A week or so ago I was in a shopping centre, masked up, on the search for bits and pieces to complement our nearly-but- not- yet- finished kitchen renovation, when I came face to face with a large poster featuring an Aboriginal woman. In that moment present time stopped as the decades rolled back. “That’s Miriam- Rose”, I said, very loudly.
Back in my early thirties when I was still wearing a religious habit, I was sent to teach at the Catholic Mission of Daly River. The school was a small building, just two rooms, me in one with Grade 3 up and my assistant teacher, Miriam-Rose, in the other with the junior classes.
Tall and slender, with a natural elegance that deep down I envied, Miriam-Rose spoke good English and managed her classroom with a competence that I appreciated. Now I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew next to nothing about her life outside the classroom, never even asked. Maybe it was because I was struggling with personal problems that left little room for anyone or anything else. By the end of that year I had left the Northern Territory behind and was back in Melbourne, living a different kind of life.
It was probably about ten years later that I read these words in a piece called Dadirri – written by my Miriam-Rose.
“Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call “contemplation”. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.”
This was a time in my life when I was beginning to look more deeply at the religious traditions and practices that were the underpin of my Catholic faith. As I read, and reread, Miriam-Roses’ words they found a home in me, a place that for much of my life had been empty and waiting. The religious culture I inherited is one which is mostly expressed within a building – architecture, painting, music, sculpture and lots of words.
My 12 years living on Aboriginal missions had drawn me into wide open spaces, spaced out gum trees and a land more brown than gold. Miriam-Roses’ words both encouraged and challenged me to look for ways I could integrate Australian elements into the way I wanted to live out my catholicity. I began to trust the pull I felt to explore places and spaces where God has written and painted my story, the landscapes that had been the backdrop of my life experience, and as such, my God experience.
I wanted to be an Australian Catholic, not a Roman catholic. I wasn’t looking to replace it with a way of being that is known as aboriginal spirituality, but I wanted a spiritualty that was able to integrated into the colours and cycles of the Australian landscape, tactile practices and words that recognise our relationship with each other, with the land, and an appreciation of time that is cyclical, rather than linear.
Simply put, I had begun to dream that some Aboriginal beliefs and practices may one day be seen as a precious gift for the way we Australians live out our Christian faith. Thank you, Miriam-Rose, for your part in my story.
(For more about Miriam-Rose I suggest you search Dadirri)