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Monday
Aug122019

Looking for hope 

This weekend I am taking a train to a monastery in the west of the state, to stay a few days on my own.  It’s the best thing I can think of to do at the moment, ‘weary and worn and sad’ as I am, after a period of physical and emotional challenges to the ones I love the most and at the end of project managing a major conference.

It’s not just tiredness that’s besetting me, however. It’s a deeper malaise. My writing vocation that has brought such satisfaction no longer seems the clarion call it once was. Way more troubling is the state of the world. I am deeply despondent from reading daily of Trump and Brexit, domestic violence and Adani and detention for some of the most traumatised people on the planet. The world has always been a brutal place; the environmental crisis is not simply a game changer, it is likely to be the game ender. I can see no way out of oblivion, and our leaders seem not to give a toss. I almost envy the very old, who don’t have to see what comes next.

At some level, however, I know that the God I follow is the bringer of hope, even, perhaps particularly, out of harrowing situations. Hope that isn’t a cheesy ‘happy ending’, hope that will give me and other people of good will the energy and humour not to give up, to ‘mount up with wings as eagles; run, and not be weary; walk, and not faint’.

I also know from a lifetime of experience that the enemy of hopefulness is sometimes as simple as physical exhaustion. Sometimes the road back to hope starts with catching up on sleep.

For a contemplative introvert like me, hope is also restored by silence and solitude.  I have been on countless retreats over the last four decades; the last time I went to this particular monastery, I was heavily pregnant with a baby who is now 25. It was where I went in order to recoup from a life full of small children, a busy parish in the middle of a bustling country town. It is where I first stumbled upon the writings of John Main, founder of the World Christian Meditation Community, which has been one of the richest blessings on my Christian journey. I have memories of nothing but peace and rest there.

I go back as a 60-year-old knowing that the only thing I need to take with me is trust. I look back at the young woman whose life since my last visit has been chock full of joy and heartache and richness and, through it all, a steadily increasing awareness of the boundless love of God. I need to trust that the God who is love will meet me in the days I set aside, to restore my soul, in the process freeing and energizing me to be a more effective channel of God’s peace.

This was published in the August edition of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Tuesday
Aug062019

Is it possible to read too much?

Is it possible to read too much?

I get through around 80 books each year. My choice of reading covers everything from thrillers to theology, but overwhelmingly I read fiction.

‘You’re so good, the way you read so much,’ people sometimes say. But there’s nothing remotely noble about this endeavour. Reading for me is like eating chocolate; pure, unadulterated pleasure. I’m just lucky my favourite indulgence isn’t bad for me.

Sometimes, though, I wonder.

Knowing that I have a thing for Scottish Islands, a mate recently lent me a book set on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. ‘Thanks!’ I enthused. ‘I’ve never heard of this author. How is that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’ and proceeded to read Now we shall be entirely free by Andrew Miller.

A week later, I was trawling over my ‘List of books read in 2019’ which I keep religiously at the back of my hard copy diary. Who should I see there but Andrew Miller, whose novel The Crossing I had gobbled up over the summer holidays?

It all came rushing back. Including a conversation with my husband, who had also enjoyed The Crossing when I had said ‘How is it that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’

This was when I began to wonder if a person can over-read. I perused the list of books I’d read in the last six months and could barely recall the plots of any of them. I devour books (no coincidence that so many of the words used to describe reading – devour, insatiable, voracious, consume – are eating words) like a kid eats fairy floss, desperately, as though there were a risk that someone might forbid me. Like a chain smoker, if I don’t have my next book ready to go when I close the last page of the current one, I feel edgy and incomplete.

Of course, there are volumes I linger longingly over, the details of which are clear in my memory and will remain so. There are works I return to again and again. Mostly, though, I’m unable to stop myself tearing through fiction like there’s no tomorrow.

This is no virtue; it simply proves that if you love doing something enough, you’ll find the time to do it. As for whether it’s good for me to read quite so much, like any addict, I’m willing to risk it.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Sunday 4 August

 

Wednesday
Jul242019

Bearing the sorrows

In this part of the world, Mothers’ Day comes hard on the heels of Good Friday, which seems apt to me.

I’ve no truck with the theory of substitutionary atonement. I can’t believe that a God whose other name is love required a blood sacrifice to render God’s own creation acceptable and no longer repellent. That’s not how I read the Gospels, nor is it the God I have experienced in a lifetime of faith.

So I’m not sure what to make of the language about Jesus on the cross ‘bearing the sins of the world’. The suggestion, however, that Jesus was bearing the sorrows and griefs of the world, makes perfect sense.

As I have said before, over and over, when the creation and its human creatures are in pain, God’s heart is the first to break. This is what I believe. And the closest I have come to this divine characteristic is in relation to my own offspring.

I remember as a teenager being distraught about a breakup with a boyfriend and saying to my sympathetic mother, ‘It’s alright for you, you’re happily married and you never have to go through this!’ Admirably, she restrained herself from commenting on my infantile notions of what a long marriage entailed. What she did say was, ‘We go through it all with you. That’s just as bad.’

Now I know what she means. One of the things you sign on for, when you become a parent, is the anguish of witnessing the suffering of your children without, usually, being able to do a damn thing about it. When they are little you can protect and shelter them to some extent. When they are grown, all you can do is try and be there when and as they need.

Now that all my offspring are well and truly adult and responsible for themselves, this grief intensifies. Over the last decade, when they have endured the normal, agonising slings and arrows of misfortune that even the most fortunate life dishes up, grieving for them has been the most painful thing I’ve had to do, more crippling than my own sorrows.

Not long ago, when another drama shook our family, I wailed to a close friend, ‘I don’t want to be a mum anymore. It hurts too much.’

Pain is not the emotion I primarily associate with parenthood. For me, overwhelmingly, mothering has been an experience of laughter and love. Furthermore, I’ve learnt profound lessons through the dark periods, and these have given me an insight into the way the God who is love feels about every last one of God’s creatures. And I am grateful for that insight.

There are as many ways to learn about God as there are human beings. The way of motherhood is no more sacred than any other. But it is a significant part of my calling, so it is one of the ways I learn about God’s love.

This was published in the July issue of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Sunday
Jul142019

Post-election blues

I spent election weekend at the beach by myself. On the Sunday morning, when the news had well and truly broken, and my spirit with it, I walked by the ocean in an attempt, maybe, to gaze upon eternal things and remember that the God who made the sea and all that is in it is a giver of courage and hope.

I passed so many groups of people – it was a glorious day – and all were chatting happily about inconsequential things. I felt like shaking them. ‘Don’t you know what just happened? Don’t you realise that now the Adani coal mine will go ahead and the souls languishing in detention who have endured so much will have even less reason to keep enduring?’

As I walked, my friend, who is an asylum seeker living in the community, called me in distress. He has lived in limbo for almost a decade. His resilience and bravery have humbled us and his whacky sense of humour, in a language not his own, has filled our life with richness and delight. But today he sounded defeated and I wept for him.

Twenty-one years ago, Paul Kelly wrote these words: I’m so afraid for my country…I was born in a lucky country, every day I hear the warning bells, they’re so busy building palaces, they don’t see the poison in the wells. In the land of the little kings, profit is the only thing, and everywhere the little kings, are getting away with murder.

Time is running out for my friend and so many in situations similar and worse than his. On an even bigger scale, time is running out for our planet. I want my children and theirs to experience life in its diversity and splendour, but every year that passes, that seems a more naïve expectation. Just last month, a report from the UN claimed that one million species face extinction and that it will likely take millions of years for the earth to recover from our current biodiversity crisis.

I don’t want to be party political here. Neither of our major political parties has much to admire when it comes to policy on refugees or climate change. But I am devastated that once again, greed, self-interest and fear have won out over compassion and the long view.

Scott Morrison claims a miracle – presumably wrought by the God to whom he prayed for rain. The God I know from the gospels, the God I seek to follow is the one who consistently sides with the powerless, the poor, the despised, the underdog, those who cannot speak for themselves. Today, that includes asylum seekers, our planet and its disappearing species.

Post-election, in a world that has already given us Trump and Brexit, it is hard not to despair. I’m so afraid for my country. But I pray for resilience and hope, for the wisdom to rest in God so that we can rise up with wings like eagles, filled with energy enough to follow the God of the powerless and voiceless.

 

Monday
Jun102019

Art and wonder

What do writers add to society? What are they here to do? The most obvious, and, arguably the most important, is that they entertain. But there’s more to it than that.

Throughout history writers – novelists, playwrights, poets - have drawn our attention to the evils they see existing or creeping into the society around them. From Charles Dickens to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from Elie Wiesel to Roberta Sykes, wordsmiths have been ahead of the pack or else lone voices trying to convince their peers of the dangers of everything from fascism to consumerism.

Writers are not the only ones. Artists of every description – painters, comedians, film makers, musicians – have fulfilled this role, often – think cartoons, think satire – with humour.

Artists also teach us empathy by allowing us to enter worlds that are not our own – other times, cultures, social classes.

But I believe there is another role that creative artists of all kinds fulfil which is just as important to the planet and to the human race. It is to reawaken the sense of wonder most people have naturally as children, by noticing and drawing attention to the sacredness of the everyday.

We tend to have a heightened awareness of everything around us if we are in a foreign country. It takes an artist to help us see the wonder of things at home. To notice things – this bright parrot in a Brunswick park, that rock pool, the joyous rattle of that clanking tram, this chunky necklace on that particular shade of skin. Our world is full of wonder, but preoccupied as we are, we so often fail to notice.

Recapturing a sense of wonder is akin to the concept of ‘mindfulness’ that Buddhists talk about. Being aware of each morsel that passes our lips, the texture of soil as we pull out weeds, every shade of colour in an evening sky.

In a passage that is often used to persuade us not to worry, but could just as easily be a hymn to wonder, Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’. And ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’.

The thing about mindfulness and wonder is not just that they make people feel good. They are also incompatible with apathy and hate.

So part of the job of writers, artists of any stripe, is to remind people of the wonder all around them. To reveal the ordinary in a new light, so that we start to see differently, and to experience the world like children again. When people are filled with wonder and delight they are incapable, in that moment, of being violent or mean spirited. That’s what artists are here to do.

This was published in the June issue of The Melbourne Anglican