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.

A small note on Mount Athos

Mount Athos or the Holy Mountain as it is often referred to, is the centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.[1] Occupying the greater part of the Athos Peninsula in Halkidiki it is an autonomous polity in the north of Greece comprising of twenty imposing monasteries and a number of other smaller monastic settlements. There is evidence of Christian monastic life on the mount since at least the fourth century, and if not earlier.[2] Mount Athos [Athos the name of one of the Gigantes from Greek mythology] is dedicated to the All Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, though paradoxically no woman is permitted to set foot on its grounds. This rule is strictly followed and is referred to as the ‘avaton’.[3] Young men come here to grow old mastering the art of unseen warfare to then die in anonymity and solitude. In so doing they dedicate their lives to God and pray for the salvation of the world.

“The Lord loves all people, but he loves those that seek Him even more. To His chosen ones the Lord gives such great grace that for love they forsake the whole earth, the whole world, and their souls burn with desire that all people might be saved and see the glory of the Lord.” (Saint Silouan the Athonite)

A large number of these religious are of high intellect and not few have left behind successful professional careers. They are doctors, engineers, musicians, teachers, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, scientists, artists, former police and army officers, and whatever else we might imagine. Some, it is true, are daydreamers and romantics. Others were criminals who have served their time or men who have lost everything to addiction except for hope. The monks here spend most of their day and night attending to the divine services or fulfilling their diaconate or alone in their cells with long prayer ropes made of knotted beads of wool practising the Jesus Prayer otherwise known as the prayer of the heart.[4] The day for the Athonite monk begins at sunset. To attempt to evaluate their vocation through the eyes of logic alone is to miss almost everything and to understand little. One of Aristotle’s truest revelations is that happiness is not just a feeling or sensation, but is the quality of the whole life.[5] The dumbfounding thing is the great majority of these men, for admittedly there are some sad and tragic exceptions, are profoundly joyful and possess an inner peace, a tranquillity of spirit which does radiate visibly from their presence. They are like ghosts from another world with obscure clues and tip-offs for those who journey to visit them in their spiritual ‘hide-out’. But be prepared for these angelomorphic presences are well versed in the game of ‘hide n’ seek’ and it is they who will find you. They are black clad rebels against the established order of decay and corruption who embrace the reality of death together with its promise of transfiguration…of whom the world was not worthy –wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb. 11:38)

I would visit Athos twice and both times with the dreadful feeling that I was one of those ill-fated seeds from the parable of the sower. Sown on rocky ground and scorched. (Mat. 3:8) On the first of these occasions I was still a layperson and student at the Aristotelian, and then a few years later I would return as an ordained clergyman. We go on pilgrimages and visit monasteries for different reasons. Some of us go looking for spiritual counsel; for redemption and for a fresh start; to confess our sins; to escape from our past; to re-new old promises or to make new ones; to learn the fundamentals of prayer. In the end it is simple enough, the ongoing quest for “meaningfulness”.

But do not go anywhere looking specifically for God, or for that once in a life-time ‘religious experience’. It is one of the great mistakes and most of us will make it, just like when we routinely connect beauty to goodness. The psalmist’s counsel is not without its good reason, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10) However, it is the doctrine of Creation that we cannot escape from. Depending on how we understand this teaching and respond to its far-reaching implications, it will largely determine what we learn of the Creator and ourselves when we set out on the journey which might very well lead to Athos or to other places where prayer fills the night skies as if pieces of flickering diamond.

…as I go walkabout the invigorating salt air mixed with the aroma of wild unpicked flowers refreshes my body and spirit. To my right a mythical landscape of undulating peaks and steep ravines which threaten at any moment to spill into the brooding Aegean Sea below. An hour earlier in a distant skete… “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Ps.51:1)… I was awash in the scents of exotic Arabian incense and burning beeswax…

Good Lord, how desperately I have missed these wonderful worlds.

 

[1] Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Penguin Books: England), 1993, pp. 129-132.

[2] Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, (Yale University Press: New Haven), 2002.

[3] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Mount_Athos

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Prayer-Bishop-Kallistos-Ware/dp/1860828930/and+jesus+prayer

[5] http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/