Australia’s Ashes

July 18, 2018 | Reflections from Sr Antonia

“Our holy and beautiful house has been burnt by fire
The place where our forebears praised you”.

“…It may now be necessary for you to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour – when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
1Peter 1:6-7

These words from St Peter are poignantly evocative of what many of us might be feeling about our Church in Australia at the moment. Australia is no stranger to ashes…. and not just the ones that pertain to cricket. We all remember the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the many others that have devastated and ravaged our country since. And it feels to me as though our church too, has been ravaged by fire, and that all that remains is ashes.

We had an open fire in our home when I was growing up and I often sat and watched the flames slowly die down; all that remained the next morning was ashes. The thing about the ashes though was that they still carried, not just heat, but also the stuff that flames are made of; a little encouragement was all it needed. We used newspaper and fanned the ashes into flame by drawing oxygen down the chimney. And as I reflected on this I remembered the words of St Paul to Timothy:

“Fan into a flame that special grace that God kindled in you”. 2Timothy 1: 6

God “kindles” grace in each one of us, according to St. Paul. I looked up the word kindle. It means: to excite; to stir up or set alight; to animate; to inflame; to arouse. God has done the hard work associated with kindling but it is up to us to “keep the home fires burning”, so to speak. Not fires that destroy but those that purify.

“Keep The Home Fires Burning” was a very popular song during World War 1 and maybe the lyrics could very well kindle a spark of courage in us now; perhaps a glimpse of hope and an urge to keep going… for keep going we must.

“They were called in from the glen,
And the country found them ready
At the stirring call for men.

Let no tears add to their hardships
As the soldiers pass along,
And although your heart is breaking.

Make it sing this song
Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning…”

We have been through a refining fire and our hearts are yearning, even as the refining fire still rages. And yes, it is a devastating fire. Devastating.

Yet… I am remembering a sight that beheld my eyes years ago whilst driving with another sister to Sydney for a medical appointment. Passing through the National Park, we saw black burnt out trees, kilometre after kilometre of them. But, almost magically, as I looked more closely I saw tiny, tiny little coats of green on the trunks of the trees. The green against the black trunk was such an uplifting sight, giving hope by revealing that there is indeed life through, and also because of, a refining fire.

The home fires that we are now needing to allow God to kindle in us are not the fires that devastate; they are fires that refine. And being refined is always painful. Gold is tried in fire; silver in the furnace. Will we be up to what it is going to take to build a new Church?
Reflecting further on refining fires I remembered a quote from years ago which has stayed with me, even as the source has disappeared from memory:

“Within the refining fire of proportion
there is the most subtle and demanding asceticism,
the asceticism of truth and love”

There is much to unpack from that quote. For now I am simply thinking about the refining fire of proportion in terms of the Plenary Council. Proportionality is critical and ALL must be heard not some more than others… not even bishops!

  • Do any of us have the skills for the necessary listening that is required?
  • Do women?
  • Do the bishops?
  • Do men?
  • Do young people?
  • Do the priests?
  • Do we have the courage to go beyond what IS and to seek new ways of being Church?

We are, all of us, needed and this means that all of us including bishops, lay people both men and women, nuns, young people, priests and those of us who are old have to be prepared to submit ourselves to a refining fire so that we can reignite our Church.

Perhaps these verses from the Vespers canticle for Advent will encourage and strengthen us.

“Be not angry O Lord, and remember not our iniquity forever.
Behold the cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation;
Our holy and beautiful house has been burnt by fire
The place where our forebears praised you.

Be comforted, be comforted my people, for your salvation now is very near.
Why are you consumed with grief, and why has sorrow changed you?
Fear not, for I am with you.
I am the Lord your God;
Your Saviour is the Holy One of Israel”.