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Tuesday, 27 September 2011 15:13

Discovering the sense of the sacred

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An eager crowd of three hundred gathered on the 9 August at Genazzano FCJ College, Kew, to hear Emeritus Bishop of Toowoomba, Rev. William Morris, deliver the John Wallis Memorial Lecture. On census night it was wonderful to have a gathered group keen to listen to the wisdom of a Church elder as he elaborated on his theme for the evening, ''Discovering the Sense of the Sacred'.

Father John Wallis was the founder, in Tasmania in 1944, of an Australian order of religious women, the Missionary Sisters of Service. Father John identified and responded to the needs of those on the margins. Today the motto Into the highways and byways (Luke 14:21-24) exemplifies where the Sisters seek to serve. Their charism is one of deep love and friendship for people and the Earth. They are responding in numerous ways of outreach to those who are voiceless or disenfranchised.  They believe in the power of community and compassion to heal.

Father John’s vision was vast and practical and he encouraged people to look at big maps and beyond. Today , the John Wallis Foundation aims to continue the vision and mission envisaged by Father John and enacted by the Sisters in their everyday interactions with those in need.

The evening began with Chair of the Foundation, Chris Smith, welcoming the audience and rekindling his memories of Father John on this, the tenth anniversary of his death. Mr Smith noted that the Sisters were also affectionately known as the caravan nuns and that, in their early years, the caravan doubled as chapels and classrooms or loungerooms - depending on the place, time and circumstance of those to whom the Sisters ministered.

The current congregational leader, Sister Bernadette Wallis (Father John’s niece), reminisced about her much loved uncle and the story of his vocation to the priesthood. She remarked that he was a “stretcher of minds and hearts” and that one of his favourite maxims was “Time, patience and the grace of God”.

Bishop Morris’ address was punctuated with illustrative stories and anecdotes, aimed at reminding the audience of the sacred all around. He referred to Nietzsche’s oft quoted phrase, “God is dead”, and filled out that quote with what follows, in which Nietzsche’s madman shouts at the consequences of our killing of God: a culture in which God is no longer part of the air people breathe. In this secular, pluralistic and consumerist age of market values, spiritual sensibilities seem to have become redundant. The bishop spoke about the divergence between sacred and profane space; sacred space having one centre point enfleshed in salvation history, whilst profane space has multiple points of reference and is besieged by spurious fluidities.

Bishop Morris incorporated the wisdom and research of theologians, saints and philosophers to add to his message of the primacy of the sacred in our lives. He reminded us, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, that the mystery of God is in our midst, but because the world’s din is loud we cannot hear God. The bishop related this to a telling recent social experiment undertaken by The Washington Post. World renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, busked to little notice and a few odd coins in a subway near Capitol Hill. Three days earlier he had sold out Carnegie Hall with seats at $100 and received a standing ovation for his virtuosity. The incongruity of the reception of his talent caused the Bishop to wonder that if we fail to recognise talent because it is in an unexpected environment, then what else are we missing? What do we fail to notice?

The Washington commuters were too busy on their way to work to stop and listen,  preoccupied as they were with grabbing a coffee, clocking on, making that first appointment or meeting and getting down to the business of the day. They had failed to hear or even notice the strains of beautiful music – and those few who did recognise the talent or throw a few coins did not have the time to dawdle appreciatively.

Bishop Morris reminded the audience that living in today’s world was a matter of balance and that Christians were urged to live the paradox of the cross and resurrection. This life choice was not an either/or paradigm, but a both/and equation enabling the seeking person to ask and answer the brave questions of the heart. How often do we ask ourselves whether we are trying to live authentic lives in search of the truth? The bishop also reminded us that our life situations are not our lives; that we are not what we do, but who we are.  He posed that soul-searching question: Are we living out of our ego or our essence?

Bishop Morris referred to Cistercian monk and theologian, Thomas Merton, and the concept of realised escatology, which is at the heart of Christian humanism. It is a way of living now for those who believe. He asked that we continue to acknowledge the limitlessness of God, avoiding definition of who and what God is and does; that we be people of openness and co-creators in transformation.  We are invited to make God real for ourselves and for others.

In a brief interval audience members were invited to write down questions. Margaret Coffey, from the ABC Encounter program, interviewed the bishop and incorporated a number of these questions into a humorous and enlightening dialogue. Bishop Morris emphasised the importance of reflection and contemplative action.  He acknowledged the great spirituality harboured in our youth and how this is crucially engaged through issues of social justice, ecology and sustainability. He argued that the Church needs to capture this energy so that the mission and service of the next generation of leaders is ready to take on the challenge of being in the Church in the 21st century.

The Bishop reminded us that the Body of Christ, our holy and apostolic church, needs to breathe together. We need to recapture the fidelity of belonging. He concluded that we are all equal before God; we are all invited to the dance of the Trinity.

For the 300 gathered this was an evening that prioritised the sacred over the secular; an evening that reminded us, in the words of Teilhard de Chardin that “God is at the heart and beyond of everything”. The audience left, warm in the knowledge that they had, under Bishop William Morris’ wise guidance, rediscovered the sense of the sacred for themselves.