In my bedroom early morning hours January 7th 2018

Gerringong, NSW

The heat almost unbearable tonight; like the years lost to phantasms; memories which mock till sucked dry; the roundness of my back a parachute; this body once carved from Greek marble; the teasing of a spirit which stays young; the soft flesh and decay of teeth; tonight this is not who I am; tonight I am a god smearing moonlight on my face; I am a poet until the sunrise; and my hair is thick and hiding a multitude of stories; Augustine of Hippo “ever-present eternity”; “[y]et the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness” (Khalil Gibran); “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise” (Dan. 12:1); I hear the waves crashing onto the shore; years ago the Pacific Ocean almost claimed me; the water has been after me since the womb; vodka; voda; little water; you can drift off nicely with a huge ear; tympanic membrane; Bugs Bunny “Rabbit of Seville”; Syd Barrett busking in Paris before his conflagration; Estas Tonne’s burning fingers whirling dervishes in Madrid; the blind guitar player on Piccadilly Circus looks my way; word association associative patterns; “[w]ild, wild horses we’ll ride them some day” (The Rolling Stones); Eleni wakes up to a nightmare; J.P. Morgan; the ‘1907 Panic’; the Federal Reserve System; do understand it is a private trust; this generation has been reeling in the darkness; algorithms are without soul; ‘number crushing’ will be reversed; to the right on top my side drawer four books; The Handmaid’s Tale; Titus Andronicus; The Robots of Dawn; David Brooks' The Fern Tattoo; to the left on top my side drawer; the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece; a pair of blue crystal angels; a prayer rope; a Rubics cube; a bronze owl from Istanbul; the stories from Paphos almost done; I enjoyed drafting these on the mountain; I might send them to Westerly; I am nodding off; I will sleep for a few hours; here on this bed you were conceived; 5.47 AM; “From bed and sleep hast Thou raised me up”; dreamt of my Father sitting on a ledge in his suit; episodic memory; aromatic incense; Lily of Aegina; 2 charcoal pieces; Surrealism and the unconscious; Salvadore Dali (1904-1989);  camouflage; concealing colouration; “[y]ou can close your eyes to reality but not to memories” (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec); it is a little cooler; remnants will be left behind; my pillow wet like London rain; I am getting a new laptop; I wish I did not need one; nobody needs Facebook; great alphabets are hidden in our backyard; “[o]nly the body remembers stillness”; Elvia Garcia Ardalani; back soon must quench my thirst; chilled tomato juice; savoury crackers and cheddar cheese; a short black; Boat Harbour Rock Pool; Seven Mile Beach; Cathedral Rocks; midnight Christmas services the Julian Calendar; typewriter patented on this day (1714); total fire bans are in place; motifs return in different keys; they come back on their head; Ludwig van Beethoven; Claude Debussy; Jon Lord; we are all connected; all things touch; except the “internet of things” which has no soul; but Charles Bukowski has soul (1920-1994); Iranian oil tanker fire leaves 32 missing;  “Aussie Flu” outbreak; Donald Trump ‘absolutely’ would talk with Kim Jong-Un; Titus Andronicus; pulp fiction; “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?” (Titus Andronicus); redemption; “the action of being saved”; recovery; Katina and the little ones at the beach; George gone fishing; my left leg folded under the right has gone to sleep; Tito Colliander (1904-1989); The Way of the Ascetics; searching for faith in a disbelieving world; Pythagoras’ golden thigh; speak to me great river; bite the head off the old serpent; 10:07 AM; I will take a shower; a shower like a baptism promises re-birth; healed in the waters of the Pool of Siloam and the Gihon Spring; blue sundew; purple garlic; dark orange; the dyers guild protected their secrets closely; the porcelain guild even more; my guardian angel above and beyond; Uberveillance is nearer than I thought; who will be able to resist; save your children; blood pressure 157/95; pressure in large arteries; sphygmomanometer; the explosion of colour; diffuse nebulae; interstellar matter; second breakfast: Melba toast, feta cheese, black olives, and a drop of Sangiovese; drafted a poem; revised two translations; listened to Loreena McKennitt; leafed through some old photographs; joyful-sorrow; translate to ‘double-edged sword’; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIS3Y-lZStU;  “I made my song a coat” (W. B. Yeats); Red Mashad Persian Rug; the Blueface Angelfish will dazzle in the Indo-Pacific; diamonds rain down on the surface of Jupiter; Katina and the little ones have returned; George is still with Pops; our neighbours mowing the lawns; the shrieking of Galahs; much cooler and “partly cloudy”; stratus; cumulus; stratocumulous; a postcard from Singapore arrived two days ago; a letter from the bank; an invitation to a wedding; remember Mary Wollstonecraft; she died giving birth to her daughter; the other Mary who wrote Frankenstein; “[i]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”; back later don’t go away; 9:47 PM; “The day has passed, and I give You thanks, Lord”; another ritual washing; at least the flesh will be clean; earlier a bowl of lentil soup, onion, olives, with crusty bread; a tall cold beer; a mild cigar; a secure roof; unqualified love; blessings beyond words and so my heart be silent and do not complain; “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever” (Ps.136); belief is action and movement; belief is not dogmatic it is ongoing counsel through the darkness; “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24); Jeremy bouncing a ball downstairs; Eleni drawing pictures in the big room; Frida Kahlo (1907-1954); look on the underside of the image; a magical realist acquainted with grief; I am upstairs in the bedroom; “Beam me up, Scotty” (Star Trek); Google maps; ‘view or edit your timeline’; what will be the truth; to the right of me the bathroom; to the left of me the walk-in wardrobe; and to the front of me “[t]wo roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Robert Frost); Siccar Point; time split into many points; creation and evolution; blue whale; white whale; grey whale; it invariably comes down to triggers; “Stories that educate and inspire those with OCD” (Stuart Ralph); tap… tap… Tao; the Titanic burned; the iceberg came after; like the new world we are building; “dance me to the end of love” (Leonard Cohen); Salome; Isadora Duncan; Martha Graham; chasse triple step; lock step; feather step; Rabindranath Tagore; Nandalal Bose; Niranjan Bhagat; contextual modernism; orchid; lotus; bleeding heart; last week I dreamt I was wrestling with myself; I had the ‘other’ in a tight headlock; subdue that which wars within you; courage; enlightenment; collapsing stars and gamma-ray bursts; all good for now; the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; from the shadow of death; light will dawn; it all goes too quick, the little bird lamented; let us cry together tonight.

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

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/

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