Saturday, 31 December 2016


New Year's Day, 2017.

Along with many people I know, I've become suspicious of New Year's resolutions. My own have tended to be too ambitious and too will based - setting me up for failure some time around mid-January. But I find myself still strongly drawn to take stock around this time of year. I want to reflect on where I am and what the coming year invites and promises, on how I might be different or freshly available.

A member of Benedictus invited us to a New Year's Eve picnic yesterday, at her beautiful property out near Tarago.

Jen is a potter and there were some delightful and quirky juxtapositions to enjoy.

As well as the vista of the Lake George wind farms, seen from the other side.

It was a wonderful way for a few of us to gather, pause and connect with the bush on this threshold of the new year and a great blessing.

Then this morning, Neil and I re-read David Whyte's poem, 'What to remember when waking'. I was particularly struck by these lines:

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
will make plans
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

For me, this is a lovely and timely reminder not to clutch at the shape of life and vocation: 'what you can plan is too small for you to live'. It's an invitation to yielding or total self-giving - wholeheartedness - trusting that in and through this self-giving, I will become available for and open to what is still to unfold and yet also present to enjoy what is already, not letting an orientation to the future squeeze out delight and joy in the here and now. In place of will based resolutions, it asks me to be disposed to participate in 'the vitality' that is the source and the redemption of things.

I hope I remember this not only today, but throughout the year!



Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How Long is Long Enough?

This morning, for one reason and another, my retreat time was curtailed. I was late starting and had a lunch appointment which meant I'd be early finishing.

I felt anxious about my lack of time. Would there be enough for what I needed? Would I touch into that deep place of refreshment and simplicity?

Then I had a false start. I headed off to the Botanic Gardens, but when I got there it felt all 'wrong'. The carpark was full and the gardens seemed unusually busy and noisy. I hadn't brought my customary thermos, and I really felt like a coffee. I started walking towards the back of the gardens, but realised I didn't really want to be there. So I paused, and decided just to head home. I could get a cup of coffee and sit quietly in our courtyard. I could walk to lunch. I could relax.

As soon as I arrived home, I knew it was right to have come back.  I stopped fretting about the supposed lack of time, and the time I had became enough. Because the necessary time is really just the time it takes to drop into stillness and quietness, the deeper current - and that can happen in an instant.

Sometimes it's true that you can only make that drop when you have a certain sense of spaciousness - a morning, a day, a retreat. But if you don't always have that, sometimes just an hour can be enough.

Here's our tea tree, coming into flower.

I thought of the hints we get from the gospel stories of Jesus taking time where he could. Sometimes we hear of a whole night in prayer. But other times, we glimpse him just taking a breather in someone's house, away from the crowds. Or a pause by a well, while the disciples go off for food - until a Samaritan woman comes along, that is.

How long is long enough? The spaces we need can't always be snatched, encroached upon, limited. But sometimes they will be - and that's just how it goes.

This week is Christmas week. I'm conscious that January will have a different rhythm. We'll be away for two weeks and then I'm in New Zealand leading a retreat. I may not manage much blogging in that time, but I hope for spaces of stillness and quietness in the midst of it all - for myself and for you too!

Here's one of our gallant clumps of seaside daisy, whose indomitable spirit always cheers and inspires me.

May we all be gifted with the perseverance and resilience we need to be bearers of hope in these troubled times.

Christmas blessings,


Wednesday, 7 December 2016


I mentioned in last week's blog that I've tended to expend quite a bit of energy 'letting' myself have these retreat mornings, justifying them to myself, telling myself they are necessary and OK.

This week, I simplified it a bit. I began them in the first place because I felt called to do so - called to allow more space for prayer and simply 'being' in my life. I continue with them because that sense of call has not fundamentally changed. So, this is just another practice - like meditation - which I commit to whether it seems productive or not, whether I feel like it or not. It's just practice ...

So off I went to the Botanic Gardens to practise. As soon as I arrived, I felt as you do when you enter a sacred space - immediately drawn in, immediately calmed and quieted. I thought later that maybe it's because, like cathedrals in some other cities, the Botanic Gardens have for years been a place prayed in, reflected in, wandered through and loved at a deep level by the people of Canberra.

This was the first flower that captured my attention.

After that, I took quite a few photos ... and sought simply to be there. The word in the Hebrew bible is 'henini', 'here I am'. I was attentive and inattentive, present and not fully present. Hanging out, trusting that if a bush were burning somewhere, I might notice it despite everything.

And that even if a bush was not burning today, the practice of availability is what ultimately matters, what ultimately serves.

I hope you enjoy these images of the life I encountered this day.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Real Work

Recently, we discovered a poem by Wendell Berry called 'The Real Work'. Here it is.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.
From Standing by Words (copyright 1983)

This poem came to my mind today, as I underwent my customary struggle to let myself enter into retreat (the familiar internal monologue telling me I should be 'working', that other people were 'working' this morning so why was I just doing 'nothing' etc etc).

Berry suggests that our 'real work' can only really begin, can only really be revealed to us, once we are in the place of poverty of spirit - once we no longer know what to do, and no longer know which way to go, once we are baffled and to some degree blocked.

It struck me, as I sat at the edge of Lake Ginninderra, that these retreat mornings are fundamentally about returning to that place of poverty. I have no particular agenda - I don't really know what to desire or hope for. I am aware of a vast not knowing encompassing my life and the life of Benedictus. What are we being called to? How will it happen?

These mornings are about letting myself dwell awhile in that space of unknowing. They are about letting myself touch back into the ground, letting myself be renewed by its energy as I wait on the silence of God. They're about being available to become aware of 'the real work', and maybe available to let 'the real work' be done in me.

And this morning, I realised, they're also about praise - the praise that isn't forced jollity. but the rising up of wonder at things and being so deeply glad that they are. Praise isn't a word I've resonated with particularly in the past - so much of the church's 'praise' seems about just saying what we think we ought to say to God.

But did you know that the bark of a silver birch is studded with diamonds?

When we are able to be really present to what is, then gladness is our response. Gladness - and the urge to praise - so that the words of the Gloria seem suddenly real: 'We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory'.

Praise and poverty of spirit ... both doorways to, both aspects of, 'the work'. Praise be.


Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Walking on Country

My first Wednesday Retreat post for quite a while, and the first since returning from our 8 week pilgrimage in Portugal, Spain and France.

Today was also my first opportunity to 'walk on country' since coming home to Australia.

After some indecision about where to go, I finally decided to walk from home onto Bruce and O'Connor Ridges. These bits of remnant bush are sandwiched between Gungahlin Drive and Belconnen Way, and the traffic noise is more or less constant. Even so, there's a whole different world from the surrounding suburbs being inhabited here. It's also a world very different from the European country we've been walking recently. The bush is straggly and unkempt looking, yet beautiful in its own way. It was a joy to be in it again - absorbing its smells, the look of the vegetation, the movement of ants on the hard ground.

The birds are far more abundant and far noisier than any we encountered in the forests of France. These kookaburras were laughing uproariously - maybe it was a competition?

I was feeling a bit of agitation as I walked into this time of retreat. Since returning home, the sense of the spaciousness and well-being of pilgrimage has lingered with me. Even though life has been full, it hasn't been overwhelming, and I've experienced our re-entry into 'normal' routine as relatively easy and gentle. But yesterday, I went to visit my spiritual director and spoke about invitations I've received to do things next year - talks to give, retreats to lead and so on. All of a sudden, things seemed to start pressing in. The question of what to accept and what not to and how busy I am likely to be became real - I felt anxious and unsure how to discern my responses. A familiar fear of being overwhelmed began to rise up.

I have experienced such plenitude, I want to live plenteously. I don't want to decline invitations out of miserliness or the fear of not having enough (time, energy, things to contribute). On the other hand, nor do I want to live dissipated and stretched - unable properly to prepare for or take delight in what I do because of being spread too thin. 

Neil asked - 'what are your priorities?' This morning, the white-barked scribbly gums asked the same question. As I contemplated their clarity, the way they provide structure and definition for the surrounding bush, they asked me: what are the bones of the coming year?

And immediately I felt calmer, returned to myself. 'Country' was holding me, bringing me to the ground of things.

Vocationally in this next year, I know there are two things that are necessary. One is Benedictus, and nurturing the next phase of our life in community. The second is to explore what is called for and being called forth by this land, Australia. The particularity of place, country, has not in the past seemed so important to me ... but this feels like an area of growing awareness and significance, and one that I must explore. I sense there's a gift here for the contemplative movement as a whole, and not just for those of us in Australia.

Starting here, the question becomes: 'what must I do?' And in the light of that, what can be let go?

That still doesn't make everything immediately clear ... but I feel restored to equilibrium and to a spirit of trusting the unfolding of things. And whenever I'm tempted to think I don't have time for a morning's retreat, an experience like today teaches me that I don't have time not to!


Thursday, 2 June 2016

On Prayer

The first day of winter, and a mild but still wintry looking day - the trees and grasses a little bleak.

The news this week also a little (a lot) bleak: unprecedented and seemingly catastrophic bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, and all that it signifies about what we are continuing not to do to respond to climate change.

I feel oppressed and made powerless by the huge inertia pervading our politics and economic life in the face of all this. And I wonder about prayer and its effect. Can praying make a difference? 

Two things seem true to me. One is that consciousness or awareness affects the field of energy. The second is that the quality of consciousness or awareness is internally related to the quality of attention. We know this in our experience. When someone pays true attention to us, is aware of us and present to us, then our well-being is affected. Something life-giving seems to happen in the energetic field.

Simone Weil says that prayer is about attention. It's the willingness to be present to, to pay attention to the other, free of self-regard or self-consciousness. Sometimes I get the sense that it's about being consciously available as place, a channel for the life-sustaining and renewing energy of the Creator in the world. The Spirit praying within us with sighs too deep for words. 

To offer myself as that place requires being with the pain of it all - the suffering of the world, and my own grief and fear. What's important is not to dramatise and get in the way, and at the same time not to avoid and deny. It's rather bearing with, enduring, undergoing. There's energy in that, I sense - it's the work of redemption.

Shalom, Sarah

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Solitude - A Need of the Soul

I needed my Wednesday retreat today like I need bread. My sense of craving the time caught me a bit by surprise. I'm just back from three weeks away - one week at the gathering of Australasian Courage & Renewal facilitators in New Zealand, and then two weeks on a South Pacific cruise to celebrate Neil's Mum's 80th birthday. So at one level, I've just had a long holiday. But I realise it hasn't come with much time alone - which for me is always necessary for mental and spiritual health - so I fell into today's time with relief and almost urgency.

The Botanic Gardens beckoned and I walked up to the back of the gardens near the boundary with Black Mountain. I came across a stand of Hakea petiolaris, commonly known as the sea-urchin hakea.

You can see why.

It's a shrub or small tree, endemic to the south-west of Western Australia. Apparently, in May in the Botanic Gardens it flowers prolifically.

When I walked past, I became aware of an enormous amount of rustling and ferreting going on among the leaves and flowers. The bushes were stiff with Eastern rosellas and red-wattle birds, feasting on nectar. I settled on a strategically placed bench, and listened to the life around me.

On the news last night, I heard that suicide rates in some Australian electorates are double the road toll - once again, a national emergency is being declared. As I began to feel restored myself, sitting quietly, in solitude, slowly sinking into the ground of my being, I wondered if part of the 'epidemic' of depression and anxiety in our society is to do with people not knowing how to do this. Not knowing that the world offers itself to us all the time and is a means of reconnecting us to ourselves and to a bigger sense of belonging. Not knowing that we can be comforted by the 'is-ness' of things, and the independent life of plants and birds and insects.

The words of Iris Murdoch also came to me about the difficulty of truly paying attention. She said that the trick is not to have your thoughts circle back to the self with surreptitious and consoling fantasies. We are renewed and enlivened by being able to be present to what is not us.

When I feel a bit discombobulated, as I did today, it's tempting to keep taking my pulse (as it were), to keep checking in with how I'm feeling. In other words, to have my thoughts be about myself. The capacity for truly other-centred attention is one we must practice to develop - it's a discipline I am still learning, slowly, intermittently, gratefully.

Shalom, Sarah

Sunday, 17 April 2016


I didn't take my camera with me on my latest Wednesday retreat. It was a greyish day, and I wanted to walk unencumbered though I wasn't sure where I would go, at first. None of my usual spots seemed to draw me, and I realised I didn't really want to get in the car to drive anywhere. So I just started from our place in Bruce, and thought I'd walk into the bushland behind the Institute of Sport and the Bruce Stadium. In the end, I went further than I'd planned - or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the distance was shorter than I'd imagined - and I ended up walking right through Bruce/O'Connor Ridge to Dryandra St, in O'Connor.

Without the camera, I was less focused on looking and seeing, and became more aware of what I was hearing. When I first became more fully aware of the soundscape of the bush around me, I realised how little I had been hearing up till then. Thoughts really can be 'clamorous'. And just as with seeing - the more we look, the more we see - so with hearing. The more I listened, the more birds I heard - and they were everywhere this grey morning. Red wattle birds, magpies, grass parrots, choughs - and then, as I became more attuned, there were areas that seemed densely populated by tiny wrens, red-headed finches of some kind, other small birds - maybe silver-eyes or honey-eaters, fantails and willy-wagtails. Twittering and chirping, whole colonies of them feasting on the cassinia bushes and among the trees.

Metaphors of sight are pervasive in contemplative spirituality - and the word 'contemplation' means something like looking at, gazing upon. But it does seem possible to 'look upon' and still maintain your own interior commentary. That seems harder to do with listening. If I'm really listening, it's as if I have to cease my inner monologue. I really do have to become silent, to become hospitable to the voice of the other. It's a space-making practice. So it makes sense that when we meditate, we are instructed to 'listen to the mantra', to 'sound it'. When I'm listening like that, I'm less full of myself. And somehow that always feels renewing, healing, cleansing.

So though this photo was taken on an earlier walk, near Pine Island, let this little bird represent the soundscape of my Bruce Ridge walk and my lesson in listening, on a grey autumn morning!

Shalom, Sarah

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Easter Island

After Easter last year, we had a strong sense that the time was now right for Benedictus to celebrate all the Easter services from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Day. Up till this year, in 'real' Easter time, we've observed Holy Saturday as a liturgy of waiting, and then entered the season of Easter from the following week.

I've been very much anticipating the prospect of celebrating all the services as a community, and it's affected how Lent felt - knowing that we were going to complete the journey to Easter Day together. There were also some logistical questions to address - most significantly, the question of where we would do this, since we still only have the use of a building on Saturday evenings.

The place that was 'given' to us was the island at the shore of Lake Ginninderra - off John Knight Park. I say 'given' because it seemed suddenly to show itself as the place where we could gather, and offered three settings which were extraordinarily apt for Maundy Thursday's liturgy in the garden, Good Friday's liturgy at the foot of the cross, and Sunday's holy communion by the lake shore.

On my Wednesday Retreat during Holy Week, I went to the island. It was like a Day of Preparation, a chance to be and pray where we would be gathering over the next four days.

You get onto the island over a small footbridge, which has a large rock in front of it. The bridge with its guardian rock effects the transition from the shore to the island, and speaks of the transition we need to make to enter the 'space' of the Easter liturgies.

On Wednesday, I spent time in the 'garden' - the grove of paperbark trees near the small fort, among which we would stand as evening fell on Maundy Thursday.

I sat among the casuarinas against which the cross rested on Good Friday.

And I looked towards the East across the water, where we'd face to celebrate the resurrection.

Having the services outside, in this setting, felt very powerful. The landscape held and helped create our liturgies. It was a space that enabled the 'work' that each day asked of us, as if the different parts of the island led us into the next part of our paschal journey. In me, there was a deep fullness by Easter Day. I am so grateful for the gift of this space, and the gift of a community to share it with.

It appears that most of my 'flock' are behind me, but there were some people there too!

St Francis, eat your heart out!

And then time to celebrate - a festal procession, and breakfast by the shore.

Happy Easter!!