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Leading With Soul - Nurturing School Communities in Their Spiritual Growth

AHISA 8th Biennial Conference 2001

Opening Worship Service
Mary Immaculate and St Athanasius Catholic Church, Manly
30 September 2001

Fr Frank Brennan SJ

The Fire of Wisdom

First Reading - Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. Wisdom hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one's thought on wisdom is perfect understanding and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care. Wisdom goes about seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in their every thought.

The Gospel of John 9: 4-5

Jesus said: "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day: night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

As you would expect with AHISA, the liturgies for this conference have been painstakingly prepared. The prayers and the symbols therefore predate the recent tragic events in the world and the roller coaster vagaries of Australian politics as we all go into election mode. Those events now colour the symbols and inform our prayers; the vagaries put us on guard about the political prejudices and predispositions of others, even the preacher. We come seeking wisdom knowing, but not quite knowing how, the world has changed - for ourselves, our staff, our students and families. With the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, much of what passed for wisdom came tumbling down. Fire can symbolise wisdom, it can also destroy our faith in the symbolic and displace us from the real. Last month's sureties have abandoned us.

On 27 August I awoke in the Jesuit Refugee Service house in Dili, East Timor to hear the 6am BBC News. Arne Rinnan, Norwegian Captain of the MV Tampa, was describing how he had rescued 433 people from a sinking wooden fishing boat in the Indian Ocean. He had gone to their aid at the request of the Australian authorities but the Australian authorities then refused permission for him to land at Christmas Island even though he as captain of the container ship had decided that was best for the safety of his crew, his ship and those now known as "rescuees". Since then, much law and politics has been playing itself out on the high seas, on our air waves, in our courts and in our parliaments. Yesterday I attended the ordination of a fellow Jesuit in Melbourne. He was one of the boat people back in 1981. At the age of 18 he had fled Vietnam, leaving his family behind, floating on the high seas for 27 days, 25 of those days without food. What assistance would we render him if he were arriving within our migration zone without the requisite papers today? What assistance would wisdom dictate? In the light of day, what would the One who is the light of the world illumine in our hearts? Whether on the high seas or in the school playground, exclusion by labelling the other as "queue jumper" or delinquent is no answer. Wisdom calls us to go deeper into the person and into causes.

Principals and heads of school when gathered in a group are, I am reliably informed, a most difficult group to talk to. Perhaps each of you is a little like the captain of the Tampa ñ you know what you are about. Like Vikings who have been sailing ships for 350 years, you know your responsibilities. You are imbued with a sense of tradition and you keep cool - discerning the right decision in times of crisis. You don't like to be told what you can or cannot do in the discharge of your obligations. Let's pray for wisdom together these days as we dare to claim that we can lead our school communities with soul.

On the morning of 12 September I was working in my Dili office. Someone told me there was a terrorist attack in New York. I, like you, saw the replay of the second plane hitting the second tower ñ time and again, only my image came via Portuguese television beamed into East Timor. Next day, I attended a regular meeting with a US Army colonel in Dili. He was supposed to be back in the Pentagon by now. In fact his wife had been on the phone to one of their friends in that very wing of the Pentagon when the third plane hit its target. In shock, they knew their friend had spoken true because, like Yothu Yindi, they "saw it on the television". Everyone knows someone who knew someone who was killed. Our interconnectedness in the globalised village of our world puts us at two, or at most three, links away from those at the epicentre of this disaster. "Two bob" terrorists happy to pay for a cause with their lives set up new divisions, new alliances and new connections in our world. Once one side invokes the divine, so does the other. Jihads and Holy Wars are joined by crusades and campaigns for infinite justice. The folly and evil in both is readily apparent to those whose wisdom dictates that none of us can play God. Let us not be glib in our school communities or in our world in invoking the divine against others or in taking on the divine mantle for ourselves. Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.

Watching the events of September 11, we have to admit the conflicting thoughts and emotions at play in our own hearts and minds. Each of us attests the wanton destruction and unjustifiable carnage of innocent persons. But dare we admit it, dare I now say it: we are also in awe and fascination of the simplicity, daring and calculation of the planning and execution of this terror. As we reflect on the appropriate response to the dreadful terror, we might espouse religious values and decry the taking of innocent lives. Among friends and loved ones, we might articulate our "just war" theories or even our pacifist aspirations, knowing that these theories and aspirations are more readily espoused because they will not carry the day. Afterall we are not the decision makers elected to deliver to the people the retribution they want. Those of us who are in positions of earthly wisdom, even if we be cloaked with some religious sensibility, will endorse or accept or at least not demur to a retributive response which is posited on the further taking of innocent lives because we know or suspect that nothing else is practically achievable in the real world of politics and war. Our consciences and our hearts are placated by adding the occasional caveat at a dinner party or by adding a word of caution at a school assembly or by espousing a consideration of all alternatives at a staff meeting. Our wisdom is a worldly wisdom: we don't want to be too out of step with the prevailing sentiment whether it be for "infinite justice" or a modern crusade. To fix one's thought on wisdom is perfect understanding and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care.

Helen Garner has just published her latest book The Feel of Steel (Picador, 2001) described as a heartbreak diary with the texture of memoir offering a fresh personal portrait of an always surprising talent. One reviewer has already lamented that the events of 11 September make parts of this book "shallow, even vain and contemptuous of the reader" (Deb Forster, The Age 29 September 2001). In the same vein, our order of service, our program of events, our conference theme might appear limp, vapid or irrelevant in the wake of these events. But that is an invitation to go deeper into our own hearts, to discern the wisdom which awaits us. One who rises early to seek wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.

In the book, Helen Garner recalls, "One day in the late 1950s, when I was 15 and a failure at sports, a Hungarian fencing coach turned up at our school. Eager to avoid the brutality of hockey, I went to his first demo lesson and was amazed to find that I could pick up the moves with ease." (p. 172)

Thirty years later she answered an ad "Fencing for older adults":

Judi and I pulled on masks and breastplates, stepped on to the piste and crossed swords. I went for her. She blocked me. I went again. It was thrilling. Adrenalin streamed through me. I wanted to attack, to be attacked, to have to fight back. I remember the lunges, the sliding clash of metal, how the sword hand rises as the foil-tip hits the target. It was glorious. We both burst out laughing. We only stopped because she did not have a glove: I almost struck her hand and she flinched back. We lowered the blades. She pulled off her mask. Her eyes were bright, but I saw with a shock how gentle her face was, how feminine, under the cloud of hair.

The language of fencing is old French, beautiful and severe. Ernie used the phrase le sentiment de fer. The feel of steel. That's what I want. I want to learn to fight, but not in the ordinary wretched way of my personal life ñ desperate, ragged, emotional. I want to learn an ancient discipline, with formal control and purpose. (pp174-5)

Wisdom goes about seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in their every thought. In the midst of the lethargy, alienation, torpor and despair about us and within us, we, our students and our staff know there are things worth fighting for. We know that our hearts and our world are battlegrounds. If we want true peace, we must learn the ancient discipline of life with formal control and purpose.

Expatriate Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital in her last novel Oyster was unashamedly and publicly shaking off her fundamentalist Christian past. In her travels throughout outback Australia she has encountered so many people going through the experience of disintegration and their task is to reconstitute the self. She sees faith as "the necessary sense of cohesion about the universe for us to be functional", wanting to be practical and ethical without the sentimentality. The collapse of the New York twin towers has shifted the ground of our social and political being. The wisdom we seek is the knowledge of those things and relationships which can give depth and stability to our civilisation, shoring up the foundations of the communities we want to build as educators. This seeking is now playing itself out on the world stage. It is also playing itself out in your school communities and in the darkest recesses of the most marginalised child in the classroom or in the playground. In The Great World David Malouf speaks of the "other history"..."that goes on, in a quiet way, under the nose and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet, and has been from the beginning".

Last week I was privileged to attend an international conference with writers like Hospital and Sister Veronica Brady IBVM. In the Baroque Italian city Lecce we were celebrating the rather abstract centenary of Australian federation. Veronica was saying it is our colonial mentality: to conquer, destroy or suspect all that is Other but that if a nation is an imagined community, an exclusive notion of identity is no longer sustainable. We need a post-colonial model. Like Abraham, we must go out from all that is familiar on the hope of a promise, being prepared to embrace difference ñ each of us the wanderer on the way to self. Reconciliation then becomes the encounter with the other side of the self which has never been owned. At the end of the conference, I was approached by a European academic who, knowing that I was a priest, said, "I am a slightly frivolous post-modernist but I have a young daughter. I would like to show you a photo of her. Would you pray for her?" Wisdom goes about seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in their every thought.

Back here in Australia, we are coming to appreciate Aboriginal religion and spirituality just at the time when in our own society and culture we are counting ourselves as post-Christian, doubting the need for religious faith in our own lives of intelligent enlightenment. Our yearning to give belated respect and recognition to the religious beliefs and practices of the First Australians ought be a sign to us that we need to revisit our own religious beliefs and practices, but not confusing those beliefs and practices with the norms and practices of the western capitalist societies. On Wednesday, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said, "Europe must reconstitute itself on the basis of its Christian roots." He said, "We should be confident of the superiority of our civilisation, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it and guarantees respect for human rights and religion. This certainly does not exist in Islamic countries". He spoke of the west's superiority of values: "It has done it with the Communist world and part of the Islamic world, but unfortunately, a part of the Islamic world is 1,400 years behind." There is a kernel of truth in all that has been said by our western leaders, including Mr Berlusconi. But there is also a sizable husk of mistruth and populist nationalism which is dangerous for us and the truth. It is not the wisdom for which we pray this day.

For us, this getting of wisdom must mean an engagement with the world in which our luminosity from our own spiritual experience can light the complexity, the options, the motivations and the consequences, so that our school communities might be places of critical space in which staff and students can confront, explore and reveal the tortured and dark chambers of the heart as well as the embraced and enlightened chambers. I was privileged to know one of the past, larger than life characters of your association. When Charles Fisher was Head of Geelong Grammar, he told me you could run a school either on love or fear. Whenever you visited the Headmaster's Residence in holiday time, there would be a couple of boarders staying with the family ñ those who came from too far away or those who had trespassed too far during term. Law and discipline were still applied, not with exclusion of the other ñ but rather through inclusion and engagement, respecting otherness and espousing self. For many young people, church and religion have become increasingly alien. Anxious to exercise their freedom with responsibility and imagination, they find little guidance or inspiration from any church or from those with a religious disposition.

During this last year, I have been living and working in the two worlds of West Timor and East Timor. I think these two worlds are stark mud maps of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual terrain traversed by modern youth. The people in the refugee camps in the west are in a closed world dominated by fear. While some of the people are ex-militia carrying a heavy past, others are innocent bystanders who have been absorbed into the intrigue and evil of the situation. Many of them are illiterate. They are dependent on their village leaders. They cannot decide to return individually. They must go as a group. They receive little reliable information. They are bombarded with propaganda. They are afraid and they are lost. They do not belong where they are but they have no power of self-determination to bring themselves home. When you look into their eyes, you see people who are trapped, scared, and abandoned.

The east is a place full of possibilities, especially if you can score a job with the UN or with one of the big NGOs. Here are idealistic young UN workers from every nation on earth. They have all come to make their contribution and to make a difference. There is much talk about infrastructure, economic potential, reconciliation, democratisation and constitutional development. But so much of it is rhetoric flooding a landscape inhabited by people who are simply trying to put their lives back together. Much of the public carry on is a foil for the power elite of Timorese society making its accommodation with the international agencies while ordinary people continue to miss out. The UN can talk all it likes about constitutional empowerment of people but it does not get you far when you are addressing one of the most illiterate societies in Asia. They can design and resource theoretically wonderful machinery for reconciliation but it cannot get you far when the major alienated faction is still across the border, their leaders not having been at the table to negotiate the procedure. The east is a whole new world which could easily collapse once the outside supports are taken away. It is also the place where people are taking hold of their freedom and constituting themselves as actors for peace and reconciliation.

I give one example. One of our JRS staff is a 20 year old man from Maliana on the border. His name is Fidelis. His father was the CNRT leader in the area and was killed by police and militia in September 1999. Fidelis works with our returnees team assisting refugees when they return from West Timor. Recently we sent him to Geneva for the hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee. For him, it was a fantastic experience ñ and a long way from the border. He told me last year that he was in no hurry to go to university because for the moment, the border is his university. On his return from Geneva, we had a two-day meeting of our 30 staff discussing the meaning of reconciliation. He said, "Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite when I help the returnees because my father was killed by the militia. But I am lucky and blessed because I have a mother with a big heart and she is a great inspiration for me." As you can appreciate, despite his age, he is more like a teacher than a student down there at the university of the border.

With love, not fear, Jesus said: We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day: night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. Our young people all experience something of the trap and isolation of life as well as its possibility and hope. Do we help to liberate them and enliven their hope or do we hold them back in their isolation, in our isolation? Let's pray this day that we might have the grace to nurture our school communities in their growth through love not fear, practising inclusion through relationship with the one who is other, not exclusion by labelling the attributes which are other. May the fire of wisdom light the way for us in our deliberations on reflection, imagination and compassion as we seek the blessing of the one who is absolutely Other, the one without whom ourselves and our communities would be bereft of soul and wisdom.