This commentary is the text of an address priest-archaeologist, Fr Eugene Stockton gave recently to a new inter-religious theological forum in the Blue Mountains, The Blue Mountains Centre for Faith and Public Issues. This address by Dr Stockton at Leura Uniting Church was supported by Wayne Brennan and Chris Tobin. This talk draws on a number of studies and books undertaken over many decades in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Further information about these books is available in our shop HERE.
Tuning into the Spirit of our Forerunners in the Blue Mountains
by Fr Eugene Stockton
What can we learn from our indigenous forebears?
There was a time when we would not consider such a possibility: all who did not share our Christian belief were simply dismissed as pagans. The Second Vatican Council discussed our relations with other religions more positively, proclaiming that "the seeds of truth exist in other religions." Recently Pope Francis on his visit to Morocco stated that "the pluralism and diversity of religions are willed by God in his wisdom." So we might ask how Aboriginal spirituality might contribute to Christian spirituality? This was the thrust of my book The Aboriginal Gift: what can we learn and adapt from their traditional religion? This is not an exercise in romanticism or gross appropriation (as some Americans have appropriated Native beliefs and practices) but a challenge to us to recognise key elements in Aboriginal religion and so bring to the fore like elements in our Christian tradition. Aborigines can lead us to learn from the land itself the Law of the Land, as they have done before us [cf Permaculture].
This is part of the painful process of Reconciliation between the two peoples, indigenous and non-indigenous, getting history straight. The truth of Australia. Before British colonisation this continent was no terra nullias, but a land long settled by its First People, to whom were added recently peoples from across the sea. Given the great antiquity of Aboriginal presence in Australia, by far the vast majority of Australians who have ever lived have been Aboriginal. I have seen a calculation that estimated there have been half a billion Aboriginal Australians as against 40 million Australians with ethnic origins from overseas. So it makes sense to see our history from the point of view of the majority, as an indigenous core with successive additions by migration in recent centuries.
St Paul provides a useful analogy...
For our purpose St. Paul offers a useful analogy as he described relationship between the Chosen People and Gentile converts of his time [Rom. 9-11]. Paul lists the privileges of the Israelites: "to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs; and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ." The Chosen People is likened to a venerable olive tree and the Gentile believers are branches of a wild olive now grafted on the old stock "to share its richness" [Rom. 11:17]. The wild olive branch now sharing the roots, sap and life of the old stock, share the glorious heritage of the Jews, as related in the Old Testament. I have personally experienced such grafting in two ways. My family migrated from England in the 1920s, but I feel I have inherited the whole Australian story from its beginning – Captain Cook and all that. Then my family converted to Catholicism and, despite my Protestant antecedents, I feel I have inherited the age-old traditions of the Catholic Church. So in our present case the Aboriginal people can be likened to a venerable olive tree, deeply rooted in Australian soil, while the newcomers of the last few hundred years are like branches of wild olive, come from across the sea, now grafted on the old stock, sharing its roots, sap and life, so that the two form a single living entity bonded on this continent, our common home. In this perspective our story is now seen as it goes back 60,000 years or more. Aboriginal heritage is our heritage [Aboriginal Heritage of the Blue Mountains book].
What is said of the whole can be said of part. We who live in the Blue Mountains today can find a bond, a common home with our Aboriginal forerunners in the Mountains. What do we know of those first mountaineers?
An anciently populated land...
Archaeology has shown that people were foraging along the Nepean River 50,000 years ago and there was nothing to stop them ranging up into the nearby foothills. 22,000 years ago people were camping in a rock shelter off to the side of Kings Tableland. There, and at three other sites, there were signs of human presence at the Last Glacial Maximum when the climate was not only much colder, but also much more arid, thousands of occupation sites have been found spread right across the Mountains, even in the less accessible places. For a long time the Blue Mountains has been a well-peopled place.
What can be said of race relations in the Blue Mountains with the coming of new settlers? When the first Europeans crossed the Blue Mountains they were just passing through with their herds of sheep and cattle and hardly made contact with the Aboriginal residents, although they observed signs of their presence nearby. William Lawson had an early land grant near Springwood and he evidently made friends with local Aborigines [Blue Mountains Dreaming, p.68]. More durable was the contact of the Gundungurra with the first settlers of the Burragorang Valley. The Valley was settled by poor Irish farmers, many ex-convicts. Unlike the conflicts between black and white in other parts of the colony, the relations in the Valley were more peaceful and amicable. Aboriginal people supplied seasonal work on the farms. They played cricket together and made it their business to be enrolled on electoral rolls. Mary Longbottom was mid-wife for all babies, black and white, in the neighbourhood.
The new settlers who were mostly Catholic made sure that Aboriginal babies were baptised and they themselves served as god-parents. The parish priest, George Dillon from Camden, set up St Joseph's Mission at Pocket Creek. Yet despite this friendly co-existence and integration, the Aboriginal families held onto their culture and religious observance [The Aboriginal People of the Burragorang Valley book]. When kerosene shale was mined at Narrow Neck most of the employees were Gundungurra. On the closure of the mine most of them moved up to the Gully in Katoomba. This community was dispersed when the Gully was turned into a motor racing circuit in 1957. So it happened that most of the Aboriginal people in Katoomba and other Blue Mountains towns were descended from those who had come up from Burragorang Valley. Unlike most localities in Australia relationships with the broader community have been friendly and productive. Through these members of our community we have an unbroken line of heritage in the Mountains that go back 50,000 years or more. [Aboriginal Heritage of the Blue Mountains book]
The spirit of the indigenous people...
If we are to tune into the spirit of our Aboriginal forerunners, what was that spirit? It was superbly described by Pope Paul II in his address to Aboriginal people in Alice Springs in 1986, in an address which has since been endorsed at Aboriginal gatherings throughout Australia.
FOR THOUSANDS of years this culture of yours was free to grow without interference by people of other places. You lived your lives in spiritual closeness to the land, with its animals, birds, fishes, waterholes, rivers, hills and mountains. Through your closeness to the land you touched the sacredness of man's relationship with God, for the land was the proof of a power in life greater than yourselves … The silence of the bush taught you a quietness of soul that put you in touch with another world, the world of God's Spirit. [The Aboriginal Gift, p.94]
The outstanding feature of traditional religion is its mysticism directed towards the Land. The Dreaming relates how the Creator Spirit, under various guises, from nation to nation, formed the Land and its inhabitants. It is a story, not of some happening long ago, but something still going on in the ever-present, Aborigines love to sit and ponder the whole drama embodied in the landscape. Journeying the song lines a person traces the way of the ancestral spirits. In ceremony, through song and dance, people re-enact, make present, the creative acts. In the enveloping cosmos, all parts are sensed to be alive, conscious and paying attention. So a participant is not only alert to the environment but the environment is felt to be alert to and communicating with the person, each responsive to the other. According to anthropologist Debbie Bird Rose, "mysticism in this tradition is an apprehension of the world in an intensely heightened awareness of intersubjectivity. Self is not incorporated into the other, but is totally engaged with others."
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr described this form of contemplation in her famous address on Dadirri: "It is inner, deep listening and quiet still awareness, it is the quiet stillness and waiting." Hers is a notable contribution to the age-old tradition of Christian mysticism, but it differs from other schools of contemplation in that, rather than being centred in the innerness of the subject, it reaches out to the environment in the ordinary circumstances of life. So here we come to appreciate that for thousands of years people lived and moved through the Blue Mountains with a mystical awareness of their surrounds.
The Blue Mountains must have been for its inhabitants a region spiritually charged to a high degree, seeing how it is teeming with rock art, both cave paintings and rock engravings. These were not idle doodlings or artistic expressions, but were religiously motivated to objectify beliefs and devotion, concrete expressions of mystical contemplation. Sequences of art motifs have suggested to archaeologists routes of song lines, or sacred trails, leading up from the Cumberland Plain or Burragorang Valley terminating in the ridge-top rock platforms characteristic of the Central Blue Mountains. There the outcropping Hawkesbury Sandstone is favoured for rock engravings and axe grinding grooves. These bared mountain tops are often in view of prominent peaks such as Mt Hay or far way dreamy vistas. One can understand how such platforms were ideal locations for personal contemplation, tribal gatherings and ceremonies.
Today Christians can recognise that the Spirit that moves us now is the same Spirit that moved our Mountain forerunners in their different framework of beliefs and customs. So what we can surmise of the work of the Spirit in the past can stir us now in the wonder of our surrounds of the Blue Mountains. Spiritually we can link up in a continuous line with those who lived here some 50,000 years or more. Perhaps we can view the old ways as the Old Testament to our New Testament in the Blue Mountains?
Eugene Stockton, published 3rd June 2019
Blue Mountains Dreaming is packed full of information about Aboriginal life in the Blue Mountains written by different authors from various angles. It is well presented with maps, drawings and photographs of Aboriginal sites and the Blue Mountains environment. The text is written sensitively and in plain English but with a level of factual information and references that makes the book of interest to professional researchers (e.g. archaeologists, prehistorians, historians), as well as to Aboriginal people, students at all levels, and the interested public. A book at a reasonable price and well worth getting. Val Attenbrow, Australian Archaeology. Number 40, 1995