Sermons given by Rev Dr Brian Brown for the North Lake Macquarie Congregations
PENTECOST FROM BELOW Delivered to Boolaroo Uniting Church - 4th June 2023
Psalm 8:1 “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth”.
Over recent decades the church in Australia has managed by and large to move Christmas out of its wintry European context, and reframe the season as one where “the red dust is over the town”, rather than snow. We have not, however, made a similar contextual adjustment to our thinking about Pentecost.
When traditional European religious culture speaks of the human experience of God, it usually expresses this in terms of God “coming down” to be among humanity, or humanity having to reach up for the Divine. They built lofty cathedrals that emphasise the vertical quality of the divine human relationship. “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”, and disappeared into the clouds at the Ascension. Pentecost is depicted in biblical tongues of fire descending to anoint the first apostles, along with a seemingly extra-terrestrial “rushing mighty wind”.
In his initial work on Australian spirituality “Edge of the Sacred”, David Tacey reflects on the nature of Aboriginal spirituality where the ancestral supernatural is experienced in the landscape itself, where sacred space is often located below one’s feet, and power and energy arises from deep down. In the language of Jungian depth psychology, emergence from the unconscious into consciousness finds a dramatic geological parallel in the great uplifts of the Central Australian landscapes, of which the sandstone monolith of Uluru is the most dramatic.
In summary, Tacey considers the European Australian to be afraid of such natural forces, which is why we tend to congregate on the eastern edge of the continent- as in AD Hope’s poem Australia, “…Where second-hand Europeans pullulate timidly on the edge of an alien shore”.
Tacey proposes that “…whereas the old European alchemists made gold in their dark, vapourous chambers, we in Australia… discover symbolic gold by direct encounter with the landscape….Our spiritual way here cannot be…a work against nature. There is too much nature in Australia, too much rock, too much prima materia or untransformed nature….The entire heroic fantasy about subduing nature, conquering Gaia (or Everest) or controlling mother earth is a European fantasy, which can never work in Australia. The very notion that spirit is opposed to matter cannot take root here. Our spiritual mode will have to be ecological, a work with nature.”
Perhaps this is why so many are morally offended when, having ripped the overburden from the earth to reach the coal below, mining companies sell the residual asset to a shell company, which, faced with the huge clean-up bill, files for bankruptcy. There was in fact never any genuine intention of remediating the land.
In drawing the parallel with a Jungian understanding of the human psyche, Tacey goes on, “But the Australian landscape is like the unconscious itself; if you respect it and realise the ego can never hope to assimilate, conquer or transform it, you are allowed to survive. That is, and must be, our humble, Aboriginal way, a shamanic way. Poet Les Murray has said that the sheer space and size of this country is ‘one of the great, poorly explored resources of this country’, since ‘in the huge spaces of the outback, ordinary souls expand into splendid.’”
Spending six days in Central Australia in 2021 has given me just a glimmer of understanding about what drives the raw spirituality of the land, starting with Uluru. It was only as I stood there watching this awesome spectacle through the phases of its day, and saw its near vertical striations that I began to understand how it was formed- how the sediments of an eroding mountain range were compressed from above by rising seas, and heated from below, to form the solid grey sandstone, which was later thrust skyward and twisted by the near unimaginable force of shifting tectonic plates, while most of the great rock still remained underground. As it stood there and weathered, it accumulated its rouge makeup from the oxidising iron on its skin.
Meanwhile, not all that far away, a similar process was happening which eventually exposed the many heads of Kata Tjuka (formerly known as The Olgas). Here, the rock is not the same solid sandstone as Uluru, but a hard-baked conglomerate.
Then, well down the road towards Alice Springs, sits the glorious King’s Canyon, where dramatic chasms were formed through the literal splitting then eroding of the giant rock masses, leaving in places sheer cliffs. The forces of the earth itself have created, over some 350 million years, landscapes of dramatic beauty which aroused in some people, and certainly this country’s original inhabitants, a profound sense of being in the midst of the spiritual in the cathedrals from down under.
The Todd River in Alice Springs, has none of the awesome geological wonder of the others, but makes a cogent point. As our tour guide at the Telegraph Station said, here even the rivers flow upside down. The water is in fact usually below the surface, and as such was able to sustain a significant population of intrepid frontiers-people who created and maintained the telegraph link from Adelaide to Darwin. Refreshment from below.
The point I am trying to make today is about the potential for enrichment of our spiritual experience and psychic health by engaging with an earthed and grounded spirituality, one that is inspired by a first-hand experience of the land and the landscape. It need not compete with our more traditional spiritual experience, but perhaps gives us a new dynamic in the experience of Pentecost “from below”, as it were. Like the literal emergence of Uluru, in spiritual practices like meditation we can draw from below our consciousness a healing energy which we might otherwise have never found from looking for God in the sky. In such spaces we may find a “Garden of Eden” like that of King’s Canyon in the crevices of our own souls, a place to go to for much-needed nourishment and inspiration.
(I am not implying that there is no vertical dimension to Aboriginal spirituality. With the kind of night skies available to them, who would not gaze upward for spiritual direction in the signs and visions of the sacred? Yet even here, I am led to believe, indigenous astronomy was somewhat different. For example, while our astronomic and astrological forebears saw meaning in constellations of stars, the Aboriginal astronomers looked at the spaces created between the astrological formations, and saw the giant dark emu outlined there.)
We can glean from gospel references to the spirituality of Jesus that being in the quiet, even desolate places and spaces can bring deep comfort and enormous energy. Following his baptism, he faced his demons in the wilderness, and was ministered to by angels. Grieving the death of John the Baptist, he took his followers to a quiet place, as he did when the needy crowds threatened to overwhelm them. He respected the temple, but railed at its misuse, and in extreme distress, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane.
In such places, and in such practices, we meet God and find ourselves. Just as music would be banal without the rests between the notes, spiritual seekers find nurture in the resting places, the dark emptiness, the COVID lockdowns of our lives. By staying with the experience of wilderness, be it literal or metaphorical, we invite the rising within our spirits of the formerly repressed unconscious forces which cause havoc in the dark, but are an enriching golden shadow energy when brought into the light of the conscious mind. We choose to embrace peace and replenishing restfulness rather than anxiously accumulate a stockpile of toilet paper. Life is enriched in its complexity, the breadth and depth of its experience. In its vertical and its horizontal dimensions we draw energy from above and below. Spiritual practice draws power from a singular focus in an enduring present moment. This can happen in a lush crevice of a Central Australian canyon, a quiet pew in a European cathedral, or even in the single-minded nurturing of what grows in our own back yard. I also see spiritual drawing power in the curiously Aussie activity of the grey nomads in their open-ended excursions to the interior and beyond. The questions of the first half of life are different to those of the second, and we must seek answers in a different way and place. Les Murray was right- “In the huge spaces of the outback, ordinary souls expand to splendid.”
A D Hope caught a glimpse of the transformational possibilities for pale-skinned newbies in this awesomely vast and untapped wilderness of spiritual possibility: “Yet there are some like me turn gladly home from the lush jungle of modern thought, to find the Arabian desert of the human mind, hoping if still from the deserts the prophets come. Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare, springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes the learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes which is called civilisation over there.”
Valuable though it is, there is a place beyond “learned doubt”, a rich wilderness where, as the one who found his calling there said, “You shall find rest for your souls.”