Where Beauty Dwells

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles of the July Somme Offensive in western France during WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’At 6.00 pm on July 19, 1916 the Australian 5th Division went into a battle they were never going to win. Twenty four hours later 2000 lay dead with a further 3500 horribly wounded. My grandfather was there and he returned, but was forever scarred, physically and mentally by the experience.

Bill Gammage in his book The Broken Years, quotes Corporal A.G. Thomas of the 6th Battalion,  under fire at Pozieres six days later:

For Christ’s sake write a book on the life of an infantryman, and by so doing you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.

The book was written, but the shocking tragedies continue. The ‘war to end all wars’ was just a mirage! Twenty years later, World War II devastated Europe again; the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a new dimension of horror to warfare; the Cold War; the devastating attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in the Middle East; and the overwhelming and tragic plight of those who flee in search of peace and a better life.

Lately I have been reading newspaper reports of the catastrophic shootings in the United States and thank God that here in Australia, we are spared these outrages. My heart is heavy however as I think of the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who are suffering the pain of these unnecessary losses.

Another newspaper report, and television coverage, bring news that the atrocities in France continue. As I read, I recall walking along the Promenade des Anglais, basking in the summer sunshine glinting off the blue of the Mediterranean. Now this beautiful space will be forever tainted by the horror of recent events.

My quest for beauty, for my Ignatian desire to find God in all things, is almost overwhelmed by the sadness and horror this year is delivering. But a period of contemplation reveals the beauty I have experienced this year:

A trip to Sydney to see The Greats – Masterpieces of the National Galleries of Scotland, with the arresting Mrs Agnew by one of my favourite artists, John Singer Sargent; and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, one of only 36 remaining paintings of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.

An afternoon spent with a friend and Sydney Harbour by day and night. The Opera House, glowing in the dark, brought memories of the beautiful music I have experienced there.

My own city by night as I headed to the Performing Arts Centre to see the Queensland Ballet perform Strictly Gershwin. This vibrant and amazing company thrives under the direction of Li Cunxin – Mao’s Last Dancer and I look forward to their performance next month of Lest We Forget:

a moving reflection on war, featuring works from three renowned choreographers. War can intensify feelings of love, commitment and passion. All of the works in this unique triple bill draw on the power of dance to reflect the heartache of war.

In June I took a short break by the ocean and as I walked on the beach at sunset, I was in awe of the beauty of creation. The sound and smell of the sea, and the myriad of colours that streaked the sky and stained the clouds. And then my soul sang with joy at the sight of a man and his little daughter casting their fishing lines into the sunset.

Now as I remember that scene I realise that this was the embodiment of love and beauty that can never be subdued by these troubled times.

There were other occasions of beauty. Our early winter was not cold enough for my camellia bushes to bloom, but one perfect flower braved all and appeared in spite of it. There was the painting and pottery of my beautiful, creative friends, there was and is friendship that sustains me, the love of my family and a visit from one of our young Ugandan friends from our retreats there last year, and finally the creative perfection of the last rose of summer.

John O’Donohue wrote:

Beauty waits until the patience and depth of a gaze are refined enough to engage and discover it. In this sense, beauty is not a quality externally present in something. It emerges at that threshold where reverence of mind engages the subtle presence of the other person, place or object. The hidden heart of beauty offers itself only when it is approached in a rhythm worthy of its trust and showing.

In the end, the truth is surprisingly ordinary – that there is beauty in every life regardless of how inauspicious, dull or hardened its surface might seem.


Gratitude, Passion, Hope

It has long been my habit as the old year passes into history and the new year, with all its yet unspoken hopes and dreams begins, to spend some time in reflection and gratitude. As I sat down today, January 1, 2016 I recalled a recent reflection of Pope Francis in which he expressed three aims:

To look to the past with gratitude; to live the present with passion;  to embrace the future with hope.

So with the eyes of gratitude I reviewed my year and gave thanks:

For my family and the love we share, and I give special thanks for my beautiful niece Domenica. She graduated with first class Honours from her Fine Arts degree and stands on the threshold of living her passion for her art.


No Going Back

For my friends who enrich my life and nourish my soul; who support me in good times and bad. And the joy of friendships renewed. For  my faith community that sustains and strengthens my beliefs.

For an amazing, enriching, challenging and confronting journey to Uganda to give formation retreats to the NET youth ministries. This was a very  special and graced time spent with people passionate about their country and education, poor in material goods but rich in faith and love. The banner on the NET Uganda website states:

We are a people who yearn to be remembered … for we are a people

I know that I was blessed to have been a small part of the lives of these people and I shall never forget them.

And for all the people I met, those unexpected encounters that touch the heart and gladden the soul; for conversations and laughter, for getting lost in a book. For poetry and music that inspired, soothed and healed me;  that guided  me to reflection, reminiscence and daydreams, and filled me with enthusiasm and optimism.

For concerts and ballet, painting and art galleries, for ice cream and pasta and Brown Brothers wines; and for the beauty of creation – jacarandas, poincianas and frangipani, for the ocean and walks on the beach, for pelicans, the salty air and the roar of the surf, sunset and full moons. And most of all, for my life and talents and my ability to seek and find the divine beauty that awakens all that is noble in the human heart.

My reflection then turned to living the present with passion. One of my favourite poets is Mary Oliver and the Jesuit author William Barry notes that Oliver ‘seems to have been born a contemplative’. This is very evident in her many books of poetry and the way in which she pays attention to the world around her.  In Just Around the House, Early in the Morning published in Swan she wrote:

Though I have been scorned for it, let me never be afraid to use the word beautiful. For within is the shining leaf and the blossoms of the geranium at the window. And the eyes of the happy puppy as he wakes. The colors of the old and beloved afghan lying by itself, on the couch, in the morning sun.

Now as I reflect on living the present with passion,  it is to her poem The Summer Day that I turn, with its final, haunting question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Formed in Ignatian spirituality my response to that question is, that the purpose of my wild and precious life is to make a difference – to all lives that touch mine, and to all God’s creatures. To live a life of service and to do this with passion and joy.

Today I received a New Year reflection written by Madeline Duckett and posted on the Contemplative Evolution Network – Inspired Words from the Network. In it she notes the tension we hold between what is and what might be, and the darkness and light of our  journey through 2015.  There has been much darkness she says, “but there has been light as well – so much light to balance the darkness of our world’s soul”. And so my wish for 2016 is that gratitude, passion and hope will prevail over the darkness.

To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing,

To contemplate the beautiful thing; that is enough for one man’s life.

T.S. Eliot


Lost in a Book

Just recently I bought a book, a real book by a local author. It has a lovely cover, and pages I can turn;  a book whose place I can mark with a beautiful book mark; one I can leave on my reading chair or leave face down on my coffee table, ready for me to pick up and resume one of my favourite occupations; and most importantly, beautiful prose that transports me to the places and times the author presents to me.

So does this signal an unusual or groundbreaking occasion? Certainly not, but over the past few years, as I ran out of room for bookcases I have been downloading some books to my iPad. In particular, those books that I know I shall read once but probably never again. Not the good friends that I turn to again and again, when I am happy or sad, nostalgic, or just because I love them and I want to sink into their pages one more time.


Books have been a part of my life since early childhood. Every night my mother or father would read me to sleep and even then I had my favourites. I often recall my father, tired from a long day at work, turning over two pages at once, and my reminder to him, “you missed a page dad”.

My mother was a member of the School of Arts lending library in the city and every fortnight I would accompany her to the library, in Ann Street, and we would walk up the long staircase and into a dark, cavernous two storey-high treasury of books. In my imagination I am there now, seeing those books, smelling that peculiar but distinctive library smell, and casting a hopeful eye at the children’s library that stood at the top of the stairs outside the adult section. When I was five years old, my mother enrolled me in that children’s library and I remember my excitement at having my own library card and being able to borrow books in my own  right – my love affair with books and writing had begun.

IMG_1791When I was about 10 years old my mother gave me her Anne books – L.M. Montgomery’s chronicle beginning with Anne of Green Gables. I quickly and irrevocably became lost in the world of ‘Anne with an e’ (as an Ann with no e, I forgave her that one thing), a world of kindred spirits, the lake of shining waters, the cherry tree outside her window that quickly became the Snow Queen. Everything and everywhere was scope for the imagination, and who could forget her terror-filled walk through the Haunted  Wood and how ‘bitterly did she regret the license she had given to her imagination’.

But most of all, Anne’s world was a world of beauty, so eloquently stated by Montgomery:

Anne’s beauty-loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in; she had looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.

My love for the Anne books has never diminished and even now, so many years later, I will often pluck one of them off the shelf and immerse myself in the world of that little red-haired orphan. And I still weep with her when Matthew dies!

My high school years introduced me to Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice – and the wonderful monologues of Shylock:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not bleed? 

and Portia:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with the wonderful opening lines

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…….

Written in 1859 about the French Revolution, these words could well ring true of our times today.

I moved on to the regency novels of Georgette Heyer, George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope’s six Palliser novels with his unforgettable characters: Plantagenet and Glencora Palliser; Phineas Finn and Madam Max. The wonderful Barchester Chronicles and the gentle warden, Mr Harding, his ambitious son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, the devious machinations of Mrs Proudie and the obsequious Mr Slope. My university studies encompassed a vast amount of reading in a double major in Australian and American History and a major in Australian and American literature – Patrick White, Thea Astley, Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies and the tragedy unfolding in Squeaker’s Mate, the poetry and short stories of Henry Kendall and Banjo Paterson; Richard’s Wright’s Native Son – the tragic Bigger Thomas; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the story of Hester Prynn – a fallen woman in the Calvinist-Puritan society of Boston, generally regarded as the first great work of American fiction; and Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick. 

I could not survive in a world without books and I remember a moment of great pleasure upon my last visit to the United States, standing in the main reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the pinnacle of libraries.

IMG_1795 Library of Congress

I recall reading Ray Bradbury’s dystopian  novel Fahrenheit 451. Regarded as one of his best works, the novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. Montag, a disillusioned fireman with a secret stash of books, joins an outlaw group who preserve books by memorising their contents and then destroying them. The books cannot be forgotten, because each person in the group is a living version of them. Montag himself becomes the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

So I wonder, what book would I preserve and memorise? Would it be Anne of Green Gables, or A Tale of Two Cities? Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd? Or John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara or Divine Beauty? Georgette Heyer’s Venetia? The poetry of Denise Levertov or Mary Oliver; the beautiful spiritual writing of Margaret Silf; Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple? A play by Alice Childress? I don’t know! How could I choose? My books are my friends and their words inform me and enthral me; they touch my heart and nourish my soul; they give me scope for imagination and take me out of the ordinary and into the beautiful.

What book would you choose?







Lost in the Beauty of Creation

When beauty touches our lives, the moment becomes luminous. These grace-moments are gifts that surprise us. When we look beyond the moment to our life journey, perhaps we can choose a new rhythm of journeying which would be more conscious of beauty and more open to inviting her to disclose herself to us in all the situations we travel through.              John O’Donohue

This morning beauty touched my life with luminous moments at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mt Coot-tha.

My spiritual formation is that of St Ignatius Loyola – Ignatian spirituality, that has its roots in the conviction that God is active, personal, and­­—above all—present to us. We don’t have to withdraw from the world into a quiet place in order to find God. God’s footprints can be found everywhere—in our work and our relationships, in our family and friends, in our sorrows and joys, in the sublime beauty of nature and in the mundane details of our daily lives. It’s often said that Ignatian spirituality trains us to “find God in all things.”

At the heart of my involvement in this spirituality is Christian Life Community (CLC), a lay organisation whose specific source of spirituality is the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. And so today, I gathered with CLC friends at Mt Coot-tha for a meditation walk – a search for God’s footprints. It was a time to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. We were invited to sharpen our awareness and delight in God’s creation. Our scripture for reflection was Job 12:7-10

Ask the beasts they will teach you; 

the birds of the air and they will tell you;

ask the plants of the earth

and they will teach you;

and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Who among these does not know 

that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing.

And the breath of every human being.


And so my journey began: past the lizard, waiting, unafraid of my approaching footsteps; dipping under the amazing web of two golden orb-weaver spiders; and past the magpie with its beautiful call. Then a visit to the fern house and a stroll through the arid region plants and the cacti and bromeliad house.

Then finally I reached my destination – the Japanese Garden. A feature of World Expo 88, it was created here at Mt Coot-tha as a generous and lasting gift from Japan.

The gateway to tranquility

The Japanese feel the ideal garden should represent nature and only by the gardener’s skilful ability to observe nature is he able to arrange his materials, stone, trees and water to create a garden that soothes and refreshes the human spirit. This garden has been designed in the tsuki-yama-chisen style of mountain, pond and stream.

Central to Ignatian spirituality is the practice of contemplative prayer and noticing.

When I am very still in a place without words, steeped in silence, when the world is elsewhere with its noise and motion, what sacred hungers are inside me?

As I sat quietly, I took notice of the textures, the tones and the sounds of this garden. The water tumbling over the rocks, the bird calls, the distant  laughter of children. John O’Donohue writes that to become attentive to beauty, we need to rediscover the art of reverence, a word we now seldom use. The idea of reverence is filled with riches that we need, now more than ever. According to O’Donohue, human beings should dwell on this earth with reverence and at its heart the journey of each life is a pilgrimage through unforeseen sacred places that enlarge and enrich the soul.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis stresses the importance  of the interior life and spirituality in our quest to protect our environment. So I sat in silent reverence, in the presence of the sacred, and contemplated the beauty and wonder of creation.