Stations of the Cross, 2019

I had seen an exhibition of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in which he featured the Franciscan Stations of the Cross. I knew nothing of that tradition, and one Easter, as an Easter discipline for myself, I decided to ‘pray’ the Stations of the Cross by painting my own series. It dawned on me, slowly, that this exercise was an existential prayer. How do we live when we know that we are mortal? How do we live when we know that we are finite? How do we live when we experience suffering?

That led us in 2007, at St Ives Uniting Church in suburban Sydney, to try something new. We invited 15 leading artists to participate in an exhibition. Each would be allocated a different station, randomly, and would have 9 months to work on a response. I wrote a ‘pastorally informed’ commentary on each of the traditional Franciscan stations (14 plus ‘resurrection’), and that commentary became the brief for the artist. I tell artist’s that I am not looking for illustration of the story; more, I am looking for their engagement with the questions the station raises for them.

We have been doing it ever since. After I retired, we decided to do it at Northmead, where the church works with the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and we have shown the work at ACU Strathfield and at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra.

When I approach artists, I ask them not because they are religious or not religious, Christian or not Christian; I ask them because they are good artists who have the capacity to address significant existential questions through their art.

Each year when I receive the works for the exhibition, I am excited by the artist’s integrity, and their capacity to give us works that reflect the deep questions of being. My background is as a pastoral theologian, and I see lived experience as primary text for theological reflection.

Each year we have large numbers of people walk through the exhibition as part of their Easter discipline, or ‘just out of interest’. Always, people are deeply moved; it is not unusual to see people with tears running down their faces, or, to hear them say, ‘I can identify with that’.

Last year, a teacher at a local Catholic Primary School taught a special unit to her grade 5–6 class on religious art through the first semester. She had one of the artists address her class at school, and brought 47 kids who pressed their noses against the art works, and who listened and looked with engaged interest. They went back to school and made their own ‘religious’ art works, and later had a wonderful exhibition of them. This year, that teacher will bring the staff of the school for a staff meeting at the exhibition and they have asked for a talking tour of the work.

We now have a number of events associated with the exhibition: the formal opening, a wine and cheese night, a jazz night, a Good Friday service, a grief workshop, a number of guided tours, the moderator of the UCA will offer a retreat for ministers and key leaders, and, most especially, an Eremos led a quiet half day. Our hope is to build the idea of groups of people making an Easter pilgrimage in which they might walk the way of the cross where there is a contemporary reading of Jesus walk.

You can access the catalogue here. The catalogue includes the commentary or brief given to the artists, images of all the art works, and some comment on the process of making the works by the artists.

Station 11: Jesus is nailed to the cross

Artist: Harrie Fasher

Artist’s comment: I have a spiritual connection to the earth, and find great solace walking and drawing in the landscape. The work I presented for the 11th station, Christ being nailed to the cross, is a steel study of a dead lamb, an Indian offering washed up from the ocean, and a study of feet nailed to the wall. The lamb, soft yet lifeless, represents purity and the earth. I built it in steel, a hard cold material that has been imbued with the properties of life lost. The offering was collected in India for its shape and texture, it holds memory of colour, ritual, and life. And the drawing is a literal representation of the station, feet nailed, produced by the meditative action of looking. Together the three works contemplate what such a sacrifice symbolises in our contemporary society.

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Station 9: Jesus Falls the third time

Artist: Blak Douglas

Artist’s comment: So really my knee-jerk response from the outset was to paint a large cross in a landscape filled with Grass Trees (‘Black boys’) yet the cross has been hit by three large spears. Perhaps accompanying words are to the following effect. This piece personifies my lifelong frustration of being wrongfully encouraged to embrace the religion of colonialism and white suppression. From being ‘christened’ Adam Douglas Hill and registered ‘Church of England’, yet being only three generations removed from my tribal Dhungatti peoples. Having to participate in scripture on Tuesday mornings in Primary School or face the cane. Witnessing successive patriarchal governments be sworn in on King George’s bible, feigning honesty, and professing to uphold sound governance on a stolen land. This image – ‘Three strikes & you’re out’ – is metaphoric of how I’d like to see the illegal dominant faith upon this continent fall.

Blak Douglas
Blak Douglas, Three strikes and you’re out. Synthetic polymer on canvas, 150 x 200 cm.

 

Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb

Artist: Jo Braithwaite

Artist’s comment: In this image, I battled to create an image that I hoped would reflect optimism through solidarity.

Jo Braithwaite

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DOUG PURNELL IS A PASTORAL THEOLOGIAN WHO IN HIS RETIREMENT IS FOCUSING ON A COMMITMENT TO A FULL-TIME STUDIO PRACTICE OF PAINTING THAT EXPLORES THE NATURE OF ABSTRACTION AND MARK MAKING. HE WAS FOR 17 YEARS THE DIRECTOR OF THE BLAKE PRIZE FOR RELIGIOUS ART. HE LIVES AND PAINTS ON GADIGAL LAND.

Healing/Wounding

By his wounds
You have been healed.

By his healing
You have been wounded.

By his wounds
You shall be wounded.

By his healing
You shall be healed.

By your wounds
He has been wounded.

By your wounds
You shall be healed.

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CHRIS GREEN IS PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AT SOUTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY IN THE USA. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BOOKS, INCLUDING SURPRISED BY GOD AND THE END IS MUSIC, BOTH PUBLISHED BY CASCADE PRESS. HE IS ALSO A VISUAL ARTIST.

Before Good Friday

A few years ago, just before Easter, I pulled into the supermarket carpark. It was mid-afternoon on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. I had been stuck in a one-way back street behind a truck revving impatiently. It was not the ideal lead-up to my observance of Easter.

Through my car radio came the mellifluous tones of Lucky Oceans’ afternoon show on Radio National. Lucky introduced an album by Sam Baker called Pretty World. The back-story is that Baker was in Peru in 1986 on a train blown up by the Shining Path Maoist group. He was forced to witness the death of a 14-year-old boy beside him. His own permanent injuries meant re-learning the guitar, so he could fret with his right hand. Brain damage resulting from the injuries meant he had to ‘go picking for words like you’d pick fruit in an orchard’.

All of this is present in his song ‘Broken Fingers’. There is a certain heaviness in the emphasis and pronunciation, the words don’t come easily. You can tell they are sung by a man who has to hunt for words. Sam Baker was surrounded by a crew of supporting artists, friends willing him into making his music again. The album is his tribute. It invokes the memory of the boy and names Baker’s own loss. The lyrics are simple and eloquent:

These broken fingers
some things don’t heal
you can’t wake up from the dream
when you know the dream is real.

Sam Baker’s song takes hold of me. Suddenly I am weeping in the supermarket carpark. Some things don’t heal. There is a respectful knowing that doesn’t try to force healing or hope on people. I do the shopping slowly, with a new sense of gratitude.

In my childhood, I periodically heard preachers insisting on a kind of victorious Christianity. As if barracking for Jesus put you on the winning team where nothing could touch you. It felt like denial.

In the evening, I participate in the foot-washing ritual our church holds every Maundy Thursday. The night recalls the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Later that same night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, they abandoned him.

Prayers are spoken by candlelight in the darkened church. I am offered water for my feet, and fragrant oils, then towels to enfold them. I am offered wine to drink and bread to eat. In the quiet darkness I remember people who carry wounds that don’t heal.

This story is one of 60 collected in Tender: Stories that Lean into Kindnessby Julie Perrin and forthcoming by MediaCom Education. Previously published in The Sunday Age faith column and Spinifex Blessing.

You are also invited to the book launch:

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JULIE PERRIN IS A MELBOURNE WRITER, ORAL STORYTELLER, AND ASSOCIATE TEACHER AT PILGRIM THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF DIVINITY. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Broken Vessel

broken body
broken heart
forever hanging
held by
the crying love of the Spirit

his wound
my hurt
our blood mixing together

his open arms
my nailed hands
pierced together

we share
the birth pain
we partake
the letting go

we release
the life to become
we form
the theology from the womb

we groan
with hope
we sob
with agony

until
creation is fully alive
until
lives flourish without blemish

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XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM.

Liminal Space

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I stood between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean recently, watching an ocean liner passing through the Panama Canal. The giant ship was moving slowly, almost unnoticeably, between the narrow banks. With the help of locomotives, the gigantic body of the ship was moving forward within 60cm of the banks on each side. Yet the liner needed to trust the water to uphold her body and the locomotives to take her through the narrow canal. During the 8 minutes of waiting between the gate to the lock and the valve, she patiently waited for the water to gradually reach another level. She did not stop moving forward – however painfully slow and helplessly depending on the water below and the need to trust the engines beside. She envisioned the wide-open sea ahead that would eventually embrace her after this bottleneck and then 8–10 hours of transit on the canal.

For me, this is a perfect image of a liminal space. It is an in-between space, a transition and a threshold. It is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next’, a place of waiting and not knowing, a place of now and not yet. The wise tell us that it is also a place of transformation. In the waiting, we let it form us. However, we often find ourselves caught in the process and still waiting for the moment of transformation. We can experience various degrees of uncomfortableness, disorientation, dizziness, grief, vulnerability and even bodily reactions like tears or tiredness in this space. We may feel restless and disorientated. We may feel lonely and that we have got into a dark hole not being able to get out.

Like a hen hatching an egg, the egg has been broken yet life is yet to be formed. We don’t know what it will become. There are mixed feelings of grief and hope, fear and uncertainty, waiting and expectancy. Like on a stormy sea, we feel dizzy and sick, not being able to survive, left alone holding the wheel and steering the ship. Like Tom Hank’s film Terminal, we are caught between two countries, rejected by both and stuck in an airport going nowhere.

This is the world we live in – global displacement, refugee camps, migrant movement, political trauma of native people, villages overtaken by shopping malls. People are on the move globetrotting yet don’t talk to the neighbours across the street. Despite the ever-increasing speed of technology, we find ourselves more and more isolated and lost. Anxiety and frustration creep in and continue to fill this age, as if we are ‘waiting for Godot’ who will never arrive.

How do we navigate our own lives of transition? How do we live in an age of postmodern displacement and dislocation? As we open the pages of the Bible and lift our gaze to the Crucified one, we find a God calling his people out of comfort zones to a place of discomfort again and again whether it is in Exodus or in Exile. It is the same God who woos them to the place where they truly belong, somewhere they call home. This paradoxical place they stand on is the biblical liminal space, somewhere between the wilderness and the Promised Land, between homelessness and home. In the New Testament, the disciples were called from a self-assured life to the way of brokenness. In the light of the Cross, they wrote the Gospels and Acts, which heralded a new human history. The Spirit of love breaks in, speaks to the womb and brings the darkness to the light, brokenness to transformation, nothingness to everything.

This awareness gives us hope and vision to live here and now fruitfully and welcome the invitation to go deeper in our faith – to listen attentively, struggle genuinely, and question authentically even with our uttermost nihilism. The liminal space is the richest mine to explore this treasure, and trust courageously the hidden fingers that guide us.

Liminal Space

invites us
to put our ears
on the ground
to hear the sound
from the basement
of our hearts

to enter into the room
with courage and curiosity
to push darkness
to touch the unknown
to dance in-between the gap
though our senses are numb
our eyes are blind
our voice has no sound
till we are used to this hollow ground

nobody, nothing, nowhere
breathless
sleepless
restless
timeless
thoughts tangled in a mass
sweat intermingled in a pool

our bodies move
struggle
exhaust
collapse
…………..let go

whatever comes
whatever emerges
whatever settles
the divine surgery
…………..let come

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Xiaoli Yang is a theologian, poet, and spiritual director. She lives and plays on Wurundjeri land and in the Middle Kingdom. Details about her latest publication can be found here.

‘“Jerusalem” was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it’. A review of John Newton’s The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune

the-double-rainbow.jpgJohn Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009). 224 pages. ISBN: 9780864736031.

John Newton’s engaging book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, examines the Ngāti Hau community that Aotearoa’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Hiruhārama, on the Whanganui River – ‘the country’s first and most influential experiment in “hippie” communalism’ (p. 38). As Newton notes in his Introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori … but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder’. Pākehā culture’s material dominance was accompanied by an arrogance and ethnocentrism which left it spiritually impoverished.

He cites Baxter:

‘Ko te Maori te tuakna. Ko te Pakeha te teina …’ The Maori [sic] is indeed the elder brother and the Pakeha [sic] the younger brother. But the teina has refused to learn from the tuakana. He has sat sullenly among his machines and account books, and wondered why his soul was full of bitter dust …

And then offers the following commentary:

The cost was everywhere to be seen, but nowhere more plainly than among urban youth. For Baxter, their wholesale disaffection was a realistic verdict on the society they had inherited, a mainstream culture whose spiritlessness and meanness – to say nothing of its arrogance towards its neighbours – deserved no better. In the Māori world, by contrast, and particularly in Māori communalism, he believed he could see an alternative to this atomised majority culture – a system of values that answered to the longings and frustrations that he recognised, both in himself and in the young people around him. To establish an alternative Pākehā community that could ‘learn from the Maori side of the fence’ was to help restore, symbolically, the mana of the tangata whenua and to begin to resuscitate a Pākehā culture that was choking to death on its own materialism. (pp. 11–12)

Such constitutes the earth from which a functioning intentional community at Hiruhārama budded, a community made up largely of those for whom mainstream Aotearoan society meant fatherlessness.

While concerned to not diminish Baxter’s part in the formation of the Ngā Mōkai community but rather to place it in the context of a larger ‘utopian experiment’ (p. 88) he initiated, Newton seeks to ‘offer a stronger account of what Baxter achieved at Jerusalem by bringing into focus its collaborative dimension’ (p. 16). He properly contends that what the 41-year-old Baxter set in motion, and towards which the baby-boomer ‘orphanage’ of the damaged which was his living poetry bore witness to, was something considerably bigger than Baxter himself, and that the unique cohabitation and set of cultural negotiations which was embodied in the Whanganui River communities (particularly Ngāti Hau, Ngā Mōkai, the church – which was ‘threaded through the life of the river’ (p. 59) – and the Sisters of Compassion) draw attention to implications far beyond both Baxter or to the communities themselves. This, of course, is of the essence of Baxter himself, that before he was a hippie, he was ‘a Catholic, a Christian humanist, and an aspiring Pākehā-Māori’ (p. 36), he was a poet-prophet charged not simply with interpreting the social environment which he inhabited, but of actively improving it, of giving material shape to it. The book is loosely divided into three main sections: an introductory phase that addresses the pre-history of the community and Baxter’s first year of residence; a middle section that covers its heyday; and a downstream phase that describes the community’s various offshoots, and considers its legacy. The result – for the reader prepared to follow the narrative – is the stripping away of ‘cultural safety’.

Newton details further upon what we know of Baxter from other places while eloquently introducing us to a host of other equally-fascinating characters – Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, pā women Dolly, Alice, Lizzie, and Wehe (who are often remembered as ‘substitute’ mothers (p. 89)), Aggie Nahona, and Denis O’Reilly among them. He also highlights Baxter’s visionary kinship with French-born nun Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert with whom he shared ‘a staunch commitment to Māori, and to spiritual love as the first principle of a hands-on social mission’ (p. 45). Newton argues that this part of Baxter’s history ‘doesn’t get acknowledged in Baxter’s rhetorical point-scoring at the expense of the mainstream church. Without it, however, his own Jerusalem “orphanage” would never have eventuated. In one sense the debt is symbolic or poetic: the presence of the church at Jerusalem draws te taha Māori into dialogue with the other key spiritual driver of his later career, namely his Catholic faith … Baxter brought his showmanship, and his personal (some might argue, narcissistic) sense of mission. But he also brought with him – embodied, or enacted – the self-interrogation and social radicalisation that had seized hold of the Catholic Church globally in the wake of Vatican II. After the Berrigans and the draft card burnings, after liberation theology, what did the Christian mission imply in the context of ongoing colonial injustice?’ (pp. 46, 47).

Jerusalem was Baxter’s riposte to all those Pākehā institutions – the churches, the university, the nuclear family and so on – whose lack of heart and small-minded materialism were now failing Pākehā youth in the same way that Pākehā culture had always failed Maori. In looking for a remedy for the failings of Pākehā society, he found his prime inspiration in the communitarian virtues that he saw among Māori: aroha, mahi, kōrero, manuhiritanga. This was ‘learn[ingJ from the Maori side of the fence’: his community was to be modelled on the marae. Of course, in offering this open door the commune depended entirely on the hospitality of Ngāti Hau … But the commune was not just a place to live – a material shelter for whomever happened to be there … it was also a piece of political theatre. And the commune’s significance as a political intervention depended for its fullest expression on publicity: it was intended, at least in part, to be a spectacle, a City on a Hill! At the same time, it was integral to the kaupapa that it be open to all comers. This was the paradox that Baxter was confronted by: the more effectively this vision was communicated, the more would it lead to a pressure of numbers that would overwhelm the commune’s own capacity to provide for itself, and which eventually must wear out the patience of the local community. (p. 65)

Yet Newton is at pains to point out throughout his study that Hiruhārama is bigger than Baxter. Indeed, the bulk of the book is given to defending and illustrating this thesis, that Hiruhārama after Baxter entered into a period of unforeseen maturity, and particularly the maturity of its relationship with the pā. Community life under Greg Chalmers’ leadership may have been less eventful, but those years from 1972 do more to fulfil Baxter’s hopes of regenerative partnerships than those prior.

Two chapters are concerned with articulating the events birthed following the final closure of the community at Hiruhārama, and to highlighting that while a distinctive phase of the Ngā Mōkai narrative had reached its end, its impulse didn’t die with the community itself. Newton draws attention to a network of loosely affiliated houses – from flats and private homes, to crashpads and urban shelters, to far-flung intentional communities – which functioned as homes-away-from-home for a diasporic Ngā Mōkai whānau, a ‘network of initiatives which imported the Jerusalem kaupapa back into urban contexts’ (p. 154), and there ‘offering a dispersed community the chance of reconnection, reaffirmation and renewal’ (p. 164). He recalls Hiruhārama’s various germinations at Reef Point, Wharemanuka, and Whenuakura. ‘With the shutting of the original commune, these “shoots of the kumara vine” [became] the focus of the Ngā Mōkai story. It’s here, in this ramshackle archipelago, that those who had been touched by Jerusalem attempted to keep alive the kaupapa’ (p. 131).

The penultimate chapter, ‘Baxter’s Wake’, re-spotlights Baxter, and is given to argue that Baxter’s literary legacy and his social legacy are ‘shoots of the same vine’ (p. 169):

‘Jerusalem’ was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment. In his burial on the river we find Baxter the poet and the Baxter the activist inextricably entwined. This integration was precisely his ambition, and the fact he achieved it is what makes these events still resonate. (p. 171)

So Newton appropriately accentuates Baxter’s formulation of the poet’s ethical task to be no mere interpreter of society but one who endeavours to make society more just: ‘It is this sense of embodied ethics … which leaps into focus when we think about Jerusalem’ (p. 179).

The Double Rainbow is the fruit of an incredibly-impressive amount of extensive and laborious research. Newton commendably resists romanticising Baxter, Baxter’s vision, or the Ngāti Hau ‘classroom’ itself. Those engaged in Baxter’s work and who want to better understand his Jerusalem Daybook or who are interested in his biography, those seeking to understand, assess, and inform Aotearoa’s multi-cultural, historical, and spiritual landscape, those wanting to listen and to speak intelligently into contemporary debates about the relationship between government authorities and badge-wearing gangs carving out their own neo-tribal identity, and, more broadly, to a nation fascinated with re-carving a new national identity which buries settler mono-culturalism in its wake, and those devoted to the challenging work of inspiring, creating, leading, building, replanting, and closing local and grassroots communities will be well-served to have Newton’s essay in hand. An invaluable and timely record, it is also certain to inform, impress and inspire.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND TRY-HARD POET WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

I come to You with Nothing

I come to You with Nothing
dark abyss and empty
sometimes I pretend
sometimes I avoid
sometimes I hide.

But if I came to You
with my hands full
I would not be able
to receive anything.
You.

You spun heaven and
earth and light and
dark and land and
sky and birds and
beasts and me …
from Nothing.

You are not afraid of it,
the possibility of it,
and nor shall I be.
Dark abyss and empty
potential.

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Talitha Fraser is a Kiwi urban contemplative theopoetics-dabbler who lives ON WURUNDJERI LAND. Her poems and reflections can be found at itellyouarise and thelightanddarkofit.