Virtue as the Health of Mankind

The Fathers of the Church agree that man’s original state, prior to the Fall from grace, consisted of man—made in the image and likeness of God. Not that man is no longer, following the Fall, a being made in the image and likeness of his Creator, but prior to the Fall man lived out this reality in all of its fullness whereas after the Fall, man retains the image but essentially has lost the likeness.

In this original state, furthermore, man lived free from sin and free from illness and death. These all being a result of the Fall of Mankind. So that illness and death can be seen as a consequence of the Fall and a direct manifestation of man’s turning away from God whereas prior to this man lived naturally in a state of health, living virtuously and without the specter of death plaguing him.

The original state was that of an ideal human nature, “a synergy of Adam’s free will and of divine grace” (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.10). Man was created with the intention that he use his free will in order to attain to ever greater realms of “likeness” with his Creator, so that he might attain ever higher levels and degrees of “perfection”. This ideal human nature constituted the health of his being in soul and in body.

Man was originally oriented towards God in all of his being, and he was created to find his fulfillment only in God (Therapy, vol.1, p.10). Fulfillment in God was the original condition of man’s perfect health, and it was the content and definition of man’s state of health.

To facilitate man’s perfection, God created man with spiritual faculties which he was to use in seeking deeper and greater relationship with his Creator. He was given an intellect capable of knowing God, a free will enabling him to direct his whole being towards God, and desire and love allowing him to be united to God (vol.1, p.15). When man turned these natural faculties away from their natural aim, that of God, he lost his natural state of health along with his ability to know God.

Man’s perfect health is achieved when all of his faculties are directed and exerted with God as their goal; because this aligns with man’s nature and is the fulfillment of the faculties that God implanted naturally within man. God, as the goal of man, is not an unnatural end, but rather is the original and entire purpose and end of man.

Sin, or separation from God, consists in man turning away from Him as the goal, missing the mark as we often hear sin described as, and illness is the result—spiritual illness of course, but also emotional, mental and physical. All illness traces its origins to mankind’s turning away from God.

Healing consists in turning all of man’s faculties back towards God again (vol.1, p.11). Not that this results in the immediate healing of every disease, but it forms a basis, a foundation for mankind’s health.

Man was made perfect, but only relatively perfect; he was made with potential to attain greater perfection through the alignment of his faculties with God’s will and grace (vol.1, p.16). In this way man, as the image of God, was intended to grow in “likeness” to God by the activity of his faculties directed towards God as his end.

Man was made virtuous, but with the potential to grow in virtue. Mankind’s virtue was made in the image of God but with the capacity to develop in participation with God’s plan and in this way man would grow in God’s likeness (vol.1, p.17). Sin has separated man from God’s plan but virtue enables man to find his way back.

“Be Holy, as I am Holy” (Leviticus 20:26) and “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God admonishes and encourages mankind to remember and to return to his original purpose and to his original health.

The Fathers of the Church describe man’s activity before the Fall, as that in which man prayed continually, he praised and glorified God ceaselessly, contemplating God always, and acting as an intermediary between the created world and uncreated God (vol.1, p.19). Mankind’s joy and delight consisted of contemplating God through the creation; man didn’t seek his satisfaction and happiness in creation alone, or apart from God, but rather by knowing God through His creation. In this constant awareness and contemplation of God, as manifested in the created world, man experienced sweetness, delight, joy and bliss (vol.1, p.20).

Though mankind as a whole is far from living this way now, after the Fall—he is still created in God’s image, and with this same purpose and potential to achieve God’s likeness. Before the Fall man lived according to the virtues and didn’t know illness (vol.1, p.21), after the Fall, man knows illness and death, but can still learn virtue again, and follow in this path to greater wholeness, even if not to perfect health again in this life.

Virtue still represents health in mankind. “What health is for the living body, virtue is with respect to the soul” (St Maximus the Confessor) (p.35). The Fall of mankind puts man in a much more difficult position, under sin and the penalty of death, however, in another sense it has changed nothing insofar as who and what mankind is and was we are made to be; mankind is still a creature created in the image and likeness of God, with the potential to act freely in accord with God’s will and His grace.

“Only by practicing the virtues, and in particular their crown—compassion—is man, made capable of the knowledge/spiritual contemplation in which the spirit, but also his other faculties, exert themselves in accordance with their nature’s goal” (p.35). Love is the ultimate health of mankind—God is love—and through selfless love, compassion, mankind can attain to health of spirit, mind and body enroute to his goal—union with God.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol.1. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS

Steps To Heal Sadness & Anger

The passion of sadness develops through man’s misuse of the virtuous, godly sadness which was given to man for the purpose of repentance and to rid us of the evil within us (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.186). This passion comes about as man turns from the proper use of sadness, towards the wrong use of it, whereby he/she is overcome by emotions and thoughts detrimental to his/her health. This passion generally arises over the loss of sensual things, material goods, or by way of unfulfilled pleasures and desires (Therapy, vol.1, p.186). However, in addition, more than many other of the passions, pathological sadness also comes about through demonic activity, and can appear to come out of nowhere, inexplicably (vol.1, p.187). Since this sadness often comes about by an attachment to worldly things, an attachment to earthly life, anything that threatens this life can be a source of sadness, such as illness and of course, death (vol.1, p.188).

Another common and strong link to sadness is the related passion of anger, and this passion also is a source of sadness. Sadness often follows on the heels of anger (vol.1, p.189). Man misuses his anger by directing it outward towards others and because of this he feels sadness and isolation; he becomes alienated from others and from God.

Sadness is also man’s response to feeling himself under attack in any way that hurts his self-love, and which injures his image of himself; in this way when pride and vanity are injured man responds both with anger and also with sadness (vol.1, p.189). As these feelings develop, man will also exhibit additional symptoms, related feelings and expressions of despair, spitefulness, resentment, bitterness, rancor and impatience which he then will direct upon others. “For this reason, sadness greatly disturbs man’s relationship with his neighbor” (vol.1, pp.193-194).

As with all of the passions, the treatment for sadness is two-fold and involves turning away from the passion, as a vice, and simultaneously turning towards the associated virtue (vol.2, part 4). The healing of passions involves making the right use of the original gift that God gave to man, directing the gift in the proper direction and acting upon it in the correct way. As with other passions, the healing of sadness first requires that the person desires to be healed, because often people derive pleasure from this passion, they take delight in sadness (vol.3, p.49).

The Fathers offer many solutions or therapies for sadness, few of which are easy, particularly their recommendation to renounce carnal desires and pleasures and to cultivate a detachment from worldly things and attitudes (vol.3, p.50). The idea being that if one is indifferent to something then there can be no morbid sorrow over the loss of anything. However, at the same time as one detaches from all earthy cares one should simultaneously replace this sadness associated with the loss of everything earthly, with the virtuous sadness which arises from the realization of our spiritual poverty (vol.3, p.50). Virtuous sadness, compunction and grief at being separated from God, being deprived of spiritual goods and the negative effects of our sins help heal us of the passion of sadness (vol.3, p.55).

Also, the Fathers advise anyone afflicted with the passion of sadness to cultivate a disdain for worldly honors and glory, since the desire for these things excites our pride and vanity and this is a deep source of human sadness (vol.3, p.51). In place of seeking accolades one should foster humility by seeking abasement. And by accusing ourselves and judging ourselves, we liberate ourselves from sadness, by pulling a source of sadness (pride) out from under it (vol.3, p.53).

Since sadness alienates the sufferer and often causes them to seek isolation it is beneficial for the healing of sadness to be in the company of others; human companionship can help with healing sadness (vol.3, p.52). Additionally, the sufferer of sadness, in the company of a spiritual father, or other compassionate presence can find healing by the administration of consoling words, and by spiritual discourse which elevates, enlightens and mollifies the severity of sorrowful thoughts (vol.3, p.53).

While all of the aforementioned remedies for sadness are important and helpful, perhaps the most efficacious method for the healing of sadness is prayer. “Prayer, in all its forms, forms the main cure for sadness, no matter the latter’s source. Prayer is the antidote for sadness and discouragement,” especially prayer of the heart accompanied with vigilance and attentiveness to recognize and guard against negative or demonic thoughts (vol.3, p.54). And the one who suffers from sadness, while they pray first for themselves, they should also cultivate prayer for others, for the whole world, for out of this act of charity and love one can destroy the effects of passionate sadness (vol.3, p.71).

Closely related to sadness is the passion of anger and, like sadness, it is by the misuse of the anger that man develops this passion. God originally gave man anger to fight against sin and temptation and this was its sole purpose (vol.1, p.203). Instead, we direct our anger against one another and thereby create untold suffering. From this misdirection of our anger we develop bad moods, irritation, impatience, indignation, mockery and scoffing towards our neighbor (vol.1, p.204). We rejoice at other’s misfortunes, and become sad at the successes of those we don’t like, and this is completely backwards to how we were created to be—we take pleasure in our anger, and our pleasures become the cause of our anger; for we put pleasure ahead of loving our neighbor (vol.1, p.206).

It is our attachment to ourselves and our attachment to material resources, our self-love, our pride and vanity that cause our anger (vol.1, p.207) and then we become attached to our anger, and in time our anger overwhelms us; man begins to act like a crazy person, irrational and incapable of reasoned thought (vol.1, p.210).

Anger cuts man off from relationship with God, and corrupts our likeness to the divine image. As this occurs, the Holy Spirit retreats and man is thrust into spiritual darkness, the mind becomes incapable of contemplation (vol.1, p.214).  Anger obstructs our prayers, destroys our love for one another, and is the cause of spiritual death in man (vol.1, p.215), anger then leads man on to timidity, apathy, sadness and further pridefulness (vol.1, p.216).

Instead, anger was designed and given by God to draw man closer to Him, by directing man’s anger against anything that came between man and God—evil, temptation, sinfulness etc. In order to heal man of the passion of anger and restore the proper use and function of anger, the Fathers of the Church recommend the cultivation of humility (vol.3, p.85), and the giving of money and food to the poor (vol.3, p.83).

Acts of service, love of others, compassion and self-abasement are sure-fire ways to subvert our pride and vanity and terminate the sadness and anger that arises from our self-love; a healthy love of our neighbor and of God cures us of our unhealthy love of ourselves.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol. 1-3. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS

Allez, Alleys, Allez

When we meet upon this busy street,

and look each other in the eye,

we make a covenant together against oblivion.

If only for the moment.

 

The lights, the noise,

the vendors selling—

brands and names—

assurances and comforts.

 

What, were we to turn aside,

going down that darkened alley,

would we survive, and are we—still alive?

If we fade into that darkened disappearing,

will we exist, anymore?

 

Like leaves fallen into deep waters,

their brilliance flashing in the sunlight,

fluttering downward, deeper,

and then no more?

 

Who greets us in those darkened depths,

would Christ meet us at the bottom?

 

Is there rest within,

or endless floating, whirling—

stirred up and moving,

moving, and moving.

 

We become old men and women,

walking quietly to our ends.

Smiling at the sunshine,

and at the laughing children—

seeing, but unseen—

our beings vanish into this light,

disappearing down the alleys.

 

Populating busy streets no more.

We go, to the alleys, we go.

 

~FS

Hypostatic Theology & YOU

Father Sophrony expands upon the hypostatic theology of earlier church fathers by relating it to the processes of deification of mankind. The Godhead can be defined as a union of three hypostases, three unique persons in a loving union, each bearing the totality of the other two, and yet at the same time maintaining their own individual and unique characteristics.

Together, the three persons, or hypostases, of the Godhead form the complete Godhead, and yet individually they are also fully God. And the fundamental aspect of this relationship between them is that of love—a self-sacrificing, self-emptying kind of love. Most importantly, for humanity, is the sacrificial and obedient love that the Son, Jesus Christ, embodies in His love for the Father. Jesus does His Father’s will, He doesn’t act of His own, or for His own purposes, but only for the purposes of His Father.

This is important for mankind because it shows the template for our own existence. Were God only God, and man only man, there would be no relationship between the hypostatic characteristics of God and those of mankind. But man however, has been created in the image and likeness of God, and God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Therefore God has imparted to man the potential to be like Him, to be divine, and to have a godlike life. This means that we can love just as God loves, and this is the goal and purpose of mankind.

The sad and profound consequence of the fall is that man is alienated from God and from other human beings. He sees himself set apart from others in a competition for resources; love, food, other material comforts and emotional satisfactions. While man lives in this way, enslaved to his physical and material impulses he remains divorced from his true nature and the essence of himself. In many ways he is not truly human yet, but living more like a beast satisfying his carnal nature. It is only God’s grace, through the person of Jesus Christ, which can lift man out of this morass, and raise him to the divine heights which he was originally created to experience.

Fallen, sinful man retains the image of God within himself but is far from manifesting the likeness of God. This process of attaining the likeness of God is the process of deification which occurs over the lifetime of the follower of Christ, and is the uncovering of the hypostatic reality, the true personhood, of each human being. A man discovers his own hypostasis as he sheds his false self—his small self—made up of pride and ambitions, vanity, and every other type of passions which rage within him.

Most importantly man learns true humility and repents of his former life. From these initial acts of self-emptying, which must be undertaken again and again throughout his life, he opens himself to the spirit of God, or rather God’s grace opens man, and enables him to turn from his old man towards his new regenerated man, towards his true hypostasis.  Man’s true self is only found when he discovers himself in the image and likeness of God.

The life of man is wrapped up in the life of Christ. As Jesus did His Father’s will, so we are intended to be obedient to Christ. His commands show us the way to our true personhood. His life is an example and a template for us, as he shows us how to live a life of obedience, a life of self-sacrifice, and a life of love towards others—towards the Father, and towards all of humanity. As we allow our minds to be transformed by the workings of the Holy Spirit, our center of existence moves outward, away from our self-centeredness towards an other-centeredness. We begin to love God more purely, and to love others as ourselves. We come to understand the love that God has for us, and because He first loved us, we begin to love more as well.

Father Sophrony teaches that the hypostasis of the Son and His earthly life can teach us everything we need to know about our own hypostasis; we can understand ourselves in light of Christ. His life of self-emptying; personally taking on humble humanity even though He is God Himself, His prayer for all mankind and His obedience to God in the garden of Gethsemane even crying tears of blood, and His ultimate selflessness in suffering upon the cross and in His descent into Hell, all show us the way that is intended for us as well. Our fulfillment is in learning His love, and taking His way upon ourselves as well, following in the way of the cross.

Father Sophrony teaches that mankind is unified, each individual being a complete representation of the entire race past, present and future, in much the same way that each hypostasis of the trinity encompasses the entire Godhead. Therefore as each of us comes to know the truth of himself, his hypostatic reality, he simultaneously comes to know and understand all of mankind. So we can love mankind like Christ loves us, bringing all of mankind into our sphere of concern. We can pray as Christ prays, for the whole ‘Adam’ as Father Sophrony puts it, meaning the whole of humanity. In fact, this is the inevitable result of deification, because, as we become in the likeness of the Godhead, we lose our alienation and our self-orientation, and we are reoriented outwardly, manifesting love for all others, because this is the essence and nature of God, and therefore it is also the essence and nature of man, who is made in God’s image and likeness.

~FS

 

Reflections on The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life

Elder Sophrony teaches that there are three stages in the spiritual life for anyone embarking on the spiritual journey. While he maintains that everyone’s path is unique and each individual’s path has particular details specific to each person, still these three basic stages occur for everyone, in some way or another, because they are true to the human experience, and they are characteristic of God’s plan for mankind.

God desires for man to use his free will to seek Him, and to love Him. But in man’s fallen state, as slaves to sin, man needs God’s help and strength to achieve this. God’s grace empowers man to accomplish God’s plan for man. Without this grace man will remain a slave to sin. So it is that the first stage of the spiritual path, as described by Elder Sophrony, involves the gift of grace showered upon man. Elder Sophrony likens this first stage to the miracle of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Remember, 44), it is the power of God enabling us to cross over from enslavement to sin into freedom of union with God.

This first spiritual stage isn’t just metaphorical, or simply symbolic, but has a reality in time and space for each believer. Elder Sophrony says that in most cases it occurs at the time of our baptism, whether as children or as adults, and that this stage lasts from a very short period of time, to as many as about seven years, depending upon the individual and God’s plan for them. It is marked by an abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and through increased gifts of spiritual ability. It is a time when we feel His presence without difficulty and when we experience His responses to our pleas, to our prayers, in more vivid and tangible ways. This first stage is a time of encouragement to help spur us on to live the spiritual life, and to make efforts to live according to His commands. During this first stage, the believer doesn’t yet meet with many obstructions or difficulties to his spiritual progress, or if he does meet with these, God’s presence and grace give the believer extra ability to overcome and find victory. In a sense, stage one is a time when we still have our training wheels on, and this helps us from falling.

But because of God’s desire that we love him freely, and of our own accord, this first stage eventually gives way to the second stage, in which He withdraws his abundance of grace from us in order that we learn to make spiritual progress, by degrees, more through our own efforts and less through His, although we never can do this entirely without His help. According to Elder Sophrony this second stage is typically of the longest duration, often making up the bulk of our lives. It is comprised of our spiritual struggles and battles against the passions, and it is especially intended by God as the time when we must learn first-hand true and deep humility, repentance, and additionally when we practice spiritual endurance and perseverance.  The second stage is the believer’s time in the wilderness when he may call upon God and not experience His answer, when he may seek the Lord and yet fail to feel His presence. It is also a dangerous time when the believer can easily fall aside into despondency or even into rebellion to some degree. Here we may find ourselves in a metaphorical desert, a spiritual dry place, and apparently dead. The second stage is a difficult period, a time of testing in which we seemingly tread forward alone, without help. Even so God does not abandon us entirely, and this time also may be marked by moments of encouragement, divine appearances, and simple miracles to help us on our way. Here the training wheels have been taken off and we can fall, we likely will from time to time, but God wants it this way, that we learn to act in our own power, using the gifts He has given us, even when there seems to be no victory in sight. In this way we slowly make the spiritual life our own, we discover depths of humility through the suffering we experience, and we develop a life of repentance, turning towards God again and again and again.

Finally, eventually the believer experiences the third stage of the spiritual life. Elder Sophrony explains that for most people this stage is encountered near, or at the end of our earthly lives. Therefore, it is a relatively short period as compared especially with the second stage. In this stage the believer experiences a return to the abundant grace he experienced in the first stage, but this time he is a full participant in his this life of the spirit whereas before, he was merely enjoying the benefits of God’s abundant mercies and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Now, because of his trials and his perseverance through those trials as he experienced them in the second stage, he has learned humility and repentance, and the other virtues, which allow him to act freely in obedience to the commands of the Lord. He now experiences the sweetness of life in union with God, and has aligned his human will with the great will of God.

Personally, I have a vivid experience and memory of the first stage, inclusive of my baptism and lasting for about three years or so following that. Currently, I am in the midst of the second stage. And I have hope for the arrival of the third stage someday in my future. Actually, I am very grateful to Elder Sophrony for having articulated these stages, thereby helping me to understand the process, so as not to lose heart during the current time of struggle and of testing.

Baptism is an outpouring of abundant grace. I remember a tangible and overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit during my Chrismation. Following this, my prayer life was vibrantly alive, I felt God very close to me, and out of my daily prayers I seemed to be given spiritual insights about many mysteries, and many subtle aspects of spirituality, which I wrote about in poems and in verse. For several years I was a prolific writer, sometimes writing two or three poems in a day, and it felt as if they were just given to me, that I was merely taking dictation, hardly making any revisions. I could write a fairly complex poem in ten or fifteen minutes without any changes to it.  And through all of these early years I was certain that the Holy Spirit walked beside me, or lived through me, it was just a simple but tangible experience I had, which amounted to a certainty of His presence within me. During this time God did actually sometimes still abandon me for short periods of time, perhaps a day or several days, but even as this occurred I still had a strong impulse to pray and seek Him, that He still empowered me by His grace to seek Him with determination and zeal. So that even though I experienced abandonment during this first stage, it was of a different character and degree than I do now, in the midst of the second stage; I look back on those times as ‘mini-abandonments’, or ‘practice abandonments’, whereas now they appear to me to be of much longer duration and of greater depth and difficulty. And now as I live through the second stage, I don’t have as ready and easy access to the zeal and inner desire to seek God that I previously had by His grace; so that now when I can’t find him, I oftentimes stop looking for Him.

In fact, sometimes I prefer many other things to Him. I get tired of trying to search for Him and of remaining steadfast on the spiritual path. Instead, I enjoy the pleasures of the moment, the visceral and physical pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. Part of me feels ashamed of this, and I think how far I’ve fallen.  I remember falling in the past, and how it stimulated me to get back up and try harder. That is a characteristic of the first stage I think. For me, a characteristic of the second stage is that when I have fallen, I lose interest and walk away.

I think, for many Christians who have no understanding or expectation of the arrival of this second stage they could be blindsided by it, and the subsequent confusion over their sudden lack of ‘grace’, could lead many to abandon their faith altogether, or if not that, it could at least lead them into feelings of despair or despondency over their sudden loss of God’s presence. Similarly, if they then have no expectation of finding their way to the third stage, with its renewed abundance of grace, they could lose hope altogether and also fall away from the spiritual life entirely; erroneously thinking there is ‘nothing’ to it, that life with God is a mirage, and possibly even doubting their initial experiences of God’s presence which they had felt during the period of their first stage.

Knowledge of Elder Sophrony’s three stages of the spiritual life can assist us in maintaining perspective during the inevitable dry spells in our spiritual life, and can help us persevere through these challenges and trials as we journey into deeper relationship with God. Likewise, an understanding of these stages can provide the foundation we need for counseling other believers when they encounter the difficulties inherent in the second stage, and for offering encouragement to them that there is a third stage on their horizon.

~FS

 

 

May Grace Settle Me

Please Lord, in your loving-kindness, show me my wickedness. For even in my love, I perceive my hatred towards You. All of the wise, who have come before me, have humbled themselves before you; so why should I consider myself better than they? No, I am not humble; I hide my faults, and justify myself before You, and before men.

Please Lord, in your mercy, show me my sin and let me see my transgressions against You, so that I can understand Your justice, and know the truth of my afflictions; so that I may forestall my descent, and halt my flight away from Your presence.

In my self-satisfaction, I have devised distractions to buttress my self-image. In my folly, I have grown complacent because of entertainments, which persuade me of my virtue. I prefer any lie, that will assure me of my own righteousness, against Your truth which may reveal my corruption.

The foolish hate their Maker and go their own way. They deny His existence in their hearts and make themselves orphans. And when the day of affliction comes upon them, who can they turn to but to themselves, or to those as foolish as they are? And what help will be found in this foolishness?

Please Lord, rescue me from my foolishness and save me from myself. I am at ease every day, content and proud, but beneath this veneer I am in turmoil, there is no soundness in my soul. There is no peace in my being. I wear wit, irony, cleverness and vanity like garments to hide my inner poverty of spirit. I am like a beggar in stolen clothing.

Lord, I plead for your absolute forgiveness; help me to turn back to You. Liberate me from the chains of my smug morality, and show me Your face, that I may see my own face more clearly. Give me a true heart of tears that can wash my innermost being clean. May Your grace settle me.

I am like a wild dog, snarling and vicious, when confronted by pain. But I desire to be docile and pliable to Your will—transcending my intractable pride, so common and ugly, so human and common—to be obedient to what is greater than I; ever-ready to love others in the same manner that You have loved me.

~FS

To Penetrate the Life of Another

It was a late summer day. Warm, with a hint of autumn in the breeze. I was in Pittsburgh with some time to spare, and had found my way, accompanied by a fellow traveler, to a public square in the heart of downtown. Our flight home was later that afternoon, so we had a few hours to get a bite of lunch, enjoy a beer, and take in a few sights. We were sitting outside Primanti Brothers—a popular local sandwich shop situated against the southern edge of the square—and I was reflecting on an encounter I had had just moments earlier.

We had been standing in line outside the restaurant, waiting to be seated. The square was busy: cars lined the curbs, while others passed by us in a steady succession, groups of young adults, exuberant and lightly intoxicated before the start of their new college year, crossed the square boisterously, children played, and men sat playing chess at tables under a canopy of trees; while the wide, brick-paved sidewalks which ran the perimeter of the square allowed the attentive and well-adapted to circumnavigate without injury, but for the disoriented, danger was imminent.

New sights, new sounds and crowds of people disorient me. As I was taken up with these sensory overloads, a very large man passed by me on the sidewalk, and knocked me off my feet. I quickly apologized to him, assuming that we both had inadvertently run into each other, and as I offered my apology to him, he mumbled, “You shouldn’t make a person walk through the dirt” as he continued on his way. I looked down, and sure enough, directly where I was standing, the sidewalk narrowed to accommodate a tree planted alongside the street, and he had to trudge across the dirt, off the pavement to get around me. As I steadied myself and regained my balance, I turned and watched him continue on his way; he was hunched over, and lumbered as he walked, he wore earphones, and walked with his head down. For such a large man—he must have been well over six feet tall, even bowing down as he was, and broad shouldered—he seemed to disappear as he walked.

What a contradiction, I thought to myself, what a living paradox—a man who attempts to vanish from beneath the sun, while simultaneously staking his place on the sidewalk through violence. I understood him. Or at least, I understood my perception of him. Maybe he wasn’t a paradox at all, but rather two expressions of the same desperation: at one moment retreating from his existence in despair, and then aggressively asserting his existence the next.

After lunch, my friend and I got coffee at Nicholas Coffee Co., an old shop tucked into the northeast corner of the square. A sign over the door celebrates 100 years of serving the people of Pittsburgh. Other signage on the building façade announce their wares: freshly roasted coffee, tea and spices, imported foods, nuts and cigars. Upon entering through the front door, one is pleasurably assaulted with the sensual aromas of coffee, tea, cigars, candies, and the aging wood of the floorboards, beams, and rafters overhead. Breathing in this intoxicating mixture was like an olfactory massage, which soothed the mind and the emotions. We lingered in this place, perusing the shelves which were filled with uncovered memories from our childhoods—candies neither of us had seen in years: goo-goo clusters, banana taffy—while marinating in aromas which transported our minds to faraway places: Havana, India, Columbia, and Switzerland among others, and to journeys by sea in ancient ships, timbers creaking under the stresses of wind and wave.

As we walked together back to our rental car, after making a few purchases at the coffee shop, my friend ducked into a nearby restaurant to find a restroom, while I waited outside, standing on the pavement. The sun shone brilliantly against the yellow painted wall of the adjoining building, and it warmed the red brick pavers beneath my feet. The paving widened in this place, and I stood there alone for a moment, until suddenly a man appeared before me, about ten paces away, heading in my direction. He glanced back and forth, to his left and to his right, searching but seeing nothing. He walked slowly—with aimless steps—and appeared bewildered and desperate. He interested me and he frightened me. I am a domesticated man like most others around me, but I could see that he was different from me, he was wild—though not altogether feral—and he was wounded.

I have met others like him in my life. Others similar to him, and yet different, unique and complicated, with stories and histories both incredible and prosaic. Lives that demand something of me, and reveal something even deeper, and evoke subtle, beautiful changes in my heart if I let them, and also sometimes break me. He hadn’t yet seen me, and I felt a thrill in the face of this unknown moment, saturated with possibility and potential danger. Compelled to reach out to him, I called out and simply said, “Hi!” while staring directly and intently at him.

His eyes locked with mine and his aimlessness was instantly replaced with urgency. He lurched forward towards me, and, as if propelled by some hidden and unknown power, he shuffled up to me, gliding actually, like a boat, with sails suddenly filled, taking flight across the water. As he approached he called out to me saying, “I’m homeless now!” and I asked him, “How did that happen?”

As we stood face to face, he began his story, he described how he regularly paid his rent, four-hundred dollars per month, to a couple that he shared a house with; however, the husband decided he wanted more money this morning. They argued, and the husband grabbed him by the neck and began choking him. He showed me with his hands how this was done, grabbing at his own neck, simulating strangulation. –“I pay my bills, I save money but I can’t get it until Tuesday because of the long holiday weekend. The bank’s closed. Now I’m homeless. I need to put a stop payment on the check too.”  –“I’m so sorry that happened,” I told him.  –“I don’t want to panhandle” he continued, “I didn’t even drink yet, I only had one beer.” He says this as he leans over and points into the case of Budweiser that he was carrying, showing me that only one beer was missing. I understand the meaning of this gesture—to assure me that it wasn’t his fault—that he is merely the victim in the situation, since he hadn’t yet started drinking for the day.

“I’ll help you,” I said, “I can give you some money.” He looked at me for a moment, then said that he could pay me back; that he would certainly pay me back. But the money didn’t matter to me. His story was of interest however, and I asked for more details, if he were willing to share them with me. He was very willing, and he shared for a while all about what had happened to him. As he paused in the telling of his story, I pulled out my wallet and looked to see what I had left. There were fifteen dollars in there which I handed to him. We regarded each other closely—standing only inches apart, looking into the other’s eyes—and, I believe, that we truly saw each other for a brief moment; we saw our common humanity which is typically hidden beneath differences, our brotherhood revealed, apart from our widely varied experiences and backgrounds.

He opened his arms slowly and cocked his head to the side deferentially, and moved closer to embrace me. As we embraced I was softened by his softness. Often when embracing, particularly between strangers, one can feel the other tensing their bodies slightly, as a barrier to the closeness each desires, as a final protection against the abandonment required by true intimacy. This man disarmed me, as a true brother, with sincerity and without artifice. He buried his head against my shoulder and I felt his body convulse, as I held him. Was he crying? Yes, I think he was crying. This touched me and brought time to a standstill within me. I stood amazed and surprised, while holding him close to me, sensing that this was one of those rare moments when one human actually encounters another human in spirit and in truth. I felt gratitude for this man.

He was about ten years older than me, likely in his early sixties or late fifties. He had gray hair, curling out from under a Pittsburgh Steelers cap, and he wore a Steelers t-shirt, and faded jeans. In one hand he carried his case of beer, and in the other he held a fragment of cardboard, presumably with some request for assistance written on the side, which he held closely to his chest, as if to prevent anyone from seeing what was written there. I thought to myself, “another paradox”—a man searching for help yet not wanting to let anyone know he needs help. His nose had been broken in the past, possibly multiple times; I could tell this by the serpentine path it traced down his face. His face was covered with gray and white stubble. His dark brown eyes had calmed now, finding rest for a moment, no longer in a frenzied flight, as they settled on me.

My friend had returned from the restaurant now, and the three of us talked a bit longer together. It was clear that the homeless man regarded us as friends now, his level of comfort was evident as he cracked several jokes, and talked more freely, with less anxiety in his voice and body. Twice more he opened his arms and hugged me. Was this man teaching me gratitude, or was God? I smiled, and shared in his gratitude, feeling the presence of unspoken joy in our midst. Something he said, in passing, caught my attention, he said, “I don’t really care much about things…I want love.” I want love. That statement rung in my ears like an anthem, a refrain I had heard sung by so many others that I have met, usually sung silently, in fear, sung with longing, and even sometimes sung with violence.

He was telling the truth and I understood him. We want love. We want acceptance. We want someone to truly see us, and to prove to us that we are worthy of love, right here and right now, as we are. This kind of love can be elusive, often hiding just over the precipice, just the other side of the abyss; love that is found only in the face of our fear, only after we reach out past the darkness of our selfishness, and penetrate the life of another.

~FS