I recall when I was writing my book
Living Water to Light the Journey. I wanted to feature some
Australian heroines and heroes, to help parents provide their kids with role
models to emulate.
I decided to write about
Caroline Chisholm, an Australian pioneer
who worked so hard to help women migrants in the 19th century, and is truly
a great heroine. (One biographer describer her as “one of the world’s great
social reformers – a heroine on the grand scale”.)
I looked for a copy of her 1842 book on
immigration problems. It was the first ever publication by a woman in
Australia, and it seemed the only copy available in Melbourne was on
microfilm at the La Trobe University library.
I consulted it there, and was amazed to
find that it was not simply a powerful plea for greater protection for women
migrants to Australia, but that it was also a deeply spiritual document.
Like some of the mediaeval female Christian mystics, Chisholm was writing in
graphic detail of her relationship with God and of her efforts to know and
follow God’s will.
She had no doubts that her work on behalf
of young women migrants was divinely inspired. As she wrote: “I was
impressed with the idea that God had, in a peculiar manner, fitted me for
And she saw in this work a chance to
enter into a deep spiritual relationship with her Lord:
During the season of
Lent of that year I suffered much; but on the Easter Sunday I was enabled at
the altar of our Lord to make an offering of my talents to the God who gave
them. I promised to know neither country or creed, but to try and serve all
justly and impartially. I asked only to be enabled to keep these poor girls
from being tempted, by their need, to mortal sin; and resolved that to
accomplish this I would in every way sacrifice my feelings - surrender all
comfort - nor, in fact, consider my own wishes or feelings, but wholly
devote myself to the work I had in hand. I felt my offering was accepted,
and that God’s blessing was on my work: but it was his will to permit many
serious difficulties to be thrown in my way, and to conduct me through a
rugged path of deep humiliation.
One such humiliation came when a person
she regarded as a friend wrote a letter to a newspaper, opposing her work.
It was, she said:
a missile of great
strength - I felt it keenly; no other person in the colony could have thrown
more serious difficulties in my path: these things are permitted to try our
faith and exercise our patience. I felt a dreariness of spirit creep over
me, and, confirmed in my opinion, that to leave Sydney for a few days would
be prudent; but it was the will of God to prevent this…
Caroline Chisholm’s achievements are well
recognised in Australia, thanks especially to a steady rise recently in
research into the role of women in our pioneering days. And historians do
generally point to her religious convictions when writing about her.
But they seldom describe the profound
depth of her spirituality, even though it was central to her activities. It
is a shameful neglect that speaks to the kind of society we have become -
one that somehow feels embarrassed by its spiritual side and wishes to
conceal it, like Uncle Joe’s alcoholism or Cousin Joan’s mental troubles.
Is it any wonder that we are giving
ourselves - and especially our young – so little to believe in?
August 30th, 2002