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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Meditation 1

Lord, I am your child.

In some mysterious sense, my Father, you are hungry for my love.

Your love is mediated through words and the Word,

through sunsets and rain and the whispering trees,

soft shadows on the water.

I was created for friendship with you, my Creator.

I was redeemed for friendship with you, my Saviour.

I am cared for for friendship with you, my ever-present Friend.

Lord, it's not a self-improvement course I want, but you.

We taste thee, O thou living Bread,

And long to feast upon thee still.

We drink of thee the fountainhead,

And thirst our souls from thee to fill.

I have tasted a little of your goodness, Lord,

and it has both satisfied me
and made me hunger for more.

My desire is to desire you more.

Give me a gift of love - for you and for others.

And to journey towards the final self-forgetfulness

- to revel in your love forever.
From Rivers in the Desert edited by Rowland Croucher

Solitude and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is the most representative non-religious Westerner to comprehend solitude and the hermit life. His philosophy of transcendentalism, which paralleled romanticism but was free of its excesses and defects, combined with his scholarly attitude and astute observations on society, politics, and nature, make Thoreau's writings essential to a contemporary application of solitude and the eremitic life. Add to this his willingness to experience this life, his natural curiosity into nature and human psychology, and his very readable style, as reflected by this series of aphorisms from his various writings, and Thoreau offers a perennial voice.

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.-- Walden

By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.-- Journal

I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.-- Journal

I feel the necessity of deepening the stream of my life: I must cultivate privacy. It is very dissipating to be with people too much.-- Journal

I do not know if I am singular when I say that I believe there is no man with whom I can associate who will not, comparatively speaking, spoil my afternoon.--- Journal

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.-- Walden

Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment; that background which the painter may not daub, be he master or bungler, and which, however awkward a figure we may have made in the foreground, remains ever our inviolable asylum, where no indignity can assail, no personality disturb us.-- A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

The man I meet with is not often so instructive as the silence he breaks. -- Journal
I am tired of frivolous society, in which silence is forever the most natural and the best manners. I would fain walk on the deep waters, but my companions will only walk on shallows and puddles.-- Journal

Why will you waste so many regards on me, and not I of my silence? Infer from it what you might from the pine wood. It is its natural condition, except when the winds blow, and the jays scream, and the chickadee winds up his clock. My silence is just as inhuman as that, and no more.-- Familiar Letters

You think that I am impoverishing myself by withdrawing from men, but in my solitude I have woven for myself a silken web or chrysalis, and, nymph-like, shall ere long burst forth a more perfect creature, fitted for a higher society.-- Journal

From Thoreau, A Book of Quotations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

Friday, September 29, 2006

What is it about the desert experience?

Deserts are inherently "stressful" environments - alien to most people.

This applies most particularly to "city folk". But this sense of the alien desert is also reflected in the Bible, and the early Church writers, too. It is tempting to see the desert experience about which people write, as being a response to that environmental stress - the heat, the lack of water, or whatever. Perhaps most obviously, it is the lack of "greenery", which lack we sense as "alien".

To many people, the dryness, the aridity amounts to an "emptiness". But there is a paradox. For me, as an amateur naturalist, the desert is far from empty, or sterile, or lifeless. The life which is there has simply "adapted" to its conditions - of heat and dryness. But life is there, none-the-less. One just needs to know how, where and when to look for it.

However, there is a totally different aspect of the desert experience which I personally find stressful - solitude. When I travelled to the Nine Mile recently, it was with a group, so I was not really "alone". However, there were times available to us all, to seek out solitude if we wished to.

For some people the desert appears to offer a welcome solitude. That is a different "spin" on what the desert can mean to most of us. In my opinion, that requires a great deal of personal resilience, for we humans are in reality almost herd animals, or pack animals. We form societies, and within those, communities. At the personal level, our societies are called "families". We form these social structures to avoid solitude. Solitude is alien to the human condition.

Whether solitude is a threat, or a solace, depends upon the individual.

I can honestly say I was never alone until the age of twenty six years. So, I really notice solitude, and I am not necessarily good at it. Even now, I fill my ears with sound - radio, television, or conversation most of the time. Alternatively, I communicate via the internet and email. My own, or others words are always filling my head. I am seldom without my Mobile Phone. So, take a person like me, completely adjusted to permanent inter-connectedness with other people, and throw me into the desert, and I really notice the change.

For me, the desert experience approaches the social equivalent of "sensory deprivation". So I see the desert experience as essentially the experience of solitude.

For some people, solitude can be a threatening experience. Some people welcome it.


Since moving to Robertson, 4 years ago, I have been living alone. My adult daughter, Zoe, is now living with me. However, over those last 4 years I have been practicing solitude, to a limited extent. I do have the radio. TV is almost irrelevant to me, now. However, I find that I need one human contact per day - however brief, or mundane that might be - such as a brief visit to the village to go to the local shop.

However, when we have a power blackout and a wet fog, or steady drenching rain, either of which might last 3 days, I quickly reach my limit of solitude. 36 hours is my limit, I reckon. After that I start to climb the walls. So, I am not suited to the life of a Taoist monk, in a cave on the hill. This much I know about myself.

I live in a lush green environment. This appears to be the antithesis of a desert experience, but to me it is not. At least, not if you follow my theory that it is solitude, not aridity, which is key to the desert experience.
I write this after an afternoon spent in Wollongong, at a shopping mall, on the last day before a School Holiday break. Imagine the traffic, the excitement in the air. Families everywhere. Noise. Chaos. Hubbub. Flashing signs about "double demerit points". I spent the minimum amount of time there, except for reading "The Daily Telegraph", in a coffee shop (where I escaped, because it was quiet). Reading that paper was a big mistake. Headlines screamed of murders, violence, terrorism. Terrible stories - one shocking story carries the headline "let him starve". It is about a suspect of the Lakemba drive-by shootings. Whatever happened to the "presumption of innocence"?

After an hour in Wollongong, I could barely wait to "escape" back to my mountain-top. Solitude suddenly appeared very welcome indeed.

But to people inured to this kind of hectic life pace, solitude would be totally threatening.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality 

Desert Footprints

Miss Eagle's friend Gerard Guiton has written 'Desert Footprints'. Gerry is a Quaker and a writer. Read here about the launch earlier this year of Gerry's book, The Growth and Development of Quaker Testimony 1652-1661 and 1960-1994, Conflict, Non-Violence and Conciliation. This is the published version of his doctoral thesis. He has been working on a version with a more popular text. Gerry has also been involved during 2005/06 in an international dialogue within the Historic Peace Churches sponsored by the World Council of Churches.


God . . . is the underlying blazing Spirit, that seed of all seeds, wherein lay hidden the world and all its creatures. It is life, speech, mind, reality, immortality. This Entity, that is such, is true; it is the life force.

Mundukya (Mundaka) Upanishad (c700-600 B.C.E.)

It was 1980 when, standing in the centre of the Australian continent, I encountered one of the most spiritual moments of my life. Scanning the far distance with its shimming, intense and brittle heat, I suddenly realised in that solitary microcosmos, the strange Mars-scape all around me, I was connected to something Other.

It was something that gave slight to an inability to contact anyone. It was at once scarey and joyous that hundreds of miles lay between 'civilisation' and me. Here in this parched world with its flat horizon encircling in 360 degrees, the thinnest of edges between vivid ochre and the deepest of blue sky, distance became surreal.

Time, too, was suspended and I found myself breathing a profound silence in what was a vast and open cathedral, a silence broken only by the rare ‘squawk’ of a lone bird flying lazily by. This was a moment of mysterium. I was in God, in Love itself.

It was a mesmerising encounter.

But just as it held me in its sway, something distracted me. A rock began to move! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was enough to startle me for a split second until I realised, of course!, that the "rock" was a magnificently camouflaged lizard. My new companion scurried swiftly across the sand only to disappear under a nearby boulder. It left little prints in its wake.

The mixture of deep stillness and then this instantaneous, frenetic rush made a sharp contrast and yet I sensed somehow that the lizard, the land and I were singing a kind of hymn to creation, a hymn of completeness.

Only much later did I come to understand a deeper significance to this episode.

So often I take the beauty of the world for granted and I know I would appreciate it and its spirit better if I cared to wander more frequently into my interior desert. Like all deserts, mine is not a barren wilderness but a giant space in which I can discover God again and again. It is also a place where I cannot hide from God, a place of contrast between the truth and what is not true, where delusions are known for what they are. This desert is a constant reminder that God’s bounty knows no horizon, and that, like the little angelos of God's imagining, my friend the lizard, I too can leave footprints - of love and compassion.

Stephen Crisp (1628-92): When I believe that is that Way, then this Belief obligeth [people] to a constant taking heed to their Ways, to their Foot-steps. And here they who are thus exercised, are in a tender Care of every Step they take in their Way.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tree of Life

Thanks to Miss Eagle for the invitation to post on this blog.

On the first day out at "The Nine Mile", I pointed out to her that one of the local shrubs was absolutely buzzing with the sounds of insects.

The shrub, a form of Emu Bush, or Boobialla (Boobialla montana), was heavily in flower, with insignificant looking white flowers, with purple spots.

I should say "tiny" not insignificant - for we tend to view things from the human perspective only.

"Lady Bird" Beetle
The flowers were far from insignificant to the thousands of ants, wasps, "Lady Bird" Beetles, flies and other insects which were crawling all over the bush. Also there were birds flitting in and out of this tree.

That's when Miss Eagle dubbed it the "Tree of Life" (not original, but apt).

The whole tree was literally "humming" - you could hear the noise from metres away (if you listened). I guess, the point is those last few words.

As with most things in this harsh outback (lets call it "desert") landscape, one has to be "tuned in" to realise what is going on around you. Life in the desert gets on with doing its own thing, when circumstances are right for it. Clearly, just now, after an inch or so of Spring Rains in the district, was the right season for the Boobialla to flower, and the insects responded to that "invitation".
Ichneumonid Wasp
hanging upside down
Some insects would get nectar or pollen from the flowers. In turn, they would (hopefully) pollinate the flowers. That action is necessary for the plant - that allows the plant to set seed for future generations.

Other insects, such as hover flies and ants would be there to keep the plant free of damaging sucking insects, which otherwise would weaken the plant. The wasps (left) would be there looking for caterpillars to capture, in which to lay their eggs. The Lady Bird beetle (above) would be looking for aphids.

Later in the season, if the insects have done their job of pollination (and they were surely working on it when I was there) this bush will produce succulent berries. Those berries will attract Emus, and other birds, and probably small marsupials, to eat the fruit, to disperse the seeds away from the base of this plant, and to help them germinate elsewhere.
A bush meditation

The whole circle of life was laid out before our eyes, in this one single shrub. It gives one plenty on which to meditate - on the interconnectedness of things, on their dependence one upon another, and on their bounty - even in an otherwise harsh desert environment.

Life keeps on giving - even in the desert. It is a great and wondrous paradox.

Desert books

By Ian Robinson March 2005

Title in bold is the place to start. Where a book has #, it denotes an explicitly Christian viewpoint, for those who want to start from there.

1. Explorers and Travellers
Shephard, Mark. (1999). THE SIMPSON DESERT. Richmond SA, Corkwood Press. A superb survey of the Simpson including black and white history, environment and how to travel.

Beadell, Len. (1976). BEATING AROUND THE BUSH. Adelaide, Rigby.
One of Len Beadell’s series about making the “Bomb Roads” with the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party during the 50’s and 60’s. There are other similar books.

Brock, Daniel. G. (1975). TO THE DESERT WITH STURT- a Diary of the 1844 Expedition. Adelaide, Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. #
Daniel Brock, a Methodist, was not named in Sturt’s journals of this expedition, so low in the hierarchy was he. This journal he kept for his mother.

Kelly, Kieran. (2003). TANAMI - on Foot Across Australia's Desert Heart. Sydney, Macmillan.
A Sydney stockbroker’s personal struggle across the Tanami Desert, to walk where no white man had ever walked.

Peasley, W. J. (1983). THE LAST OF THE NOMADS. Fremantle Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
An account of the rescue of the last two nomads to leave the western deserts in 1977.

Rothwell, Nicholas. ( 2003). WINGS OF THE KITE HAWK. Sydney, Picador.
A famous Australian journalist writes on many levels about his experiences in Inland Australia, including explorers, great characters, sense of place and spirituality

Williams, Diana. (2001). HORIZON IS WHERE HEAVEN AND EARTH MEET. Sydney, Bantam Press, Random House Publishers. #
An autobiography, from her career in New York banking to her long and happy marriage with Ron Williams, an aboriginal elder and evangelist.

2. Artists and Sense of Place
Haynes, Rosslyn. D. (1998). SEEKING THE CENTRE. Cambridge and Melbourne, Cambridge University Press. A cultural history about attitudes to the desert, with extensive coverage of explorers, artists, writers and film.

Cameron, John. (Ed) (2003). CHANGING PLACES – Re-imagining Australia. Sydney, Longueville Books.
Fascinating collections of writers explore what it means to have a sense of place.

Malouf, David. (1998). A SPIRIT OF PLAY - the Making of Australian Consciousness. Sydney, ABC Books. The 1998 Boyer Lectures by this famous author from both Queensland and Lebanon heritage.

3. Theological Thinkers
Brown, Cavan. (1991). PILGRIM THROUGH THIS BARREN LAND. Sutherland, NSW, Albatross. # Brown served as a patrol minister in the Pilbara for seven years.

RAINBOW SPIRIT THEOLOGY: towards an Australian Aboriginal theology Publisher: Blackburn, Vic.: HarperCollinsReligious, 1997 #
A group of elders reflect on the meeting point of Christian and aboriginal spirituality.

Lane, Belden. C. (1998). THE SOLACE OF FIERCE LANDSCAPES - exploring desert and mountain spirituality. New York, Oxford University Press. #
Both personal and scholarly, Lane writes elegantly of desert spirituality in general from the North American context.

4. Spirituality
Stockton, Eugene. D. (1998). WONDER: A Way To God. Australia, St Pauls Publications, Society of St Paul.# The third in series, a sheer delight to read.

Kohn, Rachael. (2003). THE NEW BELIEVERS - Re-imagining God. Sydney, HarperCollins Publishers. An ABC broadcaster, Kohn surveys several major trends in spiritual issues in Australia. Well researched and critically appraised.

Tacey, David. J. (1995). EDGE OF THE SACRED. East Melbourne, HarperCollins.
A lecturer in English from La Trobe University, this text has raised many questions about secular and transcendent, religion and spirituality.

Williams, Rowan. (2003). SILENCE AND HONEY CAKES - The Wisdom Of The Desert. Oxford, Lion Publishing. # Now Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams brings to life the classic Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4-5th century.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Spirit's Rest

Rainbow on The Barkly

life is one of presence to the desert, presence to God. For the desert is an empty and vast symbol of the unknowable God.

William Johnston in The Wounded Stag

The Barkly is a distinct region extending across the Queensland and Northern Territory border, not too far from the centre of Australia. While the region itself is distinct in geology, geography, and culture its boundaries are blurred, difficult to outline definitively.

One can enter upon The Barkly without knowing. There is no sign to provide direction or tell of arrival there. The one sign - sacrament even - is a highway, The Barkly Highway. It travels laterally through the region in a more or less straight line for not quite a thousand kilometres. It penetrates a land of legend yet travellers who are not familiar with the resource, cultural or historic richness of The Barkly feel they are in a barren and desolate land.

A traveller may unknowingly pass one of the greatest pastoral holdings in the world, through country traversed to this day by people of traditional and diverse language groupings without anything to draw attention to the fact. Occasionally, evidence of the region’s geological richness is seen in towns and mining superstructure.

On the NT side, The Barkly covers approximately 250,000 square kilometres with a population of approximately 6,000 people. People of the continental fringe ask “Why do you live there?” They have a picture of stagnation and boredom and isolation. They do not understand that life here is one of “presence to the desert, presence to God.” This is a place to be present to people and their cultures.

What does this “presence” mean? Our Australian interior is old country and it is palpably so. Come upon The Barkly just east of Cloncurry, Queensland. Travel through the Argyllas. To one whose spirit belongs in The Barkly, and who has travelled gradually from the urbanised coastal fringes of the continent, the spirit sings on arrival.

This is home. This is rest for the body, soul and spirit. Here is healing. To travel eastward from Mount Isa to Cloncurry, one has a vista of vast ages imposing the elements on a continually worn landscape.

Travel across the vast distances between Tennant Creek and the Queensland-Northern Territory border and one is conscious of humanity’s place in the scheme of things. Distance, vastness, isolation, and extremes of climate are overwhelming here. The traveller is not in a comfortable landscape. Here the landscape not only surrounds utterly, it penetrates one’s being.

There are no huge trees. There is abundant flora which does not grow tall. Much of it hugs the ground, staying close to make the most of what little moisture there may be and to present a low profile to the desert wind.

In making one’s life present to the desert, it is possible - as in all things - to see positive and negative results. For those whom the desert has adversely overwhelmed, the spirit may be left barren, parched, and cracked. Unable to give forth life.

For those who have allowed themselves to be open to the desert, who have absorbed its beauty as well as its harshness, there is abundant life. The secret waterfilled places are known. The rich lodes of quartz hanging on tightly to precious gold are treasured in deep places. There is food from the grassland and language and culture to allow expression, celebration and remembrance.

The Barkly appears flat and unchanging but there are the high places. The patriarchal literature of the Old Testament tells of the worship of El Shaddai on the high places. These are places of vista. In The Barkly, suddenly, one may find oneself alone gazing out across the vastness from stunning vantage.

There is a place when travelling east on The Barkly Highway near Alexandria where suddenly there is the realisation of a high place. I once came to this place in the early evening of a long summer twilight. A 240 degree vista of golden grassed plain was before me. Above it hung a heavy storm-grey sky filled with lightning dancing from horizon to horizon: a timeless theatrical performance from the drama of eternity.

When I travel north from Tennant, the road to Renner Springs provides high places to lift my spirit and cause it to rejoice. I look across expanses of countryside without a sign of anything that has to do with a human being. It is truly wilderness without habitation.

Presence to the desert, presence to God? The former permits the latter. Being present to the desert takes one from a zone of comfort. It shatters and remoulds preconceived ideas. It relies on the experiential not the idyllic nor the theoretical. It calls forth the tangible into the spiritual and allows the spiritual to inform earthly reality. It means exposure to elemental force. It becomes an incarnation of spirit and matter as real as the Christian theology of God became Man and dwelt among us.

To place one’s self in the desert is to place one’s self in the presence of God. It is stepping into the place of vulnerability. No longer the doer but the done to. No longer the knower but the seeker. No longer the lover but the loved. No longer owning but sharing. From here, the place of spirit’s rest, becomes the place of spirit’s growth.

© Brigid O’Carroll Walsh 2000

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Desert confrontation or desert retreat

Miss Eagle has entitled this blog To the Desert. This is an ancient Christian practice across the globe, and across cultures that Christians find themselves in. In the desert, the individual is confronted mentally, physically, spiritually, and environmentally. Some have opted for a life lived full-time in the desert. Others go to the desert to be re-created, to provide a great focus on communion with the Creator, to sustain themselves. Then on return to mainstream life - which at this time is all too often an urban/suburban lifestyle - the riches and richness gained in the desert is brought into daily life. In short, the desert is with us even when we are remote from it. The desert has transformed and enriched us and shown us a new reality. For some insight into this process, read Michael Kelly's account of another Broken Hill experience undertaken this year. 

Desert Christians: An Introduction To The Literature Of Early Monasticism 

Interested in Desert Spirituality

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Ian Robinson at The Living Desert, Broken Hill

Miss Eagle publishes below a letter from her good friend, the Rev Ian Robinson. Ian is a Uniting Church Minister based in Perth, West Australia. Miss Eagle is a friend of both Ian Robinson and Michael Kelly. She first met Ian and Michael at Shared Meanings, a retreat attended by 135 people at the Australian National University in December 2000. They have remained in touch ever since.

Miss Eagle commends their request to you.
Both Fr Michael Kelly
(Benedictine, Arcadia, NSW)
and Rev Ian Robinson
(Spirit Journeys,and Australian Research Institite in Desert Spirituality (ARIDS))
invite you to offer your details into a network on Christian Desert Spirituality.
We feel that this interest is a God-blown wind of the spirit at this time.
Initially, we are wondering just who is doing what,
since we are both awareof some others in addition to ourselves,
but the desert is a big place and…
We need to plead with you to pass this around as widely as possible
to your networks for return to Ian Robinson by the end of September.
Ian will compile the information so send it to idtr@westnet.com.au
with the following information
in the following four categories (you may fit more than one).
A. Name and contact details.
B. Brief description of interest /activity.(100 words max.)
C. Category/categories of your interest/activity?
1. Those who are doing desert retreat journeys from towns .
2. Those who are following the Desert Fathers and Mothers in non-desert settings
3. Those who are resident in a retreat centre in the desert itself .
4. Those who are doing relevant research or resource-writing.
D. I would like to receive news on Desert Spirituality happenings.
E. I am willing to be listed on a web page.
What will happen to the information?
Firstly, knowing what is available could be useful to seekers in this area.
For those who are willing, we can post it on a web page. (see E above)
Secondly, it may also be useful for passing on
relevant news, courses, conferences on Desert Spirituality.
This list will not be passed to anyone else for any other purposes.
If you wish to receive no such news,
please still let us know what you are doing and add the note at the bottom
that you wish to receive no further communication. (see D above)
If you know of something happening
but you don’t know their contact details
and can not forward this email to them,
please let us know whatever you can about them
and Ian will try to chase them up.
Ian D.T. Robinson

Spirit Journeys

Do you wish to take time away from mainstream living to refresh and re-create in the Australian landscape? Go to Spirit Journeys and check out what they have to offer.
Spirit Journeys is not a tour company, nor do leaders receive remuneration. Spirit Journeys is led by a network of people wishing to offer others opportunities for personal and spiritual growth, and experiences of desert and wilderness. Leaders have clocked up many kilometres journeying in the various deserts of Australia and in other wilderness areas. They bring wide experience in team leadership, community engagement and reflection in many contexts, local and national.
Miss Eagle has recently returned from God Outback - a journey to Broken Hill where the venue was The Nine Mile, a sheep station situated just outside Broken Hill right next door to The Living Desert. You can read more about this at The Eagle's Nest and The Trad Pad as well as Denis Wilson's blog, The Nature of Robertson.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Defining Desert Spirituality