It was Metropolitan Anthony’s deep conviction that crisis, suffering, even catastrophe, can unveil things we otherwise would never have seen and give birth to new life, provided we have by have the courage to face them and to listen to what they have to teach us. In the light of this I would like to say something about Metropolitan Anthony’s back.
Not much has been written about his back injury, a dislocated spine, which had its origins in the violent bullying and beatings he suffered in the slum school he attended as a child in Paris. Thrown abruptly into this school after a sheltered and idyllic childhood in Persia, he had to learn, slowly and painfully, how to defend himself, in an environment he later described as ‘a cruel, heartless jungle in which homelessness, hunger and brutality prevailed to such an extent that by the time I was eight I knew that one could expect no mercy, no compassion from any human being, and that one has in order to survive either to become as hard as nails or as ferocious as the other beasts of prey in the human jungle.’
He once told me that a defining moment came after he found his own strength and learned to fight back, when the security of his newly found confidence, and some hubris, led him to initiate an attack on one of his tormentors, to be the aggressor, not the defender. He lost the battle and was thrown violently backward into a puddle on hard ground. The resulting injury to his back was the incipient cause of the eventual dislocation of his spine at age 18 that plagued him for the rest of his life.
It was with a twinkle in his eye that he told me this story, and at the same time a tender, compassionate reflection on the child he had been at that moment, a moment when justice of a kind was done – though not a justice that could be understood until many years later. And he said ‘I am eternally grateful to my back. It has taught me so much.’
Over a long period in the early 1980’s his spine injury flared up frequently. When this happened he couldn’t stand up straight, but would appear when he could in his worn black cassock, bent double like St Seraphim, in pain but uncomplaining, humbled, and mischievously making light of it. But on the rare occasion when it was incumbent on him to celebrate he would do so, following his own conviction that we should learn to endure pain ‘to the very limit of our endurance, to endure it with patience, with courage, and make of it an exercise in growth, learning through the necessity of facing small difficulties to face the great ones.’
It was on those rare occasions that one could perceive in his bearing the magnitude of these words. The pain he was suffering would be almost palpable, his countenance ashen, filled with a concentration and force of will that was frightening in its intensity. At the same time this pain would be held inside in deep recollection, and you could begin to understand what these words he had once spoken really meant:
‘(The) transmutation of pure pain, tearing pain, rending pain, crucifying pain, into anger, into resentment and bitterness, is a profoundly destructive thing … it requires a great deal of moral courage to say, “I will endure pain in its acuteness, in its purity. I will allow pain to rend me, to plough me, to the very depth of myself, but I will not allow it to be made impure by hatred or any of its allied devils.”
Here are his own words about the gift of his back:
‘It has taught me several things which I treasure. The first is a sense that I depend completely, unreservedly on mercy – on the mercy of God in Whom I believe personally, warmly ,and on the mercy of people who in every moment when I was in desperate need of help, of support, of bracing encouragement have offered and given it. Through this experience of complete dependence on mercy and love I have discovered that within our world which at times is so ugly, is so monstrous as though it was contained in a hard and prickly shell, there is all the softness, all the grace of the Kingdom of God which is the kingdom of love. It has taught me also that one can live and face up to life.’
And of suffering he made one thing absolutely clear:
“To endure suffering is nothing if I do not love. And loving is infinitely more difficult than enduring. Enduring is a passive state. Once suffering is inflicted it takes courage, determination to undergo it, while to love does not mean “undergo,” it means “volunteer,” it means “take upon oneself,” it means “give what is not claimed,” and that is a much more difficult thing.”