December 30

The first step is that of purest prayer. From this there comes a warmth of heart, and then a strange, a holy energy, then tears wrung from the heart, God-given. Then peace from thoughts of every kind. From this arises purging of the intellect, and next the vision of heavenly mysteries. Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably, and thence, beyond all telling, the heart’s illumination. Last comes–a step that has no limit, though compassed in a single line–Perfection that is endless….

~Theophanis the Monk

(Excerpt from, The Ladder of Divine Graces)

Paths of Desire (part 18)

I began this story by claiming that life is an inner battle, which each of us wage; and that for me, the basis of my battle has been, and is, to seek love from the source of all love, God; and to resist seeking it in other places, along other paths, apart from Him. Consequent to this underlying battle, are manifest a myriad of more superficial, but no less important battles, waged in my heart and mind against a myriad of sins, mistakes, misdirections, vices or whatever you’d like to call them. Resulting from these battles, waged primarily in my thoughts, are all of the actions I might take, for good or for bad, in my life and in the world; as a result of the victories or the defeats I’ve won or lost within my thoughts.

I’ve described the varied paths my life has taken through childhood, youth and young adulthood as a result of living by trial and error, seeking love without direction, doing the best I can, hoping not to hurt anyone, yet acting without knowledge of the true nature of the daily battle occurring within me, and without a clear method or practice to help me learn how to fight for victory first by God’s grace, in synergy, with my own efforts.

The world is a melting pot of ideas and philosophies from which each of us pick and choose, or adhere to without awareness, consciousness or understanding. We express opinions that we learned along the way, that make us feel good, but not necessarily ones that are true; but we are sheltered from truth by the widespread and deeply held relativism of our world, that allows us to have our own truth, and thereby live free of any constraint, or obedience to anything beyond ourselves.

“I’m a good person.” We hear this all the time, by many people, nearly everywhere. But whether something is good or bad depends not on us, but on God alone; and which ideas or philosophies we adhere to, determine which direction we are going, and eventually where we will end up. One might say it is good to go to New York, and then give good reasons to support that claim; and for those who want to go to a large city with the opportunities it offers, that is good, but for others who desire peace and tranquility, this advice to take the road to New York would be bad advice. So it is in all of life; lots of advice, lots of wisdom, all pointing us in different directions; our task is to decide where we are going, where we want to go, and then listen to the advice that helps us get there, ignoring the other advice which leads us to a different end. Those who want the world can have the world, those who want God can have God.

I mentioned earlier, how, during this period of which I’ve been writing, from my teens through my early twenties, that while, in a sense, I was searching for God, in reality I was slipping further and further away, and deeper into a depravity of my own making. I could look back on this time, from my current vantage point and say, “well, these things are what make me who I am, they are learning experiences and no harm was done” and this may be true, and may be fine to say, but then, these aren’t the things to say, or the ideas and philosophies to hold, if I want to be made new in Christ. The Christian view is to hate the evil we’ve done, to repent, and to begin afresh. These compromises or excuses allow us to stay with ourselves as we are, but they don’t spur us on our path to perfection, or lead us to a better standard of love. Jesus said, “be perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect”. He calls us to be holy, to be healed, and to become whole, as we were intended from the beginning to become. It is by His grace, but also by our ongoing and committed agreement and effort that enables us to attain this goal here and now, and eventually in totality in the age to come.

I imagine myself sitting at the dinner table and I am joined by three wonderful young people, now in their twenties. They are like olive plants around my table, as the psalmist says. When I sit in my prayer nook at night, I pray for these three people, my children. They are on my mind daily as I go about my business; I am concerned for their well-being and their eternal life. So many years ago, I first knew of them, and eons before this, they were known by God. To me they are only images now, memories that barely got started; but they are with God I pray.

When I had learned that they existed, each in their own time, I was a selfish boy, thinking of myself, and also fearful of how I would be perceived by others. I had also learned to be the ‘enlightened’ boyfriend, to support the women in my life in whatever they decided was right for them. So when the decision came to stop a beating heart, I sat quietly, not in an innocent silence, but in tacit support. And when a second beating heart would be silenced, I continued in my silence. And upon the third fatal decision, I crumbled inside, and made every effort to forget, and to tell myself it hadn’t happened; that nobody died and I wasn’t accessory to murder. I was willing to believe this, and to instead understand myself as a champion of rights, a steady and dependable partner, a good man, a good person. And this is the theory I held for decades, completely forgetting the other silent parties involved; those three silent ones, within the flesh of another, which were, one by one, preparing and becoming—and then were silenced forever.

My sorrow for my three children has become complete; where at first it never existed. My tears have washed away the horror of what I did and, upon my knees, I have found peace. I look back on those years, when I sat in self-satisfied silence, and am amazed at what I was convinced was true, and how I misdirected my love and protection. I focused on the needs and rights of one while neglecting those of the other. My love was narrow and could have been larger, large enough to encompass everyone involved, but it was not. By God’s holy mercy and through His forgiveness though, I have returned to my feet again; and in gratefulness and thanksgiving to Him, I march onward.

(to be continued)

~FS

December 29

Those who exhort us, imperfect as we are, to indulge the pleasures of the palate, act like people who encourage us to reopen wounds that are healed, or to scratch an itch because of the enjoyment it gives, or to eat foods which increase fever, or to fence off our spiritual vineyard but to allow the impulses of the flesh to enter like a wild boar and devour our good thoughts like grapes. We must not give way to them; nor must we yield to the importunate flattery of men and passions. Rather, we must strengthen the fence through self-control, until the wild animals–the carnal passions–stop their howling, and vain thoughts no longer descend like birds and despoil the vineyard of our soul, rich as it is with the contemplative vision bestowed on it by our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be glory throughout the ages. Amen.

Fear is the son of faith and the shepherd of the commandments. He who is without faith will not be found worthy to be a sheep of the Lord’s pasture.

~Ilias the Presbyter

December 28

Many ascend the cross of mortification, but few consent to be nailed to it. For many submit to hardships and afflictions of their own choosing; but only those who have died completely to this world and to the respite it offers readily submit to the sufferings that come against their will.

Land cannot make a farmer wealthy merely by yielding the equivalent to the grain which he has sown, or even by adding to it slightly; it can do so only by multiplying it. Similarly, the achievements of one engaged in ascetic practice cannot make him righteous unless his diligence towards God exceeds his natural propensity.

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 17)

I continued to be in contact with my friend north of Tokyo as he worked on the score for my play. I sent him new scenes as I completed them, and he sent recordings as we worked out the details. I had moved out of the dorm. In fact, I had moved out of the college entirely after I returned from Taiwan, and I began attending a state college a little closer to home, and a lot less expensive than the private college I had been attending.

I was extremely fortunate to have a friend, a benefactor in many respects, who had purchased land near the university and wanted someone to care take it for her while she waited to build. I often think she made up this need as an excuse to be kind to me but I’ll never know for sure. In any case, this was the reason I moved onto her land. She even went to the amazingly generous trouble of purchasing a used camping trailer for me to live in, and a new gas generator to power it. It was a Spartan arrangement which suited me perfectly. The old trailer needed quite a bit of cleaning but once this was done and it was leveled on site, it was the perfect place to live.

We situated the trailer just under the dripline of several beautiful and enormous old Oak trees on the edge of an open grassy hillside overlooking a tranquil valley connecting Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park, California. The trailer was oriented for full enjoyment of sunsets across the valley in the evenings, and sunrises which peaked over the crest of the hills just upslope, and flooded my living space with rich golden light each morning.  I covered the floor with a variety of carpet samples I had found behind a local flooring company and slept on these in my panoramic ‘living room’.

One of the great natural wonders of Northern California is the earthy and stimulating smell of the grasses, the bay trees and the eucalyptus. My new home was immersed in the midst of this wonderful bouquet and I often reflected how truly lucky I was to be alive in such a place as that. Even the dirt and the dust smelled good here. There was no road up the hill to my new abode, just a rutted dirt path that became a driveway of sorts after many trips up and down in my indefatigable Toyota pickup. Further up the hill I never wanted to drive, rather preferring to keep the land as pristine as possible. But it was an excellent place to hike and enjoy my neighbors; deer, possum, raccoon, owl, hawks and a variety of other little critters.

One early morning before the sun had risen I walked far up the hill into a meadow beyond the oaks. There was still a light mist in the air and the distance was partially shrouded in fog. The meadow was thick with flaxen grass, waving gently in the early morning breeze. Dew glistened on each stalk of grass, and as the sun’s first light broke over the hills above, each drop of dew awoke; and in the midst of this golden flowing sea of grasses were hundreds, if not thousands of little sparkling diamond sails riding upon the waves. I stepped closer to grasp the nature of this grassland armada, and discovered in the midst of the rigging, in the very middle of each rounded, glistening, diamond speckled sail was a tiny sailor plying his boat in the breeze. They were spiders, riding upon their glistening webs, built within the framework of the surrounding grasses; and there were more than could be counted, filling this meadow, sailing into the distant fog, reflecting the sun’s light in a myriad of directions. It was a humble and a spectacular sight, and it did take my breath away for a moment. Hidden here amidst the clouds was a naval exercise like none I had ever heard of before, and one I’ve never seen again since.  I stood for a while and watched the breezes move these tiny sailors gently back and forth among the grassy waves while the sun rose in the sky and the fog melted away. In time, as the sun’s rays began to fall from a steeper angle, as the sun climbed higher into the sky, the glistening rigging of each sail faded and the sails disappeared from my view. The morning exercises came to an end and I turned and headed back down the hill to my trailer.

Of my classes this year, two were of note for the ways in which they informed my understanding of the inner man, and the human spiritual dimension; Jungian Psychology and Critical Thinking. Carl Jung was noteworthy in his development of the concepts of the collective unconscious, and archetypes, or shared collective myths held by all of humanity, which inform the way each of us act and live out our lives. Additionally he developed the theory of individuation, the idea that our primary goal and purpose as humans is to become truly ourselves, uniquely developed over a lifetime, made up of elements from the collective unconscious and elements of our particular personalities. In this I found a working theory that could give some meaning to my life, and purpose to my existence. Critical Thinking on the other hand, gave me tools to decode my thought processes, to allow me to lay bare the way I think, why I think the way I do, and how to change the way I think if I desire that. My professor liked to say that critical thinking was, “thinking about our thinking in order to improve our thinking”. I saw in this process, the building blocks for mental freedom, which could lead to emotional freedom as well. By bringing our thought processes into the light and analyzing them, rather than just taking our thoughts for granted, we can discover our underlying assumptions and the chain of inferences that we make as we reason, and we can discover faulty reasoning, erroneous conclusions, and thereby give ourselves hope of change, and freedom from the bad thinking which leads us to make bad choices which yield bad results in our lives.

I continued to take advanced classes in critical thinking from this professor and began working at The Center for Critical Thinking, which he founded as an international think-tank for the advancement of the field. We hosted visiting scholars from around the world for our annual conference discussing critical thinking and how to better teach the principles of good, sound reasoning to students through the development of better critical thinking curriculum from elementary grades, through middle school and on up into college. I also became one of his teacher’s assistants, and taught the introductory course for him when he was away at various speaking engagements around the country.

My final year of undergraduate studies, I finally settled on a major through the interdisciplinary studies department. This program enabled students to create their own major if they were able to convince the board of its validity, and if they could present a successful case for its acceptance. Most of my credits to this point were in philosophy, of which critical thinking courses were a subset, and in theater arts, excluding the mandatory general education requirements which I had completed years ago. I presented a case to the board to create a special major that I called, Hermeneutic Studies, which was basically a blending of philosophy and theater, and would include, as my senior project, the production of the play I had begun writing while in Taiwan. The board approved my petition, so the trajectory for completing my degree was finally determined. In the end however, my college transcripts just stated that my major was Critical Thinking, which I found a little amusing, given all of the work and effort involved in applying and gaining acceptance for my special major.

Against the backdrop of my coursework and theater productions I was offered a generous opportunity to go through the Montessori teacher training program. The friend who had let me stay in the trailer on her land was a Montessori teacher, owned a local Montessori school and also ran a program for training new teachers in the Montessori method. She had befriended Dr. Elizabeth Caspari, who had worked with Maria Montessori for many years, helped develop the music curriculum for the Montessori method, and was a lifelong proponent and master teacher in this method.  Madame Caspari had bought a home in town and over the course of time I had met and helped her with various tasks around her house; putting up shelves, moving furniture and things of that sort since she was in her mid-nineties and unable to do many of these things herself. Madame Caspari and my friend offered a full scholarship so I could attend the training program and eventually become a Montessori teacher if I wanted. It was a rigorous program, but it only met on Saturdays for fourteen weeks, so it was possible to include this on top of my other responsibilities. There was a lot of reading and many papers to write, but it was a pleasure to learn about Maria Montessori, her keen observation of children and her insights into the natural stages of child development, and the scientific process she employed in developing her methods of teaching based on her detailed observations of how children play, and learn most naturally and effortlessly through their play. Madame Caspari was very encouraging and often commented that the reason she felt I would be a good teacher was because I was willing to get on the floor and meet the children on their level. She was a radiant personality and filled the room with her love, but she was also very tough and wouldn’t accept anything but discipline and hard work. She had very high standards but enforced them with love. Having been born and raised in Switzerland and then spending many years in India, where she met and began working with Montessori, Madame Caspari had a thick accent. Prior to moving to Santa Rosa she had lived at a Unity Village in Missouri. In her lectures she would often comment on her time in Missouri, but with her accent it sounded like ‘Misery’. I didn’t know at the time she had lived in Missouri, so when she would talk about her time in ‘Misery’ I thought it was metaphorical and I felt an up-surging of empathy for her past. I wondered to myself for many weeks what the source of her misery was and why she had lived in it for so long. At long last I came to understand it wasn’t a state of being she had occupied but rather a state of the union.

(to be continued)

~FS

December 27

The intellect cannot be peaceful during prayer unless it has acquired self-control and love. With God’s help the first strives to put an end to the body’s hostility towards the soul, the second to our hostility towards our fellow-men. Upon the man who has in this way established peace within himself, ‘the peace that surpasses the intellect’ (Philippians 4:7) then descends and, according to God’s promise, takes up its abode in him.

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 16)

After leaving Taiwan, and spending a couple days touring Seoul, I flew into Tokyo and was picked up at the airport by a friend who was living about an hour north of town. We knew each other from college, he had lived in China for an extensive period and was fairly fluent in Mandarin, and was now here learning Japanese. He was also a musician and composer. We discussed the play I had started writing while in Taiwan and I explained my idea for a soundtrack. I wanted musical accompaniment for most if not all of the play, with musical settings for particular scenes, an overall theme, and musical signatures for the characters personifiying the inner aspects of the life of the main character; something to help identify the characters ‘Spirit’ and ‘Chaos’, as well as Chaos’s sidekicks ‘Pollution’ and ‘Noise’.

For the next week we worked together on the score for my play, while taking multiple trips with his friends into Tokyo to enjoy its nightlife. My second week in Japan I bought an unlimited pass on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, with the intent to see some of the main island, particularly the beautiful Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and the Peace Park in Hiroshima. To me, both of these exemplified the victory and resiliency of the human spirit; the shrines embodied beauty in symmetry and order, while the iconic image of the twisted metal dome atop the building that survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima symbolized perseverance, fortitude and indomitability.

The train let me off in Kyoto and I spent my first day walking to various famous shrines throughout town; spending quiet time within their contemplation gardens and admiring the order laid out in the building floorplans and the organization of the shrines columns and beams. This order is carried out on multiple scales and replicated in miniature in the patterning of the railings, privacy screens and the layout of the tatami mats which cover the floors of the temples. I found comfort and peace in the intelligently designed and crafted format of the temples, a theme and variation which showed itself in the smallest elements, the structural elements and in the layout of the entire shrine site and gardens. One could almost see the whole of the shrine in the smallest element, and certainly could formulate the underlying concept of it from these details.

At the end of the day I had no place to sleep, and hotels in Kyoto are expensive, so I waited until dark and climbed a fire escape ladder that was close to the ground on one of the high rise buildings downtown. I pulled myself up, threw my backpack onto the first landing and climbed aboard. To get away from the crowds and the noise of the city I climbed up to the seventh or eighth floor landing of the fire escape and set up my ground-pad and sleeping bag. It was windy on the side of this building but I was warm nestled in my bag. I looked out across the city, at the lights, and fell to sleep.

The next morning I had a surprise and a treat. In the dark of the previous night I hadn’t noticed the small home and enclosed garden directly next door to the building I had climbed. It was the only home in the area, surrounded by tall buildings. From my vantage point, sixty odd feet overhead, I had a complete bird’s eye view of the home and garden. It was old, a traditional Japanese home, with an encircling wooden fence that walled off a secret garden complete with a koi pond, small groves of bamboo, wooden walkways and gravel paths. The garden was being tended now by an old man. He swept the wooden walkways and trimmed some of the plants. He went about his business slowly and with purpose. From the fire escape high above, he looked small and his home also looked like a toy; I felt like a giant looking down on him, and I felt a little embarrassed peering down without his awareness. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this large city he worked quietly and peacefully. I lay in my sleeping bag watching him for quite a while, admiring his work and the life he appeared to be living. I suspected he had had quite a fight though, in order to keep his home, when all of these buildings were being built around him, and the land was being gobbled up by builders and investors. I imagined him to be a warrior gardener, able to wield a sword, the law, as well as pruning shears. The morning light was beginning to break, though it was still early, and the sun hadn’t come over the horizon. I felt I should leave quickly before more residents awoke. I didn’t want to be caught up here on the side of the building so I gathered my things together, descended the fire-escape, dropped to the sidewalk below and went on my way to the train station.

Standing in the presence of the A-Bomb Dome, or originally the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, provides a visceral window into that horrible moment in history, when the equivalent of fifteen kilotons of TNT exploded overhead and killed nearly 150,000 people. It is chilling, heartbreaking and immediately makes one sober and introspective. I spent several hours walking the perimeter of this concrete and steel memorial to man’s power of destruction. In the end, it was hard for me to believe, and hard to digest the power of that bomb, and the far reaching effects it had on the people of Hiroshima and beyond.

As I walked across the Peace Park, thinking about these things; I felt weary from my travels but mostly from the things that man does to one another. I needed something to raise my spirits and suddenly she was there in front of me. I don’t know why she was there, but she was smiling and happy and looked like a lot of fun. She was a Japanese girl about my age and dressed unlike anyone else in the area; she had an eclectic style with mismatching colors and patterns, funky jewelry and scarves, a leather jacket, and hair the color of cherries. She was the perfect antidote to my current mood and I smiled back. Her command of English wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either, and we were able to talk together fairly well. We walked around the park and eventually made our way to a little café where she introduced me to her friends as her boyfriend. I found this surprising but also amusing and I was happy to play the part.

We spent the rest of the day together, and the night, and the next day she took me to her uncle’s house to meet her family. Her uncle took one look at me, realized I was American, and forbade me to enter his house. I sat on the front porch while she gathered her things together and tried to convince her uncle to let me inside. I understood though, and she apologized and explained what I had already inferred; Americans had caused him untold pain and the loss of most of his family members, I was an American, he couldn’t forgive Americans for the pain they had caused, and therefore I was not welcome in his home. I felt ashamed and wanted to apologize but he didn’t give me the chance since he didn’t come outside again while I was on the front porch.

After a while she came back outside with a small bag and we set out on our adventure. We decided to travel together for my remaining time in Japan; she purchased a ticket on the train to join me, and she wanted to show me some beautiful places. I was touched by how quickly she had attached herself to me. I was also a little nervous about this, slightly uncomfortable, bemused and flattered. She was very gregarious and uninhibited, singing on the train, and laughing with abandon at things which struck her funny. Occasionally she would draw attention from others looking askance at her flamboyance but she didn’t appear to care in the least. She was a lot of fun and she made my time in Japan very memorable.

When we returned to Hiroshima at the end of our short vacation I sensed she didn’t want to part, and I considered what it might be like to bring her home with me. It seemed crazy and impossible but I fancied us to be a new John and Yoko. There was never a dull moment with her, but how long could that last, and really we hardly knew each other. Still it was a tempting thought and as we rode the bus back to her home, and she nestled close beside me, it seemed possible and maybe not entirely crazy. I wrestled with this idea, and considered asking her to come with me, but I couldn’t. It was too much; I was still in college and didn’t even know what I was going to do with my life, and she was so wild, how would she like America, how would she make it there, and I couldn’t take care of her.  Sadly, we parted, and I returned to the US, and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t return her calls. Several times she called my mom asking for me to call her back and I never did. I was a selfish young man and had moved on with my life. She deserved more kindness from me and I regret not having been able to give it.

(to be continued)

~FS