One lovely and pertinent story that was told at our recent University Chaplains annual conference came from Aboriginal scholar Nerida Blair. She had been trying to recover lost aboriginal culture of a Nation in the north coast on New South Wales. But all seemed lost forever – language, artifacts, history…

One day she was talking with renowned Australian landscape photographer, Ken Duncan, who lives up that way. She was conveying her sense of loss and frustration at the complete annihilation of that once Nation. Ken quietly said to her: “Sit in country and it will tell you its story.”

I wonder whether, in our culture of the quick fix, we do enough sitting. I wonder whether we give our ‘country’ the opportunity to speak to us – at least to give us perspective about what is really of value, what we can hold and what we can let go, what really matters and what is ephemeral.

What some other kids are doing…

While bored kids go on recreational rioting in the UK, it’s good to remember that there are some other kids trying to change the world in another way.

5,139,646 people have watched this video “The girl who silenced the world for 5 minutes”. If you haven’t seen it, take 6.42 to be inspired, and think about what a good, loving education can do.

The girl who silenced the world for 5 minutes

The Chaplain and International Students 1

This video interview reveals a positive relationship between a local church in Denmark and the local University – the university recognising it had a problem and the church willing to help. As a result, a chaplain and a psychologist have begun working as a team to identify the critical issues and to work on them for the benefit of the students.

Dom Helder Camara and the Arab Spring Uprising.

Dom Helder CamaraI had the good fortune to meet Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in north-east Brazil, in the 80’s.

He lived with no lock on his door. The incident of the hit-man from the military government, who had come to kill him in the night, being overpowered by his welcoming embrace and deep spirituality, is a legend. He was a man of considerable moral impact! As an aside, he mentioned that while in Australia, away from his diocese, he expected priests at home to be killed and bull-dozers demolish villages, as had happened when he travelled in the past.

Camara would rise at two in the morning to read and write poetry. There was not a square centimetre of his face that was not lined with grief for the sufferings of his people or instantaneously creased by his puckish beneficent smile. His eyes were dark and playful, sunk deeply into dark sockets. He looked physically dead, only an indomitable spirit keeping him from the grave by a whisker.

I can’t remember what he spoke of that day, but the impact of his image and his compassion for human justice remains.

Today I picked up a book of his from a second hand book table. “Spiral of Violence” was written over forty years ago, yet its message is as clear today. It brought to mind the recent “Arab Spring Uprising”.

 If true development implies the development of the whole person and of all people, then there is not in fact a single truly developed country in the world…You will find that everywhere the injustices are a form of violence. One can and must say that they are everywhere the basic violence, Violence No.1.

No-one is born to be a slave. No-one seeks to suffer injustices, humiliations and restrictions. A human being condemned to a sub-human situation is like an animal – an ox or a donkey – wallowing in the mud.

Now the egoism of some privileged groups drives human beings into this sub-human condition, where they suffer restrictions, humiliations, injustices; without prospects, without hope, their condition is that of slaves.

This established violence, this violence No.1, attracts violence No.2, revolt, either of the oppressed themselves or of youth, firmly resolved to battle for a more just and human world.

When conflict comes out into the streets, when violence No.2 tries to resist violence No.1, the authorities consider themselves obliged to preserve or re-establish public order, even if this means using force; this is violence No.3. Sometimes they may go even further…in order to obtain information, which may indeed be important to public security, the logic of violence leads them to use moral and physical torture – as though any information extracted through torure deserves the slightest attention!…It is the old Inquisition, with the technology of the nuclear and space travel age at its service.

Let us have the honesty to admit, in the light of the past and, perhaps, here and there, in the light of some typical reactions, that violence No.3 – governmental repression, under the pretext of safeguarding public order, national security, the free world – is not a monopoly of the under-developed countries.

There is not a country in the world which is in no danger of falling into the throes of violence.

With this in mind, I commend to you our work at Oasis with students from all over the world, seeking to live as a community of difference, at peace within itself, and at work for peace in the world.


Marriage Tree

Marilyn and Robin,
You have chosen a tree to symbolise your hopes for your marriage.
It is a rich and meaningful symbol.
Firstly, you have chosen a living thing – not an inanimate object. But being living, it is subject to all the challenges of survival. It must be nurtured. It will die if it is taken for granted, put in a corner and forgotten.
For the marriage tree to flourish it needs the water of hospitality to each other, the making of space for each other, not to try to change each other but to host each other’s deepest hopes and fears.
To flourish, it needs the fresh air of openness; it needs exposure to the sun – the warmth of love and the light of laughter.

Secondly, when we look at the tree, it is easy to forget that what is below the surface, what is not visible, is as important as the beauty we see in the leaves and branches above. The canopy of the tree expresses the hidden life below. Every good gardener knows that maintaining the richness of the soil is the trick for growing healthy productive plants. Grounding your marriage in a soil rich with spiritual nutrients will ensure healthy growth.

Thirdly, the tree does not live just for itself. The colour green brings rest to our eyes. A tree’s branches, seemingly so randomly arranged, bring a sense of harmony. The tree breaks a bleak and relentless horizon. Its shade brings relief and its fruit provides sustenance to others. So a marriage which is firmly planted in commitment, loyalty and mutual respect and lived openly in the sun and the rain, will bring life to others.
May this tree grow in beauty and fruitfulness.

Oasis Vision

I read the entry “Oasis” from my blog at the Pilgrim 9.30 Service this morning and got a lot of positive comments. It seems to capture the open, inclusive and celebratory feel that many of us are looking for.

Tired travellers in the desert are searching for palm trees in the distance. They are looking for promised rest and refreshment. They have a more distant destination, but their gaze is intent on the hope that lies immediately ahead. As they come near the oasis, they are anxious for the welcome and acceptance they need for rest, and for cool, clear waters of refreshment for themselves and their caravan. They hope that desert protocol has been maintained. For without it, travel in the desert would be disastrous.

But they are also looking beyond mere survival on their journey. When the camels have been watered and the tent has been pitched there will be celebration with food and music and the swapping of stories under the bright night sky. Strangers become friends. Important questions are discussed. Knowledge of the desert is as vital to survival as the waters of the oasis itself. They will stay a while and then move on. But while their tent is pitched beside the still waters they themselves will receive other weary newcomers and provide the necessary hospitality that ensures the ongoing viability of the oasis.

There is a small band who stay in this place. They are holders of desert wisdom. But they do not hold it to themselves. They have gathered knowledge from the many travellers who have told their stories of desert life over time, whose stories have proven life giving to journeyers of all time. This oasis community acts as host for the ongoing sharing of wisdom that ensures survival in the desert. The respect won by these sages is a moderating influence against the ever-present threat of waters being muddied by ignorance or greed, and wisdom distorted by the self-important purveyors of mischievous mis-information.

The travellers pack their camels to continue their journey. They have been safe here. They are grateful for rest and refreshment. But now they must risk new adventures. They mount their camels holding deeply memories of storytelling under a cold starry night. Life long friendships among once strangers have been cemented. The wisdom of the sages has supplemented their desert wisdom, informing their ongoing journey.
They point their camels toward the next destination with confidence and gratitude. The sages offer their blessing and the caravan departs into the glare of the future.




A Visit to Italy

We have been visiting a family who live down in the heel of Italy, on our way to the Conference of European University Chaplains in Hungary and to see our son in London. Our families are connected because of our hospitality to their daughter while studying in Adelaide; and we are inspired to visit them because of their hospitality to sick Chernobyl children.
As we struggle with the language barriers, we feel the pain of their struggle against corruption in their town and the dominance of a self-satisfied Catholic church, holding a historical religious monopoly over its people.
The present Mayor seems to be able to do whatever he wants. He flouts the law. We hear of payback against their family, because once one of their relatives was the Mayor. It’s petty power play.
Although most of the town attends church, it has little effect on curbing corruption. It is intent on its own life, maintaining its hold on the status quo through its own magic dispensations. Superstition can be a powerful force!
This family wants to bring cultural activity to the region. They are staging the International Festival of the Sustainable Imagination. It will probably end up being held in an old Cinema (a 15th Century granary) the parents have bought and are restoring – since the Mayor will almost certainly undermine them by forbidding their use of the public venue at the last minute. They really are thinking ahead to outfox those whose interest it is to maintain a narrow view of life.
We have less than two days with the family. But in that time hope and courage have been strengthened. Hope for some level of liberation from repression and courage to stand for its truth.

On Death…and Living

A word from the Vatican
Christians should never welcome anyone’s death. Osama bin Laden, as we all know, had the very grave responsibility of spreading division and hatred amongst the people, causing the death of countless of people, and of instrumentalizing religion for this end. In front of the death of man(sic), a Christian never rejoices but rather reflects on the grave responsibility of each one in front of God and man(sic), and hopes and commits himself(sic) so that every moment not be an occasion for hatred to grow but for peace.

A word from Desmond Tutu
God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion. People are shocked when I say that George Bush and Saddam Hussein are brothers, that Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon are brothers, but God says, “All are my children.” It is shocking. It is radical. But it is true. God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist- all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognize our interdependence, we become fully human.

A word from Picasso

Chaplaincy and the Medical Model

Last Friday I ran into a student who was looking a bit disorientated – not unusual at the start of the year for someone new to University. I asked if I could help and she told me she was looking for a centre that offered support for students. She said she had seen it on the Flinders website and she thought the website said it was in this vicinity.

I immediately thought there could be at least three options. We were standing outside the International Student Services Unit – could it be there? No, she was not an international student.

We were also outside one of the rooms of the Student Learning Centre – was she looking for help with her study skills? No, she had “walked out of an exam because she had had a panic attack” and “I need to look at my workload”.

Well, maybe you were thinking of Health and Counselling. They help with these things and could get you some kind of an exemption from failing the exam. “No I don’t want Health and Counselling. They’re booked out weeks ahead.”

I was a bit surprised at her negative reaction to Health and Counselling. Obviously she had had dealings with them already. But at this moment the student was clearly distressed and a discussion about the benefits of Health and Counselling wasn’t going to help.

I thought that perhaps she might get a hearing with one of the Student Advocacy Officers in Flinders One. ‘Why don’t we go up to the Student Hub and talk with one of the Welfare Officers?’ This didn’t tally with her recollection of what she had seen on the FLO website, but, after some discussion and having ruled out the other options she agreed.

As we walked to the Student Hub she talked about CentreLink and how they don’t give you enough money to survive. I quietly noted her reaction against traditional welfare bureaucracy.

We arrived and two welfare officers were sitting behind the reception counter. I introduced her and then she began her story again, with the same questions from them and responses from her.

 I felt her frustration. “How come the most vulnerable have to go through this process at the very point of their vulnerability?” I thought. Given her agitation, why didn’t the Welfare Officer at least come out from behind the forbidding reception counter to show some empathy?

After some more question and answer, the Welfare Officer made a suggestion that she see the Disability Officer. There was some convincing that her panic attacks were in fact a disability and she finally agreed.

So off we walked to Health and Counselling to see the Disability Officer. The receptionist in the Waiting Room told us that she was on the phone. So we retired away from the area in which several people were sitting. A TV on the wall was entertaining itself. We waited, standing well away, near the entrance to the room. She told me about her childhood and some experiences she had – with a Student Exchange that went badly wrong in Denmark, how her parents split and she went to China to see if a change in environment would help her get control of her panic attacks. Why China of all places? That was where her father was. The change in environment worked. But now, back in Australia, the anxiety was back.

I realise why the people in the Waiting Room sit in absolute silence. It is not possible to have any kind of conversation without everyone hearing it. People are probably wondering what everyone is doing there anyway – like a scene from “As Good as it Gets”!

 Soon the Disability Officer arrived and we retired to the corridor outside the Waiting Room to talk. Yes, she will see her but she will have to make an appointment. She is booked solid for all of next week. But she convinces the student to make an appointment, otherwise she would never get to see her. She agrees at last, and, before they return to the reception counter to make the time, I invite her to drop by if she would like to continue to chat. I think it unlikely, but you never know. I leave them to it, and leave, wondering why any student with mental illness wouldn’t take the easy way out and jump off the Uni bridge.