Andrew David was not new to Orthodox Christianity but neither had he been born into it. To some, this second fact was a pity and a shame, while to others they considered this a blessing. He didn’t think much about it one way or the other, viewing his past as neither much of an asset nor as a liability.
Every morning and every night he lit the lampada lamps, which cast a warm and comfortable glow upon the icons hanging on the walls in the corner of his bedroom, and then he began to pray. He looked forward to the return of Christ; knowing full well the anachronism that his life, and this expectation, had become to the world around him. But this didn’t matter much to him. “Let the world go where it wishes”, he thought to himself, “I haven’t time to argue the matter.”
The time was early December, about three weeks into the advent fast, with another three weeks to go until the Nativity of Christ. He had been feeling under the weather for a while now, but not badly enough to see the doctor. He had seen his priest however, a few days earlier when he confessed his sins of the previous week; and he reflected on this as he stood before the icons for his evening prayers.
So many little annoyances had been nettling him recently. Silly things really, hardly worth mentioning: one person had walked too slowly in front of him, another had wandered carelessly back and forth across his path as he tried to pass them on the sidewalk—they then abruptly stopped, oblivious to his presence, to look at their cell-phone, causing him to stumble and careen in order to avoid walking into their back—and then there were the two ladies on the ferry, who spoke too loudly every morning about their shopping victories and their latest purchases. This last irritation particularly vexed him, anthropologically speaking, because he believed that mankind was slowly, but certainly, being transformed and reduced into mere shoppers, losing touch with any higher calling than basic consumption, and placing smart deal-making among the noblest of virtues.
As these thoughts flitted across his mind he suddenly felt impatient—impatient with the shoppers, impatient with the slow walkers and impatient with himself for reacting to these things, and finally impatient for Christ’s return. He felt his heart begin to race within his chest and knew he was letting this passion get the better of him again. He said to himself, “No, this is certainly the wrong direction to go, I am wrong for thinking this way, come to my help Lord Jesus and help me find peace again, I am sorry for my impatience and my irritation.” Remorse arose within him in place of impatience, and he felt his equilibrium returning, as he lit the lampadas and prepared to pray.
He remembered what his priest had told him; “Bring these things to Christ in prayer, and as you fast physically, focus spiritually on fasting from these passions as well. This is the purpose of the fast, it isn’t a diet.” Yes, of course, he had heard this many times before, but when would he be done with these things once and for all? He knew that he was zealous for the Lord, and his zeal fired his determination, but in times of clarity he also saw how impatience can masquerade as zeal, and carry us mistakenly into a carnal fire, as opposed to a spiritual one. He had burnt himself this way enough times in the past to understand the danger, yet still he found himself making the same mistakes over again.
As he took a breath he began to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Typically he began his prayers saying this short little prayer, often aloud at first, as it helped to corral his wandering mind, but then eventually silently, so that his deepening peace would not be disturbed by the sound of his voice. He felt his heart grow warm and joy rose in his breast. How sweet was this time alone in silence with God.
After concluding his prayers for the night he got into bed and eventually fell asleep. At first sleep eluded him. For some time he lay awake in bed and felt the illness creep upon him. It was easy to ignore during the activity of the day, but when laying here, without any distractions, he could feel the burn and ache in his extremities, the scratchy soreness in his neck, and the drip, drip, dripping as his sinuses drained onto the back of his throat. He battled to keep from coughing, catching the cough with a gasp of breath, only to be overcome by it with his next breath. In a spasm of hacking and coughing he rose from his bed and dragged himself to the bathroom where he kept a bottle of medicine that would sooth his throat and make him drowsy. It did the job and within the hour he was asleep.
He awoke suddenly, only a few hours later, with a burning pain piercing his left ear, sending sharp jolts of fire shooting down into his neck, and up into his head. Bewildered, he stumbled down the stairs into the kitchen and found his phone, quickly rattling off an email to his doctor with an urgent message to meet as soon as possible. He couldn’t imagine enduring this for very long, and though he knew it would be hours before she would get his message, it gave him comfort knowing that help would be on its way. After taking a few aspirin, drinking a glass of water and spending some time in prayer, the pain subsided and he returned to bed and slept until morning.
The next morning the pain had somewhat abated, and was more manageable, however, as it waned, it left in its wake a dull throbbing pressure which permeated the left side of his face, stretched through the back of his head, and across to his right ear. His left ear was nearly completely plugged, and he could discern only the slightest sound entering from beyond the pressure there. While his right ear was better off, it too felt as if it had been plunged below water, and his hearing was muffled. In fact, it felt as if someone had dropped his entire head into the ocean, and it had sunk to a depth of several hundred feet, such was the pressure he felt, and the new limits of his hearing.
The visit to the doctor didn’t turn up anything unexpected. She described the view inside his left ear as a bloody and angry mess. She prescribed antibiotics and explained that the pain he had felt earlier shouldn’t be a problem within a day or two. The pressure and the blockage to his ears however, could take weeks or even months to go away.
“Life can change on a dime,” he thought to himself, as he made his way back home from the doctor’s office, “one moment we are as we have always been, and the next moment we are forever changed.” He was thinking about his hearing, and how it had been perfectly fine when he went to bed last night, but now he could barely hear anything at all. “Isn’t that how age, and life proceeds for all of us?” He continued his train of thought, “moment by moment we are changed, for good or for bad. Of course, some changes are so much worse than this earache: sudden paralysis, a debilitating disease…death. But essentially it is the same problem we all face—can we make peace with the facts of what we have lost, and can we create a new life based on these facts?” Yes, this seemed true to him.
Two weeks passed, with little change to his hearing or to the strange pressure inside his head. However, he had begun to grow accustomed to these things; he would say that he had found some measure of peace with the facts of his new situation, though this peace hadn’t come easily. But he would also confide that his prayer life had suffered some strain during this period, and was still in a state of disturbance even now, as advent was drawing towards its glorious conclusion—the celebration of the coming of Jesus in the flesh, and the revelation of his earthly ministry.
Andrew David had developed a stable and rewarding prayer life over the years through diligence and dedication, not to mention, he would add, the grace of God. So it was with some surprise, and even more despair, that now he found himself unable to dive deeply into his heart, or to dwell in peace and joy therein. Instead, whenever he began to pray he felt anxiety and fear as he left the world behind him, and as he entered the silence of his inner being.
Upon reflection, he remembered the very night, some ten days earlier, when he developed this unfortunate fear and trembling—a dark night within his soul, in which God seemed to vanish and he was left alone with only the terror of himself, and perhaps the torment of a demon or two. That particular night he took a shower before going to bed, and as the water rained down upon his head, he could feel it as he normally would, but could only barely hear it, as if from afar, as one might hear the rain pounding down upon the rooftops while they sat nestled deep inside the house. This sensation made him dizzy, this strange incongruity and shifting perspective, and he found it unnerving. After his shower he made his way to the bed and lay there for a while. The sound of his breathing, as it rose up from his lungs, was trapped within his ears, or someplace inside his neck, and this made him anxious so that he couldn’t sleep. His breathing was too loud inside his head! He tried to shake it, to clear his ears, but of course this didn’t work. He had tried this numerous times before, but it never worked; it only made him more agitated. He turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom in hopes of giving himself something to listen to beyond the confines of his own head, in hopes of giving his mind an audible waypoint to focus upon, that could distract him from the sound of his own breathing. It was a very small, dim sound, barely discernable, but this worked well and he fell asleep.
Around three o’clock in the morning the pressure within his ears woke him and he was unable to fall asleep again. He got up, lit his lampada lamps, and began to pray. Within a few moments he abruptly stopped; the pounding in his ears, and the sound of his breath trapped strangely within his neck, and the dim light from the lamps, all conspired to close in upon him, and he felt a sudden panic of claustrophobia. After a few moments he regained his composure and tried to pray again. “I will just pray the Jesus prayer for a while,” he thought to himself, “and I will call upon Christ to come to my help and to dwell within me.” He remembered reading the writings of one of the church fathers, which stated that saying the prayer in silence can sometimes lead to an unstable mind, however, saying it aloud can help maintain sanity. He decided to say the prayer aloud tonight.
As the prayer drew him down into his heart—something which would normally be a pleasant experience—instead, he abruptly encountered terror here, as the images of darkened clouds filled his mind and obscured everything else. His breathing was as the wind blowing these clouds in circles, and the pressure within his head was like the wind buffeting the windows and doors of his house—a mental house which he couldn’t escape. “Who can help me in here?” he thought, “if not God? Who could come to my help, or understand this terror, if God will not save me?! Oh how dreadful, how can we live in our minds, so alone and beyond the help of others? Nobody else can clamber into this head of mine and find the source of my suffering, and heal me.”
He continued to pray to the Lord, and to try to sense His presence. He remembered how his prayers had seemed before—like a bright and golden sun, shining in a glorious blue sky, wide open and airy. But this memory, remembered visually in this way, only made the current torrent of clouds more terrible, as he felt this cloud-cover so palpably within him, and saw how totally it obscured any lightness or beauty that he might otherwise have known.
He suddenly felt very hot, so he loosened the top of his robe, and pulled at the collar of his shirt. He stopped praying and stared blankly at the flame in front of him. He glanced about the darkened room—it had become very small. In fact, his entire house seemed too small now, and he thought perhaps he should get up and run outside. And he was far, far too hot. “I must take this robe and this shirt off,” he decided. “But if I run outside now, at four in the morning, in the dark, in the pouring rain and the cold of winter, then what?” He pictured himself running down the street and possibly huddling under the large apple tree at the side of the road, not far from his home. “But then what? Will I stay there until someone finds me in the morning? No, this is crazy…I’m not mad…I’ll be fine.” He reassured himself. “I shall stay here, and it will be okay.”
He returned to praying and immediately the whirlwind of darkened clouds filled his mind once again. He began to panic as he called out, “Lord Jesus come to my help, hurry to my rescue!” He could feel everything pressing in on him again, causing him to gasp. He couldn’t breathe. “Where is God?!” He searched frantically within himself for a way out, some mental distance that he could occupy, to observe his situation with objectivity and find a solution, but it couldn’t be found. Then he recalled the story of the whirlwind and Elijah, and the small, still voice of God in the whirlwind. “Perhaps God is in this whirlwind too.” He had become certain that he was alone within these darkened clouds, or worse, that they were the cover and creation of demons. But this new thought, the idea that perhaps God could be occupying them instead, had a calming and a soothing effect on him. He began to pray with greater confidence, and he imagined God’s presence within the clouds. Soon they faded and disappeared and he felt like himself again. He felt his breathing return to normal and he realized he was very tired. Relieved that this experience was over, he climbed back into bed and fell asleep.
The next morning he recalled the story of Elijah more clearly and how God was not in the whirlwind, but came as a still, small voice after the wind. He smiled, “well, maybe I was wrong about that, theologically speaking, but practically speaking I was right.” Remembering that scriptural story, though incorrectly, had certainly helped him gain victory over panic, fear and despair.
The Nativity of Jesus Christ was now only days away, which meant that the advent fast was nearly complete. His earache was still a constant presence; evoking anxiety and despair only on occasion now, while inspiring patience and endurance much more frequently. He had almost come to appreciate his earache, which surprised him, for what it was giving him, which was a material example of his spiritual struggles; and he also had almost begun to consider it as a friend, which amused him, for what it had taken from him, which included not only his irritation and impatience, but also his hearing, which made sitting on the ferry next to the two loud shoppers far more pleasant for the silence he enjoyed.