My first ever plane trip was in 1959 – Sydney to Darwin. It was a daytime flight, the sky was cloudless and from my window seat I thought I was looking into forever. It was vast, it was brown and it was breathtaking. If I’d been as familiar with the psalms then, as I am now, I might have exclaimed; My God, how great you are! Clothed in majesty and splendour, wrapped in a robe of light! You stretch out the heavens like a tent . . . (Ps 104)
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In my early childhood I had absorbed a vision of landscape that was flat and nearly featureless. My mother was born into a farming family on the edge of the Little Desert, where the soil was sandy and vegetation sparse. She married a boy from the city but I spent many childhood summers on family farms in the area. In the scrapbook of my memory I have an image of a long straight line ruled across stretched out paddocks and a deep blue sky.
In his book, Someone Keeps Sending Me Flowers, Graham English says, `Draw Australia?
Draw a straight line’, says Ogburn. He’s a painter.
‘God in Australia is a vast blue and pale gold and red-brown landscape’, says Les Murray. He’s a poet.
God is in that straight line stretching out and out. God is in that pale gold and red-brown. And the cockatoos laugh with the galahs. What a God to make this fabulous place!
Even so, the majority of Australians live around its blue and green rim. Early European settlers who gradually made their way over The Great Dividing Range, found a land that became drier the more they pushed on. From them we have inherited a deep awe, respect and fear of all that empty space. It’s intimidating but it can also be exhilarating.
I do wonder if the pull we feel to visit desert spaces could be one of God’s gifts to Australians. As I’ve said before, we are quietly spiritual, not godless. There’s something about surfing, fishing, gardening and bushwalking that hints at transcendence. Transcendence happens when something draws me out beyond what my spirit can encompass.
It can be as magnificent as Australian unrolling beneath the wings of a plane or the sun setting at Mindil beach. It can be as simple as watching a child sleep, or the silence of dad’s backyard shed. You can feel it, like an inner tug, an awareness of feelings that you can’t put words around but you suspect that they contain the meaning of life. For a few moments you have a suspicion that this might be God.
The desert spaces of Australia hold the gift of silence. The Aboriginal people understand this well. For thousands of years they storied the land into their culture, singing and dancing the transcendence they experienced. It’s a gift that has the power to work its way into the way we develop as a nation.
If Pope Francis and his Latin America roots are now the wellspring of a new era of church reform, maybe some time the Australian contribution to future Church will not be a Cardinal with a financial bent, but a widespread contemplative approach to the way we life is lived.