Ghost gum wisdom

It was March 2013, and sitting at my writing table wondering what to write for The Good Oil, I looked up, and as if for the first time, saw the ghost gum outside the window. Inspiration! I began typing.

In the spot where a front fence would be if we had one, stands a towering ghost gum. At least 20 metres tall, it stands out among the masses of slender eucalypts that crowd the outer suburban valley where we live.

ghost gum nth warrandyte Mike S cully

Ghost gum Warrandyte (Mike Scully)

In the weeks leading up to Easter that year I started to appreciate the tree’s scarred trunk and the gradual way that its bark gently peeled away in fading strips. Tentatively I recognised that in God’s sign language it was speaking to me about death and resurrection. And that’s what I wrote about.

As the months went by this tree was finding a place in my inner storehouse, the place where memories, images and experiences hid away until unwrapped and their depths explored. Some were Wow moments, like my first glimpse of Uluru or the joyful unexpectedness of a wet season waterfall near Wadye.

I only have to close my eyes to recall the timeless sandy road that gently curves its way past what remains of Tarella, my grandparent’s farm in the Victorian Mallee. That image lodged itself deeply within me, surfacing years later when l was looking for a name for my website. And to this day peace settles in me as I recall the baby waves that rippled softly along the beach where my family lived the year I turned 11.

Now this ghost gum was saying, “Look at me”, inviting me to admire the way the sun caught the broad brush sweeps of orange, gold and brown that splashed its soaring creamy trunk. Backdropped by the night-dark eucalypts it kept a ghostly vigil while I slept. Day or night, I not only couldn’t escape it; I didn’t want to.

Early autumn, a year later, I heard a loud crack and looked up to see one of the ghost gums very large limbs falling, ever- so- slowly, onto the front drive. There it lay in the evening silence, the noise of that crack still ringing in my ears, lesser branches scattered all around it like carelessly thrown prunings.

Right through the spring it had shed its winter bark ready to absorb the summer rains, but that year they never really came. In the long hot summer its roots struggled to find water pockets deep in the rocky ground. Gum trees self-prune, which frees up sap to flow through the spreading canopy to the furthest tips of the longest branches. My tree knew it was time to let go of its largest branch.

That was three years ago and my ghost gum is still there, its creamy white trunk stained with rusty patches, like left- out- in- the- rain corrugated iron, its height punctuated with a scattering of dead branches. Where once birds played hide and seek among the leaves, there’s seven jagged wounds. In God’s sign language, these deep scars speak to me about ageing, about the unwanted letting go that happens as the years mount up, about the woundedness that sometimes drags my spirit down when sleep eludes me.

Wounds are what’s left behind after something I’ve valued and thought was mine to have and to hold is taken away. They speak of change and loss, of life lived and people loved, of perceptions and relationships let go, of mistakes made and opportunities lost. I’m finding that’s a big part of getting older, a wisdom familiar to my ghost gum.

I leave my desk and walk down the driveway, craning my neck to see what the view from my window hides. High up a gently moving canopy of leaves leans to the left, like a woman with her hair falling over one side of her face. My ghost gum might be lopsided but it’s still vibrantly alive. Deep inside the trunk the sap runs strong and new life flows through the spreading canopy to the tips of the furtherest branches.

There’s an inner energy that I know as grace, and when I let it in I feel alive, not at all ‘old’, even if that’s what the bystander sees. This wounded tree is teaching me that aging has its own beauty and strength, that the tragedies underlying my wounds and the pain of letting the past go, have left behind the gift of spiritual long-sightedness, the ability to see life connexions with a vividness not possible when I was younger.

In time a pair of lorikeets, delicately boned and beautifully feathered, built a nest in the hole left by the fallen branch. They come and go, flashing life and energy in exchange for shelter, bringing value to what might appear valueless. They, and the tree that is their home, tell me that we who are older still have something to share with the world.

They are telling me a story God has written in Australian sign language.

Judith Scully

Ghost gum wisdom was written for The Good Oil ( http://www.goodsms.org.au/good-oil), 20/6/17

Women opening the Word of God

Mention Pentecost and up pops a picture straight out of my primary school bible history book. Year-B-8th-Sunday-Pentecost-Titian-1-657x1024

In words and images the Acts of the Apostles painted a more dramatic picture – wind that howled and swirled like a cyclone hitting land, fire that threatened to burn but warmed and excited instead, multi-lingual crowds that caught that excitement and felt hope rise within them.

Whatever happened to it?

Jesus commissioned his followers, women and men, to cast that fire upon the earth, and they did. But in little more than a hundred years the dominant male culture gradually took over and a women’s role in the Christian community was whittled back to cooking, children and the sick. And that’s how it has stayed.

I was born into a generation whose faith education was pre Vatican 2. As a young adult I realized that I wanted my church to keep pace with the world that was opening out around me, but I had no words to explain the hunger I was experiencing and nowhere to take it.  Then Vatican 2 happened and I knew that this was what I had been waiting for.

Vatican 2 was a Pentecost happening. Like the first Pentecost, the Spirit of God blew through it with the power of a cool change on a baking hot Melbourne summer day, a babble of excited words that made no distinction between genders, a flame that could no longer be contained.

There were flexible liturgies, music that sometimes set my feet tapping, at other times touched my heart. Small discussion groups opened me out to the recognition that scripture was something of a  Tardis. It not only told the Jesus story but contained all our stories. New ministries opened up to lay people, women and men – pastoral associates, hospital chaplains  and spiritual directors. Ordinary people discovered that contemplative prayer didn’t only belong in monasteries and Carmelite convents. We began haltingly to drop the he when we spoke about God.

Somewhere during those years I was invited to speak at a World Day of Prayer in a suburban Uniting Church and I was comfortable saying yes. In the way that these things happen, that afternoon led to an invitation to occasionally ‘share a message’ with a Uniting Church community that had no permanent pastor and relied on a roster of retired ministers to lead their Sunday service.

Every time I stood at the lectern ready to share whatever Scriptural reflections and insights I may have gathered from my personal reading of the Sunday Gospel, I was conscious that what I was doing was counter-cultural for Catholics.  For close on two thousand years it has been seen as inappropriate for catholic women to be preachers of the Word in their own church. This not only saddens me but it irritates me because for these two millennium the Good News has been skewered to male terminology and experience.

Jesus told stories that appealed to both men and women. He used images that often were peculiar to his women listeners. He never meant his words to apply to men only. He had women friends and ignored the cultural taboos that restricted them. He knew that most men approach just about everything from a structured kind of thinking, unlike women who dance around topics and let their hearts dictate responses that just don’t fit those structures.

I want to hear homilies that open up the Word of God from that untidy female perspective, shared by women who have experienced the push and pull of relationships and the joy and chaos that often accompanies them. I want to know how the Gospel echoes through their lives. I want to be asked again, this time by my baptism church, to retell the Jesus story in the light of my own.

I’ve had to pull back my expectations in the more than fifty years since the Second Vatican Council. But maybe in a generation or two women will be welcome to open up the Word of the Lord at the Sunday Eucharist in Catholic churches around the world.

IMG_2471 (2)My neighbour’s small Japanese maple gave me heart as I wrote these words. Its fiery autumn glow stood out in the sea of eucalypts and native shrubs that surround the houses in our little street. It reminded me that the Pentecost flame can never be extinguished.

Judith Scully

Mrs Rembrandt

I originally wrote Mrs Rembrandt  for The Good Oil (thegoodoil@goodsams.org.au), the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters, in August 2016. I hope you enjoy it.  

In what one of my young grandchildren calls the olden days, but was actually 1975, my husband and I went to Europe. It was my first trip outside Australia, his second, and it a bus tour – see so many countries, in so many days, and bring back the slides to remind yourself, and others, that it actually happened.

Like the rest of the tour group I bought souvenirs- a leather handbag from Florence, a glass swan from Venice, Marks and Spencers everything in England. Then, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I met Rembrandts mother, and brought her home packaged in a cardboard tube – my souvenir of two days in Holland. Decades later she sits in solitary splendour on my bedroom wall.

I’ve always called her Mrs Rembrandt and assumed she was painted by her brilliant artist of a son. Now it appears that may not be true. Maybe she was someone else’s mother. But that doesn’t matter. Whoever painted this old lady did so with love and respect, no air brushing here. She wore her age with dignity – more than that really. Every miniscule wrinkle of her lived in skin was a story without words, captured the way anMrs Rembrandt artist paints the folds of a landscape. This elderly lady had come to terms with life’s regrets.

I wasn’t aware that the reason Mrs Rembrandt and I clicked probably went right back to my choice to leave religious life. She looked so calm, so settled, so comfortable in her own skin. It resonated with the womanliness of the aboriginal women on the Northern Territory mission stations where I taught as a young religious. They had something that I had not found in my years of living with women in religious life. As I smoothed the print into its slightly battered second-hand frame and hung it on the lounge room wall, my inner self touched into her settledness and I thought, “You and I are going to get on well together”.

Scholarly articles suggest that my Mrs Rembrandt picture was a depiction of the prophetess Hannah. After all she is reading what appears to be a Bible. My own Bible is well thumbed and I like to think that as I age I will find myself in the story of the prophetess Hannah , or is that Anna? Anna, an elderly woman and the first evangelist, proclaiming Jesus’ advent, Anna, a woman reaching into an everyday event and finding there the redemptive action of God. And Anna, a model for women’s ministry in the early Church. Like Mrs Rembrandt I find life and meaning in my Bible.

Sometimes I walk into my bedroom and turn on the table lamp and there she is, sitting so comfortably in her lamplight that I delay drawing the bedroom curtains and sit on the bed and watch her. Outside it’s dark. Her face is partly shadowed and that might be the reason I’m most aware of her during the winter months. Of course it could also be the cosiness of her fur trimmed hat and jacket, but I think it’s more than that.

Winter in Warrandyte means cold mornings, mist drifting through the green of the eucalypts and evenings that close in before 6 o’clock. That morning mist is how I sometimes catch a glimpse of who God is, of the relationship between God and me. I see, but I don’t see. Just when I begin to think that I might understand the mystery of who or what is God, it’s gone.

Mrs Rembrandt sits there in my softly lit, shadowy bedroom reading her Bible and it seems appropriate that she and I would share our God journey. I’m fleetingly reminded of that lovely poem by John of the Cross where he describes walking through the dark to meet God, when God is too close to be seen with the senses but glimpsed with our birthright of inner light, something I glimpse in Mrs Rembrandt.  It’s a wintery thought and a comforting one that I resolve to remember the next time I feel the chill of what I describe as God’s absence.

Mrs Rembrandt and I have lived together for a long time now and I’m rapidly catching up with her. Soon we’ll be two old ladies swapping stories about our children and how well, or not, they have fared!  She’s lived in seven different houses and spent a couple of years in storage as well. Sometimes she hung on the living room wall, more often in the room where I write. Wherever she hangs it’s the way the light comes in from behind her that draws my eye.

She has been a still point in my changing world.

Judith Lynch

Time to go inside

 

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day. If you would like a Mother’s Day reflection there are three in the Tarella Spirituality archives:

Mothering Women

In Praise of Women who Mother

A Litany of Mothering

I’m marking the day by returning (unofficially) to my family name. With a book due to be published later this year it seems more appropriate to do so under my own name. So in future I’ll be signing my posts Judith Scully (and not Lynch).

Meanwhile, here in Melbourne, it’s late autumn. After a summer of meals on the veranda, we’ve moved inside, blown the dust out of the window drapes and ducted heating and looked up favourite recipes for winter soups and slow cooked casseroles.

img_1625Michael Leunig, one of our home-grown prophetic voices, describes this season as ‘time to go inside. It is time for reflection and resonance. It is time for contemplation. Let us go inside.’ Each year as winter comes closer I find myself chasing slivers of sunshiny warmth, and just sitting there – doing nothing, or that’s how it seems.

Being warm and cosy inside when outside is just the opposite has its own kind of stillness. It carries with it an invitation to stop for a while, look back over times and places that have been lost or set aside in the outdoor busyness of summer. Even though we commonly call this reflecting, the way it drifts and swirls our heads is more like day-dreaming. Years back when I was attending a weekly theology class, my attention was hugely drawn to things other than theology- such as planning my outfits for the next week or re-designing the layout of the house I was currently living in. That’s day-dreaming!

I was well into the second half of life before I had the time, the energy or the discipline to understand that reflection involved more than a scattering of information about an issue, or responding intuitively to whatever is happening .The mid-life years were a time to accept that finally I was a grownup and issues that involved choice or loss, even religion or politics, were not as simple as I once thought.

It meant that I needed to get beneath the surface of an issue or topic, to look at it from lots of different angles, to recognise too that my emotions always lurked sneakily in the background and had an influence on my responses. I learnt that reflection was not something I could do in a hurry, or in front of the TV. Deep reflection is just that. It keeps working deep inside me while I do all the everyday stuff that fills my days.

Sometimes we need to day-dream and if we are to grow in wisdom then we need to reflect often and deeply, to stop hedging our thoughts with shoulds and leave space for the maybes. That’s creating a contemplative space.

Leunig says that moving inside gives time for contemplation.  It’s a word with religious overtones and theologians in every religion have written millions of words trying to explain what contemplation is. The word itself incorporates the word ‘temple’, originally seen as a place in the sky where deities lived and the buildings humans made to link it with their own yearnings.

The closest I can come to my understanding of what contemplation seems to be, is in the wintery image of an open fire. Some evenings when it is cold enough to justify lighting the lounge room fire, I sit there in a pocket of silence doing no more than being totally present to the flames as they tumble and leap while the colours blend and change over and over again.

Then it seems to me that contemplation is the quiet space we create within ourselves when we let go of unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others and accept our personal reality, where God dwells. Wordlessly we marvel at its simplicity and rightness.

 Judith Scully

 

 

Being Eastered

Easter celebrations are behind us, the kids are back in school and Anzac Day beckons. The days are closing in earlier and evening meals on the veranda are coming to an end. Somehow the realization that Easter is a season and not just a day has been lost, overtaken, forgotten!

That’s a shame, because more than ever we need Easter. We need to be eastered.  A while back at a regular Sunday Mass, I watched a chubby little girl, no more than 16 months old, dance her way through the Our Father. The congregation sang, she held tight to her father’s hand and danced in time to the music, ending with a decided shake of her nappy clad behind. It was the season of Easter and she was a dancing alleluia.

Right through Lent, even people who rarely attend church have an increased awareness of Jesus’s message to love one another. They raise money for others in need, train for fun runs, buy hot cross buns and anticipate Easter and its celebration. There are Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday prayer gatherings in local parks, church services. Come Easter Tuesday, we pack away any lingering alleluias with the left-over Easter eggs and move on to the next thing. Celebrating Easter

Young children find alleluia a difficult word to pronounce. Most adults  find it a difficult word to live.  All those els seem to originate from the high-pitched tongue trill perfected by rejoicing women from many African and Asian countries. The liturgy of the six weeks of Easter is punctuated by alleluias, because Easter is about more than the death of Jesus and the incomprehensible, faith-battering fact of the resurrection.

The risen Jesus left a trail of joy in his appearances. The women’s words tumbled over each other, their faces glowed as they burst in on the grieving apostles. There were meals sweetened with honeycomb and the physical presence of Jesus, the comfort of an unexpected early morning barbecue on the beach, the shaft of joy that flamed in the hearts of the Emmaus couple, the constant greeting, “Peace be with you”. For six weeks Jesus eastered those who missed him the most.

The memory of those days would carry them as they spread the Good News. Fear would always be just beneath the surface – fear that the task was beyond them, of the aggression they faced, the sacrifices involved. The joy of their Easter days overcame their vulnerabilities, became a strength that saw them through to the end and in time would give hope, strength and joy to each new generation of Christians.

We need that eastering just as much as the apostles did, maybe even more. We need hope that a world that has the weapons to kill each other will choose not to use them. We need to get a lot better at finding the joy that sweetens our Good Friday and Holy Saturday experiences. That joy can be elusive, it’s usually fleeting and it defies description. But it’s there, and we recognise it when we are conscious of an inner voice wordlessly saying, “Peace be with you”.

Judith Lynch