The One Horse Race


It’s only a bit of fun. Yet strangely, it’s an essential part of out nation’s psyche. The Melbourne Cup, the Horse Race That Stops A Nation. It’s a day when a non-gambler like me will buy a ticket in a sweepstake, and take an interest in the winner of the race at Flemington.
But even when I lived in Melbourne, I never roused more interest than that. If anything, the second Tuesday in November brings out my inner wowser, and I feel sorry for the millions who prop up the alcohol industry today, when it may be the only thing they are capable of propping up.
We look back in 2014 fifty years to zoos where proud lions where imprisoned in tiny cages in which they could barely turn around, and felt sad because their coats were mangy and there was defeat in their eyes. Today’s zoos with savannah spaces and artificial dens lions can seek out are much better. We can feel some pride ourselves that we care for lions much better and that our zoos are becoming 21st Century Noah’s Arks conserving endangered species.
Another century and a half earlier our great-great grandfathers gathered to stir up roosters to scratch and peck each other to death while howling humans urged them on to greater acts of blood-letting. In the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, bears were pitted against each other in the ring. Are we not now so much more humane in the way we treat animals?
The excuse then was that the animals enjoyed it. Maybe the animals did take some pleasure in pleasing the men who had fed and cared for them, preparing for them to take to the ring. Maybe they did. But maybe, if you could give them the whole choice, the animals would have preferred not to be there at all.
Of course, today’s horse-racing industry is highly regulated, and vets and stewards put a stop to egregious cruelty. But in another hundred years, we may look back at the way we bred horses for racing, horses with ankles as slender as humans’ so they break down, horses who are temperamental, for some reason objecting to running against the herd when nature wants them to run with it, and with some pride in ourselves for stopping the cruel business of making animals race for the pleasure of humans.
Then we will say proudly, we are the Nation that Stopped the Horse Race.
But I can’t say that today, can I?

Vale Dom Michael King OSB (Fr Ernie)


Dom Michael. Photo Courtesy ABC Radio

Vale: Dom Michael King OSB

Dom Michael King OSB – Father Ernie as I knew him – will be welcomed to the heavenly choir. Ernie was blessed with a beautiful voice and perfect pitch. He could gather a note that had been played 10 or 15 minutes earlier. ‘How can you remember the pitch of a note from the end of the opening hymn to singing the Alleluias for the Gospel?’ I asked him one day. ‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘I hear it reverberating round the building. The last note’s still there.’ And he’s right. You have to learn to listen before you can sing as beautifully as Dom Michael. The angels will love him.

From this Benedictine, I learned my first real lessons in Franciscan poverty and community. It was rumoured that Fr Ernie (as I knew him) had given away to those in need all his stipend, and often much of his clothes, by each month’s end. There was a proto-community of about 15 living in the Fitzroy Vicarage, and only a few of them were working and able to pay their way. Mainly due to Fr Ernie’s generosity and wise cooking there was a nightly feast not just for the resident community but for hangers-on like me.

The most interesting facet of community I learned from Fr Ernie was an endless capacity for failure. Often he would invite newly-released prisoners to join the community as part of their release program. These young men sometimes worked out. On other occasions, their thieving and other anti-social behaviour tested the community to its limits. Fr Ernie believed always that there was hope for them.

On Sundays, Fr Ernie celebrated two large Parish Masses and then served a roast lunch for up to 30 people. He put the meat on before the early Mass, checked it between services. After the second Mass, we would gather in the vicarage’s backyard to drink Cinzano on ice before a long table was set for the meat and roast vegetables.

It wasn’t just the Cinzano: there was always much laughter in the Vicarage, and much mutual caring. When I heard some years later that Fr Michael had set up the community at Camperdown, I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to live in a more structured community. I was surprised only that he left inner-city Melbourne for the rolling downs of prosperous dairy and fat lambs country out of town.

Fr Michael is remembered by the secular press for his work at the monastery.

For me, as a student placed for Sundays and three or four weekdays in 1974, Fr Ernie’s parish was an ideal environment to learn what Fr Ernie called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ ministry. I came to love visiting the high-rise social housing with their broken lifts and broken windows and non-functioning playground equipment. Single mothers struggled in those miserable flats. We were, Fr Ernie told me, like Father James Adderley and other early Franciscan priests in 19th Century East London.

I learned the respect Fr Ernie had when I walked around Fitzroy at night in a cassock. The winos and druggies called me ‘Padre’. Without the priestly ‘uniform’, I would most likely have been mugged.

Fr Ernie’s mentoring style was encouraging. He sent me out to the high-rises and the back lanes on my own, but was always ready at the vicarage to debrief and teach. When people came to the vicarage door begging, he kept me with him so I could learn to respond like him with love as well as money to the needy of Fitzroy. Like the pitch of the last note of the previous hymn, ministry for Fr Ernie was about listening to the faint reverberations. He had a sensitivity to pain and need that others easily missed. If you listen, the last note is still sounding.

Martyred Christians at Mosul


For the sake of our fellow-Christians in Mosul, we should keep our outrage burning brightly. The thugs of ISIS are murdering Christians by their tens, burning the churches. They mark their houses with “N” (for “Nazarene”) and occupy them for themselves. Some commentators claim this is the worst pogrom since the Nazis put yellow stars on Jews and rounded them up in Germany.

To bring Christianity in Mosul to an end is a tragedy of the worst kind: Christians have been there since just after the time of Christ. They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. ISIS is destroying the community’s ancient irreplaceable texts.

The purpose of ISIS is clear: to wipe our Christianity in Iraq and all historical traces of it. It is shaping up to be a massacre of a people and the death of a culture. As a Christian, I burn with a sad anger to see brothers and sisters in the process of becoming martyrs.

As a teacher of World Religions, I am aware also that for most Muslims, the actions of ISIS is shameful. Their casual cruelty is foreign to Islam, which values human life and respects the People of the Book.

ISIS, like some extreme Christian groups, believes shrines and images lead people away from God. On July 24 this year, for example, the Islamic State levelled the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. This is as incomprehensible to most Muslims as Cromwell’s wanton destruction of English churches during the Revolution is to Christians.

The respected Washington Post, for example, wonders whether the destruction of shrines is to gain media attention. The answer is, I think, only as means to teach Muslims of the perceived dangers of these artefacts. These fundamentalists believe that they deceive people by promising to help them get closer to God, and they are prepared to destroy even the most valuable so that people can have simple direct access to God.

There seems so little that we can do from here in Australia. But I would suggest three actions.

  • Appreciate our freedom to worship. Thank God for it; and, if the occasion arises, express our appreciation to our civic leaders.
  • Stand in solidarity with our fellow-Christians in Mosul. Pray for them and with them. Get on board with the Act for Peace (Christmas Bowl) campaign.
  • Spread the word. Talk about the massacre that is occurring in Mosul with your friends. Re-post this blog, or other blogs about it, or link to it.

 

Ted Witham
26 July 2014

Bishop Brian Macdonald: subito Santo?


Bishop Macdonald at the Citizenship Convention, Canberra, 1965. Photo: Courtesy National Library of Australia

If John Paul 2 can be made a saint, then I reckon Brian Macdonald can be made a saint too. Bishop Brian Macdonald was one of my heroes in the early years of my priesthood. I was fortunate to be in the same Deanery as the bishop in my eight years at Christ Church Grammar School and so we met up most months at Deanery meetings.

Bishop Macdonald had a quietly radiant and prayerful presence. He was not a man to use his rank to dominate. I remember his purple bishop’s shirt was blue rather than the usual scarlet, and I retain a strong positive regard for bishops with blue-purple shirts.

Like most spiritual leaders, he had something subversive about him. One day at a Deanery meeting, we were discussing something vitally important – legislation for Synod perhaps – when I heard him whispering to me, “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis’, you know.” When I eventually realised he was talking to me, I paid attention to what he was saying. Knowing my interest in all things Franciscan, he was having a gentle dig. “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis, you know.” I replied, “What do you mean, Bishop?” With a wicked smile, he repeated, “He didn’t write it, you know.”

I went home and researched the Peace Prayer and found that indeed, St Francis cannot have written the prayer that begins, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It was written in only about 1912. I wondered why a Christian gentleman would take such pleasure in disillusioning me. Perhaps it was his delight in taking an interest in my spiritual journey.

Bishop Macdonald was in many ways a radical. At the Summer School of Perth Diocese one year, he claimed that Jesus had completely developed his feminine as well as his masculine nature. I know now that Bonaventure and other medieval theologians had taught similar ideas six centuries earlier, but to expound this notion for lay-people in the 1970s was a gentle shock. I learned that Jesus was a strong leader, willing to take the initiative, and to take his stand against evil. But equally, Jesus was nurturing, caring and intuitive, not afraid to express emotion and be vulnerable. Something like Bishop Macdonald himself. Masculine and feminine: a rounded human being.

Today, decades after the death of Bishop Macdonald, I was again reminded of the blue-shirted bishop when our diocesan bishop visited our parish. Bishop Allan Ewing wears a scarlet-purple shirt, so that’s not the point of connection.

Today is Easter V, and the Gospel is from John 14 with Jesus telling us, “In my Father’s house are many places.” Bishop Allan interpreted this to mean that there are for each of us places of safety and feeding for us now in the Kingdom as we live it out. It is not a promise for the future, but a statement for today.

Back in those Deanery meetings, Bishop Macdonald told us about trading caravans travelling back and forth across the Middle East, making 15 – 20 miles a day. Each night they needed a stopping place where there would be shelter, feed and water for the camels; a place to stop and sleep. The Greek word Jesus uses is “manoi” which does translate as “stopping places”. Jesus is stating, “In my Father’s caravan are many stopping places.” This is good news. And one man from those caravans rode ahead each day. He was called the dragoman. His role was to go ahead of the caravan and to make sure everything was ready at the stopping place. “I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Jesus is the dragoman for us each day on our journey.

So I am grateful to Bishop Allan for recalling Bishop Macdonald for me, reminding me of his gentle humanity, his humour and his care for young priests. In a way, he continues to sit just out of view whispering encouragement and preparing the way for his fellow servants of the Kingdom. Thank God for him!

Psalm 114 for Noongar country


When Israel came into the Great South Land:
and the People of God among a people of an alien tongue.

Torndirrup became his sanctuary:
and Walyunga his domain.

The sea saw that, and fled:
Derbal Yiragan was driven back.

Pualaar Miial skipped like a ram:
and the foothills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled:
O Yiragan, that you were driven back?

O Bluff Knoll, that you skipped like a ram?:
O little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O Noongar country, at the Lord’s presence:
at the presence of the God of gods.

Who turned the rock into a billabong:
and threw sand into the waterhole to make it safe.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 114 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 Torndirrup – the National Park on the south coast at Albany with the Gap and Natural Bridge.

Walyunga – National Park on the Darling Range near Perth with many sacred places associated with the Waagyl.

Derbal Yiragan – Swan River

Pualar Miial – Bluff Knoll (tallest peak in the Stirling Ranges)

Throwing sand – When Noongars arrive at a water-hole or river, they throw sand into the water so as not to disturb the Waagyl and make the water safe for drinking and swimming.

The Gap, Torndirrup National Park, courtesy pleasetakemeto.com

Psalm 148 for Western Australia


Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from heaven:
praise him from the heights of Toolbrunup.

Praise him, all his angels:
O praise him all his hosts.

Praise him, sun and moon, rippling staircase across the sea:
praise him, all you stars of light.

Praise him you highest heaven:
and you Cross bright against the dark of night.

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded and they were made.

He established them for ever and ever:
he made an ordinance which shall not pass away.

O praise the Lord from the earth:
praise him you golden super-pit and caves of glistening stalactites.

Bush-fire and hail, cyclone and heat:
and willy-willies fulfilling his command.

Mountains of iron and giant ant-hills:
gum-trees, and grass-trees, and grey-green plains of spinifex.

Dingoes and kangaroos:
creeping things and long loping emus.

Elders of tribes, and many nations:
refugees and boat-people, and all who’ve crossed the seas.

Young folk and children:
Seniors and toddlers together,

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is exalted.

His glory is above earth and heaven:
and he has lifted high the stocks of his people.

Therefore he is the praise of all his servants:
of the children of the West, a people that is near him. Praise the Lord.

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 148 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

* Toolbrunup – second highest peak (1,052 metres above sea level) in the Stirling Range in the Great Southern region of WA

* Staircase of the Moon – in Broome and Meelup in February and March the rising full moon shines over the east-facing beach to create a spectacular light effect like a staircase.

* super-pit – open-cut gold mine near Kalgoorlie 3.5 x 1.5 km and 600 metres deep.

* willy-willy – local word for dust-storm or mini-tornado.

* spinifex – properly called Triodia, these arid grasses are endemic to outback Australia.

Willly-willy

 

 

Visible & Invisible


The Creed, as we recite it in the Eucharist week by week, proclaims the Father as the ‘Pantocrator’, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. The original Greek looks like this:

παντοκράτορα: ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων·.

Pantocrator

Wonderful words, often translated into wonderful art in Greek churches with Christ as Pantocrator painted in a huge dome dominating the church building as the Trinity is believed to dominate the Universe. The description of God’s creation as everything ‘seen’ (oratōn) and ‘unseen’ (aoratōn) shows that the writers of the Creed had a mighty insight into the nature of the Universe that scientists are only just unravelling.

SBS recently screened a documentary How Big is the Universe? This BBC documentary answered the question in three ways. It is bigger than we can see, one, because we can see only the objects that generate light. Scientists believe that there must be much more matter than can be seen: they call this invisible matter ‘dark matter’. The metaphor used in the program is of flying over the United States at night. You can see an outline of roads and streets lit up; but there is much more going in the dark than shown by the scaffold of light.

Second, telescopes can only ‘see’ 15 billion light-years into the past. What happened beyond is unseen, but that does not mean for scientists that it does not exist. This universe is in principle infinite in size.

Thirdly, it was initiated rather like a bubble, and the energy required to make one bubble could well have made many bubbles. There could be an incalculable number of unseen universes as well as our own. Proof of collisions between our own Universe and another of these ‘bubbles’ has been detected, giving credence to this theory.

In some ways, these distances are simply unimaginable, although in the past hundred years, most human beings have gone from imagining 20 miles as an impossibly long trip to imagining long-haul plane travel around the planet – 20 thousand miles from Perth to Québec in Canada.

The scientists ask us to stretch our imaginations to the size of the Universe: the writers of the Creed ask us to stretch to the size of God. In simplistic terms, if the Universe is so big, then God is bigger. God is celebrated as the Maker of the all things visible and invisible. Poiētēn is the Greek word for ‘Maker’, and you can see its connection to the English word ‘poet’. To be the Maker of all things visible and invisible requires not just a builder, but a Maker with huge imagination; a poet of the extremes.

Both science and creed move us to wonder. The question ‘How big is the Universe?’ morphs into an exclamation of joy, ‘How big is the Universe! How wonderful the Universe!’ And many of us would proclaim, ‘How amazing the Maker!’

courtesy BBC (“How Big is the Universe”)