‘Mr Stewart are we going to have a chapel service this week?’ So asked an inquisitive Year 7 student as we prepared to embark on our trip to Central Australia. The unexpected question threw me a bit but I suppose it was a natural one when the student realised that I was one of the staff accompanying the group. As I reflected on all that the students would be seeing and experiencing in the next five days, I replied ‘This whole trip is just one big chapel.’
At this early stage of our outback odyssey I imagine that the student, as sharp as he was, probably wouldn’t have understood why I said what I did. But for me, going to Central Australia always entails a spiritual dimension, and by the end of our week away I was confident that many of the students would also share this understanding.
There is something about visiting Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon that invites you to reflect as you have an experience of something ‘beyond’ yourself. Getting up close and personal with something vast and ancient, accompanied by hearing the indigenous stories around these landmarks causes students to think a little bit differently than they do in the classroom environment. David Tacey, sociologist and frequent speaker at our annual Anglican Schools Australia conferences has said that for postmodern young people spirituality enters through their heart rather than through their head. An immersive experience that takes students out of their Wi-Fi cocooned comfort zones, opens up their senses and invites an encounter with the sacred dimension of life.
After a year of very little travel thanks to COVID the sense of getting away from it all as our plane took off from Melbourne was palpable. A sober reminder that the world was still in the midst of a global pandemic came at Alice Springs airport as we passed the huge fleet of aircraft being stored there until things ‘returned to normal’.
This was the second time I had gone on this trip that is a regular part of our Year 7 program in a normal school year. Being the second time gave me more of an opportunity to observe the impact of what we were seeing and experiencing had upon our students.
Immersive experiences are incredibly powerful for young people. There is often little, if any, formal teaching, just experiences and what powerful experiences they are. The relatively simple acts of walking onto country and participating in a smoking ceremony makes it clear to students that they are in a different space to the one they normally inhabit. The trip helps sows seeds that grow and develop as a student moves through our school, as they learn more about history of our country and the important role that indigenous people have played in it.
We paused for morning tea at our Kings Canyon at the picturesque ‘Garden of Eden.’ After enjoying the silence and tranquillity for a period we then broke out our snacks. I said to the student who asked about the chapel service ‘see if you can work out what the RE lesson is here’ as I ate my apple. Not only did he get my lame attempt at a visual gag, but I think he was also starting to get what I meant by the whole experience being one big chapel service. We were encountering the sacred, not in a church but in one of God’s greatest cathedrals – the Australian outback.
Despite being cut off from normal routine the real world reared its ugly head as Victoria went back into lockdown while we were away. After a difficult night sleep as I wrestled with the very real possibility of an enforced longer stay in the NT, I woke up and looked into the night sky.
See the image at the top of this post.
The moon appeared to have a halo around it. As I gazed in awe at the magnificent sight before me I could feel the sacred at work on me. I felt an immediate sense of peace knowing that God had got this and that all would be okay. And sure enough he had.
Later that day as we drove through a deserted Melbourne with no traffic setting a record time for a trip from the airport back to school, it felt like the city had changed in our absence. I knew that as well as our city, a group of students had come back different to the ones that had gone away; thanks to an encounter with the sacred through the wonder of God’s creation.