Having read an article on the similarities of Aboriginal spirituality in relation to early Christian desert spirituality some years ago, Sr Antonia Curtis OSB of the Benedictine Abbey in Jamberoo, dreamed of creating a retreat bringing the two together.
Now she is preparing to launch a new online retreat “Sacred Connections” on 12 February 2023.
“Some months ago I saw a picture of (Gweagal Aboriginal woman) Theresa Ardler presenting a copy of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” to Pope Francis,” says Sr Antonia. Having reached out to her, Theresa readily agreed to join the project. “And so, we were off on this journey together,” Sr Antonia recalls.
The retreat focuses on the values “Silence/Listening”, “Reverence” and “Community”.
When asked why, Sr Antonia explains the close connection between the Aboriginal Spirituality and Benedictine Spirituality. “From what I had learned about Aboriginal Spirituality I knew that these values were integral to their way of life,” she says, “and of course they are key values in Benedictine Spirituality.
“So I knew we had a match.”
Theresa too felt the link, particularly in the hospitality she encountered when visiting the Abbey at Jamberoo.
“What struck me then was the hospitality offered to guests and how like Aboriginal hospitality it was.
“Hospitality links right into silence/listening, reverence and community. All overlap and flow into one another,” she says.
Sr Antonia found herself better understanding the possibilities that arise with true depth of listening and silence through working with Theresa.
“I learnt that if I tread more softly on the earth it will teach me things, important things such as peace in my heart, a sense of God pervading the universe and a deeper reverence for all of creation, including all people. I learnt that we can learn so much from our Indigenous brothers and sisters and that we would be helped considerably if we listen to them and ask them to teach us how to live in harmony,” she says.
She hopes a wide variety of people will attend and gain value from the retreat, no matter their background whether they are involved with the Church, or marginalised and on the fringes.
“This is a retreat about trying to connect to the essence of things, the unity of everything,” she says. “We are all one, or at least Jesus hoped that we would all become one. We still have a way to go.”
She especially hopes the message that Western Society needs Indigenous Spirituality will resonate widely.
“My hope would be that we in Western society would learn to humbly and reverently acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, despite our wealth, our technology and our modern ways of living and being,” she says.
“We are actually drowning in all of that whilst our Aboriginal brothers and sisters are feasting, as Patrick White wrote in ‘A Fringe of Leaves’.
“The quote is something like “…the whites were dying while the Aboriginals were feasting”. We need to ask our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to teach us how to live in harmony with the universe.”
Sr Antonia and Theresa have reached out to an international audience, hoping people from around the world will be encouraged by the retreat to listen to other First Nations people around the world.
“I hope this retreat might encourage people in other countries, as well as in Australia, to start communicating more with their First Nations people and encountering their spirituality and culture,” says Theresa.
In late 2022 the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church recognised Aboriginal Spirituality in the Catholic context, noting that used appropriately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander symbols and rituals enrich Catholic celebrations. It also noted in its first decree that the Australian Church will not ‘fully be the Church that Jesus wants us to be until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made their contribution to the life of the Church and “until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.”’[i]
The retreat starts on 12 February 2023 and consists of six conferences plus a video-recorded conversation between Theresa and Sr Antonia. Details and registration are at jamberooabbey.org.au/retreats/online-retreats.
[i] Fifth Plenary Council of Australia “Reconciliation: Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts”