Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor Archbishop Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive are saying: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

Providence, Coincidence or Meaningful Decisions

homer.jpg

Providence is mostly connected to theological reflection and generally associated to divine purpose. Coincidence on the other hand is normally thought of in terms of luck, fate, or chance. In some other instances coincidence has been thought of in the context of meaningful decisions, perhaps it is here where it ‘coincides’ with providence.[1] Ultimately, whatever our definitions [throwing in the ‘problem of evil’ to boot], both can be understood as forces of influence which determine destiny. In the Homeric writings ‘destiny’ is more coincidence with providence connected to ‘divine intervention’. Destiny is fate [moira] for Homer, it cannot be escaped. Divine intervention, however, can manipulate destiny even with the direct involvement of human agency.[2] The stories of Achilles and Hector as described in the Iliad are good examples of destiny as a combination of divine intervention and human agency. And this complex interaction between divine action and free will is a fundamental principle in the New Testament, accordingly Saint Paul writes to the Christian community in Philippi that both human responsibility and sovereign control are at work in the Christian life (Phil 2:12-13). What is it that drives us to understand something of these impenetrable forces and to try to put a name to them? An illuminating response from a contemporary piece of literature can be found in Christos Tsiolkas Dead Europe. The protagonist and not irrelevantly a photographer, the young Greek-Australian Isaac, reflects in one place when asked to use his camera to document events of the past, “[t]his desperate need to confirm the relevance of history…”[3] I did have significant problems with some of the content in Tsiolkas’ book, but the masterly use of time and space in this admittedly disturbing novel leave their mark.

Flemington Markets

Katina had turned nineteen and was in the second year of her BIT at the University of Technology Sydney and I at thirty-three had started on the MA Honours at Macquarie University. I needed to find some payable work, we were managing with the help of our parents and our scholarships but our personal finances were starting to run low. My pride and self-belief suffered a severe blow when I joined the ranks of those on unemployment benefits. I was now no longer someone who was greeted with the respect accorded to a professional, let alone a clergyman. It did not matter too much during the time when I was alone. I had already lived in this ‘post’ existence of mine for a number of years, but now what affected me would also have an effect on my younger wife [who as events would prove was blessed with wisdom beyond her years]. From Reverend or Father I was now a “number” doing the rounds knocking on doors and looking for work. This could be anything from stacking sheets of tin in warehouses to selling encyclopaedias in shopping malls. It was humbling, I have to confess, to be asked if I understood or knew how to complete the paperwork relating to my new found unemployment. This process of ‘deconstruction’ had begun a number of years earlier upon my return from Europe where I had worn my favourite black cassock for the last time. Things were made all the more grim for my former “employer” the Archdiocese would not supply me with a reference. The exception was the heroic Father Themistocles Adamopoulo who by this time was himself persona non grata.[4] I asked some other good men from there as well, but their support was qualified. They wanted to know beforehand “where” their references would be going. Walking away from the priesthood is viewed very dimly. Even by formerly trusted friends. And I did understand. As I still do. I thanked them but declined.

It took some weeks getting used to, but I began to love going to my new job at Flemington Markets, more exactly at Paddy’s Markets.[5] It was a time of long stretches of peace and a new type of learning. I was hired as a cleaner: toilets, floors, potato conveyers, fruit crates, large vats, giant coleslaw mixers, windows, walls, and more. If it had to be cleaned, I was the man! But this had a potentially serious health implication for I had been using some very harsh chemicals without any appropriate protection. For afterwards during my service in the Cypriot National Guard the medical investigator was concerned with the state of my lungs, there were some “shadows”, he said. I was told it might be tuberculosis or lung cancer. On my return to Australia I was given the all clear and in another place I will say more on this experience both in terms of divine intervention and human agency. I was also proud of my new ‘vestments’: a pair of weatherproof boots, gloves, overalls, and a yellow raincoat with a hood. The hours as well, they suited an old night-owl like me. Work started eleven at night and I would clock off the following morning around seven, it was not full-time so I had rest days in between. There were many things I enjoyed during those few months that I was able to stay at Paddy’s before I left to entirely focus on the first dissertation, the one dealing with the infamous “666” and the antichrist conundrum. Each night I looked forward to greeting my new ‘con-celebrants’: the Asians who would cut and prepare the salads; the sunburnt farmers; the busy stall owners; the testy truck drivers; and every now and then the pest-control fellow who would also moonlight as a Reiki Master.

The coffee-breaks were history classes in themselves. I heard many stories in that small kitchenette by well-weathered men who had seen much and just about done it all. These were tough but honest folk, people you could trust and where you quickly learnt to "call a spade a spade.” They reminded me of the abattoir workers I used to help load meat trucks in the early hours of the morning to supplement my allowance when I was a student in Thessaloniki. They were also not lacking in the stories department. During this time at the markets I would read whenever I could steal a few minutes during the morning breaks or in between my scheduled jobs. The Philokalia[6] and the Art of Prayer[7] were invariably within reach, together with the lives of two saints whose personalities had especially attracted me, Saints Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstandt. Yet again I would be taught that wonderful and encouraging lesson often heard on Mount Athos: it is not the place, but the Way. Other times it might be as simple as the positive energy good spirits [people] release into the air. 

Given my earlier life at the café this was not unfamiliar territory. I was in my element in these environments. I look back over more than thirty years later when I first put on the cassock and I realize it is with these ‘straight-talking’ people at places like Paddy’s and King Street, Newtown and in the side streets of Egnatia Odos, where I am most happy and comfortable. And I would have stayed at the markets for much longer if not for my pride “this perpetual nagging temptation” as C.S. Lewis has so well put it and because I knew in the words of one Martin Heidegger that I had “unfinished business”.

Of course, much had happened even before this time. I had spent a lengthy period in the Palestinian desert with the monastic community at the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified [also known as Mar Saba] and had privately tutored and taught a number of subjects at secondary school. Later I will speak at length on these wonderfully significant experiences which would afterwards greatly impact upon my life. Providence, coincidence or meaningful decisions? To be at least prepared to walk through those doors which we might reckon belong to the right provenance. 

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/providence-divine/

[2] http://legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/crunyon/HRS101/Homer/03&4-Iliad/Fate_Schein.html

[3] Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe, (Vintage Books: Australia), 2005, 151.

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/programs/one-plus-one/2015-11-26/one-plus-one:-rev.-themi-adamopoulo/6978258

[5] http://paddysmarket.com.au/history/

[6] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Philokalia

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Prayer-Orthodox-Anthology/dp/057119165

That showery morning when I met Father Christmas... And his name was Lawrence!

Paphos, Cyprus, December 2016

I love so very much speaking with those who live on the borders listening to their revelations and have some humorous but also some devastatingly sad stories to tell. Many of these stories touch on the fantastical. It is where I find most of my angels and where the ‘old man’ will mostly live. It is there where feather and flesh, flesh and feather, meet on the margins of the long narrow streets, and around ancient churches whose bell-towers are about to collapse, in the ghostly sounds of trains which rush towards their final destination, in remote petrol stations, in the entrances to hospitals. And in that place where the Moon is pregnant with the light of the Sun.

This Father Christmas was a little less animated. Peyia, Paphos. Photo: MG Michael (2016)

This Father Christmas was a little less animated. Peyia, Paphos. Photo: MG Michael (2016)

This story belongs to the lighter side of these encounters. It was the day before Christmas. In Kato Paphos I would visit a café bar by the harbour whose crystal blue waters course in from the Mediterranean Sea. I would come here every morning to have breakfast, to check my email, and to work on some drafts. This café [like most cafés] had a story of its own, with its famous resident Coco the African grey and the expat former middleweight Englishman boxer the proud owner. This tall gentleman with the broad Yorkshire accent was one time bodyguard and confidant to the likes of Tom Jones and Demis Roussos. But on this particular showery morning the attention of the patrons was drawn to a bellowing voice across the street to the promenade. From what we could see it was a bearded old man with a large red Father Christmas stocking cap atop his head. Some of the patrons thought he was being a nuisance, while others preferred to concentrate on their old-school ‘full English’. But some of us did enjoy the grace and joie de vivre of the old man. I must admit I found his repertoire rather strange but on hindsight it was entirely symbolic. Until this day I had never before heard Father Christmas belt out “My Way” and “A Girl Called Maria”. Followed by “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”! A huge pretend pine tree was decorated to the hilt and proudly set up in the middle of the square. Late morning of the 24th both to my surprise and merriment, I discovered over four short blacks that my new bushie acquaintance was Jewish, his name was Lawrence, and that as a little boy he was a gofer for a stock exchange company in the centre of London. He loved to sing and was a member of a number of choirs, but like me I would suppose, he much preferred going rogue. And then we slapped each other on the back and sung “Hava Nagila”.

And for some reason I would remember my dearly loved Viktor Frankl to whom I have oftentimes turned for “meaning” who somewhere said that Jews and Christians would in many instances hold each other’s hands to pray together before being led into the darkest places of Auschwitz.

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.