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.

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

Random Thoughts

In the first instance some random thoughts to myself:

Flower-Yellow-Wood-370256.jpg

Oh sweetest Jesus to exist in that moment when we act and are moved by selfless love alone.

Pure self-love is to practise compassion on your dying self.

Pure selfless love is difficult to practise because like light it reveals all which is not clean in our hearts. For a season this divine disclosure can hurt more than physical pain.

We shall be given a second chance to embrace the magnificence of humility as our death draws near. Let us hope our deaths are not sudden.

Few things are more beneficial for the soul than to pray for our adversaries that they might outlive and outshine us, but it is not easy and the revelation of that hour might disappear for many years.

We cannot practise love or any of the virtues outside our encounter with the other. Your spouse, your neighbour, the brother or sister at the check-out counter, the cook in the café, and particularly those who might will us harm.

Vengeance clouds the mind and is a sure step to a catastrophe. It has nothing to do with justice.

It is oftentimes more difficult to forgive ourselves than to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Outside our Creator nobody knows the depth and extent of our transgressions better than I who has committed them. So we continue to unnecessarily punish ourselves and without mercy.

It is a temptation which goes under many names, to dismiss the spiritual insights of those outside our own community of believers, but in so doing we would hold to no account the beckoning call of the Holy Ghost to all His children.

If we cannot acknowledge the Creator in the presence of our brother and sister through acts of charity and mercy, we would have accomplished nothing even if we should have gained the whole world.

Hold no high expectations from people, and particularly from those nearest to you, for similarly to you they are struggling and fighting to survive. This is one of the surest ways to peace, to recollect and to reflect upon our shared moral infirmity. To meditate upon our common brokenness.

It is important to remember the distinction between solitude [which is good] and isolation [which is bad]. Such is the difference as is between angels and demons. There can be community in solitude, but not in isolation.

Do not be deceived by those sleek presentations which promise fast paths to ‘inner knowledge’. In the beginning the path to inner knowledge is strewn with difficulties and it can be offending and brutal. At the start it is not at all comely to look at. Few would want to have anything to do with it.

The search for truth does not end, it starts afresh from a higher vantage point as revelation increases. We must be careful that ‘truth’ does not become our comfortable resting bed.

Belief comes before faith, like prayer comes before the heart which doubts.

Philosophy cannot teach us how to pray or to offer up ourselves as a living sacrifice. But prayer can reveal the truth of philosophy to us.

Truth and interior silence are synonyms. Noise is the great enemy.

Ego and pride will be the last to go. “Who am I?” When you are gone the world will go on without you. Who will weep for you?

Hope is not an illusion or a fantasy. I can place my trust in hope but not in an illusion or a fantasy.

The most useful tears are those that dry like herbs.

Despair, too, like all things, it will pass. It is not who you are, it is a response to those painful things which presently surround you. 

To practise discernment is to recognise that alongside the dumbfounding beauty of the world there also exists dreadful wickedness. And then to be able to judge well between the two.

To contemplate upon the great mystery of existence, and to look inwardly to discover that Creation has not stopped. You are aflame with stardust.

Compassion is the key to unlocking the deeper mysteries of love.

Gift your neighbour the benefit of the doubt and a thousand lives will be saved.

MGM

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