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

The Old Man from Bucharest

September 12th, 2011

Bucharest, Romania

A sharp glance to the left and there he was, my old man.

Earlier today on my morning walk I noticed a charismatic looking old man sitting on the steps leading down to the Piata Romana train terminal. As my eyes fell on him I straightaway felt that pleasurable warmth we might feel when we see a loved one coming nearer from the distance. “Hullo old man”, I whispered to myself, “we two have met before.” He was tall, thin, with a frowzy silvery beard, and ascetic in his appearance. I would guess his age somewhere in the seventies. He was wearing a long brown coat which fell below the knees and which reminded me of a huge poster I had once seen in Istanbul of Turkmenistan aksakals. Walking on I decided to take a seat at the nearby bus-stop before heading to the hotel for a late breakfast and a change of shirt. Within a few minutes I sensed a welcome presence approaching to share my bench. A sharp glance to the left and there he was, my old man. Thereupon I also noticed the eyes; a dark shade of green and a little sunken. They were peaceful, comprehending eyes. I felt them looking into me, through and past the boundaries of my flesh. As I have felt before with the elders of the desert. We stayed together, the old man and me, for the better part of two hours. We sat quietly observing the world and listening to the stories. Now and then we turned to look at each other. He then left disappearing into the busy street. Who was he and where did he go, Michael? I would think our phlegmatic Irishman Samuel Beckett would have liked this picture. We are all waiting. The not too easy task is to identify things and to give them their name.

N.B. The image in this entry is not of the old man in the story. After much searching online this striking photograph I have added here is amazingly close. My beautiful "old man" would not permit for me to take his photograph. MGM

Draft for a little story after a chance encounter

An old man stepped out into the bright light and headed towards Piata Romana. He looked about with the gaze of the barn-owl and walked off into the direction of the bus-stop where others were also waiting. His disorganized flowing silvery beard and his balding head did not detract from the compelling loveliness of his countenance. Though he could have done with a good scrubbing and his clothes were in need of a wash, there was yet this ‘cleanliness’ about him that you would not have considered him in any manner soiled. The younger man with the laptop in his hands, next to whom the old man from Bucharest sat to rest, was also balding but was clean shaven for his time had not yet come. The old man was carrying a small suitcase. “They usually do” the younger man thought to himself, “…these types of fellows seem to always be carrying suitcases and do not go for shoe-laces either.” The younger man, the one whose time had not yet come, peered into the suitcase which was held together by two large luggage straps. He spotted a fleece blanket of different colours and a gold-leaf trumpet. He also thought he could make out a plume of white feathers. The old man and the younger man exchanged glances, each accepting and recognizing the presence of the other. Their eyes scanned the crowd with their heads moving in unison left to right, up and down, precisely as the moment would require. Now and then their attention was lost to a robin or to a leaf from the black locust. And the old man and the younger man would look at each other, acknowledging the beauty in the world which goes by many names. The younger man offered the old man a Romanian pretzel; he took it without saying a word except to nod his head in approval. The old man from Bucharest with the disorganized flowing silvery beard reached into his torn coat and pulled out a small monumental tree. He then jumped to his feet and with episcopal dignity lowered his head and touched his chest with his right hand. The younger man did the same. But the old man did not leave until the younger man took off his shoes and offered them to the outstretched hands which, from the wrist up, were covered in thick white down.

Realizing the divine within

Gerringong, NSW

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

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

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

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

[1] Saint Anselm’s Proslogion, Preface.

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

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

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

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