Published on Monday, 6 August 2018

From St Joseph’s Spirituality and Education Centre, Kincumber

From St Joseph’s Spirituality and Education Centre, Kincumber


For many years Sydney Central Coast Presbytery and its predecessors, Kuringai and Sydney North Presbyteries, have held retreats for their ministers at St Joseph’s Spirituality and Education Centre, down by the water at Kincumber South. Australia’s first (Roman Catholic) saint, Mary McKillop, was given the presbytery (the catholic word for “manse”) on this site by the Archbishop of Sydney so that the boys she was caring for in The Rocks would have a more suitable home. Three sisters and twenty two boys arrived by ferry in March, 1887 to this home for boys without homes for over a hundred years. Since then, as a retreat centre it has been a haven of peace for many from all walks of life.


Which shows you that I don’t just frequent cafés, I do catholic retreat centres as well! The coffee may not be as good but the food is superb. Rev Michael Barnes, who until next week will be the minister of my home congregation of Gordon UC, led the retreat on the subject of the Holy Spirit, particularly as the Spirit is portrayed in Mark’s gospel.  As part of our spiritual exercises Michael invited us all to explore our “spiritual autobiography”.


“I have two goals in mind,” wrote Michael.”1) to examine your life in keeping with the saying that ‘the examined life is the one life worth living,’ and 2) to become aware of your ‘spiritual trajectory’ - not just the flow of your life, but also the direction that your life is taking, relative to values and meaning. The second goal, I hope, will apprise and surprise you - that your life has a spiritual trajectory and your life has more than an unfolding, it has a destination that can be conceived in religious terms.”


Urging that “special consideration be given to the earliest years, for ‘as the twig is bent, so the tree grows”, he shared something of his own family life. The era in which you come of age is important. Michael named the decade of the ‘30s the “Depression Era”. He followed this with “the War Years”, and the Conformist, Psychedelic, Excessive and Greed is Good decades. And he mentioned other influences - friends, books, music (by which I deduced that I am a child of the ‘70s: I agree with Homer Simpson’s statement that Rock and Roll reached its peak in 1974…give or take!), and other elements from popular culture.


You are perhaps wondering what all this has to do with Christian spirituality. Well, you can’t really separate spirituality from the rest of your life. T.S Eliot put it like this in Four Quartets:


            “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive  at              the place we started, and to know it for the first time.”


There is a sense in which the purpose of life is to discover who we really are. So what did I discover about myself? Well, I focussed on some of the trajectories my life is taking. I’ll share briefly what I’ve found so far in the hope that you will be stimulated to examine your own life, and perhaps even write your own spiritual autobiography. At the very least keeping a diary and journaling are good things to do. I discovered four trajectories:


From caution to adventure

As a child I was tentative, cautious, even fearful but, contrary to the stereotype, that insists that Christianity is boring, as I grew into my Christian faith from the age of 14 I started having adventures. The greatest of these so far was probably last year’s motorbike ride to there and back again in India, but there have been many others. This should not be surprising. The late great Christian leader John Wimber said that “Faith is spelt R.I.S.K.”. The call to entrust one’s life to God is a call to risk and adventure, whatever that adventure might entail. Paradoxically, it is because our ultimate security is in our loving God that we can have these adventures.


From “being good” to living in and out God’s grace and love

As a child I was a winner of Sunday School and School Speech Day prizes, the sort of conformist who was mortified when one day my teacher said in shocked tones that she was “surprised at me”; and the sort of teenager who was mortified when I used (by mistake, of course!) a common Australian swear word in class one day to describe those who illegally installed bugs in the Watergate Hotel to precipitate the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. It’s taken a long time to learn thoroughly that being good is not the point. Living in and out God’s grace and love is.


From an emphasis on personal salvation to one of restoring the whole earth

As a teenager I came into an evangelical expression of Christian faith. Evangelicalism is a worldwide, transdenominational movement within Protestant Christianity which maintains the belief that the essence of the Gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ's atonement. Evangelicals believe in the centrality of the conversion or "born again" experience in receiving salvation, in the authority of the Bible as God's revelation to humanity, and in spreading the Christian message. Many Uniting Church ministers would at one time or another have counted themselves as evangelicals. Many of these move on. Some reject their evangelical roots altogether, and some of these reject their Christian belief as well. Though I remain grateful for my evangelical foundation I have come to believe that the emphasis upon personal salvation, though necessary, is not a sufficient understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s purpose , I now believe, is not to save some believing humans from the earth, but to restore earth with the cooperation of humans.


From certainty (or security, again) to an acknowledgement that God is a mystery.

My fourth trajectory combines the first and the third. There is much security in the classical evangelical certainties. They are clear, simple and easily understood. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, life tends to be more ambiguous than this. Take the Bible, for example. While as an evangelical I love the Bible, its status as simultaneously God’s Word, written by humans, means that many of the primary class school children whom I teach “scripture” are already uncovering, effortlessly, some of its ambiguities. Of course God is a mystery! I suggest that, whether of not we realise this, the extent to which we attempt to explain, define and dogmatize God is the extent to which we seek to reduce God to our size, and therefore replace God with ourselves.


It’s been good to ponder these things in a Catholic retreat centre. For all their particular faults many in the various Catholic traditions have a wonderful sense of the mystery of God, and are themselves on fascinating trajectories of spiritual exploration.

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