Lessons from the Long Paddock

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6 Jun 2017

Driving through the sweeping plains of western NSW after fresh rain is an extraordinary experience. Paddocks that only days before were parched and dry are suddenly wet and muddy and already smelling of fresh, new life. Driving country roads often means driving in the Long Paddock. The Long Paddock is the name given to the corridor through which Australian cattlemen and women – drovers – move stock from one place to another. It’s one huge long fenced paddock along the side of many roads. A journey through the Long Paddock draws one’s focus to a seemingly endless invitation. It is an invitation to reflect and see and be thoroughly amazed in the constant present as you move into what lies ahead. Few country folk would consider themselves particularly spiritual people but many hold a worldview which reflects a sound grasp of some of the essentials you’d want to associate with authentic living. A deeply spiritual person is usually also a deeply authentic person and there is something about living in country Australia that nurtures, in many people, a truly grounded, unique and honest capacity for living authentically. Driving through the Long Paddocks of our country hones a sense of place and presence and draws us right up close to a glimpse of a unique spirituality. Though many of them mightn’t recognise it, there are country people who understand intuitively what great theologians like Karl Rahner know. That:

“The future Christian will be a mystic or she/he will not exist at all”

Rahner’s insight points to the need for Christians to return to the experience of the Divine, to the reality of Christ in the ordinariness of life. Mystics believe that it is within the grasp of human experience to have direct experiential knowledge of God. For many Australians this is a reality that is known deeply, though it is rarely spoken of. It is a reality we need to grasp if we are to transcend the challenges of these days.

People tend to trust those who have ‘walked the walk’. The people of many remote rural places have walked the walk. Those who have done it tough and remained faithful, hold firm to an experience of God. They know something of what sustains us all when the rubber hits the road. They often know what it is to be priestless, to be without basic sacramental offerings from the Church. They have lived in parishes that have been abandoned. The people of remote and isolated places often know that we need to rediscover the teachings of Jesus, and the pragmatism of his responses to the realities and challenges of his times.

For disciples- both Indigenous and White – in the country and outback Australia, the idea that God is an integral part of the human experience and alive in the landscape has never been in doubt. Church community in these places has never been measured by bums on seats. The fact that life in this landscape is often so totally hard and heartbreaking is a fact of life. There is no room for denial out back, no time for platitudes. Things are what they are and one has to deal with it. The land, the climate, the heat, the drought, the floods….the flies dominate. The emphasis is always on what is happening and what matters.

A spirituality of the Long Paddock knows to be cautious, sceptical. It knows about sacrifice and is used to suffering. The faith people hold is utilitarian and the hope that sustains them is everywhere and within at the same time. The faithful of the outback know the paradox of change and constancy. Faith out there is often more a matter of finding the life and energy from within the experience itself and hope is a part of the psyche of the land because it’s had to be. Holiness is found in ordinary people and in the land they inhabit. There is no reaching for packaged models of holiness; no fascination with external projections of what discipleship and Church should look like. People aren’t impressed with ways that work elsewhere, with rules that keep others seeing boundaries that don’t exist. Faith in rural Australia does what it needs to do to feed others and stay alive.
And it loves to laugh. It laughs at itself and at its own inadequacies and limitations. It laughs at futile attempts to alter the course of happenings and of time. It laughs at flies, at snakes coiled up in outback dunnies, cunning old cattle dogs and buggered up utes. It hits itself with a wet fish when it needs to get serious and it is always sharp even though it might seem to be slow.

We might just discover that it is in this vast apparent emptiness that new life is waiting and that great wisdom is ready to be shared for the whole of Christ’s Church. The Long Paddock speaks with a prophetic voice for the future of our Church. It asks the questions many others have yet to articulate, it offers the pragmatic adjustments that need to be thought about and, marvellous of all, it draws us back to the mystical heart of our faith and challenges us to experience Christ in what is happening now. It calls us to get real and get on with it. A journey through the Long Paddock is a must as we reach for the maps we need to navigate our way through tough times as Church today. If we’re looking for what matters in our Tradition, if we need to take a good hard, long look at our culture, then we might need to do some Long Paddock thinking ourselves.

For more, click here go to the Diocese of Wilcannia – Forbes website and look for the online experience: ‘Lessons from the Long Paddock’

Kate Englebrecht is the Diocesan Director of Mission, Catholic Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes
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