MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage 2016 II: Day Four (Tostaree to Orbost)

For all posts on the MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage and an explanation of the undertaking, click here.

MacKillop-Woods Way Tostaree to Orbost

MacKillop-Woods Way Tostaree to Orbost

We Once again we are at the end of our pilgrimage for the time being – we arrived at Orbost at 6pm this evening after four days of walking having covered 103.5km.

So, backing up to yesterday, we had a very friendly and convivial dinner at Tostaree Cottages, served by our hosts Vicky and Greg Geddes in their communal dinning/lounge room along with a group of three retired couples making their leisurely way on their cycles along the trail from Orbost to Bairnsdale. This was the end of their first day on the trail. Unfortunately for them, they were caught in the start of the rain that afternoon, but like us they were now glad to have found a warm and dry shelter for the night. The experience of sharing our stories and meal and conversations together was very much like what I expect it would be like to stay in an auberge along with other pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Vicky and Greg were excellent hosts, and the meal of roast meat and vegetables and pasta dishes and lasagna and salad, followed by fruit salad and ice cream. I had dropped off some beer and wine on the way through the other day, but Greg had a well stocked fridge and bar in any case. Conversation continued after the meal around the large fire place seated in comfortable couches. It was about ten o’clock by the time we said goodnight and crossed the short distance from the dinning shed to the cottage through a pitch dark and windy night to our beds.

That night the wind and rain continued, but by the time we got up in the morning, the sun was shining and the wind had stopped. Vicky had brought over a basket with bread and cereals and jam and vegemite and fruit and such, so we had a good breakfast. We said goodbye to our hosts at about 9am and headed back out onto the trail. It was a brilliant day and I began walking on my own at first, listening (as is my custom) to the Divine Office on my iphone. Then we walked together for most of the rest of the morning.

We were headed for Waygara, about half way along the trail to Orbost, where we had been invited to lunch with a local family on their farm. When we were planning this section of the pilgrimage, one problem was what to do for lunch each day. We solved that problem on the first three days by buying lunch at the previous town to take with us, but there are no shops in Tostaree to stock up our supplies. As it was, Vicky would have happily made us a cut lunch, but I didn’t know that when we were planning. I looked at the half way point and saw a number of dwellings at a place called Waygara and googled to see if I could find anything there. What turned up was a website for the Waygara Animal Farm, and on that page was a reference to a planned Rail Trail Coffee Stop. It was last updated in 2011, and I wondered if the plans had come to any fulfilment. I sent an email to the “contact us” address and received an email back from John, the owner of the farm, saying that no, the planned cafe didn’t come to fruition, but we would be welcome to come and join him and his family for lunch in any case. Just confirm this entirely unexpected offer of hospitality, Sean and I called in last Friday to check that this arrangement was still okay. Now, having confirmed that it was, we were walking up the track, past the old saw mill shed to their front door.

We were greeted by John’s son Tom and very soon the rest of the family came and welcomed us too. John and Ruth have eleven children. Their eldest son is serving on a mission boat and their eldest daughter has married and is living in Adelaide, but the rest of the family live on the farm, where the children are homeschooled and assist with the family business which is to provide mobile “petting farms” for schools, shows, fairs, parties and fetes etc. They brought out tables and chairs and we sat out on the lawn for lunch. As the tables were being Set for lunch, the younger children brought out baby rabbits, goats chickens and guinea pigs to introduce to us. Josh and Sean were highly amused – in their opinion I go to mush as soon as any small furry creature is offered to me for a cuddle. I acknowledged my weakness, but stressed that the furry creatures in question must have four legs at the most. By this stage, the table was groaning with food, and John asked God’s blessing on the meal. I responded by praying for him and his family and thanking God for their gift of hospitality. The great treat at the centre of the table was a full urn of Kombucha – a slightly effervescent drink made of fermented sugared tea, a bit like ginger beer. Very refreshing. After lunch, daughter Carrie and her younger sisters showed us around the farm and introduced us to the other animals – including alpacas, miniature ponies, the herd of adult goats.

In all we spent about two hours with this wonderful Christian family and their menagerie before heading off once again on the track. What with last night’s companiable dinner and today’s hospitable lunch, I feel that we have really had a true “camino” experience.

We still had quite a way to walk – it took another four hours to get to Orbost. Sean was going slower now – he had not been feeling well all day, and his muscles were giving him trouble. While we kept in touch by phone just to ensure that he was okay, Josh and I walked on together. We came to the end of the rail trail still almost 6km from Orbost. At this point, the old rail crossed the flood plains of the Snowy River on a low wooden trestle bridge – the longest of its kind in Victoria. Like all but one of the surviving trestle bridges on the trail, this one was impassible to any kind of traffic, and so the trail ended just before reaching it. (We need to appreciate how fragile these remnants of yesteryear are – we passed one gap on the trail that had been spanned by a trestle bridge until it burned down in the 2011 bushfires. Several of the old trestle bridges at Yarra Glen burned down in the 2009 fires. See them while you can!) The actual Orbost station platform still exists and can be seen from the path on the south side of the Snowy River – they never did get around to building a rail bridge over the Snowy. As it is on private land, the platform is inaccessible, and I was further offended by the fact that the owner of the land had chosen to use it as a dump for a huge pile of old tyres.

We crossed “The Mighty Snowy” (as Josh said, the adjective is obligatory, rather like “Marvellous Melbourne”), which after the recent rains was indeed flowing “mightily”, but I am led to understand that this is not always the case. Since the Snowy River Hydroelectric scheme was put in place and much of the Snowy was damned and harnessed for electricity, the flow has sometimes been so reduced that in summer the Snowy is more a series of puddles than a river.

By this stage we were really feeling the strain of the distance we had put in. Thankfully, it was a short walk across the football field and up Browning Street to come to St Colman’s Church right on the dot of the park 6pm. The church being closed, Josh and I stood outside the church and recited the Angelus. We then entered the Presbytery, drank a bottle of beer each and hit the showers (or, in my case, the bathtub).

Sean arrived about half an hour later, and after showering we headed up to the “Top Pub” for dinner. Sean and I had given the bottom pub a go last Friday night, and despite very friendly service and helpful conversation, the food (we both bangers and mash) had little to recommend it other than being not too expensive. At the top pub, we struck an imaginative “Mastralian” menu (ie. Maylasian/Australian), and once again very friendly services, but were once again disappointed with the result. Josh ordered a steak, which he said was fine, but Sean and I both had the mixed seafood which was almost inedible (I know it wasn’t, because Josh ended up eating both our pieces of fish). Maybe when we come back next year we will self cater.

I was too tired to write up the blog then, so left it till the next day. Talking with Josh tonight, he is of the opinion that the section from Bairnsdale to Orbost should be regarded as part of the “first leg” of the pilgrimage rather than the second. It is true that as things have turned out, it has been good to do the whole Fitzroy to Orbost walk in two stages. Just as St Mary’s Bairnsdale was a natural conclusion last Easter, so Orbost is a natural conclusion geographically. It is the last point along the journey eastwards in Victoria. From here on in, we head north until we cross the border between Bendoc and Delegate. Also, we have shown that it is possible to walk the whole way from Fitzroy to Orbost without assistance, whereas the next leg to Eden will require a backup driver. So at the moment, I am just calling it 2016 Part II.

If you want to see today’s pictures, here they are!

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MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage 2016 II: Day Three (Nowa Nowa to Tostaree)

For all posts on the MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage and an explanation of the undertaking, click here.

MacKillop-Woods Way Nowa Nowa to Tostaree

MacKillop-Woods Way Nowa Nowa to Tostaree

To the peripheries! That’s what Pope Francis keeps telling us. Well, far East Gippsland is a bit of a periphery. Then again, in Australia, it is the peripheries that have the greatest appeal, and I would certainly like to live out here if I could. We walked past one valley, where the green grass was tinged with gold in the sunlight, and a brilliant blue stripe of a creek running down the middle, and I thought I would be happy to call that valley my home. As remote as it is, East Gippsland is a beautiful place. Whether it is the forests or the farmland, it is all breathtakingly beautiful. We travelled through both today on the short walk between Nowa Nowa and Tostaree and right now we are sitting in the Stockmans Cottage at Tostaree Cottages overlooking rolling green hills with cattle in the paddocks, full dams and flowing creeks, and behind that the edge of the forest. The rain has just eased off, the sky is still overcast, the fire is going (drying my hand-washed clothes), and the resident kitten is sleeping in front of the fire (actually since I wrote that last phrase and made myself another cup of tea, the kitten has relocated to my lap and is patting at my keyboard).

I had a restless night. I woke up about 2:30am and spent the next hour or so trying to get back to sleep. I became engaged with the problem of the next leg of the journey from Orbost over the mountain. Josh is particularly concerned about this section – when we leave the periphery and head in-land into even greater remoteness (that’s the odd thing about our land – the edges are where we live, and the heartland is the most remote). On our current plans, the first three days will be at least 35kms each, although the fourth day, from Bendoc to Delegate, will be just 16kms. We won’t be carrying full packs (that’s what our driver will be for) but even so, 35km in a day climbing up hill will be hard. We can’t change our timing, because we have Easter on the one side and the need to go to Mass on the other. Yet as pointless as my worrying was, one small solution came to me: on the day that we travel to Orbost, we must do at least 10kms walking along the trail towards Goongerah – that way the next two days will be reduced to a more realistic 30kms a day.

I finally fell back to sleep and woke again with the sun streaming in through the window. No sign yet of the promised rain. We were ready to leave quite quickly. Sean had his muesli and a cup of plunger coffee for breakfast, but Josh and I were heading around to the Mingling Waters Cafe for a burger. As we went past the Caravan Park office and chook house, we thanked Neil for his hospitality. In the meantime, Sean had gone off with his camera to explore the rest of the park. He later reported on the vintage onsite caravans that are for overnight hire, and showed us his photos of the quirky interior decoration of these vans. I think it is the kind of place my daughter would like. Nowa Nowa Caravan Park is certainly a place for a unique and comfortable stay (the well stocked park kitchen actually has a pizza oven in it!).

At the Cafe, Josh had ordered the Brekky Burger and was looking at the vast collection of memorabilia on display. I put in an order for the same, and also added an order for takeaway ham salad sandwiches for our lunch. There was a big sign outside the Cafe proclaiming “The Big Root”, which sounded slightly off, but I noticed that inside they were selling fridge magnets for some squiggly wooden kind of arrangement which I took to be none other than this said “Root”. So where is it? I asked. Out in the pyramid, was the reply and we were directed to a side gallery and through the doors and, sure enough, inside a big wooden pyramid was a (only slightly less big) root. The story on the placard declared that the strange growth was the result of a tree which could not put down its tap root due to a layer of limestone, and instead the root grew sideways over hundred of years before a storm blew the unstable ancient tree over. The things you see on pilgrimage…

The Brekky Burger turned out to be a bit of a monster. Very nice (and the nicest hash browns that I have eaten in a long time) but something that Josh thought should feature on a US TV show called “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (of which I know nothing, but can imagine much). See the photos in the link below. Sean came in and ordered a cup of coffee and a muffin. While we were there, Helen, the other half of the ownership of the Nowa Nowa Caravan Park came in and introduced herself. Also, it started raining. Now we are in for it, I thought. Sean was still working on his muffin as Josh and I put on our wet weather gear and headed off.

Almost as a rule, when you put your WWG on, the rain will stop and sure enough that is what happened this time too. Before long the sun was shining brightly once again, and kept shining for the rest of the way to Tostaree. The problem with most WWG is that it makes walking a hot and sweaty business. It might keep the rain off, but you end up equally wet from perspiration. However, I did find that the gortex pants that I invested in before leaving home did not have this property, so perhaps I should think of spending a bit more money than usual and buy a matching gortex jacket before next Easter.

Whatever, we were blessed to walk the whole way to Tostaree in sunshine. Just as we were arriving, the wind was picking up, heralding a change in the weather was on its way. We had left Nowa Nowa at 9:15 and arrived at Tostaree Cottages in Johnson Road at 11:40, having covered a distance of almost 12kms. This was less than half of what we would normally walk in a day, and for Josh, who had walked solidly from Moe last Monday at about 25 to 35kms a day it seemed like a holiday. Vicky came up from one of the other Cottages (which she was preparing for a group of six cyclists who are coming in this afternoon and will be with us for dinner) to show us into the Stockmans Cottage, a very pleasant two room accomodation with kitchen/lounge room (with a double bunk and trundle bed) and a separate bedroom with Queen Bed and single. There is a bath and two showers and two toilets also, and a wood fire. Very comfortable.

Sean turned up about half an hour later, and we had our showers and lunches and before settling down to a quiet afternoon by the fire. The driving rain came through with the wind not long after we arrived and continued for about three hours (it has now abated a little). The kitten came in and spent most of the afternoon with us (it has now gone back outside). Josh is reading Bo Giertz’s “Hammer of God” (a classic novel of Scandinavian Lutheran spirituality recommended by me), and I am reading “Death comes to the Archbishop” a 1927 novel set in New Mexico (recommended by Josh). Sean is having a bit of a siesta.

So the day has turned out very well indeed. When we first looked at this leg of the pilgrimage, we wondered how it would be possible to walk from Nowa to Orbost (over 40kms) in one day. It would not be possible, of course, so we would have to find somewhere to stay. If we could stay at a place marked on the map called “Tostaree” we might be able to shave off 12kms and leave the last day at a manageable 28kms. But there is nothing at Tostaree, is there? There were some buildings visible on Google Maps – what could they be? A bit more googling showed that there WAS something at Tostaree and what was there was nothing other than a number of cabins for hire with home made meals laid on in a communal dining room! That in itself was a miracle, but that in the actual execution of the walk it should turn out that the two and a half hours we spent walking were in sunshine, and that the rain should only come once we were safe and sound by the fire with a beer in our hands seems quite amazing.

So we are very thankful pilgrims. Here at the periphery we are warm and comfortable. Tonight we will dine with our hosts and the other guests in true pilgrim auberge style.

For pictures from today’s walk, see here

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MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage 2016 II: Day Two (Bruthen to Nowa Nowa)

For all posts on the MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage and an explanation of the undertaking, click here.

MacKillop-Woods Way Bruthen to Nowa Nowa

MacKillop-Woods Way Bruthen to Nowa Nowa

Pilgrimage is about your body. Forget your soul. No, don’t – but you probably will. All those prayers and devotions that you thought you would be religiously observing? They go out the window when the feet begin to ache, and the shoulders bend, and the muscles seize up and the groin chafes…

We have arrived in Nowa Nowa, well over the half way mark on this, the first part of the second leg of our pilgrimage in honour of the twin founders of the Order of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, St Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods. According to my Gaia app, we have walked about 64kms over the last two days. There is a bit over 40kms to go to Orbost, but we are breaking this up with a short day tomorrow. Aware that there will be increasing chance of rain during the day we intend to leave as early as we can to arrive at the Tostaree Cottages about noon.

Sean and I ate breakfast at the Bruthen Inn Hotel. They provide cereal and fruit and toast as part of the $40 per person tariff. Josh waited until we had all gathered down at the Blue Bee Cafe to order a full English Breakfast. His philosophy is that, when on pilgrimage, one should “breakfast like a king, lunch like a knave, dine like a pauper”. It probably makes good sense, but doesn’t quite work for me. For that matter, Josh seems to eat like a king whatever time of day it is… Sean, on the other hand, is happy with his bowl of muesli as long as he can still find a cafe in which to have “the best coffee in town”. I grabbed a couple of apples from the fruit bowl at the hotel and stuffed them in my pocketses for hobbit-second-breakfast on the trail. At the Blue Bee, Sean decided to get some of their homemade Spanokopita for lunch. We thought that was a good idea, but convinced him to save it for dinner tonight, and bought some for ourselves as well. For lunch then, we all bought sandwich rolls. I can highly recommend the Blue Bee to all who pass through Bruthen. Great service and very friendly and helpful. While we were drinking our coffees, one of the GECO crowd from Goongerah came into the cafe and, seeing us, said hullo. We feel like we are getting to know the locals. That is a great thing about this pilgrimage – we are not just passing through like tourists, but actually connecting with people along the way.

We popped into the General Store next door to the Cafe. Once again, a very well stocked establishment. I bought some mushrooms to go with the Spanikopita tonight – and a bottle of Wolf Blass Shiraz to wash it down. Yes, it added about a kilogram to the weight of my backpack, but I was certain that at the end of the day I would be thankful for the extra effort. This inspired a little poem from my companions on the way:

The Wine Bottle

Just look what David Schütz has done,
Penance, indulgence, all in one;
“In vino veritas,” they say:
And David proves it, every day.

Guilty as charged, your honour.

Next stop: Ye Olde Opp Shoppe, where I traded in my Salvos/Rivers runners (which really were not up to the job) for a “new” pair of runners for $2. I left the old shoes with the shop, and walked out happily in my new pilgrim footwear. Not quite the same thing as throwing your shoes into the ocean at Finisterre, but close.

We popped across to the local post office, where we had our pilgrim passes stamped. This is always a great opportunity to tell people what we are doing. The postmistress understood the Spanish Camino and so was very happy to oblige with a stamp. Bruthen PO has a wonderful stamp that is very characteristic of the town – much like the one we received at the Gembrook PO. It would be nice if more towns in Australia had generic stamps rather than the stock standard round one. We were also fascinated by the Post Office clock to which the postmistress’ husband had added a computer chip and some lights to make a very interesting effect counting the seconds…

Back on the East Gippsland Rail Trail at just after 10am, we passed through some amazingly green and lush farmland: all rolling hills and streams and valleys. Glorious. However, it was not long before we entered thick forest. The forest on the right hand side (the South) was the Colquhoun Regional Park, and the forest on the left hand side (the North) was State Forest, but both looked much the same except that occasionally there were signs of past logging in the State Forest. Josh was a bit spooked by the remoteness of it all. To me, it was heaven, as I had grown up with this kind of remoteness in the South Australian Mallee. The only difference is that the trees were a big bigger. At one point he and Sean wondered if we were in the right place. Let’s see, I said… forest on the north for miles, forest on the south for miles. Yes, that sounds right.

The scenery was, as a result, somewhat monotonous. However, I found that if I ignored the macro and paid attention to the micro, I could see a great variety. This was my opportunity to photograph the various wildflowers. I counted at least fourteen different varieties. Not all of them were common, and often they only appeared in one particular area, but the variety was quite stunning.

After stopping at one point to rest, Josh commented that we had spent enough time “meditating upon our latter end”. This inspired me to compose another little poem:

Amen, amen. We meditated on our latter end.
But should we not, to seek to please,
Have meditated upon our knees?

We more or less stuck together on today’s walk. Sean was feeling the strain a bit (he hasn’t been %100 for the last week or two). Josh was charging along like a well season pilgrim, which in fact he is. I wish that he could find some confidence in the strength of commitment he has shown thus far, because he is feeling a little daunted by our plans to go over the mountain through even more remote and hilly territory next easter.

The day was supposed to be about 27km, but both my navigation apps suggested that it was over 30km. We encountered just one other person on the trail all day A bit over 5kms from our destination we came to the most spectacular sight so far on our journey, an old railway trestle bridge built in 1916 for the logging industry – exactly 100 years ago. It was clearly in no condition to be crossed and I had no argument with the barriers at either end proclaiming any attempt to do so to be highly dangerous. But it was a wonder to behold. The highest struts on the bridge were pylons mates from single trees sourced from the area. According to the information signs, the dimensions are 247m long and 20m high, making it the largest standing bridge of its kind in the state. How it has survived for 100 years, I have no idea, given the bushfires that have routinely passed through the area in that time. But it is deteriorating. So if you want to see it before it collapses completely, make haste to East Gippsland now (there is road access, as well as picnic tables and toilets).

We finally made it into Nowa Nowa at about 5:45pm. By this stage the Mingling Waters Cafe was well and truly shut, but the General Store, run by Greg and Sandra, was still open. This is a very well stocked store, and you can buy almost anything you might need here. It is also the local Post Office, so Greg obliged by stamping out pilgrim passports (nothing fancy, just the standard round stamp). We also purchased supplies to add to dinner. Not cheap, but better than carrying them from Bruthen.

We then went around to the Nowa Nowa Caravan Park, where Neil and Helen had reserved for us “The Cabin”, wonderful modern accomodation with quaint additions such as an Edwardian couch and many tasteful art works. Outside, running past the front of the cabin, is a small trestle bridge. Josh has the Queen bedroom on his own (the benefits of the snorer), and Sean has a double bed in the same room as the bunk to which I have been relegated, as he is in a rather poorly condition.

Josh and I went around to the local hotel motel, where we were originally booked in to stay tonight. However, we had received a phone call about three months ago from the people who were running the hotel to say they were closing up and cancelling all future bookings – of which we were the only ones. Providentially, the Nowa Nowa Inn was reopened by the actual owners of the building on Saturday. They are seeking to get it back to a going concern again, but the publican, Steve, emphasised repeatedly to us the great amount of work that needs to be done. They are offering accomodation again, and have 10 motel style rooms out the back of the pub. Currently the pub doesn’t have much on tap (the cooler needs fixing), but we had a nice bottle of James Squire each as we talked to Steve and met his greyhound Charlie. Outside I also met Steve’s wife Caroline, who told me that one of their offspring was currently walking the Camino in Spain. That was a great opportunity – once again – to explain what we were up to, walking from St Mary’s birthplace to her shrine in Sydney.

Back at The Cabin, Josh and I chopped up the veggies – mushrooms, leek, tomato, capsicum and garlic – and cooked them all up together with a dash of virgin olive oil from the supplies in the cupboard and a pinch or two of paella seasoning a dash of Wolf Blass shiraz. We had cream of chicken cup-o-soup and then heated up the Spanikopita, and ate our ratatouille stew with it on the side. More Wolf Blass washed it all down. The whole meal was completed with an ice cream each.

Because of the rain predicted for the morning, we headed to bed as soon as we could. I have found a hot water bottle and think that I might use this as a heat pack on my sore muscles…

Click here to view my Google Photos album for today

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MacKillop Woods Way Pilgrimage 2016 II: Day One (Bairnsdale to Bruthen)

For all posts on the MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage and an explanation of the undertaking, click here.

MacKillop-Woods Way Bairnsdale to Bruthen

MacKillop-Woods Way Bairnsdale to Bruthen

Strictly speaking, the Way from Bairnsdale to Orbost is part of the second leg of the MacKillop Woods Pilgrimage, but because Josh was catching up with the first leg from Moe and still had another week of holidays, he wanted to keep going on to Orbost and Sean and I thought that would be a good idea – especially given how difficult next year’s journey from Orbost to Eden will be.

The great blessing is that there is an excellent rail trail all the way from Bairnsdale to Orbost through some incredibly stunning countryside, namely the East Gippsland Rail Trail. This makes what would be either a very hilly and curvey back trail or a very boring road side walk much simpler, level and direct.

There are only two actual townships on the trail between Bairnsdale and Orbost – the village of Bruthen (where we are now) and Nowa Nowa, which is even smaller than Bruthen. The trail is over 90kms long – the distance between Nowa Nowa and Orbost over 40kms – so it is an interesting logistical problem about how walk the trail. We have a good plan, however, and my reconnoitre on Friday has shown that the plan will work.

We are staying tonight at the Bruthen Inn Hotel, which is surprisingly nice and comfortable. Dinner tonight was very good, with a menu comparable to any hotel dining room in Melbourne. We are in bunk rooms for $40 a night each (Josh, the snorer, has his own room). Tomorrow night we will stay at the Nowa Nowa Caravan park, although there are several other accomodation alternatives there. The problem in Nowa is where to eat dinner when we arrive. We will get to that tomorrow. The next day, day three on Tuesday, will be a short day, as there is a place called Tostaree Cottages just 11kms or so down the road from Nowa Nowa. That will leave under 30kms to go to Orbost on the last day, where we will be back at St Coleman’s Presbytery. So that is our plan.

Back tracking a bit: yesterday, Sean and I had a quiet morning at the Presbytery in Orbost. I used the time to write up my blog post for yesterday while Sean went off and explored the town. We then packed up and went to find some lunch. We found an interesting new little cafe called the Morganics Cafe which served vegetarian meals. The proprietoress was very chatty, and happy to fill us up with information. She also had a harmonium out the back which, when she learned that I was musical, she wanted to show us and play a song she had composed for us. She then asked me to play something, and I am afraid that my rendition of “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” was no match for her energetic innovation.

Sean and I then caught the 2:05pm coach from Orbost to Bairnsdale. It took 2 hours, arriving at 4:10pm at the Bairnsdale Station. You often hear from experienced pilgrims that being a pilgrim is about “living in the present” – this is a load of bollocks. In reality, you are constantly thinking about the future and planning the next day, the next night, and the next leg of your walk. Alternatively, you are also writing journals about the day that has been, making photo books and maps of your past journeys to keep a record of what you have done, and reminiscing about all the places you have been and people you have met.

This sums up my experience of the coach ride yesterday. We were travelling through really interesting countryside – places like Lake Tyers and Lakes Entrance etc – but I was engaged in a email conversation with our future hostess in Goongerah arranging accomodation for next Easter, and updating my blog site for these journal entries. At the same time, I was being constantly updated by Josh on the Grand Final football scores, which he was watching at the famous Wy Yung Pub. He had arrived just before the start of the game through a on-again-off-again rain storm, and was more than happy to sit himself down with one or two or…(how many was it, Josh?) pints of beer and watch the game. I have no interest whatsoever in football, but even I found the regular score updates mildly interesting in what was admittedly a very exciting game.

Josh was still in the Wy Yung Pub when we arrived at the Bairnsdale presbytery. Fr Michael welcomed us and showed us to our rooms and then excused himself to return to watching the game himself. Sean and I went out to buy food for lunch today before returning to get ready for 6pm vigil mass. Josh had stayed at the pub till the end of the game just after 5pm, and then quickly made his way toward St Mary’s, covering the remaining 2kms in time to meet us as we went around for the service.

Mass was very enjoyable – with a small choir accompanied by a pianist. Fr Michael preached a very good sermon. We were very interested to see the plans for the renovation of the sanctuary of the church (see the photo album below). After mass we invited Fr Michael to join us at the Terminal Hotel for dinner. A very enjoyable meal followed, and we were the last to leave the dining room, which was almost full when we arrived. A bottle of the excellent local Lightfoot & Sons wine (whose winery we walked past last time) added to the meal. Back at the presbytery, Fr Michael stamped our pilgrim passes and gave us the blessing for pilgrims before we retired to bed.

This morning we were up at dawn – considering that daylight saving started over night – and out of the door by 8:30am. A quick prayer to St Mary MacKillop at the shrine of Our Lady of the Way in the presbytery front yard and we were off. The sun was shining brilliantly and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A truly perfect start to the day.

There’s not a lot to say about the journey, other than that while I was walking I was listening to morning prayer for Sunday which has that wonderful hymn from the book of Daniel which calls upon every creature in heaven and earth to praise the Lord, and indeed it did seem as if they were all responding in a chorus this morning. I took a few pictures, which I have uploaded to my google photos (see the link below) but I was also tempted to take pictures of the many colourful wildflowers on the side of the track. I think I will do so tomorrow or the next day when we have a bit more time on the trail. But we were in a bit of a hurry today for the simple reason that we had about 32kms to travel (my apps measured from the front door of the presbytery to the hotel in Bruthen to be 34kms) and we wanted to get to the Bullant Brewery in Bruthen which closes at 5pm on Sundays. Because beer. Locally made craft beer. At the end of a day’s walk, there is nothing better.

We stopped several times along the way, once in Nicholson and once at Bumberrah, to eat some of our picnic lunch of kransky, cheese, sourdough baguette, tomato, fruit and chocolate. There is an impressive and picturesque old trestle bridge over the river at Nicholson. After Bumberrah, I really wanted just to get to the end of the trail (remember beer?) and went on ahead, leaving the others a couple of kms behind me. At one point Josh texted and asked “Why have you abandoned us?”. I felt a bit guilty. For penance, he said I should not drink any beer until they got there…

I arrived at the Bullant Brewery at about 4:15pm. According to my Gaia app (I’m using this for the first time on this trip and I am very impressed, although I am still learning how to unlock all the things it can do), we spent 6 hours and 10 minutes actually walking on the trail and (by the time we had left the brewery and checked into the pub) about 3 hours at rest.

I ordered a tasting tray of four beers (the Hells Gate IPA, the Dunkel Lager, the Mossiface Pale Ale and the Brown Ale), and couldn’t resist. One tasting glass was down by the time that Josh and Sean entered the room. I did my penance by buying them both a tasting tray. Sean then followed up by buying each of us an additional glass – this time I tried their excellent stout.

So we were feeling pretty happy, if sore and tired, by the time we got the pub. We were shown to our rooms and hit the showers. The share bathrooms here have been recently renovated and are very modern. It was so good to have hot water on sore muscles. Although, I must say, that several times today when the sun became warm and we were sweating on the trail, the blue dams and creeks full of crystal cold water looked very inviting too!

Apparently there is a storm coming across Victoria tonight with rain and gale force winds. The warning area covers the entirety of the state of Victoria – EXCEPT east of Bairnsdale! Praise God! I called Cathy tonight and she said things were already very windy in Melbourne. The wind is picking up outside, but according to the weather report most of the wet weather in Bruthen will be gone by about 8am tomorrow morning. We intend to wait out the wet – there is self-serve breakfast here and we will go to the cafe in town for Hobbit-2nd-Breakfast. The largish general store opens at 7pm, so we will grab food for lunch and to cook for tea tomorrow night from there before heading off for Nowa.

A good start, and now it is time for bed.

Today’s pictures can be viewed here in my google photos album.

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MacKillop Woods Way Pilgrimage 2016 II: On the Way againI

The MacKillop Woods Way Pilgrimage recommences! I am not sure what to call this section of the journey, because it is really an anticipation of the Second Leg which we were going to do entirely next Easter. But Josh had the opportunity to return to the trail from where he left off at Moe last Easter during these Tasmanian school holidays, and wanted to continue all the way to Orbost after completing the first leg to Bairnsdale, so Sean and I decided we could do the first four days of the Second Leg this year with him too. That means when we do get started again next Easter Monday, we will begin from Orbost, and not from Bairnsdale, thus cutting off four days of what will be a very arduous journey in any case.

And yesterday, Sean and I got some idea of just how arduous that is going to be. This morning we are waking up in the peaceful East Gippsland town of Orbost, having stayed at St Coleman’s Presbytery overnight (thanks, Fr Anthony!). Yesterday was the AFL Grand Final Holiday in Victoria (which means today is Grand Final Holy Day – we will do what we can to avoid the religious rites of the day), so Sean and I hopped in my little Mazda 121 and headed east. More of our adventures in a moment.

First we back up to Josh’s arrival in Victoria last Sunday. Having packed his backpack a little lighter this time (we don’t need to carry sleeping bags or mats as we have accomodation sorted all along the way), he caught the plane to Melbourne, then the shuttle bus to the train station, then the coath to Packenham (there are works on the train line), and finally the train to Moe, arriving at 7:37pm. After such a treck, he deserved a rest and got one at the Moe Comfort Inn.

After a cooked breakfast, he set off just before 8am following the way I took last Easter along the Moe Yallourn Rail Trail (I think this was the earliest start he got the whole week).

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He arrived in Yallourn at half past 10, and bought supplies from the Foodworks – but also noticed that there was a takeaway open in town (which wasn’t open when I went through on a Sunday). He made fairly good time on the walk to Traralgon, reaching the outskirts of the town in Kay Street just before 3pm – when it began raining. Always best, if you are going to have rain, to have it at the end of the day when a dry room is waiting for you!

After staying the night in the local Comfort Inn again, Josh went to morning mass at St Michael’s at 9:30am. He caught up with Fr Bernard afterwards and had his pilgrim pass stamped (they must have found the parish stamp since we were there last easter!). He started the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail and arrived at Glengarry at 1pm for lunch at the Bakery. By that stage he must have worked up a bit of an appetite, because he says he ate four of their famous pies: Beef, lamb, chicken and vegetable – “a balanced diet”, he texted. “Did you buy a couple more to put in your pockets for for later?”, I texted back. “I’m not that much of a hobbit!”, he replied.

After passing through Toongabbie he arrived at Cowwarr at half past five and was greeted by Judy Cooney and settled into the cottage, where he stayed in the Mary MacKillop Room (same room I had last Easter). John and Judy kindly invited him around for dinner that evening. The next morning (Tuesday now), Josh attended the Anglican Ordinariate mass at St Brigid’s celebrated by Fr Ken Clark from Maffra at 10am, and so was even later getting on the road than ever. Last Easter, Sean and I left at 7am, but this time, Josh was away only at 10:45, which made his time table quite different. Last time, Sean and I had coffee in Heyfield and lunch at the Tinamba Hotel, but Josh only got to Heyfield at 1:45pm. So he lunched there and had afternoon snack break at Tinamba general store at 4:40pm with still quite a way to go before dark. He finally arrived at Maffra Motel at 6:45pm, well after sunset and almost dark.

Luckily Fr Ken and his wife Carmel, who run the Maffra Motel, were waiting for him and had his room ready and he had a full meal at the Maffra Sports Club. “Let’s not get a huge steak, sez I”, he texted, “lets get the mixed grill… It arrived! Steak, lamb, sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, chips and salad. THEN they apologised and brought out the rissole separately! It’s a long time since a meal has defeated me.” A few minutes later: “They added that usually it has more sausage but the kitchen is running low on supplies…”

Next morning (Thursday now) he went to mass again with Fr Ken before heading on his way at 10:35, arriving in Stratford to have lunch at the Avon Hotel at 1:00pm. There was rain about but he managed to avoid it. He didn’t avoid the large amount of water over the trail near Munro though. The first lot, a passing farmer on a ute gave him a ride through, but the next lot he had to take off his shoes and socks and wade through. At Munro last Easter, you may recall (if not, read here), Sean and I had no where to stay, so we were picked up again by John Cooney and taken back for a third night of hospitality at Cowwarr. However, we did meet two locals, David and Maureen, who kindly offered to help out should we come that way again by opening the hall up for us to use for shelter. When Josh contacted them about this a few months ago, they extended the invitation for him to stay with them in their home. This act of generosity on their part was greatly appreciated by Josh, who texted to say that he had “a wonderful dinner and engrossing conversation till 10pm.” The next morning they gave him a cooked breakfast before he got on his way at half past nine.

So we come to Friday/yesterday. We will return to Josh in a moment. Sean had come home with me on Thursday night and stayed over at our place so we could get an early start the next day. We left at 7:45am, with the pet rats in the back as well as we needed to drop them off at their boarding house in Drouin. Stephanie was very happy to receive them when we got there at about 9am, and we had coffee in Frankies before hitting the freeway again. At 11:30 we arrived at Fernbank and texted Josh to see where he had gotten to. He was about 2kms down the track from Munro, so the Mazda bumped and jostled over the potholed trail to meet him. Before long, we saw the figure in the distance marching along with all the energy of someone who just walked out of home that morning.

It was good to catch up again, the first time the three of us had been together since we parted ways at Moe on Divine Mercy Sunday this year. We pulled out a bottle of beer from the back for his refreshment, and after some conversation about his experiences thus far, wished him well and headed off again.

We arrived in Bairnsdale at about 12:30pm and checked in at the presbytery to make sure all was prepared to receive us back the next night. Fr Michael was at home, thankfully, and when he saw me at the door, he welcomed me in, and said “Sit here, I have someone to meet you”. I wondered what this could be, and a minute later he was back with Fr Anthony, the parish priest from Lakes Entrance with whom we had arranged to stay at the Orbost presbytery that (last) night. Well timed indeed! I was a little surprised when Fr Michael then told me that until Fr Anthony had called in that morning, he was not aware that we were coming. We had made the arrangements with the assitant priest, and he had gone on leave without confirming it with the PP. Thankfully, Fr Michael was very kind about it and said that he would be glad to receive the three of us as guests.

Sean and I had lunch at the local Scottish Restaurant next to St Mary’s. Being the holiday it was full of travellers, so not as quick as we thought it would be. That was partly my fault, as I have not yet mastered the new electronic ordering system and was waiting for the order to be filled without realising that, having chosen to pay at the counter, the order would only be prepared once we had paid. Once I had that sorted, it was a matter of minutes before our meal was brought to our table. Macca’s is going up market with table service!

We visited the information centre between McDonald’s and the Church and picked up a very good map brochure for the East Gippsland Rail Trail which we would be following for the rest of the week. Then we set off for Orbost – already now it was after 1:30pm and we had a fair way to go still today. I wanted to check in on all the places we would be staying on the trail. So first we called in at the Bruthen Hotel. There is a local craft brewery in Bruthen – the Bullant Brewery, but it closes at 5pm on Sundays. If we want to visit it tomorrow we will have to leave very early as we have a 39km trail! I checked that we had our bookings at the Hotel, and then we drove off to Nowa Nowa. There was heavy rain on the way and we thought that Josh would really be getting soaked, but he told us later in the day that he had experienced no more than the briefest showers.

At Nowa Nowa, we had been booked in to stay at the Nowa Nowa Hotel Motel, but had received a call several months ago saying that they were closing up. They suggested that we get in contact with the local caravan park. When I did, Helen, the proprietoress, said that the people closing were leasing the hotel from the owners. She booked us into a cabin in their caravan park and said that we could get food at Mingling Waters Cafe; however she added that the cafe’s hours were 6am to 5pm. So on the way through, I was keen to check out everything – especially because the information people at Bairnsdale told us they thought the pub was reopening.

Arriving in the rain at Nowa, we found that the Mingling Waters Cafe was right across from the Hotel. There was a fellow outside the hotel washing down the walls. I asked him about the reopening, and he said that they were opening for the first time tomorrow. Are you taking guests again? Yes, he said, but not doing food. He was the owner of the hotel, and they had decided to run it themselves and were doing renovations before getting back into full service.

So we went across the road to check out the cafe. It is a great place, with a bit of a nerdy theme to it. There was a sign with a Dalek offering coffee and saying “Caffeinate! Caffeinate!” (actually thinking about it now, it would have been funnier if it had said “decaffeinate!”), a menu item called the “Dr Zoidburger” and a display cabinet with Star Wars and Futurama memorabilia. Mostly the cafe seems to specialise in really great burgers – I hope we get the chance to try one. We spoke to the folk there and they said that they could prepare food for us and hold it if we were getting in a little bit late. We took their number and said we would ring if we needed to.

The Mingling Waters has cabins for hire, but we were booked in at the Caravan Park which is on the other side of the road. We went around there to find a very jolly, homely establishment that looked more as if it had grown there than built. We were warmly welcomed the proprietor, Neil, who pointed out a shiny new cabin which looked decidedly out of place among the older buildings and caravans and said that was where we would be staying.

We waved good bye to Nowa, and headed off for Tostaree, which was just a short drive down the road, but will be about 12km off walking for us. A very short day indeed. There we dropped in at the Tostaree Cottages where we will be staying on Tuesday night. It was raining pretty thoroughly so we got the umbrella out and went in search of the owners. The first building we went into was a large hall, dining room and lounge, where an elderly man (who introduced himself to us as Graham) was cleaning out the fireplace. We asked after the proprietor, Greg Geddes, and he said that he thought he had gone out, but directed us to the main house. Knocking on the door, we were greeted by Vicky Geddes – and a small grey kitten about 4 months old (just at the really cute age). I couldn’t resist and picked it up where it sat happily in my arms as we went through our arrangements with Vicky. They would give us dinner on Tuesday night in the dining room, and also breakfast the next day. They would be happy to make us a cut lunch if we needed it too for lunch on Wednesday. She pointed us to the nearby Stockman’s Cottage that we had hired. After one last pat of the kitten, we were back in the car and out on the road.

Still raining, we made our way up the road another 14km or so and came to Waygara, where we had made contact a month or two ago with the owner of a Petting Farm – the kind of establishment which takes small animals around to fairs and schools and children’s parties. On their website they had mentioned their plans to open a wayside cafe on the trail which goes right past their farm. It said to stay tuned for more updates – but the last update was 2011. So I wrote to him and asked if it had ever come to anything. He emailed back to say no it hadn’t, but he also invited us to drop in at the farm and have lunch with him and his family. So I thought that as we were passing, we would do well to drop in and introduce ourselves to see if he was still up for visitors. We found John and his family celebrating a family birthday party, but he was very welcoming and said that he would be delighted to have us come for lunch. We would have an opportunity then to look over his farm too, which has been set up in an old saw mill.

Then finally we made it to Orbost – now getting very late – at about 4:30pm. We checked into the Presbytery across from St Coleman’s Church. There is a large double story building right next to the Church, which we presume was once the presbytery, but the current building is a smaller home on the opposite corner. The priests use it when visiting from Lakes Entrance or Bairnsdale, and also as a base for heading out to Omeo, but we had it to ourselves for the night.

But we still had our biggest challenge for the day ahead of us. We have never been on the road north of Orbost to Goongerah and Bendoc, but that is the way we intend to go on the first three days of our pilgrimage next Easter. I didn’t feel good about heading off on a completely unknown road, and wanted to check it out.

It is 70kms from Orbost to Goongerah on the Bonang Highway (a sealed road, sometimes in really good condition, sometimes not) that winds constantly and has gentle rises and falls slowly climbing from 70m and 300m altitude. The shoulders on the side of the road sometimes afford good space for walking, but – again – sometimes not. There is thick forest all around, as the road goes through state forest towards the Errinundra National Park and the Snowy River national park. Apparently there used to be quite a bit of logging in this area until several environmental activist groups, among whom are “GECO” (Goongerah Environment Centre Office) and the “EEG” (Environment East Gippsland group), managed to get an extension of the national parks and a greater deal of protection of the old wood forests. This is good news for us, because if the logging industry was still at full bore, there would be lots of logging trucks on this road which would make it dangerous for other travellers – especially on foot. As it was, we only met 7 or 8 other vehicles (only one of which was a truck) on the entire 140km round trip to Goongerah and back yesterday. It was a public holiday, but we have been assured by locals that that is still normal for a weekday.

There is nothing on the road between Orbost and Goongerah. Next year we will absolutely need a driver to bring us back from the half way point (around Sardine Creek, or a locality called Nurran) to Orbost where we will spend our second night as well as our first. We had been planning to camp at Goongerah on the third night, so we were glad to find the Goongerah campsite on the side of the valley between the road and the Goongerah Creek. There are drop toilets there, fireplaces with bbq plates and picnic tables. There is a tap for washing water, but I don’t know if it is drinkable too. But just up the road, at the entrance to the field next to the campsite, was a sign saying “accomodation” and giving a phone number. The field contained what looked to be a very well lived in residence with farm animals around it, and another quaint and homely looking cottage. Both had smoke coming from the chimneys, indicating residence. There was no mobile network coverage out here, so we drove up into the small hamlet of Goongerah where there is a public phone box. I hadn’t used one of these things for over a decade, so I was surprised to find that a phone call was still 50c. I rang the number and “Jill” answered on the other end of the line. Yes, she did provide accomodation. The main residence we saw was her home, and the other cabin is permanently rented out now, but she has another on the property, hidden away around the back, called “The Tin Chalet” and advertised as such on AirB&B. No, she didn’t have any bookings for next Easter yet, but there was liable to be some demand, as the EEG (with which she is closely associated) has its annual convention in Goongerah at this time. We chatted a little more, and I said that I would follow up the booking on AirB&B.

Fealing very happy with myself and glad that we had driven all this way just for this one discovery, Sean and I drove on through Goongerah to the “Road House” survey camp where the GECO activists have their settlement. They were all gathered around the campfire, and must have thought they had some new recruits when we turned up. Disappointed they may have been when they found out we were just passing through, but we told them what we were planning and got some suggestions for alternative routes through the forest other than the main road. One thing we learned while chatting was that the “Jill” I had just spoken to on the phone was the same Jill who had recently been recommended to me as a Goongerah based contact by a friend of Sean’s who has been involved with the Goongerah environmentalist scene for some time.

Again, after chatting for a while we got back in the car. It was now about 6pm and the sun had long disappeared over the mountain peaks. We wanted to see what happened to the road after Goongerah. I was expecting it to be sealed the rest of the way through to Bonang and only to change to gravel where the road veered off to Bendoc (the way we want to take next year). I wanted to see this junction, as the next section would be the major climb of another 600 or so metres. But we had only gone up the road five kms or so when we came to the beginning of the Snowy River National Park and the end of the sealed road. The gravel road was quite corrugated, and I had no desire (certainly not in the failing light) to take my little vehicle any further.

So we did a U-ee and headed back home. I was a bit alarmed to see kangaroos hopping across the road ahead of us, so I slowed right down. We didn’t see any more once we were in the forest (I think they were crossing the road at sunset to get to the open grass fields around Goongerah), but I took the trip home very carefully. Thank God it wasn’t raining. I know that I had just driven up this way, but driving home in the dark was rather trying experience. It took over an hour, and every km of the 70 (except the last two or three) was constant bends.

Once back in Orbost, we immediately went down to the nearest hotel for dinner. We went to the “Bottom Pub” rather than the “Top Pub”, although the latter had been recommended to us as preferable. Still, we were given a warm welcome and lots of local information by the staff, and the “bangers and mash” were tasty enough and affordable even not fancy. There being only several varieties of Carlton Draught on tap we washed dinner down with a couple of cans of Guiness.

Back in phone range again, I rang my wife and children to let them know I was alive, and we rang Josh, who had made it into Lindenow South and checked into the Altar Ego. He had had dinner at the Lindenow Hotel, where the proprietoress remembered Sean and me from when we passed through last Easter. We wanted to buy milk for breakfast but had missed the Foodworks closing by five minutes (shuts 8pm – opens 8am – but there is also a IGA which opens at 7am). After the meal we went for a walk to find the cafes (for Sean’s coffee fix in the morning) and where the bus would leave from. We were a bit surprised to see on the bus timetable didn’t have the 10am bus as advertised on the V-Line website, which meant that we wouldn’t get away until the 2:05pm on Saturday afternoon (we later learned that the 10am bus is on Sundays only).

Sean and I returned to bed and hit the sack before very long.

We slept well, and this morning are making the most of a slow day. I was up and about town before 7am, and bought milk at the newsagents (which opens at 5am!). A fresh hot pot of Ceylon tea made in my Robur teapot (which comes everywhere with me unless I have to carry it in a backpack), and I was ready for this – now really long – blog post.

Josh has texted to say he had breakfast in Lindenow at the Long Paddock Cafe (where he says he has had the best coffee on the trip so far) and has now crossed the Mitchell River on Settlement Road. He will probably get to the Wy Yung Pub in time to see the last minutes of the Grand Final this afternoon. We were hoping to meet him there, as we enjoyed our visit last year very much, but now with the later bus he is likely to arrive at St Mary’s before we do. Fr Michael will say mass for the Vigil tonight, and afterwards he will join us for dinner at the Terminus Hotel where Sean and I ate last year to celebrate the end of the first leg of our pilgrimage.

Then it will be up early for a 30.9km day. Daylight Savings begins tonight too, that that will make it an extra early start. Today is the feast day of St Therese of Lisieux – St Therese pray for us!

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Mia’s Confirmation

On 14th August 2016, my daughter Mia was confirmed into the Lutheran Church of Australia at St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Box Hill. As part of the confirmation service, all of the candidates presented their personal “faith statement” and a “faith project”. Here is Mia’s full statement of faith, followed by a video of her (abbreviated) statement before the congregation at St Paul’s and the video that she made as her faith project.

I’ve grown up in a very Christian family. My dad being Catholic and my mum Lutheran gave me a wider sense of the Christian community. My dad has worked for the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne for as long as I can remember. Occasionally he’d bring me along to things like Iftar diners and tea ceremonies that he was invited to as a part of his work. This meant that from a very young age I was not only aware of Christian traditions but those of other faiths as well. It seemed to me that beliefs were something children inherited from their parents, passed on like any family tradition.

My sibling, Mad, stopped coming to church when I was thirteen years old. This sparked a realisation that you are the only one in control of your own beliefs. Yes, my family might plant the seed of faith, but it is up to me to nurture and grow my faith into more than the stories I have been told as a child.

I went through a time of questioning where I took myself right back to the basics and asked myself: “Do I believe in God?” “Do I believe in Jesus?” “Do I believe in the Holy Spirit?”. When I confirmed that these were indeed my personal beliefs, I began to explore what being Christian would mean for me and my life, besides just going to church. This is when God truly became real to me.

God the Father is beyond understanding. I can never fully wrap my mind around how God has always and will always exist. “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:2)

God our Father is intelligent and rational. Knowing more than any of us could learn in our lifetimes because he created everything there is to know about. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33)

God our Father is loving. Sacrificing his own Son for our sake. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. “(John 3:16)

It is both a great comfort and incredibly humbling, to know that such a great God looks out for me.

God the Son, became fully human in Jesus. With full human experience he carried our sins and bore our pain on the cross as a divine sacrifice. “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

Jesus is a teacher. He explained what we couldn’t understand, so that we might use the knowledge to live as God intends. (See the many parables Jesus told to give us insight.)
Jesus is a healer. He reached out to those who suffer, not only through the miracle of physical healing but through spiritual renewal. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralysed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Luke 5:23-24)

Jesus brought us a second chance, he brought us new life through the forgiveness of sins. This amazing and painful sacrifice is a constant reminder to me of how eternal God’s love is.

God the Holy Spirit is our connection to both God the Son and God the Father. The Holy Spirit came after Jesus returned to heaven, and keeps the fire of our faith burning. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever.” (John 14:16)

The Holy Spirit is a guide. Helping us to guide others to faith, giving us gifts we need to spread the word. “Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:7-8)

The Holy Spirit draws us into community. Together with the Holy Spirit we can become the body of Christ, each working to do what we were called to do. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God here amongst us, like a hand holding mine as I journey through a day.

As someone who suffers from anxiety, the hope and the reassurance that I have in Jesus Christ is invaluable. When those negative and unhelpful feelings well up inside of me I know I can turn to Jesus. I have on my bedside table a little cross stitch that says “Before you go to sleep give your troubles to God, he’ll be up all night anyway.”

I try to pray every night and I find great comfort in knowing that whatever troubles or anxieties I have, I will not have to carry them alone. My relationship with Jesus is formed on that knowledge that He is always with me and that his love is steadfast. I don’t have to double guess his motives or fear that I will be deemed unworthy, for the sacrifice He made for my sake makes everything clear.

I want my faith to be evident in all aspects of my life. I want people to see Jesus in my life, not only through me talking about God but through my actions. I do find that it is being around people with strong faith, who show it in both actions and words which strengthens my faith. I’d like to be able to do the same for those around me.

I find myself being self-conscious about my faith around others my age; in a time where most of them only think of the church as part of their most boring school class, or the thing their grandparents drag them to, or people desperate to brainwash them into attending services. I wish to overcome this self-consciousness and to be able to share what I believe with others without stopping myself from saying what I truly believe for fear of seeming “too Christian”.

My faith has brought so much joy to me. It connects me to family and friends as well as to my creator. I have been blessed to have grown up surrounded by faith, and to have had the opportunity to celebrate many Easters and Christmas’s at church as a part of this community. The people I have met here have provided me with an incredible support network that has supported me and will continue to support me on my faith journey.
At this stage of life when I am figuring myself out and finding where I fit in the world, my faith is the solid rock beneath my feet. With my faith in Jesus Christ comes the knowledge that I have a purpose and that everything about me is so for a reason. I don’t know about any of you, but that gives me the greatest feeling of wonder and awe.

Confirmation Verse

Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

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Hebrews 8: “The Old Covenant is Obsolete”

In Hebrews 8:13, the writer says that “In speaking of a new covenant [through Jeremiah the prophet], he [the Lord] makes the first one obsolete.”

That seems clear enough. But which covenant is the writer referring to: the one with Abraham or at Sinai? Clearly, according to verse 9, the covenant made at Sinai. So nothing in this passage abrogates the covenant with Abraham, and the promises made to Abraham’s descendants.

Verse 9 also points out that it wasn’t God who broke faith with the covenant, but the house of Israel/Judah. God declares how he is going to fix this. He is going to make a new covenant specifically “with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah”. So the New Covenant is clearly seen as the way in which God will remain faithful to his Old Covenant promises. The Old Covenant may be “obsolete” (because the human party broke their side of the deal), but God remains faithful to his promises and keeps his side of the deal – specifically in instituting the new and more perfect covenant based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. But note carefully that Jeremiah doesn’t say God is making this new covenant with the Nations/Gentiles – he is making it with the House of Israel in order to perpetuate his Covenant faithfulness with them.

Here I think the discussion in paragraph 18 of the Vatican document “The Gifts and the Calling of God…” points us in the right direction. Hebrews 8 never implies or states that the “obscelesence” of the First/Old Covenant means that God has rejected his promise of election and faithfulness to his people Israel. Rather the statement that “the first covenant is obsolete” arises in the context of a comparison of the two priesthoods – the priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

We don’t know whether Hebrews was written before or after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but it was obviously written fairly close to the event, and it provides a fascinating snapshop from a moment in time when everything was in violent flux for the Jews – both Christian and non-Christian. The writer wishes to demonstrate beyond doubt that the priesthood of Christ surpasses that of Aaron in the same way that the original thing surpasses a copy or image of it. The Real Thing has come, so the copy or image no longer serves any purpose. It is “obsolete”. Curiously, (most) modern day Jews would agree that the Aaronic priesthood is “obsolete”. For them, since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the cult of the first covenant has been replaced with the calling to study and live by the Torah.

But nothing in Hebrews 8 suggests that the promises of God to his people Israel – of everlasting love and election – have been “annulled” along with the “obselesence” of the Aaronic cult. On the basis of Romans 9-11, I don’t think it is possible to teach any such thing.

At the start of Romans 9, Paul says that “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” etc “belong” to “Israel according to the flesh”. I think that the genitive of the relative pronoun (wn) used here repeatedly to convey the idea of “belonging” must carry a present tense idea – ie. Paul is not saying that these things “once belonged” to Israel, such that they are now are in the past. For him, they are very much in the present (even the priesthood, although that isn’t specifically mentioned – he does use the term latria “the worship” which might be intended to encompass the temple and the priesthood). There are many other interesting elements in his list – including a reference to plural “covenants”, which according to Paul still belong to Israel.

In the rest of chapter nine, Paul aims to show that although these promises are made to “Israel according to the flesh”, they are not restricted to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor indeed are all who are “Israel according to the flesh” heirs to the promise. Nevertheless, if Paul thought that “fleshly” Israel had simply been replaced holus bolus in God’s estimation with “spiritual” Israel (ie. the Church), why would he bother with all the angst and worry covered in next two chapters of his letter about the destiny of “Israel according to the flesh”?

Chapter 10 of Romans then says that “Christ is the end of the Law”. Not “end” in the sense of finished and thrown away, but in the sense of “goal” – Christ is the Telos of the Law. This fits perfectly with Jesus’ own saying that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matt 5:17). Now, I take “Law” in Romans as pretty well always to refer to “Torah” (rather than some Lutheran idea of the demands of good works as opposed to the Gospel of faith without works). The Law is not the same thing as the Covenant (in Chapter 9, Paul lists them separately). So here we need to ask what the relationship between Christ and the Torah is. Hebrews 8 was not about the Torah, but about the Priesthood. We no longer have a group of people who practice the old covenant priesthood, but we do have a group of people who are very attached to the Torah, ie. the modern Jews.  “The Gifts and the Calling of God…” asks this question and suggests a few ideas (not all of them satisfactory) – but the document does firmly reject the idea that there are “two paths” – one via Torah, and one via Christ.

In Romans 11:1, Paul comes to the point: “Has God rejected his people?” Christians for centuries have answered this question in such a way as to imply “Yes, he has.” Today, I would hope that all Christians can say with Paul an emphatic “me genoito”!! May it never be said! The Old Covenant Priesthood may certainly be obsolete now that a better and far more excellent and incomparable Priesthood has been instituted. The Torah is certainly not, apart from the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, another path of salvation. But even we Christians still hold the Torah in such esteem as to include in in our scripture and call it the “Word of God”. So it hasn’t by any means been “abolished”, let alone made “obsolete” as an historical artifact.

All this being true, what about God’s promises to Israel: Are his love for them and his election of them as his people “obsolete”. Paul’s “May it never happen!” is all the more emphatic because his whole argument in Romans centres on the fact that through Christ, the Gentiles have been grafted onto the olive tree which is the People of the Covenant, ie. Israel (Romans 11:17ff). Paul’s image doesn’t say that the old olive tree is now dead and that God has planted a completely new one. As in the prophecy of Jeremiah in Hebrews 8, the new Covenant is precisely aimed at ensuring that the promises of God to Israel contained in the old Covenant remain firmly in place, while at the same time gathering all the Nations into God’s Covenant with Israel. That is what makes the “new covenant” new – not that it excludes the people of the First Covenant, but rather that it includes with them all the Nations as well.

So in Paul’s words: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2), and “do not be arrogant toward the branches – remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18), and finally “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

So here is the thing: When Saint John Paul II said that the Covenant of God with the Jews was continuing and valid, he was specifically speaking of God’s own promises of commitment to the people of Israel (whom he had no problems identifying with modern day Jews). I could chose a number of different passages, but Avery Dulles chose this one in his First Things essay in November 2005:

Pope John Paul II, whose theology was deeply affected by personalism, spoke of the Jews as a covenant people. In an address in Rome on October 31, 1997, he discussed the act of divine election that brought this people into existence: “This people is assembled and led by Yahweh, creator of heaven and of earth. Its existence is therefore not purely a fact of nature or of culture in the sense that the resourcefulness proper to one’s nature is expressed in culture. It is a supernatural fact. This people perseveres despite everything because it is the people of the covenant, and despite human infidelities, Yahweh is faithful to his covenant. To ignore this most basic principle is to adopt a Marcionism against which the church immediately and vigorously reacted, conscious of a vital link with the Old Testament, without which the New Testament itself is emptied of meaning.”

In saying that God is faithful to his covenant with the Jewish people, Saint John Paul II was not saying that the Old Testament priesthood remained valid, or that Torah was a another path of salvation apart from the Righteousness of God revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He was simply making the very point about God’s faithfulness to his covenant that Jeremiah made in his prophecy of the New Covenant, which is: God has not rejected the People with whom he first made his Covenant. The New Covenant in Christ does not exclude the Jews, but allows us Gentiles to enter with Jewish people into God’s continuing Covenant commitment.

I believe that this is not only what John Paul II meant, but also what the Jewish people today mean when they ask us to recognise the continuing validity of God’s covenant with them. They do not use the language of “salvation” that is common among Christians. We may argue about whether the Jews (as Jews) are “saved” or not, but that isn’t their concern. Their worry is that Christians have taught for 2000 years that, because they did not receive Jesus Christ as their Messiah at his coming, God has rejected them, that they are no longer his people, in fact that they are guilty of killing God himself and are therefore themselves condemned to be wretched, homeless wanderers upon the face of the earth, to be marked out like Cain for their guilt.

It is in contrast to this “teaching of contempt”, that the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have all affirmed the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. They mean that God has not rejected his people, but remains faithful to them.

And this is exactly how the Jews interpret the Church’s new stance. Here, for example, is the writing of a Jew, Edward Kessler (on page 30-31 of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Encounter):

As well as acknowledging the Christian contribution to Jewish suffering, institutional statements illustrate a second revolution in Roman Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. They are reawakening to the Jewish origins of Christianity and are reconsidering the meaning of the mission of , and the mission to, Israel.

They have renounced many of the triumphalist doctrines, most significantly the renunciation of the teaching of the divine rejection of the Jewish people since the time of Jesus – in other words, the divine covenant with the Jewish people is now no longer viewed as having been annulled. According to the 1980 Evangelical Church of the Rhineland statement:

“We believe the permanent election of the Jewish people as the people of God and realize that through Jesus Christ the church is into the covenant of God with his people.”

For its part, Nostra Aetate taught Christians that “the Jews remain most dear to God” who “does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues”. John Paul II spell it out in the early years of his pontificate as follows: God’s covenant with the Jewish people had never been broken, retains eternal validity; God does not renege on his promises (cf. Romans 11:29). If Jews were not rejected, then Judaism was not a fossilized faith, as had been taught previously, but a living, authentic religion.

Note that there is nothing in any of his claims about the old testament priesthood or about salvation. None of that concerns today’s Jews. What concerns them is that the Church now recognises that God has not rejected his people, that they remain most dear to him, and that they should not be molested or obstructed in the exercise of what they hold to be their religious obligations as a people.

I think we can in fact go further than that and say a great deal more, but surely we can at least admit that much, even if, on the basis of Hebrews 8, a Christian might still find himself compelled to say that “the old covenant is obsolete”.

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On the Salvation of the Jews etc.

An email list to which I belong recently drew my attention to this post by Fr Hunwicke on his blog: “Nostra aetate; its authority; Judaism; good news”

In this post, he reports the comments of one Archbishop Pozzo, “an official within the CDF”, about Nostra aetate.

“The Secretary for the Unity of Christians said on 18 November 1964 in the Council Hall about Nostra aetate ‘As to the character of the declaration, the Secretariate does not want to write a dogmatic declaration on non-Christian religions, but, rather, practical and pastoral norms’. Nostra aetate does not have any dogmatic authority and thus one cannot demand from anyone to recognise this declaration as dogmatic. This declaration can only be understood in the light of tradition and of the continuous Magisterium. For example, there exists today, unfortunately, the view – contrary to the Catholic Faith – that there is a salvific path independent of Christ and His Church. That has also been officially confirmed last of all by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith itself in its declaration Dominus Iesus. Therefore any interpretation of Nostra aetate which goes into this direction is fully unfounded and has to be rejected”. 

Fr Hunwicke relates this comment to the December 2015 document from the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews ““The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29)“.

In response to this, I commented on the email list that “There is no necessary contradiction between the conviction that the covenant of God with Israel perdures and the teaching that apart from Christ and his Church there is no salvation.”

One correspondent asked me to explain how this squares with Hebrews 8:13 “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Another was more daring: he wanted me to answer the following question:

“Will a modern faithful Jews who does not confess belief in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of our Lord, and received Baptism end up in Heaven or Hell?”

So, here is my attempt to answer both questions.

On the topic of Hebrews 8:13, the Vatican document “The Gifts and the Calling of God” devotes a short paragraph (para. 18) to this specific topic.

18. There have often been attempts to identify this replacement theory in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle, however, is not directed to the Jews but rather to the Christians of Jewish background who have become weary and uncertain. Its purpose is to strengthen their faith and to encourage them to persevere, by pointing to Christ Jesus as the true and ultimate high priest, the mediator of the new covenant. This context is necessary to understand the Epistle’s contrast between the first purely earthly covenant and a second better (cf. Heb 8:7) and new covenant (cf. 9:15, 12:24). The first covenant is defined as outdated, in decline and doomed to obsolescence (cf. 8:13), while the second covenant is defined as everlasting (cf. 13:20). To establish the foundations of this contrast the Epistle refers to the promise of a new covenant in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Heb 8:8-12). This demonstrates that the Epistle to the Hebrews has no intention of proving the promises of the Old Covenant to be false, but on the contrary treats them as valid. The reference to the Old Testament promises is intended to help Christians to be sure of their salvation in Christ. At issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not the contrast of the Old and New Covenants as we understand them today, nor a contrast between the church and Judaism. Rather, the contrast is between the eternal heavenly priesthood of Christ and the transitory earthly priesthood. The fundamental issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the new situation is a Christological interpretation of the New Covenant. For exactly this reason, “Nostra aetate” (No.4) did not refer to the Epistle to the Hebrews, but rather to Saint Paul’s reflections in his letter to the Romans 9–11.

I admit that I have struggled with the explanation they give there. Perhaps a whole chapter would have been more helpful. But I think I understand it to be saying that what has been made “obsolete” is the priesthood and cult of the first covenant, not the promises of God to his people contained in the first covenant. Thus (paradoxically) the very passage which promises a “new covenant” is itself a promise of the “old covenant”!

To my mind, this perfectly matches what St Paul says in Romans 9-11. I passionately believe that God has not rejected his chosen people (cf. Rom 11:2) and that God does not repent of his gifts and promises (cf. Rom 11:29). Indeed with St Paul, we may say that

“as regards the Gospel, they are enemies for your sake [I take this as a reference to 11:25 – that without the “partial hardening” of Israel according to the flesh, the Gentiles would never have had a share in the Kingdom]; but as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” (Romans 11:28)

This is how St Paul understood the reaction of his people in his day to the Gospel. He wrote that “God has consigned all [Israel] to disobedience, so that he may have mercy on all [Israel]”? Thus he concludes that, by some mystery, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). For this reason, I am deeply uncomfortable with the challenge to make a call on the damnation/salvation of any member of the house of Israel, let alone Israel as a whole.

Of course, when I confirm that God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains valid, I am not saying that there are now two paths of salvation – one through Torah and one through Jesus. Paragraph 25 of the “The Gifts and The Calling” specifically rejects this idea. I am saying that the promise he made to Israel in his covenant with Abraham and at Sinai (ie. that they would be his own chosen people and that he would never take his love from them) remains forever valid and has not and cannot be rescinded. Jesus Christ does not abolish this promise, but fulfills it.

So can a person who does not explicitly confess the name of Jesus and hold the doctrine of the Holy Trinity be “saved”?

I believe firmly that the redemption of the world will be accomplished and can only be accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ – ie. “In his name” – and in “no other name”. I am certain too that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). But I am not sure sure that this implies the opposite, ie. That whoever *does not* explicitly confess the name of Jesus and hold to the doctrine of the Trinity will not be saved.

I think the Athanasian Creed is partly the culprit here, when it says that

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

I am not so sure that we rightly understand this statement if we interpret it as saying that only those who explicitly confess the doctrine contained in the Athanasian Creed may be saved.

One could, for instance, make it say that Protestants are not saved because they do not hold “the catholic faith”. This would, of course, be incorrect, because in context, the Creed itself defines what it means by “the Catholic faith”, ie. not everything that the Catholic Church today teaches and professes to be true, but rather the particular doctrine concerning Christ and the Holy Trinity that is expressed in this Creed as opposed to some other of contrary version of the faith.

But also, taking it in its historical context, this Creed is clearly intended as a condemnation of the heresies of Arianism, and Unitarianism and other heretical variations of the Christian doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. It does not intend to damn to hell all individual human beings who have ever lived or ever will live who do not specifically know and confess the words of this creed. Not even the Church holds that, as the Church explicitly teaches the salvation of the Old Testament patriarchs of Israel – none of whom ever explicitly held or confessed the faith outlined in this Creed.

Recently a friend pointed out to me that the Letter to the Hebrews (11:16) describes the faith required to “please God” and “draw near” to him as 1) to believe that he exists and 2) to seek him. It is interesting to compare this to St James, who says that

“religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

Jesus himself describes the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 in such a way to suggest that “the righteous” are rewarded for their acts of mercy, even though they did not explicitly know Jesus himself. And then, even Jesus warns us that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 7:21).

I am also interested in the fact that when we begin to talk the language of salvation, we immediately begin to talk about “individual” salvation – when it is very common in the scriptures to talk of the salvation “of all Israel” (as Paul does in Romans 11:26) or “of the nations”.

All this is New Testament teaching, which for the sake of this argument I am just relating to the Jewish people (although of course it relates to Muslims as well, and for that matter to anyone who believes that God exists and who seek him!).

I know that others will quote to me passages such as Matthew 10:32-33 (but surely this is a promise/warning to those who already believe in Christ?), or Matthew 3:9 (I am not a “universalist” – I know that exclusion from the people and Kingdom of God is a real possibility), or Romans 9:6-8 (but Paul answers this himself in Romans 11).

I come back to what I said earlier: I believe that God has redeemed the world in and through Jesus Christ his Son, and that all salvation will be through him.  – but I am prepared to see God working his salvation through the name of Jesus in individuals, and nations and places even apart from the explicit confession of his name. And honestly, I think I have the New Testament at my back on this issue.

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“What is wrong with Pope Francis?”

Participants in the 2016 Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia Winter Conference (that's me in front with beret)

Participants in the 2016 Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia Winter Conference (that’s me in front with beret)

“What Is Wrong With Pope Francis?” That is the question Rod Dreher asks in this article in the American Conservative, sent to me on an email list to which I belong (and which, incidentally, I have often thought of leaving because of the negative experience reading it gives me, but which I persist in because I wish to be a) a part of the conversation, b) know what the conversation is in the first place).

The article is about Pope Francis’ comments on the plane coming back from Krakow:

“If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent,” Pope Francis said, dismissing Islamic State as a “small fundamentalist group” not representative of Islam as a whole.

“In almost all religions there is always a small group of fundamentalists,” even in the Catholic Church, the pope said, though not necessarily physically violent. “One can kill with the tongue as well as the knife.”

A respondent on the email list asks:

Does anyone know who or which group the Pope is referring to as being one of those dreaded “Catholic Fundamentalists”?

Pope Francis, as ever, doesn’t make a very good argument for the point he is trying to make. He does say that there are plenty of violent Catholics, which is true, but most of us will struggle to think of a case of an atrocity carried out by Catholics in the name of the Catholic faith in our living memory (perhaps Northern Ireland??).

But in the current climate it might be a good thing to immerse ourselves deep in history once more (something that Cardinal Newman highly recommended as being of the greatest help to an authentic Catholicism).

When we do that, it will not be hard to find cases of violence carried out in the name of the Catholic faith by Catholics against non-Catholics – violence justified by the fact that the victims are “the enemies of Christ” (either actively fighting against Christians or – on the other end of the spectrum – simply refusing to accept the Christian religion as their own).

Now granted there are many myths and exaggerations in this department. I highly recommend reading Rodney Stark’s new book “Bearing False Witness” as an antidote to such myths.

Nevertheless, there is enough real history to make exaggerated myth unnecessary. As a simple example, I have just been reading a history of the Jewish people by Simon Schama “The Story of the Jews”. One of my colleagues said that Schama is a “bit biased against the Catholic Church” – but reading his book will soon let you know why. Even keeping Stark’s corrective in mind (that Christian persecution of the Jews was neither universal nor continuous throughout history, that it tended to be at times of great social upheaval and where law and order was not properly maintained, that it was never condoned officially by the Church and that in general both Church and Christian state authorities did what they could to curb the violence), the actual documented evidence of the violence of Christian populations against whole Jewish populations makes uncomfortable reading.

I am reading this book currently under the shadow of two experiences: the first is the European atrocities of recent weeks claimed to have been carried out in the name of Islam, and the second is the event from which I have just returned and for which I was personally instrumental in making happen, viz. the overnight two day Winter Conference for the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia (facebook here). We had thirty people, including 10 Jews and 8 Muslims, from various denominations and ethnicities, leaders and lay people, old and young living together for a few days. It was an event which directly asked the question “Why do we do Interreligious dialogue – and what are the rewards and challenges?”.

We were just 30 people – we were not issuing statements or changing the direction of world history. But we at least met together, talked issues through together and got to know one another. That is a start. It is being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (It bothers me to think that maybe some of the people who are most outspoken about Islam do not actually have any real face to face relationships with Muslim people.)

Like all of you, I am saddened and fearful about what it happening in the world today. I certainly do not have a solution. But I do have a sense about what will help and won’t help. Some people (“the Doves”) think it is “not helpful” to speak about the violence in Europe as “Islamic violence” and want to emphasise that Muslims worship the same God as we do and that Islam is a religion of peace. Others (the “Hawks”) believe that it is absolutely imperative that Western leaders identify the current wave of violence as Islamic, and argue that Islam is a pagan religion which is the natural enemy of Christianity.

Whether you believe the Doves or the Hawks, ask yourself:

1) Is what they are saying true? What is their source for this opinion? Do I want it to be true? And if so why? Could I consider that it might NOT be true?

2) Where will asserting this truth lead? What will be gained by pushing your particular line? Will it ultimately lead to an increase in peace and safety for all people? (Remember Jesus’ rather awkward saying “Blessed are the peacemakers”!)

3) Have I had a conversation with a Muslim person about this, or am I just reading/listening to what non-Muslims are saying?

At the JCMA Conference, some Jews told me that they are still uncomfortable entering a church or seeing a crucifix or hearing the name of Jesus or joining with a gathering of Christians all these bring to mind the history of Christian violence against Jews in the past. They have grown up with this history – they “bear the weight of it” as on Jewish person told me. We Christians, on the other hand, are often entirely ignorant of this history. Christian violence against Jews was carried out because of suspicion and fear, often on the basis that they were “Christ-killers” or even more bizarre accusations, such as that they were poisoning the water or crucifying Christian boys at Easter and mixing their blood with their passover matzah or they were stealing hosts to grind them up for demonic rituals. Yes, there were even Christians who claimed that the God that the Jews worship was a “demon”.

Sound familiar? It was only 50 years ago that the Catholic Church clearly and unambiguously rejected all forms of anti-Judaism and all accusations of responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. It frightens me the rhetoric used to support violence by Christians against Jews in the past sounds so similar to the kind of rhetoric I am hearing today against the Muslim communities living in our midst.

We Christians also live under “the weight of history”. One of the historical narratives we have inherited is that Islam was “spread by the sword”. I am not going to argue that issue here, but it is true that Christians and Muslims have, in the past, faced each other with the pointy ends of their swords. Now, I do not swallow the story that the Crusades were an instance of unprovoked or even unjustified violence of Christians against Muslims. But it is undeniable that Crusader violence was carried out in the name of Christ and that the victims were not always those who were guilty of reciprocal violence against Christians, or even posed a threat to the Christian community. Many innocent people were caught up in the violence (as of course always happened in such violent times – let us not be naive). These included Eastern Christians, non-combatant Muslims, and Jews. And most frightening of all are the instances where the argument was made “We don’t have to travel to the Holy Land to kill the enemies of Christ -we have them right here in our midst” – leading to the outbreak of violence against the Jewish populations of the Rhineland and other parts of Europe. If medieval Europe had had similar minority communities of Muslims (as is the case today), you can be certain that they too would have been the target of the same violence, even though they had nothing to do with the conflict in the East.

I could write more on this, but by this stage you are either with me or not.

I just want to say, in defense of Pope Francis, that he is saying what he is saying because

1) He is rightly concerned about what repercussion his words might have in those parts of the world where minority communities of Christians and others are live among majority Muslim populations, and

2) He is concerned that non-Muslims in Europe, America and other “Christian” societies such as our own (who do not face anything like the same degree of threat from Islamism), may begin to turn on the law-abiding, upright and God-fearing Muslim minority communities in our midst.

He is concerned because he knows something about history. Christian violence may not be something we are so familiar with today, but it HAS happened before. It IS a part of our Christian story. Let us pray that together we can write a new and better chapter to the story of the relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims in our world today for the sake of the peace and safety of all.

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A Modern Pilgrim reads Belloc’s “Path to Rome”

There are many books which give an account of the experiences of modern pilgrims. Books by pilgrims to Santiago are a dime a dozen, and their quality varies enormously. In addition, there are many accounts available of other walking tours. One I remember reading years ago that made a great impression on me (long before I became a long-distance walker myself) was “Two Degrees West: An English Journey” by Nicholas Crane. This chap walked from the top of mainland Britain to the south, but not along the traditional route from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End; rather he set out to walk along the longitude line of 2 degrees west of Greenwich. For some reason, one thing that caught my imagination was that he ordered a special walking stick that doubled as an umbrella. It strikes me today as a rather quaint idea.

But to get really quaint, one must go right back to the time before the modern craze for pilgrimage. I am not talking about Egeria’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem or even Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury – no, slightly more recent. In 1901, the Anglo-French Catholic author Hilaire Belloc took a vow to walk from his birthplace in Toul, France, to the Eternal City, Rome, Italy. He gives an account of his twenty-six day, 750 mile (1200km) journey in his 1902 book “The Path to Rome” (free download here). His vow included the following incredible (by today’s standards, and perhaps even by those of his own) plans:

‘I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter’s on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul.’

He admits to breaking all but one of these vows – he did make it to St Peter’s by June 29, 1901 – but he also did keep up that cracking pace of about 30 miles (almost 50kms) a day. That’s Oxfam sort of walking, not just for 48 hours, but for a whole month. Our little pilgrimage saw us walking about 27-32kms a day. My longest day that I have ever walked was the Pilgrimage of Mercy when I walked from Boronia to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne via the bike tracks – a distance of 45kms, and I tell you I don’t think I could have kept that up for a month. Now, on our recent jaunt, we were wearing packs that weighed between 10-12kg – and there is no indication that Belloc took with him anything more than a piece of ham, a loaf of bread and bottle of wine in sack (otherwise relying on whatever he could pay for on the way), but nevertheless it is an herculean feat.

This webpage goes into some of the details of Belloc’s pilgrimage. There the author comments that:

Twenty nine miles a day (more than the marathon in distance) day after day for the best part of a month was a prodigious achievement, even allowing for a certain amount of “cheating.” In the days when students commonly walked between London and Oxford it was Hilaire Belloc’s proud boast that…he held the student record for the fifty six miles from Carfax to Marble Arch in eleven hours thirty minutes. That distance would take the average experienced walker at least two full days. On walking holidays rest days are considered essential and Belloc had none. Furthermore he included a lot of hill and mountain walking where the challenge is vertical rather than horizontal and he had problems with his bad knee, the weather and, at times, in finding his way.

Like I said, this means Belloc’s “path to Rome” was the equivalent of the Oxfam walk over and over and over for four weeks. I am in awe.

There is one thing I don’t quite understand: how did he have time to journal his pilgrimage with all that walking? He tells us he stopped to take sketches (I guess you couldn’t just pull out your iphone and take a snapshot in those days), but mentions nothing about keeping a diary. He writes all this then a year later. Still, I guess some things stick in your mind.

One event from our recent MacKillop-Woods Way pilgrimage that sticks in my mind is the day we walked through the rain from Cowwarr to Maffra, and stopped for lunch at the hamlet of Tinamba, which had boasts one of the best pub restaurants for hundreds of miles around. We arrived absolutely dripping wet, with mud on our boots, and asked for a table. The first question was “Do you have a reservation?”. Sean collected pieces of paper toweling from the bathroom to place on his chair to soak up some of his moisture, and I had left my shoes and rain jacket out on the verandah so was walking around in my wet socks. It was all a bit embarrassing, but when we explained to the diners at the neighbouring tables that we had walked from Melbourne and were on our way to Bairnsdale, suddenly all were interested in our tales.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read in Belloc an account that almost perfectly matched our experience. I reproduce it here for you:

I clambered down the hill to Archettes and saw, almost the first house, a swinging board ‘At the sign of the Trout of the Vosges’, and as it was now evening I turned in there to dine.

Two things I noticed at once when I sat down to meat. First, that the people seated at that inn table were of the middle-class of society, and secondly, that I, though of their rank, was an impediment to their enjoyment. For to sleep in woods, to march some seventy miles, the latter part in a dazzling sun, and to end by sliding down an earthy steep into the road, stamps a man with all that this kind of people least desire to have thrust upon them…

I took great care to pay for my glass of white wine before dinner with a bank-note, and I showed my sketches to my neighbour to make an impression. I also talked of foreign politics, of the countries I had seen, of England especially, with such minute exactitude that their disgust was soon turned to admiration. (Hilaire Belloc. The Path to Rome.)

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