Introduction I first met Miriam-Rose through her writing and artwork, back in the early 1990s, when Studies of Religion was first introduced as a new HSC course. For the first time ever, Religion, compulsory in all Catholic schools, could actually count towards the TER (as it was called in those days). We had a long line of students opting to do the one-unit course. And we, as teachers, needed to prepare ourselves to teach it. We were heavily in-serviced and I still have folders of copious notes handed out to us by CEO.
Most of us were thrilled with the compulsory part of the course Aboriginal Spirituality. 1993 was the Year of Indigenous people. We had Aboriginal guest speakers and dancers out to the school. Danny Eastwood, a local aboriginal artist, was invited to paint a mural on the walls of the year 12 common room. He gently suggested that our Year 12 art students be part of the creative process evidence of the co-operative attitude inherent in indigenous people; Pope John Paul 11s address in Alice Springs in 1986 suddenly became a vital resource; there was a very real awareness of Aboriginal issues and a very genuine willingness on the part of white Australians to right the wrongs of the past; the word reconciliation now meant more than going to confession and sorry was a communal cry for forgiveness; Midnight Oil sang Truganini; Mabo, and later, Wik, were proof that finally, Aboriginal issues and people had become credible! And then, the Stolen Generation Bringing them Home report into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families revealed the sword piercing the heart of this ancient people. They were heady days!
Teaching Aboriginal Sprirituality !! With all the good will in the world (and there really was a lot of it around!) I look back and realize how little I really understood with my heart and soul. But one gem which I have treasured over the years, and re-read with ever-deepening awareness, is the wisdom of Dadirri Dreaming by Miriam-Rose.
IT IS INNER DEEP LISTENING AND QUIET, STILL AWARENESSDadirri recognizes 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 river bank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find peace in this silent awareness The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole againTHE QUIET STILLNESS AND THEWAITINGOur Aboriginal culture has taught us to Be still and to wait. We do not try to hurry things up. We let them follow their natural Courses like the seasons. We watch the moon in each of its phases. We wait for the rain to fill our rivers And water the thirsty earth. When twilight comes, we prepare for Night. At dawn we rise with the sun..I would like to conclude by saying again That there are deep springs within each one of us. Within this deep spring, Which is the very Spirit of God, is a Sound. The sound of Deep calling to Deep. The sound is the Word of God Jesus
This is a prayer calling us to understand the heart of Aboriginal spirituality as essentially contemplative, whole, being at peace with oneself, other people, nature, God.
In July 2007, I had the great privilege of meeting Miriam-Rose face to face. She is the Principal of the bush school on the Daly River in the remote region of NT, about 300kilometers SW of Darwin. She, along with Ronald, a teacher from the school and six wonderfully energetic Koori kids, was invited by a teacher from Woodlawn, a Catholic co-educational school near Lismore. The purpose? Im not too sure, but I would guess it has something to do with connectedness and relationship.
Miriam Rose is a tall, statuesque woman with long, grey hair rolled into a neat bun. Her face has the warm wisdom of middle-age, a wisdom gained through her connection to her country, her people, her God. Her eyes search your face, make an assessment and then..wait. She is initially quiet, even shy. Time is needed to get comfortable with each other. We wait till other people leave the room, and then theres just the two of us sitting in silence. I talk first. Miriam, your married name its German. Baumann. I must tell you, my mum is German and her maiden name was Baumann Oh! Then we must be related! In an instant, the connection has been made. We just spoke quietly for two whole, holy hours. I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, taking the better part by just being in the presence of this wise, Aboriginal Elder. The following paragraphs are what I heard and remembered. For me, they will forever be embodied in the tall, statuesque woman whose gentle voice sings to the deep springs within me.
HER NAME: Most people think Ungunmerr is her surname. But its her Aboriginal name.
She chose Miriam-Rose because white fellas couldnt pronounce Ungunmerr. Her mother and sister are both called Mary, so she chose Miriam the Jewish form of Mary. Rose is the name of an Aunt. Hence, Miriam-Rose. Miriam was educated by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Sisters. She has a great love of Mary, the Mother of God.
TRADITIONAL OWNERS: Miriam doesnt like the word owners applied to Aborigines and their relationship with the land. We dont own the land! We belong to it!
She told me of her special connection to certain animals the pelican, who, long ago in Aboriginal lore, laid her eggs quickly before the floods came. These eggs are the egg-shaped stones that sit in a circle at the base of an escarpment in her country the Daly River.
TIME: In white mans world there is this clock-time (she points to her watch), a time that pushes us constantly, pulling us in all directions. We become broken apart with this type of time. Then, on Sunday, when we go to church, receive the sacraments and pray, this is sacred time. But its only for one hour. And then we go back to clock time.
Miriam spoke of her need to get away from this clock-time in order to become whole and healed. It is in the bush, the land, where she finds her sacred time. The land itself is sacred, and because she is of the land and the land is of her, she can carry this sacredness into all time. Even Jesus went bush she says, to get away from the crowds, to be alone and to reconnect with the sacred.
AWARENESS:As Miriam-Rose spoke of her country, the Daly River, she sometimes gazed beyond, seeing the land she lovingly described the river, the pelican eggs, the escarpment, the series of waterfalls.
It is really beautiful. For some people, they don’t see it as beautiful. That’s because they’re not aware.
Aware of what? The sacredness, the meaning, the depth of each flower, tree, animal, rock waterhole, land formation.
Look at the tiny flowers that blossom the tiny insects that you see, attracted to the light. They’re so small they fly through the holes of the screen. But each one is a living thing, with tiny legs, lungs, heart, breathing. I couldnt even pick one up its so small
Awareness of the beauty and preciousness of the tiny and fragile. Being able to ponder on the magnificence of the minute, the miniscule. Magnificat!!
PEOPLE:When I look at a person, I see a human being. Western society separates people black and white, good and bad, Muslim and Christian, young and old, male and female.
In Miriams world view, there is no room for strangers. She told me, excitedly, that shed discovered that she was related to Glen Roff, the principal of Woodlawn. Her younger sister is married to a Glens cousin. Connection! I have already mentioned the fact of my mothers maiden name being the same as Miriams married name. What to me was a quaint co-incidence was to Miriam a source of connectedness relationship!
THINKING VS FEELINGThe place in the body where feeling lives is here (she circles her abdomen) the tummy area where we were originally connected to our mother through the umbilical cord.
When Im feeling down depressed, sad, then Jesus is holding me in his hand against his wound.
Miriam- Rose knows about being wounded, hurt, personally and communally.
We know about it through our heads reading, media reports and listening to people like Miriam. But she wanted to convey to me the depth of pain and feeling among her people.
On DEATH and Aboriginal feeling and reaction:
Many people, when they lose a loved one, cannot hold their feelings in. They will hit their heads, sometimes with sharp stones, inflicting wounds. Blood pours out. Westerners cannot understand this. . But Jesus on the crosshe poured his blood out over the earth.
At several points in our conversation, I found myself weeping. This was a point. How much Aboriginal blood has been poured out over the earth of Australia? We westerners all too often try to think our way through grief to avoid feeling grief. We rationalize with words, logic. It is no co-incidence that in Miriams story of Aboriginal grief, it is the head the source of thinking- that is attacked. Grief must be embodied/deeply felt!To embody grief is truly Christ-like
ART: Miriam-Rose is a renowned artist, not just in Australia but internationally. Her best known Stations of the Cross symbolize the deep love she has for both Christianity and her Aboriginal Spirituality. In this love, she has brought the two together.
In the little school on the Daly River, she passes on her skills as artist to the kids. She told the story of a budding 7 year old artist, a little boy whod painted a nativity. It was an image very simple and poor. When asked to explain his nativity, he said that Jesus wasnt born in a beautiful, rich house. Rather, he imagined Jesus being born in a lean-to like what granma and I build when we go bush.
In Melbourne, at a mens refuge called Corpus Christi, Miriam-Rose has painted another Stations of the Cross in the little chapel.Poverty and greatness living together in both these beautiful stories.
VISITING A YEAR 11 RE CLASS:
Q. What is Aboriginal Spirituality? Miriam began telling the story of Slim Dusty, the legendary Country and Western singer. I know you all like this new hip-hop stuff but, you know, Aboriginal people really like Country and Western.
When he died, his niece took his guitar and started playing and singing too. When asked why, she said that the guitar and the singing were always there. Its just part of me.Miriam used this story to explain her understanding of Aboriginal spirituality. Its always there, its part of me. This oneness with the spirit. Its not something out there, an object that you can separate from yourself and analyse.
I am Aboriginal Spirituality.
This is as close a revelation of the contemplative state as Ive ever heard. The intimacy, the closeness, the oneness with the sacred that could not possibly conceive of separation!
Miriam was then asked to discuss Aboriginal spirituality as expressed in art. We were shown art work painted by a selection of Aboriginal artists, including Miriams. She proudly spoke about her sisters and mothers paintings, and I realized how different this was from the western way of doing art, which is about individuality and often, celebrity.. An Aboriginal artist is not about the individual in glorious isolation with a rare, privileged gift., but a person embedded in a community of artists.
No wonder deep silence and stillness comes naturally to Aborigines. They have a natural awe of what is greater than just me. I am not the centre of the universe but part of it. There is something bigger my kin, the land, the cosmos God! I know my place in all this and know myself as a sacred creation, unique and indispensable to the whole. You need to know who you are and love who you are. We dont teach our kids this very important foundation of life. We fill them up with knowledge, information. We emphasize the mind but we dont teach kids to discover their true self.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT Miriam-Rose is on the committee that met with John Howard and Mal Brough. She openly admits that there is dysfunction in many Aboriginal communities and she welcomes the strong steps taken by the Federal government. But it needs to be for the long-term, not just till the election is over.
ON THE ROSARY AND MEDITATION I like the Joyful Mysteries best of all. Mary is in them and they’re very earthy..
Mary, a woman like us, visiting relatives, having a baby, looking for a lost child. I noted that there is a growing movement in Australia towards meditation. People are actively seeking out ways to be still, to be present.. Miriam reminded me of Dadirri Dreaming: This is what Australians are thirsting for.
PLEASE AND THANK YOU
There are no words for please and thank you in Aboriginal Languages because the concept of individual ownership does not exist.
A twenty cent piece belongs to everyone!
THE WALK: Miriam-Rose and Leanne Halley of Woodlawn, are planning a sacred trek through the Daly River Country..This will be something unique for non-indigenous people. We are familiar with pilgrimages to sacred places in Europe and Asia. For the first time, we will be invited to accompany Aboriginal people through their sacred land, walking the ancient song lines and learning a spirituality born of the land.
BACK TO CLOCK-TIME Driving home from Sydney airport, I listened to Robyn Williams, the ABC science presenter speaking to Professor Soule , an ecologist from the University of California about why developed countries like Australia and USA are not winning the battle against the extinction of so many species. He claimed that scientifically and technologically speaking, we have the wherewithal to save 95% of the flora and fauna in both countries. But he despairs. It wont happen! Why? We dont have the will or the love.
Its not going to affect my well-being or standard of living if all the beautiful birds in Australia went extinct today. Its a question of love. We save what we love and if we don’t love it, were going to allow it to disappear Its not that people aren’t compassionate, its that our compassion is focused like a laser on a few things that we happen to love. Our family. Our religion some friends maybe a breed of dog. A few people love nature, a few people when they were children their parents took them out bushwalking and camping, hunting or fishing. So unless a child has that experience and bonds with nature And now there’s this syndrome which is called nature deficit disorder children that don’t go outside So I’m afraid its becoming harder and harder to save nature because not as high a percentage of the population loves it any more.One of the first principles of religion and of ecology is, everything is connected one of the things thats so beautiful about nature is that everything depends on everything else. And unfortunately, by the time our species, which isnt very bright, learns that, it will be too late.
I thought of Miriam-Rose with her expansive view, her ability to embrace and love all of nature, from the tiniest insect to the rocks and waterfalls, moving out to the cosmos and to include all people in this embrace.