Connecting to Country

Anne Lanyon
March 1, 2011

Opportunities Abound for Interfaith Dialogue

“Country” is a word that means different things to different people. Australia is a new country now populated by people from hundreds of overseas countries. But for the first Australians, “country” means something much deeper, and all Australians have much to learn about what it is to be a person of the land.

FEN members (Columban Fr. Charles Rue front left and Anne Lanyon second front right) on a bush walk at North Head Sanctuary in Sydney Harbor

This is an opportunity for interfaith dialogue, especially in a multi-religious urban setting.

Australia has hundreds of Aboriginal countries. Aboriginal woman Oomera Edwards explains that she is from Darkinjung Country, her spirit home. To her people it is spiritual being. As spiritual beings, we are custodians of country. We need to be disciplined and honorable beings, and this requires a lifetime. When you mature, you see the whole world and concepts at deepening levels, so you respect more.

Aborigines over eons learned to sing and talk to the country in the language of that country. Connections with country include a web of relationships through kinship systems. We need to be in tune with the whole web of natural relationships, but the main actor is country itself. We are bit players!

People “yarning” (talking) around the campfire in the country

The steps to connecting to country are about firstly understanding that such a relationship is possible. Find a place in the land where you feel comfortable. Just sit and listen to the birds, the bush and feel the wind. This takes you out of your chatterbox head. You’ll feel the country. You’ll go out of your head and into the stillness of body!

This lesson on Aboriginal spirituality from Oomera was part of a series of seminars in Sydney organized by the Faith Ecology Network (FEN) on the theme “Earth: Our Common Home.” Over the three sessions, people from Anglican, Buddhist, Baha’i, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Uniting Church traditions spoke about teachings on what most call Creation. At these seminars, the dialogue also included environmental activists. At other events organized by FEN, ecologists, academics and professional experts have been included as well as people of no particular faith. By engaging in this form of listening and learning, the presence of God in different ways has been brought to the attention of the participants.

An interfaith group sharing ideas

The Faith Ecology Network began in 2003 when an interfaith conference on the theme “Wonder and the Will to Care” was organized by the Columban Centre for Peace, Ecology and Justice. Since then a public event has been held annually on a common area of interest: water, climate change, food. A small planning group does most of the organizing with the administration remaining with the Columban Mission Institute. Sharing mutual appreciation of religious traditions regarding ecology is one of the aims of FEN. The other is to discern and foster religious reasons for advocacy about care for the earth.

The network operates through an e-group where members from across the state and beyond exchange information and insights with openness and in a non-confrontational way. Through hearing about the activities of other groups, there is further building of networks and learning from others’ perspectives. There is great religious and cultural diversity with about ten faiths represented. Members feel supported and nourished in their common interests. The message about faith and ecology is getting out to many groups, including secular groups, and other organizations. And it is reaching around the globe!

Pope John Paul II called all people to an ecological conversion and this has been reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI. Oomera talks about it in an Aboriginal way: Australians have an opportunity to begin learning about this land and to eventually find a place of belonging within it. This process of connecting will be different for each individual and it will take time, but eventually all Australians will become people of this land in the proper sense.

We should not be surprised to realize that connecting to country and ecological conversion are the same thing in different languages. Through the FEN activities, many people from different faiths have been able to articulate for the first time what “country” means to them. The ongoing challenge for those already on this journey is to then engage members of our own faith communities in this crucial mission.

Anne Lanyon is the Coordinator of the Columban Mission Institute Centre for Peace, Ecology and Justice.

The article originally appears in the February 2011 issue of Columban Mission.