Issue 1 Feature Article

Note:  This essay is based on chapter four of the book, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality by David Tacey, published in Sydney by HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000.

An Aboriginal elder of the Ngarinyin people, David Mowaljarlai, told me in 1996 that “spirituality is coming back in Australia”.  “This is a spirit country”, he said, “and we will all have to face the sacredness of the land”.  David Mowaljarlai’s “all” in this sentence obviously included white people as well as black people, since he was talking to me and including me in the conversation.  Unlike so many other voices in Australia at the time, voices supporting racial exclusivity and difference, he was being extraordinarily generous and inclusive.  For a moment I lost my bearings and hardly knew how to receive the gift of his insight.  Those of us who are non-Aboriginals are so used to being told by secular authorities and liberation activists that a land-based spirituality in Australia is off-limits for white people, taboo, none of our business, that we have no framework for seeing ourselves as a spiritually united people, united by the sacredness of the land.
And yet, for all our self-created political, economic, and racial barriers, there is a level, often intuitively felt but rarely discussed, at which we are all united in the spirit.  This experience of spiritual interconnectedness has much to do with the land, and appears to arise, as the Aboriginal elder intimates, quite spontaneously from the lived experience of this earth.  When we experience this spirituality, some materialists claim that we are stealing indigenous property, since for them “spirituality” does not exist apart from the cultural forms in which it is expressed.  But, contrary to this fashionable rigidity, Mowaljarlai and indigenous elders like him believe that in sharing their vision with all Australians they are strengthening the spiritual life of this country and its community.  The suspicious see sharing as stealing, while the open-hearted see sharing as plenitude and abundance.
sacred ground
How we conceptualise this “spirit” is still beyond our imagining.  In most European countries, spirit is felt to come from above, to descend from the sky like a dove, to shower upon earth like the flames of Pentecost.  Spirit is linked to the heavens, to the blue skies, and to a Father God who is perceived to be “above” us.  Yet in Australia, the country of reversals, the upside down land, the Antipodes whose symbol is the tilted Southern Cross, the celestial realm appears to be “below” us, in the earth itself, in the soil, rocks, and plants of this ancient land.  Here, the spirit has not departed the earth and retreated to its heavenly abode.  The spirit is in the earth, under our feet, and below our normal level of vision and understanding.
Western European cosmology is reversed in Australia, and this gives rise to a completely different spiritual phenomenology.  Because here spiritual feeling enters us, as it were, from the feet, travels along the legs, through the trunk of the body, and if we are lucky, it ignites a new life in the heart.  But it rarely reaches our heads, or is expressed through the voice, or articulated by the educated intellect.  It operates below the level of normal ratiocination, which is why so few people in this country can intellectually express our spiritual experiences.  We don’t “have” spiritual experiences in Australia, rather, they “have” us, and hold us in their grip.
In Western cultures, religion has become a remarkably heady experience.  It is a way of the mind, and a way of moral understanding, and if we are very fortunate, it reaches down into the heart as well, and ignites a life of true faith.  In the West, religion is intimately tied up with language, words, verbal expressions, sermons, creeds, catechism, theology.  As Veronica Brady has said, there is a lot of chattering about religion, a great deal of God-language, but not always much God-presence.  In Australia, I would contend, this pattern is reversed, so that we have a strong sense of God-presence, but not much God-language.
The Australian experience of spirit is direct, existential, non-ecclesiastical, and almost pre-verbal.  That is why our society does not appear to be very religious, because hardly any of our religion is articulated or on show.
the language of the earth
The main language in Australia is earth-language: walking over the body of the earth, touching nature, feeling its presence and its other life, and attuning ourselves to its sensual reality.  Aboriginal culture is of the land, and Aboriginal religion is a spirituality of place.  The sacred songs and chants are sung to gigantic and ancient rock formations and to vast expanses of red earth.  The sacred dances are earth-dances, where the celebrants gather to “sing up” and sustain the spirits of the earth.  Significantly, Aboriginal dance and celebration is concentrated upon the movements of the feet.  Mowaljarlai says that when he is engaged in attunement in the bush, he performs movements with the feet to create greater spiritual intimacy with the earth: “You feel you want to get deeper, so you start moving around and stamp your feet – to come closer and to recognise what you are seeing”.  Stamping the feet gives connection to the land, spiritual quickening, and focus to the mind.
In traditional dance, the feet of the dancer are gently raised at first, and then strike the earth with much energy and vigour.  At the climax of the dance, the feet hit the ground with great force, as if to draw the spirit out, to raise fire out of rock, to cause the spirit to flame up from below.  Often the arms are limp or immobile, as the feet do the communicating, as in Irish Celtic dancing.  Aboriginal visual art, as well, is governed by the feet.  The so-called abstract paintings are not abstract at all, but are experiences of the land as seen from above and felt through the feet.  The feet register the contours of place, the proportions, lines, dots, and rhythms of the landscape.
In contemporary, post-colonial Australia, spirituality is entering our lives from below and the feet play a more important role than the intellect, which struggles to recognise what is taking place.  Barbara Blackman once said in a lecture that if we want to “under-stand” spirituality in this country we have to “stand-under” our habitual logic and our usual perceptions, since that is the vantage point from which the spirit is found.  Under-standing calls us away from our conscious conventions.  Insight arises from a deeper intuition, from a level of mind and matter below consciousness.  Writing of the experience of divine presence in Australia, the poet Les Murray has said that this presence is
Almost beneath notice, as attainable as gravity, it is
a continuous recovering moment.  Pity the high madness
that misses it continually ….

That is what Western European high culture can seem like from the perspective of the Australian spirit; a field of “high madness” that “continually” “misses” the experience of the sacred.  Or as A.D. Hope put it, the spirit of Australia is a
… spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

Even this country’s greatest intellects, like Hope and Murray, can in certain lights appear non- or anti-sophisticated, because they are deeply suspicious of the routine chatter and madness which passes for civilization in other countries, and often in our own cities.  But they are only suspicious of the chatter because they can feel something more and something greater.  A reality larger than ourselves beckons us in this country, a reality born of silence and not readily translated into concepts or language.  The analytical left brain may not even perceive it at all, but the poetical right brain, which governs our experience of the intuitive dimension of experience, must sing in praise of this larger and greater world:
After the tree falls, there will reign the same silence
as stuns and spurs us, enraptures and defeats us,
as seems to some a challenge, and seems to others
to be waiting here for something beyond imagining.

How we conceptualise spirit in Australia is still beyond our imagining.  And this spirit appears to be “waiting” for something to happen, waiting for some transformation or transfiguration.  But of what?  And of whom?  Perhaps this is what the early sailors meant by Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, a land dedicated to the holy spirit.
It may be that Australian spirit is presently beyond our imagining because it is nondualistic, non-otherworldly, and deeply linked to physical reality.  As such, it could be “unrecognisable” (Eliade) from the point of view of the old Judeo-Christian dispensation, with its transcendentalist and dualistic character.  This is perhaps why the churches have not been able to identify the spiritual renaissance in Australia, nor to offer leadership in this spiritual discovery.  In Western cultures, “spirit” is almost a synonym for that which is abstract, remote, and detached from matter and nature.  In contemporary Australia, people can feel spirit in this place, but it is the opposite of transcendental and remote.  Leading the new development have been our artists, writers and visionary poets, but only those who have been close to the earth and close to the poetic wisdom of the earth.  Murray, Wright, and Neilson, for instance, were born on the land and gained their insights and intuitions from the land.

In the work of urban poets, Australia is seen as a colonial graveyard, a place which is no longer spiritually sustained by the strained and broken umbilical cord from Western Europe.  But the poets of the earth have a vastly different message to impart.  According to our earthy artists, Australia is the exciting birthing-site for a new kind of consciousness.  The new cultural spirituality to emerge here will be embodied, physical, and incarnational.  This Australian spirit may even look “pagan” to the old dispensation, because it will be unashamed of the body, and unafraid to find the sacred in the ordinary and everyday.
Aboriginal spirituality, although seemingly esoteric to the casual observer, is the opposite of otherworldly.  It is intensely this-worldly, and linked to the practical experience of being in the world.  The newly emerging sense of spirit in postcolonial Australia is in many ways similar to the early Aboriginal religious experience.
two-way dialogue and cultural exchange
For civilisations, exchange is oxygen.
– Aime Cesaire

It is by rediscovering the presence of the spirit in creation with the help of indigenous religions that Christianity can recover the expansive dimension of the sacred, and recover the horizontal link with the world that has been attacked by individualism and modernity.  Christianity can no longer behave in a superior manner to Aboriginal religion, but must see how its own spiritual essence, the Holy Spirit, is discovered in this “wholly other”, non-European religion.  It won’t judge, evaluate, and denigrate this other religion, but realise its fundamental kinship with it.  The need to convert (evangelism) will give way to the need to discover a deep religious mystery common to both traditions (mysticism).  Western religion can look upon Aboriginal religion as if witnessing the lost dimensions of its own religious heritage.  It will look into the mirror, darkly aware that what is reflected back to it is the image of its own alter-ego, with whom it needs to make a pact, for the sake of transformation.
Creation theologian Matthew Fox is not a specialist in Australian religions, but one of his statements delivered in Melbourne seems to be resonant with meaning.  Fox said that
Eight thousand years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, we set aside the Mother Goddess tradition but we can locate it again and creatively refine it in … Australia.

He included North America in this same statement, and that is an accurate reflection as well.  It is true that when Old Europe meets the New World it actually discovers its own buried, lost or repressed unconscious life in the new-old landscape.  That is why it is mainly the oldest traditions within the Christian West, namely, the Catholic traditions, that can respond theologically and imaginatively to the challenge of the new cultural situation.  The antiquity of these Christian traditions is a kind of two-edged sword, for while their great age brings depth, remnants of paganism, and adoration of the feminine (even if in limited form), which grants us the capacity to relate to indigenous peoples, their ancientness is also a burden in the sense of being politically antiquated and heavy with institutional burden.  But even if ancient Christianity groans under its own weight, we must be deeply thankful that the Protestant Reformation did not completely obliterate the deeply mystical and feminine elements that we need so desperately today.
But the important point here is that no religious tradition is locked up in static and isolated space.  As soon as religion becomes static, it begins to die.  This is true for any religion, whether Aboriginal or Christian.  The Aboriginal people long for religious transformation as much as we do, and they won’t discover this renewal by shutting themselves off from white people.  The radical left idea that seclusion and resistance to whites will bring new strength is an illusion.  Many elders have expressed the need to establish a new sacred dispensation and, contrary to leftist ideology, they would like to achieve this in cooperation with other Australians.  In 1991, the Institute of Criminology hosted a conference in Alice Springs entitled “Healing Our People”, at which an elder from the Kowanyama Community in Queensland said:
We can’t go back.  The old law was for the old problems.  Now we got this new law, this Whiteman’s way.  And we got these new problems.  This law doesn’t fix them either.  It’s no good.  What we got to do is put them together, the old and the new.  Mix them up.  And they’ll be hard and strong like cement.

The old ways need to incorporate the new experiences, to keep religion alive, relevant, and powerful.
This call for change within Aboriginal sacred traditions is not being heard by contemporary mainstream Australia, which likes to think of Aboriginal spirituality as something contained in an hermetically sealed vessel, an eternal “sacredness” that is unchanging and remote within a static Aboriginal culture.  The cry within Aboriginal culture is for spiritual transformation, and Aboriginal people are, I believe, far more prepared to take risks with culture and the sacred than we are.  Because we are further removed from the sacred, we are less receptive to its needs.
red spirit: the warm glow of the earth gods
In his monumental poem of 1939, “Australia” A.D. Hope imagined that a new “spirit” would arise from Australian soil, a spirit that would be unlike that which has emerged from European cultures.  The Australian spirit would be “savage and scarlet as no green hills dare”.  Fifty years later, novelist Peter Carey expressed similar insights.  In Oscar and Lucinda, Oscar Hopkins “could not imagine … what this countryside was like.  He used soft words like brook and lane and copse.  He could not imagine its raw-toothed savagery”.  Even artists who are not expressly religious, like Peter Carey and others, nevertheless cannot resist speaking metaphorically about the rise of a new kind of spirit in Australia.
Artists appear to agree that what will emerge here will be qualitatively different from our former European spirituality.  Australian spirit will be “savage” in the sense of being untamed, primordial, definitely not Wordsworthian; it will be challenging rather than consoling.  And Hope’s word “scarlet” suggests not only the red earth and pink mountain ranges, but also red blood, instinct, and passion.  One of Hope’s great themes throughout his poetic career is the profound continuity between spirituality and sexuality, between religion and the body.  We will not have any “disembodied” spirit here, no spirituality which is embarrassed by the body or sexuality.
The cultural “mixing” of Aboriginal spirituality and Christian revelation will give rise to an embodied religious sense, an awareness of the sanctity and sacramentality of nature.  Judith Wright worked for decades to express this intuition of an embodied religious sense, a celebration of the sacred that is at once sensual and passionate.  Yet in struggling to articulate this intuition of cosmic interconnectedness, Wright had to unlearn a good deal of her European heritage, especially the dualism that comes from Hellenic sources and Pauline Christianity.  We cannot arrive at a nondualistic state just by thinking about it; rather, the sensitive poet has to suffer enormously to dissolve the rigid dualistic framework that most of us have inherited.  In her achievement of a vision of nonduality, Wright’s teacher was the land and the Aboriginal people, since in Australia, as she says in “At Cooloolah”, the conventional dualisms cannot be replicated because “earth is spirit”.  The earth is alive, animated, and saturated with the spiritual life of our indigenous people.

In the literary works of White, Wright, Murray, and Neilson, modernist alienation has been experienced and overcome.  They have walked through and beyond T.S. Eliot’s arid and sickening Waste Land, and crossed to the other horizon, entering a new world of dynamic colour and energy, akin perhaps to the red desert in full bloom.  This is the “savage and scarlet” spirit that Hope saw, and that has to be rendered meaningful and coherent in the future.  Certainly it is a serious mistake to suggest that Australian experience is backward or primitive and has not yet “caught up with” the leading centres of world civilisation.  This would be to read the red spirit regressively in terms of the old “cultural cringe”, which reduces everything Australian to second-rate, inferior, or anachronistic status.
It is as Peter Conrad suggests: when the sky-god expired, the earth gods were reanimated.  Our culture has gone through the “death of God”, the loss of meaning, the absence of cosmic orientation, along with every other Western nation.  We have not side-stepped modernity to discover a new romanticism or mysticism, but have found earthly vitality and meaning after the collapse of the sky-god.  This has had, let us say, a modifying impact upon our experience of modernism, which was cut short by the reawakening of a warm, earthly presence.  Even Kenneth Slessor, our nearest approximation to full-blown modernism in poetry, stopped short of nihilism and futility, and wrote about landscape and the natural world in such a way that the modernist tone was modulated.  Slessor also cut short his own poetic career, partly, I believe, because his mystical sources of inspiration conflicted strongly with his consciously modernist programme.
But throughout the twentieth-century, most of our artists felt compelled to break ranks with their northern hemisphere models and guides, and with fashionable existential philosophies, to respond creatively to the ancient call of a primordial land.  Creative artists cannot afford to follow fashion or trend for its own sake, but must move to where the creative life is to be found.  In Australia, our artists are called to put down solid roots into the soil, and as soon as they do this they hit pay-dirt, their work flourishes, their career takes on new energy and conviction, and they celebrate the deep links that connect us to place.  Witness the difference, for instance, between Patrick White’s drab novel The Living and the Dead, set in London in the 1940s, and the passionately religious and sonorous tones of The Tree of Man, written after the recovery of his childhood connection with the Australian earth.  White’s masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s, the great novels which occasioned the achievement of the Nobel Prize, all draw their strength and spiritual vitality from the land.
Literary and art critics may choose to read this negatively, calling us rustic, or folksy, or backward, or naive, or earth-struck, but there is something very profound in the dedication with which Australian artists pursue their connections with landscape and with soil.  This downward or underworld connection has been very productive, and has led to a renaissance of spiritual feeling, even as the churches and official religious culture appear to lose authority and vitality.  The earth gods have indeed been reanimated here, and this insight enables us to understand what is actually behind the flourishing of the arts in contemporary Australia.
ordinarily sacred: everyday reality and divine presence
My next and related argument is that Australian spirituality is, and will continue to be, grounded in the ordinary events and experiences of daily existence.  The sacred here will be ordinarily sacred; we will receive what Les Murray calls the “ordinary mail of the other world, wholly common, not postmarked divine”.  This may give us an important clue as to why some regard Australia as a secular and godless country.  Because if we are looking for the God who produces otherworldly miracles and wonders, it won’t necessarily be found in Australia.  If we are looking at religious experience through a conventional metaphysical lens, our gaze may be fixed too high, and we may not be seeing what is really here.  The sacred may be, paradoxically, beneath official religious notice.   This would not be for the first time.  We think, for instance, of the lowly stable in Bethlehem, a divine presence in the midst of animals, excrement, and straw, and at how the Pharisees and High Priests laughed when they were told that the messiah had been born in Nazareth.  A typical feature of scripture is that the sacred is to be found where we least expect it, and where “official” consciousness least suspects it.
In Australian society, we find a certain preoccupation with the ordinary and the everyday, a down-to-earth sensibility which, in spite of its name, often reaches mystical intensity in its focus on the depth and goodness of ordinary things.  We sometimes find, especially in outback settlements and country areas, a reverence for things, objects, places, landmarks that exceeds the bounds of materiality and becomes a kind of spiritual reverence.  Again, we do not necessarily have the words or terms to describe this phenomenon, but in The Tree of Man White points to what he calls a “mysticism of objects” in Australian experience.  Les Murray speaks, semi-humorously, about what he calls “Strine Shinto”, an Australian religiousness of the ordinary.  In Strine Shinto, or the mysticism of objects, things become more than things; things become emblems or icons invested with symbolic significance.  Things stand for themselves, but they also stand for things as yet unknown.  This is not necessarily paganism, a worship of idols, but rather panentheism, or the presence of the divine in the manifest world.
Les Murray writes that what originally led him to poetry as a vocation was a desire to give voice to this hidden religious life of Australians.  “From earliest childhood, I was almost always conscious of a strong, sometimes frightening, sometimes deeply reassuring current of sheer meaning in things and people, a pressure of significance that only rarely carried over into what people commonly said.  The world was resonant and radiant with meanings and, knowing this, how could I speak as if none of it mattered, or leave it out the way people seemed to do?”  This “spiritual inarticulacy”, as he calls it, is as true today as it was for Murray’s boyhood; in fact more so, because religious discourse is rapidly disappearing from our common vocabulary, becoming seen as antiquated and irrelevant to our workaday lives.  In a society where religion is being eroded, the revelatory and sacred role of the artist is even more acute than ever before.
Like poet Les Murray, the artist Michael Leunig also “sees” more than is commonly seen, and feels more than is commonly felt.  This, perhaps, is the key feature of the visionary artist in any country at any time: he or she “sees” the sacred, when apparently the habitual consciousness of the day does not see it.  The creative artist is a seer.
I think from the time I could open my eyes I was aware that there seemed to be something else going on amongst those around me which was not talked about.  There was another truth.  It’s as if I want to run up to people on the street and say, “Look, I feel this; do you feel this, too?”

The task of the artist is to remind people that they do in fact have spiritual lives, that they do feel, sense, and have hunches about a level of being which is beckoning them to new awareness and self-identity.  This task is both psychotherapeutic and spiritually redemptive: the more we can feel and know these radiant meanings, the less we will be bound to compulsively act out this desire for more things and more experiences.  Once we break through to a deeper level of reality, and find the religious source that sustains us, the more free we will be of fake, parodic, or symptomatic questing for human fulfilment.
Aboriginal spiritual receptivity to ordinary things
Aboriginal spirituality, then, is a spirituality of deep seeing, deep listening, bush receptivity.  Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr describes this, using a word from Ngangikurungkurr language, as dadirri, and says this “is something like what you [white people] call ‘contemplation’”.  The celebrant has to conjure up the right mood, perform a kind of trick on the separate self, so that it will not create a barrier between the celebrant and the spirit of the land.  This kind of receptive spirituality is very hard for us Westerners to achieve, because we come from a “conquering” consciousness which forever strives to impose our own mental and psychological life upon the reality of the world.  Aboriginal spirituality does not impose a metaphysical machinery upon the landscape; it sees through the landscape to the mythic forms and spirits behind it.
This is the sacred in a new key, the God within creation who works with us and who participates lovingly in the world of time and space. This God is of “infinite detailed extent”, at once foreground and background, non-hierarchical, mystical, and revealed through wonder. Australian spirituality, guided by the power of the elemental earth, and the endowment of the Aboriginal heritage, is destined to be a spirituality of immanence and a “creation spirituality”.

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David Tacey,  Spirit and Place

David Mowaljarlai (with Jutta Malnic), Yorro Yorro: Spirit of the Kimberley, Broome: Magabala Books, 1993, p.53.
Les Murray, “Equanimity” (1983), in Collected Poems, Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1994, pp.179-181.
A.D. Hope, “Australia” (1939), in Selected Poems, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1992, p.71.
Les Murray, “Noonday Axeman”(1965), Collected Poems, pp.3-6.
Manning Clark, A History of Australia, Vol.1, Melbourne University Press, 1962, p.15.
Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1972, p.11.
Matthew Fox, in Catherine Hammond, ed., Creation Spirituality and the Dreamtime, Sydney: Millennium, 1991, p.11.
Aboriginal elder from the Kowanyama people, quoted in conference brochure for “Healing Our People”, the Institute of Criminology conference in Alice Springs in 1991.
A.D. Hope, “Australia” (1939), in Selected Poems, p.71.
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, University of Queensland Press, 1988, p.389.
Judith Wright, “At Cooloolah” (1955), in A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1990, p.83.
A similar argument to this has been explored by Andrew Taylor in his Reading Australian Poetry, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1987.
Les Murray, “First Essay on Interest”, The People’s Otherworld, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1983, p.8.
Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1956), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, p.384.
Les Murray, “Some Religious Stuff I Know About Australia” (1982), A Working Forest, Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997, p.133.
Les Murray, in Penelope Nelson, The Poetry of Les Murray, Sydney: Methuen, 1978, p.2.
Michael Leunig, in The Search for Meaning: Conversations with Caroline Jones, Sydney: ABC / Collins Dove, 1992, p.13.
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, as quoted in Eugene Stockton, The Aboriginal Gift, p.104f.

David Tacey, academic and writer, is one of Australia’s leading thinkers in religion and spirituality. He is Associate Professor and Reader in Arts at Latrobe University, Melbourne where he teaches literature, spirituality and Jungian psychology. He is author of five books on spirituality and culture, the most recent of which is entitled The Spirituality of Revolution.