By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Like many Australians, I am of Celtic descent. My home is on the other side of the earth from the land of my distant ancestors.
The ideas of exile and pilgrimage were important in the spirituality of the old Celtic saints. Saint Patrick spoke of himself as being in exile for Christ in a foreign land. Exile was a form of perpetual pilgrimage for Christ. Earlier great exiles for Christ included Columba of Iona, to whom poems of exile have been attributed. Inspiration came from the scriptural story of Abraham.
Pilgrimage is an idea associated with exile; we journey towards a place of vision and union with God, yet we are guided and accompanied by God along the way. These thoughts are found in well known hymns of Celtic origin: “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.” (Welsh), “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart” (Irish).
A piece by Judith Wright first written as the foreword to a book of aboriginal stories spoke to me about Australians in exile. During and since World War II, she writes, non-indigenous Australians had,
discovered in ourselves a love for the physical and perceptible aspects of the island continent, which took us almost by surprise. For in the brief history of our occupation of it, there had been little love or respect and much harsh exploitation and opposition; while for its first human inhabitants we had little sympathy or even interest.
… We ourselves had come here already dispossessed, not only of the countries we came from, but of our own inner unity. Laurens van der Post, interpreter of the African Bushmen, has spoken of “the peril of man when divorced from the first things in himself” — the peril of the loss of meaning in life. “Cut off by accumulated knowledge from the heart of his own living experience, he moves among a comfortable rubble of material possessions, alone and unbelonging, sick, poor, starved of meaning” [Here Wright cites The Heart of the hunter, by Laurens van der Post (London: Hogarth) p.139.] It seems to me that this is a most accurate description of the lives of non-Aboriginal Australians in a country to which they know they have no abiding title nor depth of relationship. (“Bond with the land” in Born of the conqueror selected essays, by Judith Wright (Canberr Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991), pp.13-14).
While preparing to go to Asia some years ago to represent Australia as a volunteer aid worker, with my colleagues I was challenged by an Aboriginal speaker as to whether Australia was in truth mine to represent. Yet I have no other home, for my ancestors (in common with those of Judith Wright and many others) came to Australia (from a Celtic land) more than 130 years ago.
I am not sure that there is such a thing as race memory. But there was surely a deep feeling of “home” for me when I once stayed for some weeks in a village in South Western Scotland. Yet, when I returned to Australia after two years in Asia, I was surprised to discover in myself how deep had been my yearning, while I was away, for the open spaces and clear skies of the “wide brown land” which is my home.
Contrasting the non-indigenous Australian’s experience with that of the Aboriginal peoples, later in her essay Judith Wright says, “We will never be able to feel in ourselves any real relation of kinship with mountains, stars, moon and sun, trees and animals.”(p.14)
Here I think the ancient Celtic Christians offered a way. For in the living God, the Triune One who is creator of all, they found a mystical and intimate relationship with the mountains, the stars and the trees — even in the land of exile. We are found and grounded in God through the achievements of God’s creation that surrounds us. Yet, for me, there will always be a sense of exile, even in a place that is home. The Celtic Christians understood that a place of exile could also be home.