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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Sixteen

Wisdom



Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness.

Sophocles

 

The road to wisdom?

Well, it’s plain and simple to express:

Err and err and err again

But less and less and less.

Piet Hein

The Road to Wisdom

 

Many of the great works in the classical-music repertoire are spiritual in nature. Aboriginal music is spiritual, too. But, while our writers and commentators are quick to recognise the latter, they are sometimes inclined to dismiss Western music’s real origins. The result is that much of our understanding of the inspiration behind many famous pieces is from popular writing or movies - like the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus as a giggling, immature misfit. Non-Aboriginal Australians need to reclaim their spirituality.

 

At the same time, while we rightly value our tradition of Aboriginal spirituality, we sometimes tend to place it on a pedestal, almost like a museum piece. Yet Aboriginal spirituality and wisdom have much to teach other Australians, and a growing number of outstanding Aborigines are working to effect this.

 

In a fascinating recent development, large numbers of Aboriginal theologians are working to find a synthesis between their own beliefs and those of Christianity. According to Sydney University academic Garry Trompf, writing in the 1996 book Aboriginal Spirituality, it is only very recently that “the possibilities for Aboriginal spirituality as a catalyst for renewal and psychic healing in Australia have become more patent”. According to the book, more than 200 Aboriginal thinkers are ready to explore in a systematic way the relationship between indigenous wisdom and the Christian gospel.

 

As Muriel Porter noted in her book Land of the Spirit?, published in Switzerland by the World Council of Churches: “Aboriginal theologians are proclaiming a God who has lived with them throughout their history, who gave them the Dreaming, and spoke to them through it.” In a new millennium it seems we may also be at the dawning of a new age of Aboriginal wisdom and spirituality.

 

 

What is wisdom? It is not necessarily knowledge of a lot of facts. “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,” wrote the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

 

Wisdom is accumulated knowledge and experiences applied to good use. The famous example is that of King Solomon, around 3,000 years ago, who, according to the Bible, was “wiser than any other man….He composed 3,000 parables and more than 1,000 songs. He spoke of trees and plants….He talked about animals, birds, reptiles and fish.”

 

When two women came before him, both claiming to be the mother of a particular child, he proposed splitting the child in two and giving each woman half. When one woman objected, and asked for the child instead to be handed to the other woman, Solomon ruled that the protesting woman had shown by her concern for the baby that she had to be the real mother.

 

Several of the books of the Bible have been classified as “wisdom literature”, for the lessons they teach us about God and about each other. The Book of Proverbs is particularly valuable as a massive collection of traditional teachings on life: an open rebuke is better than hidden love; as iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend; in the end, people appreciate frankness more than flattery; and much more.

 

Aboriginal wisdom and spirituality are rooted in the land. As tribal elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu wrote, in Aboriginal Spirituality,

 

The goodness that is in the land - in the trees, in the water, in the rocks, in the beauty of the landscape and nature itself - enables us to breathe, live and enjoy. The land feeds and nurtures all the time.

 

He wrote that Aborigines enjoy a relationship with the land that is stronger than that experienced by other peoples.

 

We give land ceremonial names as a sign of respect….We acknowledge the land by giving it a title that is not used every day, a special name….Our relationship with the land is much closer spiritually, physically, mentally than any other relationship I know of.

 

Many non-Aboriginal Australian writers and poets have also felt profoundly the power and spirituality of the land, and it is a recurring theme in their works. “In Australia, landscape carries our experience of the sacred other,” wrote La Trobe University senior lecturer David J. Tacey, in Edge of the Sacred. But, he added, “for 200 years the majority of Australians have shielded themselves against the land, huddling together in European cities, pretending we are not in or part of Australia.”

 

However, I think caution is in order. A proclivity to romanticise the land, with an attendant anti-city bias, can sometimes lead - or seem to lead - to an anti-people bias.

 

I am very much a “city rat”. As a freelance writer I could live in the country, but I choose the city. If it weren’t for our children I would probably live in an apartment rather than a house, as near to the city centre as possible, among the restaurants and coffee shops and bars and people.

 

Indeed, if I could choose I would probably spend part of my time in one of the teeming cities of Asia, sitting and writing at outdoor cafés, happy with a bowl of noodles and a glass of the local liquor. By contrast, just a few days in the country are enough to drive me to boredom, my lungs protesting that they are not receiving their daily ration of pollutants.

 

I can appreciate, and marvel at, the spiritual grandeur of the majestic Australian outback. But one of my most profound spiritual experiences was to be among 25,000 worshippers crying out to God while crammed into the Yoido Full Gospel Church in downtown Seoul.

 

There was wisdom in the words that a snooty, mountaineering vicar in Birmingham, England, once snapped at me (see Chapter 10): God is everywhere.

 

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