig for water and not for oil; I should translate Stephen’s poem; all in good time; we must keep our promises; a girl in white jeans runs across to the escalator; a good metaphor to note down; she has forgotten her name somewhere on the floor below; where have I seen these faces before; candles and waxes; boiled cinnamon; paraffin; let him who is without song cast the first stone; Josephine Baker, the Black Pearl; “Art Deco”; playing truant in the spaces between the parables; you needn’t have taken from me; freely I’d given to you; your response in expanses of pain; a long walk into the nearest city; press your bleeding nose on the window pane; “But the beauty is in the walking, we are betrayed by destinations” (Gwyn Thomas); Wollongong Central; His Boy Elroy; Jamaica Blue; Max Brenner; a handsome old man with an aluminium walking cane; he is taking his first steps; not long from now he will be born again; I still miss you Father; I wish we had kissed one last time; I was in the clouds when you were treading earth; “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason” (Pascal, Pensees); Kant from the purely rational structure to actual moral content; has it anything to do with thinking about one’s own thinking; surveillance cameras everywhere; who doesn’t understand; Big Brother inside your head coming soon; DARPA brain implant program; Eric Arthur Blair; Philip Kindred Dick; Margaret Eleanor Atwood; you are one of the latter day prophets Roger Clarke; the young man with the spiky hair behind the counter calls for Tony; we all know what he likes to drink; anonymity lost for the pleasure of a coffee; Argus Panoptes; a heavy-duty headache like a tight tourniquet; Panadeine Forte versus Panamax; too much noise everywhere; but sometimes it can be soothing; like the white noise in the Kiama Leisure Centre; during the Paleozoic era dragonflies grew to ‘monster size’; if a dragonfly cannot fly it will starve; dragonflies mate in mid-air like the clouds; they will divide us into groups; the poets will have to be silenced; only they know the real names behind things; “It’s the words that sing, they soar and descend” (Pablo Neruda); another drink please; a long black; and a banana & coconut crepe; I am still here; where have I seen these faces before; they ricochet like a Jack Storm reflective mirror; hackers breach US nuclear plants; Battle for Mosul; G20 Hamburg; “Round/ Like a circle in a spiral/ Like a wheel within a wheel”  (Bergman & Bergman); The Persuaders; Hawaii Five-0; Mission Impossible; in Greece when I was a little boy they were repeats; like the regime of the Colonels; dictatorships same old, same old; truth and political realism not compatible; Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527);  there was nothing new to ‘shock and awe’; except for the finger on the button; make sure there is petrol in the car; petroleum from the Greek “rock” and “oil”; separation technology; philosophers must keep their feet warm; Schopenhauer wearing a wool beanie with earflaps; my Mother-in-Law knits fabulous woollen jumpers; a family of four sit at the next table; the Father staring into space; the Mother trying to get his attention; I smile; life continues; joyful sorrow; a group of grandmothers; a wisdom; once they too, played with baby dolls; King Arthur; the wizard Merlin; Geoffrey of Monmouth; my little Jeremy is so brave; our Eleni sings like a nightingale; George is capable of so much he needs to find his way; “Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or to usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky” (Rabindranath Tagore); where have I seen these faces before; 3.49 PM; in an hour or so they will close; I love you Katina; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnpRZHqqPq8; you are my enduring truth; I have lost so many friends; where have they gone; we must allow each other to grow; I am a stranger here; I have always been a stranger; what does ‘perfect stranger’ mean; sometimes our cherished Dylan T., repetition is fine; you were too harsh on Tennyson; stress, accentuation, force; we are all Pentecostal to one degree or another; we speak in tongues; “mia pista apo fwsforo me dwdeka diadromous” (Lina Nikolakopoulou); you make me smile when I could almost split my sides; don’t confuse the Jesus Prayer with OCD; Saint Sophrony thank you for caring after me; Tolleshunt Knights; Tiptree the scent of jams trapped in rimed snowflakes; the tongue is a mighty organ; “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (James 3:5); it begins as a bud; Powell & Pressburger; The Tales of Hoffmann (1951); Offenbach would have been pleased, methinks; the family next to me still here; the Father like those above, bent over the mobile; the Mother comforting the infant; life goes on; I smile, once again; my long black done; fractal patterns; the Mandelbrot set; Zeno of Elea; Lake Baikal; southern Siberia; largest freshwater lake in the world; Blade Runner (1982); Ridley Scott; genetically engineered humanoid replicants; Archytas of Tarentum; architect of robotics; the bird and the rattle; 64 squares in an 8x8 grid; opening, middlegame, endgame; Benjamin Franklin “The Morals of Chess” (1786); will the bookstores be open; how beautiful a real book between the hands; at home beneath my lamp Dumas’ The Three Musketeers; I catch another name Bethany; it is a wonderful name; she has ordered a mocaccino; they have a picture of my pelican at the fish shop down by the Kiama wharf; such a proud and beautiful animal it was; the last picture I took before the camera dropped into the water; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Steve McCurry; Diane Arbus; two young friends walk past hand-in-hand; they are laughing and licking on ice creams; one is a girl with a short haircut and a large green bag; idealism for a season is good; [Donald] Bruce Dawe; “I would never want to come back, knowing I could never be this lucky twice”; Australian poets have always been so hugely underrated; 25 minutes have passed; it is all relative like an itch behind the ear; the days go quicker now; the nights can take a little longer; “Only because you loved me I was born, so my life was given” (Maria Polydouri); triptychs; Francis Bacon (1909-1992); images reveal themselves “in series” he said;  titles from Ballarat International Foto Biennale (2017); Bones: A Body Of Work; Peaches And Scream; Hidden In Plain Sight;  Edmund de Waal; my third reading of The White Road a pilgrimage of sorts; “[t]o make something so white and true and perfect, that the world around it is thrown into shadows”; 200 Crown Street; Princes Hwy; Smith Street; writing is difficult; poetry is even more difficult; committing oneself to reality and not to the absurd, even harder; identity and language are never too far one from the other; like Duchamp and modern art; greatly misunderstood [he was] and for this reason, the cult of vulgarity; shadows are difficult to escape; like fingers dipped deep in honey; all surfaces are covered; I must not drink alcohol today; “[w]hat begins with pain, ends with pain”; a great truth dear Gabor M.; we all lead double lives; that’s not the real problem; the only thing which really matters is the outcome of this titanic tension; look for saints in their eyes; ignore the devils for now; Hannibal ante portas; okay, that’s it; pay the bill; and make sure to wipe your mouth; goodnight, Little Briar Rose.

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

An Afternoon Walk Through Gerringong Cemetery

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Saint Paul); our reflection on the back of a marble tombstone; mine and that of my eldest son; two obituaries walking one alongside the other; Christopher James Cullen died 18th June 1911, Aged 59 Years; Mary Elizabeth Knight died 2nd November 1926, Aged 64 Years; William Gilbert Weir died 18th March 1947, Aged 78 Years; Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying; Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning; Pacific Ocean; large pine trees; scattered wooden benches with plaques; here under this grass; here under these roots; here beneath this earth; cemeteries the only truthful universities; “Gerringong cemetery dedicated 2nd July, 1863”; earliest recorded grave Evan Campbell 12th September 1863;  “early graves run East to West facing the spectacular coastline”; Belinda Street; Percy Street; Fern Street down the road; aromatic incense dripping off flowers; “Suffer the little children to come unto Me” (Matt 19:14); there is no suffering to be compared with that of losing a child; “The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love” (Nicolas Berdyaev); Georgia Louise Gillard [Stillborn] died 13th June 1990; Ernest H. Williams died November 14th 1913, Aged 9 Months; William James Purcill died 29th December 1936, Aged 2 Years; Boat Harbour to our right; whale watch deck; pathway through to Werri Beach; I know what you are thinking my boy; okay, tell me something I don’t know; there are shards of light streaking from the bottom of our shoes; “our reasoning brain is weak, and our tongue is weaker still” (Saint Basil); a family of five having a picnic up ahead; a flock of birds swooping on the ground; a man on his knees wiping away the years from a headrest; two women walking their dogs; a little boy throwing rocks into space; my brother-in-law remembering his wife who left five days ago; “the valley of dry bones” (Ezek 37); Church of England Section; Roman Catholic Section; Interdenominational Section; Burial of Saint Lucy Caravaggio; Death and Life Gustav Klimt; The First Mourning William-Adolphe Bouguereau; John Kelly died 11th June 1918, Aged 64 Years; Mary Kenny died 19th September 1903, Aged 59 Years; James John Quinn died 2nd April 1965, Aged 84 Years; “Christ is Risen from the dead”; “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21); “In the place of Your rest, O Lord, Where all Your Saints repose, Give rest also to the soul of Your Servant, For You alone are immortal” (Trisagion for the Dead); The Messenger Linkin Park; Pente Ellines ston Adi Eleni Vitali; Hurt Johnny Cash; “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Ps 23); this walk is doing the both of us some good; the rain is holding off; the cold invigorates the flesh; “Sweet heart of Jesus, be my love”; “loved and never forgotten”; “much loved by her family”; the general priesthood of all believers; “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” (from The Creed); make sure to note the personal pronoun; “time is constantly pressing upon us” (Schopenhauer); forty years ago I could run up these hills without breaking a sweat; now I reminisce of past centuries; “and one minute closer to death” (Pink Floyd); tonight for you alone I will burn a thousand candles; life is to be lived with joy and compassion; there is no contradiction between particle and wave; Mother loves to fold paper boats; she tells me it is what her Father did; Origami and history of paper folding; here take a sip of water; can we go now; we are always leaving, my boy; “beloved son”; “our loving mother”; “my dear husband”; the car park is emptying; a small truck overflowing with building supplies; the family of five are heading off; an elderly lady with a yellow overcoat arranging flowers; a middle-aged man with shorts looking up into the sky; like Noah waiting for the rain to fall; there are things I cannot tell you yet; Marjorie Simpson died April 1st 1999, Aged 83 Years; Patrick Richard Cronin died 30th August 1948, Aged 69 Years; Elsa Lily Rigby died 22nd December 2003, Aged 91 Years; Battle of the Teutoburg Forest; Battle of Bull Run; Battle of Crucifix Hill; “O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells” (Walt Whitman); “And you as well must die, beloved dust, And all your beauty stand you in no stead” (Edna St. Vincent Millay); “Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it” (Pablo Neruda); step left then right; kick that stone to the side; things need to be made straight; 12… 1234… 12; anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices; Billy’s ‘Pop’ William Miller rests here waiting for the bell; specks of brown earth in our hair; strands of grass caught on the tips of our shoes; windcheaters flutter like butterfly wings; dear Lord allow for our son’s shoulder to heal well; “There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death” (Buddha); I would like a plot here; please not Botany; check online for availability; my jaw still hurts a lot; you will always be remembered Genevieve R.; Brahms’ Triumphlied (Op. 55); Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor; it is mental grammar which allows us to communicate; linguistics was a very difficult subject; music is above and beyond grammar; Scherzo great blocks of accelerating beats; pulsating with irresistible power; “Dance until you shatter yourself” (Rumi); life and death in the search engine; Liberation Through Hearing Bardo Thodol; what comes after; whatever it is which proceeds from human consciousness; the ever-present theme from MASH; please, don’t do it, not today; “the wound is the place where the Light enters you” (Rumi); the flesh returns to the earth; Marc Alexander Hunter died July 17th 1998, Aged 45 years; Carmel Therese Matthews died 11th January 2013, Aged 80 Years; Jeremiah Hanrahan died 18th August 1882, Aged 50 Years; Michael John Harding died 21st November 1953, Aged 62 Years; Kathleen Mary Bergin died 30th January 1942, Aged 74 Years; native seed; citrus caterpillar; star burst; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Apoc 21:4); I saw death for the first time in Piraeus Port; the old man next door with the crook handle walking stick; black dresses intermingling with bright candle light; Hannah Noble died 15th August 1911, Aged 63 Years; Derek Graham Clarke Wishart died 24th January 1991, Aged 27 Years (‘Surveyor and Fisherman’); Lillian Ida Chittick died 15th June 1993, Aged 86 Years; on the news the deluge continues; John Milton’s Paradise Lost; Alighieri Dante’s The Divine ComedySaint John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon; the listeners are waiting; ubiquitous surveillance does not equate with omnipresence; it never will; huge tears over graves; like snowflakes no teardrop is ever the same; we wash our eyes; angels flying diamond kites; black opal; alexandrite; “a true gentleman”; “a bud in heaven”; “she, now, has met her rest”; here I have always been at peace; “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?” (Khalil Gibran); Moonlight Sonata “Let me go there with you” (Yiannis Ritsos); “and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (Adrienne Rich); time to go home now, George; we never were too far away

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2014/10/10/4104454.htm

http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/2580127/gerringong-cemetery-history-to-be-brought-to-life/