Sunday 18 September 2011

Take Off Your Shoes!

God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses! . . . Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” Exodus 3:4-5 (abridged)

Sunrise and moonset over Kunanyi/Mt Wellington 

A friend used to frequent a place called Bastard Hill. When he asked why it was called that, a grizzled local replied “because it’s a bastard of a place”. It’s the kind of sensibility that has lead to place names like Dismal Swamp, Useless Loop, Mount Buggery, Bust-Me-Gall Hill and Stinky Bay.
When it comes to place names, Australians don’t get lyrical. We tend to call a spade a bloody shovel. We’re generally not good at poetics or reverence, tending to shy away from overt exhibitions of emotional connection. The exceptions that prove the rule are places like Uluru and, arguably, the MCG. The former is as close to a universally accepted version of holy ground as Australians are likely to get. The Melbourne Cricket Ground’s “sacredness” is only likely to be recogised by that vociferous minority of Australians comprising most Melburnians and the sports mad.
Off-shore you might add places like Gallipoli and Kokoda, but certainly the list of “sacred sites” is a small one for most non-Aboriginal Australians. I wonder if that reluctance to overtly own our connection to place is a short-coming worth working on. I think back to former Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray’s description of the Franklin River as a “brown leech-ridden ditch”. Surely that bluntness merely disguised a wish to exploit or harm that wilderness river.
In thinking about this in local terms, I realised with a slight shock that I have no name for “our” neighbourhood bush. I walk in it most days, whether for a 10 minutes dog walk; as a “long cut” on my way to work; or simply to get out and breathe, ponder, talk, exercise, pray, listen, explore or photograph. To us its either “the back track” or simply “the bush”. But should it have a proper name?

What might this bird orchid be singing? 
Freeing my inner Eeyore for a moment, I’d be inclined to suggest that there isn’t anything particularly spectacular about it. It’s a mixed forest of peppermint and stringybark eucalypt on steepish, flinty mudstone broken here and there by outcrops of sandstone. Although its understorey of shrubs and ground-covers sometimes approaches prettiness, it has been much put-upon over the years, variously fire-ravaged, over-tracked, eroded and beset by weeds. All in all most would feel it more holey than holy.

But what constitutes “holy”? According to the Talmud, “every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, 'Grow, grow.'” How mind-boggling is the thought of every living thing attended by a celestial maintenance team? Only marginally more boggling than the sight of the night sky above the bush; or the moon setting over the cloud-blanketed summit of the mountain; or a bird orchid rising in mute worship from this spring’s leaf litter; or a gang of black cockatoos flouncing and squawking their way through the forest.

The night sky over our bush 
Angels aside, the bush holds enough small wonders to still my soul every time I’m open to that. If holy ground is where you can feel insignificant and yet paradoxically connected to that which IS significant, then yes, this bush is holy ground.

Which makes it a place God can “call” to me from. I think it’s time to take off my shoes.

[I would like to acknowledge Barbara Brown Taylor's book "An Altar in the World" for seed ideas as well as the Talmud quote.] 

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