Spirituality and the Australian Experience

Spirituality in the Pub, Blackheath

13 September 2006

Patty Fawkner sgs

Source: Sisters of the Good Samaritan, http://www.goodsams.org.au


How are the different spiritualities of diverse people like myself and you and John Howard and Dawn Fraser and Alan Jones and Missy Higgins similarly influenced because we are all Australians and live on this land?  How does our Australian experience lead us into the mystery and the More of life?

There are so many ways into this topic.  I’d love to explore the stories and myths that shape us and our spirituality:  There is the myth, the lie, of terra nullius, the story of a suicidal jolly swagman, and the ANZAC myth for starters.  Then I’d love to explore the shadow side of our national psyche which is our ‘invasion anxiety’, our fear of the other – our fear of the original inhabitants of our land, our fear of the waves of migrants, our fear of the ‘reds under the bed’, our fear of boat people who were said to throw their children overboard, and now our fear of the Muslim other.  But I won’t. 

I’d like to approach the topic by focussing on the theme of the Australian landscape.  I’d like to explore the wonderful symbol of the ocean as a symbol of life, mystery and God.  I’d love to explore the role the bush has played in our national psyche and the wonderful paschal mystery symbol of regeneration that comes after bush fire.  But I won’t. 

What I will talk about is the interior landscape, particularly the desert as a metaphor or symbol for our inner spiritual landscape.

On Pentecost Sunday in 1606, that’s exactly 400 years ago, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quirós, first named our land as “Austriala (sic) del Espiritu Santo”, The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. 

I don’t think the first settlers perceived this convict dumping ground as sacred and imbued with the Spirit of God.  They did not share the experience of the original inhabitants who for countless generations have intimately known the sacredness of this land. 

We cannot appropriate Indigenous people’s experience, but we can learn from them how to appreciate the holiness of our land, and how to reconnect to the mystery of creation, and thus the Mystery who is Creator.

It has taken white Australians a long time to see what is before our eyes in our land.  John Olsen in an article in a recent The Good Weekend [1] , said, “We are a new people in an old country, and we have a lot of looking to do.  We must begin to look at the landscape not just as real estate, but as a place of enlightenment and magic.” 

The first white artists looked at the country with English eyes and subsequently painted with English colours what they thought the land should be rather than what it was.  Instead of lush, neatly ordered English foliage, we have, what one writer describes as:

the vastness, the ‘pitiless blue sky’, the startling atmosphere, the silence, almost brooding, the untidiness of the bush, the colours in sharp sunlight, the permeating gold and pervading blue. [2]

The first settlers reacted with hostility to the hostility of a seemingly godless land, simply because it wasn’t Mother England or the Emerald Isle.  Their frustration is echoed in the early place names:  Bitter Creek, Bitter Springs, Mount Misery, Mount Disappointment, and Useless Loop.  One doesn’t find such names in Britain.

Was Pedro Fernandez de Quirós deluded in naming this land, where God seemed to be absent, the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit? 

Not so, says contemporary commentator on Australian spirituality, David Tacey.  He notes that, whereas for others the Spirit is seen to come down from above, for Australians, the source of the Spirit is in the land and the earth, “down under”.  He claims that the very soil, the bedrock and the immense space of our land inform our experience of the sacred in a new and unique way.  Colin Thiele said in one of his last interviews that “We soaked up this country through our boot soles”. 

There is a paradox here.  Tim Winton says that “We live on perhaps the most religious continent and we’ve traditionally had the most irreligious society … We need to kneel in the cathedral of our land, to live a life of gratitude, awe and cosmic identity.” [3]

John Olsen again when speaking about South Australia’s Coorong says, “There’s nothing there, but the void is compelling because of the compelling richness of emptiness.”  Writers and artists like Winton and Olsen, articulate the hunger of many Australians for a deeper relationship to the land.

But perhaps we want a deeper relationship with coastal land.  The sea-change phenomenon continues to grow as tens of thousands of people try and get their bit of beauty and security near the ocean.  Despite the stereotypes of a Hoges and now the recently deceased Steve Irwin as men of the wild and of the bush, we really are one of the most urbanised countries in the world.  We cling to the edges; we cling to the busy metropolis.  Similarly, it is so easy for me to cling to the periphery, to the edge, to what is superficial in my life.

Have you ever flown across our land?  It is so vast, so empty, and so sparse.  I have journeyed into the interior a number of times and it’s a wonderful metaphor or symbol of the inner journey that each of us needs to make.  When we journey into the interior, we leave the safety and security of the coastal edge and enter a place which is unknown yet is perpetually calling us.  The inner journey requires that we enter our own interior and confront our ego and find our true self, and there find God.

With a busload of others I made a pilgrimage to the Centre, in the late 80’s.  Unlike the pilgrimages to Lourdes, Canterbury or Santiago de Compostela, our pilgrimage was not to a church or shrine, but to a rock.  When we got there I felt as though I belonged.  It was a wonderful meeting place of people from all over the world.  Uluru was no dead heart, but the pulsating heart of our land. 

When we make the pilgrimage into our heart, when we get beyond seeing ourselves as the only reference point, when we get beyond ego, we realise our oneness with all of humanity, and indeed with all of creation.

On that trip I couldn’t close my eyes on any of the long stretches – and they were arduously long – for fear of missing the beauty of the ever changing landscape.  The words of St. Augustine’s classic prayer, “Late have I Loved You,” often came to mind.  Augustine describes God as “beauty, ever ancient, ever new”.  This was how I experienced the land. 

Another time I drove across the gulf country in North Queensland along corrugated roads made of the reddest, finest bull dust which gets into every crevice of your car, clothes and body.  When we reached the coast at Cairns, instead of relief, I felt somewhat overwhelmed because it seemed too lush, too rich, too much for me.  I think the insight of that experience is that sometimes I can have too many riches, too many experiences, can fill my life with too many goodies or distractions and thus avoid the pain of confronting my own inner desert.

There is something about the desert that calls me.  In Australia I’ve crossed the Tanami Desert and camped on the edge of the Simpson Desert.  I’ve visited desert regions in every state, except the desert-less Tasmania.  I’ve made a 30 day retreat in the desert area of Santa Teresa in the Northern Territory.  Elsewhere, I’ve been to the Sinai Desert and spent 100 days at Sangre de Cristo, in the desert area of New Mexico.  I’ve climbed up to what’s known as the alpine desert of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

In all my desert experiences the words of Hosea ring true:  “I am going to lure her into the wilderness and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16)

When I first went to Uluru I was struggling with some intense personal issues and the shifting sand dunes around the Rock seemed a good image for my life.  Two things happened for me that helped me see my reality in a new way.  I went up in a light plane and was fascinated by the beauty and pattern of the shifting sand dunes which you couldn’t appreciate at ground level.  Perhaps there was some order and beauty in a life that seemed somewhat chaotic. 

The next day we climbed parts of Kata Juta – the Olgas.  I can remember being pretty fit at the time, (this was 20 years ago!) and where my companions were struggling and breathless, I strode out, exhilarating in the strength and sturdiness of the rock underneath me.  Words from the psalm and the old folk hymn came to me as I climbed, “My God is a fortress and a rock”.  I had a sense that God was the rock, the foundation, the security beneath me, the ground of my being, no matter the instability and uncertainty I felt.  For the first time in my life, the image of God as a rock appealed.  It continues to sustain me.

It is easy to be romantic about the land – it is alluring, but also deeply alienating.  I got altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro, with severe nausea and chest pains.  I thought I was going to die in that alpine desert, so far from family and loved ones.  There was nothing romantic in that experience. 

The silence and emptiness of the interior of our continent is alienating.  In the same way our inner emptiness and loneliness feels hostile and alien.  Karl Rahner when speaking about our interior landscape says:  “Don’t be shocked at the loneliness and desertedness of your inner prison, which seems to be filled only with powerlessness and hopelessness, with tiredness and emptiness!  Don’t be shocked!” [4]   We shouldn’t be shocked when we feel as empty and barren as the hostile spinifex-laden, parched desert.

We are naturally tempted to avoid loneliness and emptiness, by plunging ourselves into busyness and distraction – with whatever is our particular poison:  work, alcohol and drugs, food, computer games, or a frenetic social life.  We hope to distract ourselves from our own inner despair. And when we feel empty inside, the temptation is to believe that there isn’t any God, or if there is, that God doesn’t care.

When we feel, and feel we must at different times, that there isn’t a God, perhaps we’re being invited to let go of the God we imagined God to be.  Perhaps we don’t have a big enough God.  We must, says Anthony de Mello, forever “empty out our teacup God”. 

My keenest experience of emptiness was the death of my father when I was 30.  Naively, incredibly naively, I expected my faith to shield me from the experience of numbness, loss and grief.  It didn’t and I was shocked.  I felt affronted by the pious words that seemed to come so easily from the lips of well-meaning comforters.  God was nowhere to be found. 

Many months later I was reflecting on the Gospel story of Mary Magdalene coming to the empty tomb.  In her emptiness and despair Mary hears a voice call her by name.  It is Jesus.  Something profound happened to me at that time.  Somehow I found God in the emptiness.  It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy experience, and even then I didn’t really have a felt sense of the presence of God.  But it was a deeper knowing – somehow – that God was with me, calling me within the emptiness. 

Rahner says that God is never as we imagine God to be.  His words are tough: 

“The God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment” – that God doesn’t exist. [5]  

The God whom I expected to shield me from human grief does not exist.  I had to empty out my cosy image of God and in the emptiness find a more real God.  Spiritual writer, Ron Rolheiser says that “What we feel in emptiness is not the death of God but rather the space within which God can be born.  What loneliness and despair deprive us of is not God, but our illusions about God.” [6]

The Australian desert landscape reminds me that I’m called to recognise God in the silence, in the loneliness, in the frustration, the disappointment and emptiness of my life.  The God I find in my loneliness and emptiness is the real God, the infinite, unnameable, wild God, a God who is ever ancient, but always new.  I find a God that I can’t capture in words, but a God who is mirrored in the majesty and beauty of my land.  It’s a God I can neither tame nor domesticate, but a God who, like the parched land, thirsts for me, waiting for me to want God and to come to God.

I will conclude with a prayer given to me by Joan Hendricks, an indigenous friend of mine.

God of our dreams and visions, in the landscape of our life together, whether it be fertile or like the earth after drought – we pray that you will raise us up as flowers of blossoming life, or single green leaves in the centre of our barrenness.

If the eyes of our souls see only what we expect to see – give us new delight in the unexpected – the flashes of colour of hidden birds, a sound of song in a silence – or a sound of silence in the middle of our humming life – into which the  brave word will fall in hope and grace.

May you the God of dreams and visions, enable us to dream creatively – and hear the dreaming of others.

Loving God bless us in the time that lies ahead, and grant us our Dreaming.  Amen. [7]

[1] Good Weekend, 2 September 2006.

[2] Patrick O’Carrigan, “Australian Landscape – The Continuing Challenge.”  Compass 12 (June 1978), 19.

[3] Time Winton, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s1198547.htm

[4] Karl Rahner quoted by Ronald Rolheiser http://www.wcr.ab.ca/columns/rolheiser/2005/rolheiser102405.shtml

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ronald Rolheiser, ibid.

[7] Joan Hendricks’ adaptation from Queensland Churches Together Retreat Day, July 2005.