In the silent face of rock, baked red by burning centuries
there’s a stillness that I long to fill my soul, to fill my soul…
No human ever made a cathedral such as this,
a gentle wind to soothe my heart,
and the vastness to still my rushing thoughts…
Oh, I want to be a friend of silence,
to know my place in eternity,
to be ‘something beautiful for God’
(from my song: Nature’s Cathedral, 1998. Quote in final line by Mother Theresa)
Last weekend, my family finally made the trek out to Bourke. It’s weird, that place has been ‘calling me’ for a couple of years now… just this nagging sense that I need to get back out there, I didn’t know why. I still don’t really know, except that maybe there came some sense of completion, of closure, and especially of thanksgiving for all that has come from that particular beginning.
When I was 17, I moved from Sydney to the ‘back of Bourke’, to join Cornerstone Community as a first year student. It was, needless to say, quite an incredible change of landscape. I had been spoilt, growing up in Sydney, to have been able to look out of our back door onto a bush reserve which led to the Georges River. We spent many childhood hours ‘out in the bush’; and I always loved the view out of our top verandah, especially the silhouettes of our two tall cordyline trees against the sunset. For a Sydney childhood, I now realise how blessed we were to have that ready access to natural beauty.
Bourke was another world, completely. A painter’s pallet had overflowed into glowing red dirt, grey-green gidgee leaves, black-and-white spotted gum trunks, blindingly blue skies. Rain became an ‘event’, with a poignant scent, squelchy mud, flooded table drains reflecting the view, and even a real flood, once. A wide, slow river would hold me in its lazy, soothing flow. Sunsets and sunrises exploded into my senses. The whole sky seemed ten times as large: a vivid and glorious dome stretched over an almost perfectly flat 360 degrees of landscape. Night skies were overwhelmingly beautiful, and often drew me out to walk in the dark on red dust tracks or along the Wanaaring Road. I was blessed to have a job driving a tractor from 3 till 8am for several months. This meant not only that I got to see the spectacular starry skies and the daily spectacle of gradual dawn followed by riotous sunrise; but also I was occasional spectator to a shy golden moon edging up over the horizon and into the sky. If ever I had been (and I had indeed been) in any doubt as to whether the earth was some grand cosmic accident, or the magnificent artistry of an intricate creator, this quandary was over for me.
However, it was a surprise to discover that the landscape could also be a Comforter. I’ve often said that the outback landscape was “big enough for all my questions”. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know that somehow the peace and stillness of a vast, open, beautiful space breathes into my innermost places. The (relative) silence and isolation is an invitation to stop, to wait, to just be still. Or else to sing, to pray out loud, to weep, to ask why, to wrestle through things. Anthony Bloom writes about how ‘the silence becomes a presence, and the presence is God’. And somehow for me, being out there in the beauty is always like stepping into a greater reality – as if, just like the psalmist wrote, the very heavens are declaring the glory of God and their voice is going out… and going in to me.
I look back and realise that God placed me in those semi-arid zones, those places of stark beauty and solitude, for the times in my life when I was in most need of them, times of close loss and grieving. Where else could I feel held by the “vast, encircling space”, and stilled by the whisper of a breeze? Where else could I drive out into the desert, and lie on my car bonnet under the comfort of a night sky, and cry out for God to teach me how to receive love? Where else could I sit on soft red riverbed, and see my life in a twisted old river gum, being sustained through the drought?
Recently, I read the story of “Granny Brand” (the mother of Paul Brand, the famous leprosy doctor). She was an incredible woman, in so many ways, but I thank her most for reminding my heart of its need for beauty. Granny would – even in her 90’s – ‘drop everything’ to at least drink in, if not actually stop and paint, the beautiful places she was in. Having spent the last 9 and a half years raising young children, that capacity in me to see – to really notice and exult in – beauty has been somewhat clouded over by the demands involved in that stage of life. Granny Brand woke me up again, reminded me of that old friend, the landscape, such a formative part of my spiritual life.
So, here I sit, on a Monday morning, on the highest hill nearby. A picnic bench under a tin roof, the breeze, a circle of low mountains and hills, a patchwork of farmland, trees and roads, and even a soaring hawk for company. It’s so good to be back, to be making time to feed my soul with God’s living word. We call it “general revelation” (as opposed to the Bible’s “special revelation”). It is our setting, our backdrop, the arms that embrace our daily life, the stage on which we live. Such a gracious, patient ‘mother’ for us to grow up in – providing us with much more than we need to live, enduring the worst of human madness, greed and selfishness, yet still clearly exhibiting the fingerprints of the Creator. Such a humble servant, easily ignored, but always calling us beyond her own awesome beauty, to the One who is our hearts’ true home.