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

Farewell to Brian Johns (1936-2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you dear Brian, requiescat in pace.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My parents, George and Helen

Kiama, NSW

The second eldest of Michael and Aspasia’s six children, my Father was born 1924 in the Paphos District of Cyprus. The island third largest in the Mediterranean (after Sicily and Sardinia) has been occupied by a number of major powers throughout history given its strategic location in the Middle East. At the time of George’s birth the island was under British administration and had been since 1878. The independence which came in 1960 with Cyprus’ admission into the British Commonwealth and the tragic events of 1974 (when the island was effectively partitioned into Greek south and Turkish north), were still very much in the future. My Father’s family background was humble. It was typical of the supportive and largely self-sufficient communities which lived in villages and toiled daily on their inherited parcels of agricultural land. My Grandfather after losing most of the family’s estate during the depression of the 1930’s, when large loans where defaulted on him, would eventually become the owner of the town coffee-shop, the kafeneion in Peyia. The old man never recovered from the loss of his “fields” and fell into a long depression from which he suffered for the remainder of his life. When I reflect on my Grandfather and on his turbulent history, I see Richard Harris in that superb Jim Sheridan film The Field (1990): the memorable story of “Bull” McCabe an old man of indomitable spirit fighting for his land. I have often wondered given my own battle with the “black dog” whether ‘Pappous’ descent into melancholia was triggered by his personal circumstances or whether the bad germ was there, already in the blood. Something else of interest to me that on both sides of my dad’s lineage were ancestors who had undertaken pilgrimages to Jerusalem. These intrepid pilgrims the hadjis as they came to be known in the Christian orthodox world (originally an Arabic term of respect for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca), were a source of great pride to their families.

After completing his secondary education at the Greek Gymnasium of Paphos in 1942, a notable achievement for those times, and then taking stints working on building sites and in bauxite mines, the hard-working George would afterwards volunteer with the BMA (British Military Administration) during WWII serving in the Dodecanese and in the Middle East. Afterwards at the conclusion of the war, he made submissions to enter the British police force. He was rejected on account of the indiscriminately applied height restrictions. Dad would half-joke that he was “tall enough to be killed in the service of the Commonwealth but too short to be given a job.” He would in due course arrive in Darwin, Australia, on board an old twin-engine cargo plane on the 28th of October in 1948. The dashing captain of that rickety plane, we were often told, was the fantastically named Captain Spearmint.

Though my Mother (nee Fotineas) was also brought up in a village, born in the Peloponnese, Greece, 1934, her lineage carries a little more intrigue, particularly on her paternal side. The Greek Orthodox priesthood is a dominant factor in her family. Great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all priest-confessors. Another priest, this time a maternal uncle a holder of doctorates in both Theology and Law, would for many years serve as one of the legal counsels to the former Archbishop of Athens and Greece, Seraphim. Much later, too, her only son would be ordained into the priesthood. I mentioned some ‘intrigue’ from Mother's paternal side. This has to do with the possibility that my grandfather’s forefathers belonged to the court of the last crowned Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI of the Palaiologos dynasty. Whatever the truth behind this long-held family tittle-tattle, it does make for some interesting tribe trivia. The young and by all accounts very beautiful girl, Eleni, who learnt to sew and to play the mandolin, was the third of nine children of Father Andreas and Presvytera Stavroula Fotineas. She would arrive upon the shores of her adopted country ten years after her future husband, on board the famous Toscana ocean liner on the 18th of January in 1958. The first port of entry on reaching Australia was Fremantle, Perth. I asked Mother to describe those initial impressions. "A great numbness," she said. "And then the realization that it was all about to begin." Her first job was as an ironing lady with Lawrence Dry Cleaners in Forest Lodge.

George and Helen were married on the 19th of July in 1959 in the church of the Dormition on Abercrombie Street, Redfern. It was also the church of my baptism.

­From each of my parents I inherited some evident traits, for instance my Father’s ‘never say die’ attitude, and my Mother’s strong inclination towards compassion. Other traits or characteristics were evidently learnt behaviours by way of observation. Much discussion has centred about this question: what part of us is inherited and what learnt? What is the composite of our psychological make-up? Philosophers, as well as geneticists, are fascinated by this question. Perhaps the two, that which is inherited and that which is learnt cannot be separated, like the two strands of DNA which are wound around each other into a double helix.