SPIRITUALITY IN THE PUB – BLACKHEATH, MAY 10 2006
SPIRIT OF PLACE - (Spirituality – the Australian Connection)
Kevin Bates sm
Last week I was fishing around for a starting point for my remarks tonight, and was floundering a bit. I was doing a bit of work in schools at Trangie and Cobar, in the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese, and one night last week, stayed at the vacated old presbytery at Trangie.
I had stayed there a number of times previously, with an elderly semi-retired priest, Peter Coyte. Peter was a bit of a legend among the Aboriginal people of the area, an eccentric, talented artist and inveterate letter-writer to newspapers, a steam-train buff. and a great trickster. He was one of the most playful spiritual old men I’d met in a long time.
Peter died at Easter in 2003, as he was getting ready to celebrate the resurrection of his head coach, and his well-attended funeral was accompanied by a riotous cacophony of fireworks as his casket made its way out of the little church and onto the roadway, in memory of the many tricks he had played on people using fireworks himself.
The presbytery is empty now, and soon will be demolished. As long as I have known the place, its walls have been savagely cracked and the ceilings look like they are about fall down on you. The furniture is old, and the place creaks and groans as if in protest at your presence.
I spent a night there on my own last week and found one of Peter’s memorial cards. I spent some hours remembering his whimsy and wisdom, his cheerful hospitality, and the simplest of faith that he would share with such openness.
The last time I saw him some five or so months before his death, he told me he was studying for the “final exams”. He also had some witty one-liners about the appointment of certain bishops to certain places. One of his specials was when Bishop Chris Toohey was appointed Bishop of the diocese there - Peter was glad they were getting “a Toohey’s New rather than a Victorian Bitter.” I never asked him what he meant!!
The old presbytery at Trangie echoed with his spirit for me the other night. The locals plan to pull the rattly old place down, build a new parish centre further up the property there using some of the bricks from the old place, and then build a new church on the site of the present presbytery. The spirit of the place and the spirit of his memory, are in good hands and will be protected, nurtured and celebrated well into the future.
I’d bet that we all have our own special places which contain something of our spirit. The place where we were born, the place where we were educated, the place where we proposed marriage, or had our first romantic encounter; the place where we sat with someone precious as they breathed their last and so on.
We re-visit these places in our memories and hold them close to our heart, and sometimes we re-visit them in fact, and even if we find that the place itself has changed, our memories are still intact.
We take some of our meaning from these places themselves, and from the spirit that our memories hold. We talk about the “hallowed turf” of the MCG, with the same kind of reverence that others speak of the relics of saints and martyrs. There is a certain awe, a certain respect and a certain sense of participation in the spirit that has made these places and things holy or sacred.
We do this individually of course, and then as families, as church communities and as ethnic or national groups. The meaning belongs to us as individuals, families, communities, churches and nations.
The meaning does not belong to those who were not there, or to those for whom the group or communal story has no meaning. And there is our challenge, and the cause of much of our world’s pain.
We trample on each others’ sacred places with such ease sometimes knowingly, but as often as not, with no awareness at all. The demands of economic progress, the imagined cultural superiority of one community over another, the religious claims of one mob over and against the spirit of another mob, and there you are – a world that doesn’t seem to have the humbleness necessary to make room for the spirit of place that is peculiar to all our cultures.
If you remember some of your own personal sacred places, places that hold something of spirit for you, you might feel a certain nostalgia, or something even stronger. You might encounter a moment of meaning, of hope, of pride, of joy, of passion, of forgiveness, of truth that still lights a little fire in a corner of your soul.
Imagine what it’s like to have these memories, these sacred places desecrated by the arrogance, blindness, and violence of others. We can perhaps get a tiny inkling of what the spirit of Australia’s indigenous peoples endured as their sacred places of spirit were systematically taken over by a culture that imagined it was somehow superior and had a right to the use of these places.
The very names of many of these places were replaced by foreign European names, and then the names of the people themselves were replaced with western names as often as not. It’s only in more recent times that some indigenous people have started reclaiming their heritage and their names – Oodgeroo Noonuckle, (formerly Kath Walker)- the poet is one that comes to mind.
I lived for twenty years at Toongabbie in Sydney’s west. One of its claims to fame was that it was the first place to which the European settlers gave an Aboriginal name. One will never know I suppose what that actually meant to all concerned. I wonder, did the naming of the place by the invaders, with an Aboriginal name, restore a sense of spirit, or alienate further? In my naivete, I used to think that it was a marvellous thing for the settlers to have done. Now I wonder a bit more.
I mentioned humbleness a bit earlier. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with listening. If I listen well I can hear the sounds of the spirit of a place. If I listen for the sounds beyond words, and then for the words that people use to describe their sacred places, then perhaps I can grow in understanding, acceptance and respect, even if the spirit of the place does not touch me directly.
My guess is that the Beaconsfield mine will long maintain a certain spirit because of the dramas that have been unfolding there these past weeks. Earlier this year I visited Port Arthur for the first time and sat quietly at the memorial for those who lost their lives ten years’ ago in the massacre there. Building on the grisly memories that this beautiful place holds, this more recent tragedy adds to the poignancy of the spirit of the place, and causes one to reflect on the sadness of the human condition, and also on the heroism of people when tragedy strikes.
Often our sacred places are places of real spirit, not because of a building that claims sacred status, not because of a law that protects a place, not because of officially sanctioned stories and myths, but rather because of what we have breathed in and out in these places. In terms of our joy, passion, pain, suffering, hope and release.
Buildings, laws and official stories are often the consequence rather than the cause of sacredness, and certainly do not generate spirit of their own accord. (This is a mistake that fundamentalist religion of whatever ilk so often makes.)
The spirit comes from the breath of people, from the tenderness of listening hearts, from the waiting for freedom, from the passion for justice, from the humbleness of good hearts in the presence of greater mysteries.
I wonder where your places of spirit are. Have you visited some of them lately? Have you listened for the nourishment they have to offer? Have you made room in your heart and imagination for the spirit of place that others have found important for themselves?
In the place where you live now, as you tend the garden, cook, clean, share hospitality, build family, it’s probably a good thing to keep listening for the spirit that is beyond words, where our deeper meaning and our truer nourishment can be found.
For the Church, we are moving through the season of Easter, a time of resurrection, a time for re-claiming all that makes life worthwhile, a time for owning the dying that always precedes our resurrections.
It is a time for claiming the spirit of things again and for living at heart of things, where we find, according to the gospel story, the only place where our spirit finds its rest and homecoming.
May the spirit of your sacred places always be held in honour.