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 His Eminence 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 it. 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 at their root core: 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

These are your terrifying moments of cleansing

Shellharbour, NSW

What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away. This terrible nauseous pain which goes by many names and which in reality answers to none. But, no, your heart must never turn to stone, not even for an hour, for that would be an hour where you would stop loving, where you would lose all capacity to forgive or ask to be forgiven. No, you must never ask for your heart to turn to stone, not even for an hour. Not even for the time it takes to suck in your breath. And so, suffer all of the calumny, the blood-letting rejection, and in the night close your eyes to the horror vacui of your rooms. As tempting it might be to stop the pain, to dry up the flow of tears, to wipe away the bad memories which become increasingly beastly by the minute, do not ever wish for your heart to turn to stone. What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

But this pain like an old guilt does not easily go away. Both have changed you and for a season you will only exist and move about in the shadows. That's why think on those whom you might have comforted on their deathbeds when you whispered into ears straining for light [for their eyes had now shut]: “Let go, it is good, now is the time to leave.” Remember the unmerited grace you have received which has covered the multitude of your iniquities. Be grateful there is water in your home and you will not thirst tonight when your throat burns. Get up, wash your face, and write a loving message to your enemy. Like an Armenian flute suspended over the Syrian Desert. In a little while feel the heavy load upon your heart start to lift, even for a moment. And for now that is enough. Begin again. Like the free-flow juice pressed and crushed from the grape. These are your terrifying moments of cleansing, one way or another, you have earned them. Do not waste them.

The shadows, too, for a while, do not be afraid of them. They would not exist if the light was not after you. It is after you. You cannot outrun it. These prayers have nothing to do with the rubrics as does this pain which has little to do with the nerve fibers. There are the spaces of the entering into your becoming, the unveiling of your true self. From here, out of these all-consuming green fires, you will step out to greet the world.

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

An Afternoon Walk Through Gerringong Cemetery

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Saint Paul); our reflection on the back of a marble tombstone; mine and that of my eldest son; two obituaries walking one alongside the other; Christopher James Cullen died 18th June 1911, Aged 59 Years; Mary Elizabeth Knight died 2nd November 1926, Aged 64 Years; William Gilbert Weir died 18th March 1947, Aged 78 Years; Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying; Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning; Pacific Ocean; large pine trees; scattered wooden benches with plaques; here under this grass; here under these roots; here beneath this earth; cemeteries the only truthful universities; “Gerringong cemetery dedicated 2nd July, 1863”; earliest recorded grave Evan Campbell 12th September 1863;  “early graves run East to West facing the spectacular coastline”; Belinda Street; Percy Street; Fern Street down the road; aromatic incense dripping off flowers; “Suffer the little children to come unto Me” (Matt 19:14); there is no suffering to be compared with that of losing a child; “The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love” (Nicolas Berdyaev); Georgia Louise Gillard [Stillborn] died 13th June 1990; Ernest H. Williams died November 14th 1913, Aged 9 Months; William James Purcill died 29th December 1936, Aged 2 Years; Boat Harbour to our right; whale watch deck; pathway through to Werri Beach; I know what you are thinking my boy; okay, tell me something I don’t know; there are shards of light streaking from the bottom of our shoes; “our reasoning brain is weak, and our tongue is weaker still” (Saint Basil); a family of five having a picnic up ahead; a flock of birds swooping on the ground; a man on his knees wiping away the years from a headrest; two women walking their dogs; a little boy throwing rocks into space; my brother-in-law remembering his wife who left five days ago; “the valley of dry bones” (Ezek 37); Church of England Section; Roman Catholic Section; Interdenominational Section; Burial of Saint Lucy Caravaggio; Death and Life Gustav Klimt; The First Mourning William-Adolphe Bouguereau; John Kelly died 11th June 1918, Aged 64 Years; Mary Kenny died 19th September 1903, Aged 59 Years; James John Quinn died 2nd April 1965, Aged 84 Years; “Christ is Risen from the dead”; “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21); “In the place of Your rest, O Lord, Where all Your Saints repose, Give rest also to the soul of Your Servant, For You alone are immortal” (Trisagion for the Dead); The Messenger Linkin Park; Pente Ellines ston Adi Eleni Vitali; Hurt Johnny Cash; “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Ps 23); this walk is doing the both of us some good; the rain is holding off; the cold invigorates the flesh; “Sweet heart of Jesus, be my love”; “loved and never forgotten”; “much loved by her family”; the general priesthood of all believers; “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” (from The Creed); make sure to note the personal pronoun; “time is constantly pressing upon us” (Schopenhauer); forty years ago I could run up these hills without breaking a sweat; now I reminisce of past centuries; “and one minute closer to death” (Pink Floyd); tonight for you alone I will burn a thousand candles; life is to be lived with joy and compassion; there is no contradiction between particle and wave; Mother loves to fold paper boats; she tells me it is what her Father did; Origami and history of paper folding; here take a sip of water; can we go now; we are always leaving, my boy; “beloved son”; “our loving mother”; “my dear husband”; the car park is emptying; a small truck overflowing with building supplies; the family of five are heading off; an elderly lady with a yellow overcoat arranging flowers; a middle-aged man with shorts looking up into the sky; like Noah waiting for the rain to fall; there are things I cannot tell you yet; Marjorie Simpson died April 1st 1999, Aged 83 Years; Patrick Richard Cronin died 30th August 1948, Aged 69 Years; Elsa Lily Rigby died 22nd December 2003, Aged 91 Years; Battle of the Teutoburg Forest; Battle of Bull Run; Battle of Crucifix Hill; “O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells” (Walt Whitman); “And you as well must die, beloved dust, And all your beauty stand you in no stead” (Edna St. Vincent Millay); “Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it” (Pablo Neruda); step left then right; kick that stone to the side; things need to be made straight; 12… 1234… 12; anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices; Billy’s ‘Pop’ William Miller rests here waiting for the bell; specks of brown earth in our hair; strands of grass caught on the tips of our shoes; windcheaters flutter like butterfly wings; dear Lord allow for our son’s shoulder to heal well; “There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death” (Buddha); I would like a plot here; please not Botany; check online for availability; my jaw still hurts a lot; you will always be remembered Genevieve R.; Brahms’ Triumphlied (Op. 55); Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor; it is mental grammar which allows us to communicate; linguistics was a very difficult subject; music is above and beyond grammar; Scherzo great blocks of accelerating beats; pulsating with irresistible power; “Dance until you shatter yourself” (Rumi); life and death in the search engine; Liberation Through Hearing Bardo Thodol; what comes after; whatever it is which proceeds from human consciousness; the ever-present theme from MASH; please, don’t do it, not today; “the wound is the place where the Light enters you” (Rumi); the flesh returns to the earth; Marc Alexander Hunter died July 17th 1998, Aged 45 years; Carmel Therese Matthews died 11th January 2013, Aged 80 Years; Jeremiah Hanrahan died 18th August 1882, Aged 50 Years; Michael John Harding died 21st November 1953, Aged 62 Years; Kathleen Mary Bergin died 30th January 1942, Aged 74 Years; native seed; citrus caterpillar; star burst; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Apoc 21:4); I saw death for the first time in Piraeus Port; the old man next door with the crook handle walking stick; black dresses intermingling with bright candle light; Hannah Noble died 15th August 1911, Aged 63 Years; Derek Graham Clarke Wishart died 24th January 1991, Aged 27 Years (‘Surveyor and Fisherman’); Lillian Ida Chittick died 15th June 1993, Aged 86 Years; on the news the deluge continues; John Milton’s Paradise Lost; Alighieri Dante’s The Divine ComedySaint John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon; the listeners are waiting; ubiquitous surveillance does not equate with omnipresence; it never will; huge tears over graves; like snowflakes no teardrop is ever the same; we wash our eyes; angels flying diamond kites; black opal; alexandrite; “a true gentleman”; “a bud in heaven”; “she, now, has met her rest”; here I have always been at peace; “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?” (Khalil Gibran); Moonlight Sonata “Let me go there with you” (Yiannis Ritsos); “and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (Adrienne Rich); time to go home now, George; we never were too far away

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2014/10/10/4104454.htm

http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/2580127/gerringong-cemetery-history-to-be-brought-to-life/