At the edge

A long time ago a friend bought me a book called From the Holy Mountain.  When I heard that Ben Hana had died I thought of it for the first time in some time.  It is based around the author’s journey through the Middle East following in the footsteps of  John Moschos, and aged monk, who set out wandering in 578AD  in order to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers. 

Throughout the book there are very interesting historical characters who lived outside society.  The desert fathers.  We would now call them crazy and send them to be assessed at a pyschiatric ward.  Frankly, in some of their cases it would have been a really good idea.

One story revolves around an animal-loving monk from a suburban monastry outside Alexandria who not only feeds the monastry’s dogs, but also gives flour to the ants and puts damp biscuits on the roof for the birds.  Other characters are rather more exotic… such as the monk Adolas who ‘confined himself inside a hollow plane tree’ in Thessaloniki, cutting ‘a little window in the bark through which he could talk to people who came to see him’.

Symeon the Stylite is another example that always stuck in my mind.

[Symeon was] a renowned hermit who had set up his pillar a few miles outside the city.  From there he issued a series of dreadful threats and warnings to the faithful, calling them to repent and mend their ways.

Permanently sitting on a pillar in the blazing heat caught on, and at the peak of Symeon’s fame there were dozens of stylites, and thousands of pilgrims lining up to see them.  After Symeon died a huge church complex was built all around the pillar which has always been the church’s response to asceticism: opulence.

Still, sitting on a pillar was better (possibly) than being a dendrite who took Christ at his word about being like the birds of the air, and lived their lives in nests up trees.

Hundreds of people took to living in the Judean desert as hermits.  When one was asked why he lived in the heat and with the insects in the desert he replied,

I put up with the insects to escape from the what the scripture calls “the worm that sleeps not”.  Likewise, I endure the burning heat for fear of the eternal fire.  The one is temporary, but of the other there is no end.

I suppose I thought of these people in relation to Ben Hana  for a few reasons.  Firstly, the desert fathers were certainly out on the edge of society, and those out on the edge can cause society anxiety or seem to send a message.  Those on the edge can become places where all kinds of things are projected.  On the comment threads underneath news of the death of Ben Hana, and in old articles on him, you find people decrying him as a failure, a disgrace, lewd and immoral, others seeing in him something spiritual, others as a statement about capitalism, and alternative lifestyles, and freedom.  The council and the justice system looked at him a certain way, as did the doctors at Ward 27.  He touched people and offended people in equal measures.

Also, after death there is desire to memorialise.  In words, in ceremonies, in offerings.  Someone has suggested a statue.  What would this statue mean?  A statue of Ben Hana sitting on the corner of Courtney Place and Tory Street would be enigmatic.  Probably a shrine.  Just as the rich of Byzantium would not help the poor in general, they would spend money on the desert fathers, the stylites, the figures who seemed to transform suffering into something else for their audience if not for themselves.  Ben Hana’s family have been overwhelmed with offers of help.

I must honestly record that I was not a fan of the blanket man.  The conservative, prude in me disliked his presence.  On the other hand I objected to the idea of him being cleaned up or moved on or assessed by mental health doctors which seemed to say more about my society than it did about him.  His story seems complicated and confused and possibly there was real suffering for him at the wheel of a car.  This is the only decent, full treatment of Ben Hana I can find. Complicated and confused.

I’m a little uneasy at what is being heaped on Ben Hana in death, but I wish him well.

Day 18

The interesting thing about goals is the things you find out along the way, and the adjustments to the original goals that you have to make.  You also learn stuff about yourself. 

I have about ten goals, and the first thing I have discovered is that this is too many goals to make happen all at once.  I have decided to tackle them two at a time.  In January I have been focusing mainly on not drinking and Meatless Monday.  Next month I will add two more goals.

Goal One: Not drinking for a year

18 days on I would like to be able to tell you that the desire to have a drink has left me.  I would really, really like to tell you that, but if I did I would be lying.  Friday nights are tough going.  The other nights are actually not too bad now.  18 days without drinking is probably a record for me over the last decade or so.  Still, no need to get too cocky, I have 348 days to go (but who’s counting), and I haven’t started work yet.

Goal Ten: Meatless Monday

The most surprising thing about this goal is that lunch is clearly going to be the problem.  We quite often have a meat free dinner, and I always have toast for breakfast.  Equally though I almost always have a sandwich for lunch with some ham in it.  Three Mondays in I have to admit that I had baked beans one Monday for lunch and discovered it was a fancy can of baked beans with bits of bacon in it.  So I need to watch the lunch thing.

Here’s something I have learnt from these two goals.  People are  confused and laugh at the idea of not drinking, but they hardly ever react to Meatless Monday.  The acceptance of the idea of Vegetarianism has come along way in New Zealand in my life time, but our drinking culture is alive and well.