Monthly Archives: August 2015

Restoration and Refugees

The steps to the Cathedral in the city are made of slate from the village where I live. At the moment the Cathedral is under renovation. Francis is blowing a gale through the Vatican and all the restoration on the Cathedral will repair the damage done. The chair of this Bishop of Rome is made of something less brittle than slate. It’s a kind of leadership that many have been yearning for, a hark back to the founder of the firm, not an echo from the silence of stone in the empty chambers where pilgrims once filled the pews. Like so many of our institutions, the church is renovating and restoring, and that is not the answer to whatever question they think they are asking. Now is the time to stop conserving heritage listed spaces in our hearts and break open in true Eucharistic fashion the body and blood and spill it onto all the spaces empty of body and soul.   And heaven knows there are so many of those.

The tragedy of people displaced by war, persecution, natural disasters is alarming. In my country the borders of the land are almost as impenetrable as our hearts. Fear and compassion traded blows in the streets of Melbourne yesterday. (I did wonder if anyone from Francis’ team was there – I am sure there would have been a few.) As a young mum I campaigned in the 80s and then into the 90s on issues of refugees and racism. For my efforts, our house was attacked with bricks through the windows of our sleeping children’s home, graffiti on the outside walls of the house, tyres on our car damaged and public vilification and intimidation by a right wing terrorist group. Our phone was tapped and from time to time I am pretty sure I was followed. Acting in solidarity has a price. My efforts were very modest, writing, producing materials and building a community of activists to spread the word in their workplaces, churches, schools and families. I didn’t organise any big rallies and it was long before social media so no flash mob protests were visible. I was under the protection of the Council of Churches and I felt protected by their care for me and for my family. This is the work of communion.

The UN says we have reached 60M people displaced for the first time in history. When I was campaigning it was 15M – the last time it was even close to the number we have now was during the Second World War.

Disrupting traffic is not enough, thoughts and behaviours need to be disrupted. The slate on the Cathedral steps are baying for a new dawn of whole heartedness. My own efforts are almost invisible these days.  I am shaken not stirred by the deaths in Austria in the back of a van, the scenes of children on their parents shoulders at the borders of Greece, the broken bones floating in the seas of the Mediterranean and off our Australian coast …. And the list goes on …

Blessed are you who have a home

               For you shall be invited to open your doors

Blessed are you who have food

               For you shall add another seat to your table

Blessed are you who are safe

                For you shall share your haven

Blessed are you who are leaders

                For you shall serve

Blessed are you who know how to speak to power

               For you shall speak for the powerless

Blessed are you who are fearless

              For you shall give courage to others.

The compass and the storyteller

Dear Sor Juana,

The early signs of spring this week, a hint of warmth followed by showers, amplified in my joints, brought a cellular ache for summer. From the invisible space between bone, muscle, nerve a clear message is sent that change is on the way. Pain is a great way to read the barometric pressures beyond the body – it is in discomfort we find our edge and wriggle and wrangle our selves in order to get more comfortable. All aches are a reminder of what is and isn’t working, what needs to keep moving, what can be taken on or what needs to be shed. You loved your astronomical instruments and I suspect when they were taken from you, it was the muscle memory your body and soul you called on to keep your internal compass centred.

Pilgrims have a compass instead of a map. Compass comes from two Latin words: com meaning together and passus meaning a step or pace. Driven by an internal magnet which ever way we go, it’s still north, for pilgrims. I have a principle of practice from improv to say yes and combined with the compass leads to some interesting conversations and edges to play. Implicit in the yes is the fact you have listened to what has been said, dropped into the others space by adding the and you build on their perspective instantly creating a shared and common platform to look at the horizon together. It certainly opens up conversations and invites possibility as the path arrives at a new frontier. Looking to the horizon it is the edge we see, that place where ancient mariners might have imagined falling off but we know goes on and on and the horizon is always there inviting us to the next edge, the next place to navigate, the place where all learning happens. Soaking up the conversations along the way, layering the stories and bringing us deeper to ourselves as we say yes and. Our and starts by accepting the invitation. Without this invitation there is no conversation, no story to hear, no story to be told.

I was reminded yet again this week of the power of story and the gift of the storyteller. The pilgrim storyteller manifested in an Irishman peddling his community development wares through the cities, towns and villages of the world and finding his way to a church hall in my part of the world. Adorned with banners of community, integrity, belonging the room was lit up with the smiles and smells of church ladies who had been baking, chopping and cutting up goodies for participants long before we all got there. Walking into a space that lets you know in advance they knew you were coming is yet another yes to add my and too. Some of the participants were sojourners and needed a nudge to connect with newbies but before too long a community of learners had formed in a place that had long been a community of practice – where the practice of hospitality would have won an Olympic medal; and the practice of welcoming the stranger knew no limits. If the storyteller had not opened his mouth the lessons would still have been learnt. He did however open his mouth and gifted us all with the riches we find from someone whose compass is in tact, bright, shiny and as new as the first day he discovered its magnetic force drawing him in and taking him to the edge of his horizon.

I was taken back to Ballyvaughan and to the Burren with the lilt and the lessons that come from being in community and in communion with one another and the landscape. Going to the edge singing into the wind and then into the space of the cottage with my fellow pilgrims, the words of the Canticle of Creation to a tune by Donovan – I was at the very edge and learnt I could do it. But that’s a story for another day … Today I celebrate the compass and the storyteller.


Be infinitesimal under that sky, a creature
even the sailing hawk misses, a wraith
among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.

Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you,
in particular, stand a hairsbreadth from losing
everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path to the north,
the way you came, as if seeing
your entire past and then south
over the hazy blue coast as if present
to a broad future.

Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.

Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

© David Whyte, from River Flow collection

Cliffs of Mohar. Wandered into a paddock, over a turnstile, up to the edge and looked to the horizon.

Cliffs of Moher. Wandered into a paddock, over a turnstile, up to the edge and looked to the horizon.

Bus for Pilgrim

Dear Sor Juana,

Once more I am spending a lot of time in my familiar precinct in my city of Adelaide. So much of my life has been spent around the edges of Victoria Square in various buildings on Wakefield and Flinders Streets. Laneways, verandahs, park benches, lift wells, stairs, sliding doors, like needles through which strands of my life have been threaded. While some of the locations have had makeovers, there is little they can conceal, and my familiarity with them, and them with me, brings an everyday informal embrace.

I wandered over to one of those buildings this week, sliding a door to find a person not even realising or respecting that a meeting was going on – such had been my practice years before. Fortunately I was greeted with a smile and an invitation to step into the space again. This building has changed over the years, a community room has been added, a few more car parks and its interface with its surroundings has created places for the homeless to seek shelter and impatient civil servants to get to their morning coffee quicker. This building is a church – not my church – a church that holds the name for people like me – Pilgrim.

As a teenager I caught the bus from Pilgrim Church. In my twenties and thirties, I sang there and worked with others from the community on social justice issues primarily around apartheid, peace and anti-racism. I have had many friends over the years for whom Pilgrim was and remains their worshipping community. But it was in my teens that I first began my friendship with this place, on the steps with my fellow travellers on the Bowmans bus to and from my home in the north eastern suburbs.   The Lincoln green and dusty gold bus was an insulated community, the bus drivers rosters were more familiar to us than the timetable. We knew them all by name and they knew us. I even babysat for one of them from time to time. Our daily chaperones’ kept us in order and we kept them company. The journey each day to and from school (about 45 minutes each way) was a camino all of its own. We would share stories of what the day might bring in the morning, although the morning commute was a lot quieter than the conversations and debriefs of the day on the way home. Loves were won and lost, homework shared and problems solved together, design and strategy to manage siblings, teachers and parents were mutually exchanged.

The bus was my first experience of community. I learnt what it means to travel and tell stories travelling, to know what it means to start and end a journey, to listen and talk in chapters as sometimes we would have to wait another day (or another week) to hear the next instalment of a tale. I learnt about trust and grew in my own confidence of holding a space and being held by a space. The bus was an incubation chamber and from that place I was able to step into the world where all these buildings around Victoria Square could hold me in all the years to come. The concertina door opening and closing each day and night breathing life into me and squeezing another giggle out of me before heading home. The Bowmans bus, an archer with his arrow, reliably hitting a bullseye into Victoria Square in the morning and at day’s end delivering this pilgrim, with the same precision, to Shepherd Street.  Sor Juana, only now do I see the imagery of this bus for this pilgrim.

Bowmans Bus in front of Pilgrim Church - amazing what you can find on line!

Bowmans Bus in front of Pilgrim Church – amazing what you can find on line!

Seven Sisters and Shields

Dear Sor Juana,

The celebrated portraits of you show you wearing a nun’s breast shield, so large in one portrait you would have been unable to turn your head. Unable to avert your gaze to what is in front of you the background of your books, scientific equipment and accumulating wisdom from study and prayer you look directly at the viewer. There is a clock behind you keeping time which would have regulated your behaviour, although I have a sense that this discipline was also liberating for you. The works of the founder of your order St Jerome lie on the table top in front of you and I am curious as to what rule is talking to you from the page. (Jerome would have a lot to say right now about the state of the clergy as well as a great student of his day, his letters on sexual morality and corruption of priests were a clarion call in the 4th century.)200px-Retrato_de_Sor_Juana_Inés_de_la_Cruz_(Miguel_Cabrera)

We adorn ourselves and our surroundings with images, objects, badges and jewellery, there is a conversation about how we are held by them and how they hold us.

This week I bought a painting, a portrait of the stars, my favourite constellation the Seven Sisters – Pleiades. It is one of the deepest of the songlines in Australia, spanning half the continent. The artist of the painting I have is Dean Jakamara Briscoe, this is his country and his sky. His ancestors have looked into the skies for aeons and told their story of Jakamarra (Orion) pursing the women unable to attain a union with any of them. My ancestors from Greece had a story of seven sisters fleeing across the sky too and being the source of advice for sailors. Although I am estranged from my Greek heritage and it is hidden from me, I love the thought of our common ancestors looking to the heavens, being guided by the same constellation, salt water and fresh water people – we are all one. The artist and I met in the Adelaide Mall by a 4 metre high pair of silver spheres, I saw the artist approaching in the reflection of the balls and the iridescent yellow Toys R Us plastic bag protected the 45cm square dot oil painting from the August elements of drizzling rain. Taking the painting out to reveal more protection, a black cotton cloth securely and gently being held in place by tape in common time Dean told me his story of the Seven Sisters. I like the idea of this painting being a portrait of the cosmos, captured in time on a canvas, like a photograph, frozen for a moment so we can catch our breaths and stare at their beauty, yet all the while knowing they are moving.

Here is Dean’s story in his words:

For many years the seven sisters lived peacefully and when a man called Jakamara found out about the sisters he fell in love straight away and didn’t want to be alone anymore. Wherever the seven sisters went Jakamara would follow and would beg them to marry him, the sisters tried to hide from him but couldn’t so they fled to the Milky way where they are seen now and Jakamara ( Orion ) still chasing after them.

Perhaps your shield served the purpose, of holding you in your place in the astronomical journey of your spirit traversing the night the sky despite being pursued by your own version of Jakamara, that pesky Bishop of Puebla.

Like your portrait Sor Juana, the cosmos is in the background with all the lessons and knowledge the universe can muster up to deliver to you as you soak it all in, yet gaze only forward. Dean’s Seven Sisters will look at me each day and farewell me into the night as I have put the painting by the front door and next to the light switch, which is one of the last things I do before I go to bed is to switch off that particular set of lights. As I sleep they can watch over me and this household. A breast shield for our home protecting us and leading us forward into the new day and each new season.

Seven Sisters by Dean Jakamara Briscoe

After the booing

Dear Sor Juana,

The juxtaposition of your days of silence at the end of your life compared to your early days of vocalising your knowledge and sharing your thoughts in words reminds me this week of the balance of hearing and speaking.

Voicing your opinions, find our own voice, listen to the voices of others, hearing ourselves into speech or song and making spaces for voices to be heard, adding your voice to others- all ways to celebrate the voice and equally silence can be deafening.

This week our country has been in an uproar with the sound of booing and bullying of an elite athlete, poised against his silence and absence from the conversation. Our nation faces facts about its colonial history, about power, inclusion and exclusion and polarisation.

As far as the North Pole is from the South I hear reactions in the public spaces of trains, trams, salons, cafes and at pedestrian crossings. Racism’s slip is showing and in some of those conversations the slip is long, visible and glowing.   The storm clouds over us this week are being blown away by the voices of those who are standing with Adam Goodes, 2014 Australian of the Year.   It will be cheers and solidarity that will be heard the next time he takes to the field – and I hope he does – so he can have the memory of the boos replaced by cheers. Adam Goodes is one in a long tradition of others such as Nicky Winmar and Michael Long who have stood before him on the sporting field strong and proud of their cultural heritage. They are among the bright stars who rise to shine and teach us about cultural pride, racism and extremism.

How we listen and how we speak to one another is at the heart. I was fortunate to hear Grant Poulson and Liz Skelton recently share their lessons and open up their conversation for others to hear their journey on how they listened to one another as black and white and not letting each other leave the conversation and hang in with all its messiness. (You can download their book for free here.)

Having courage to speak needs to be matched by others have the fortitude and discipline to be silent – deep down I think it is this pairing of silence and speaking that is central to reconciliation in our one on one relationships and as a country. Each day we are being invited into conversations of our hearts through to the big national building conversations we need to have to heal and hold one another.  This (football) season offers a time, in the great tradition of Ecclesiasticus, to be silent and a time to speak.

Adam Goodes

Adam Goodes