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Rockhampton sister’s desert retreat experience

Sister Beryl Amedee RSM of the Rockhampton Congregation recently participated in a desert retreat with World Youth Day pilgrims at Alice Springs. Here are Beryl’s reflections on the experience.

Pictured left to right: Sister Beryl, Sister Jacinta, 
Sister Bernadette and MK.

A sense of an adventure into the unknown filled me with joy and excitement as I was warmly welcomed by my fellow pilgrims at Sydney Airport. The pilgrimage was about to begin.

We were warmly welcomed to Alice Springs and shortly afterwards set out for one of the three heritage-listed homesteads in the Northern Territory known as Hamilton Downs Youth Centre.

After travelling over a dry, dusty, rocky road for about an hour and a half, we reached our destination. Some chose tents, others swags and still others a shared room which had a corrugated iron roof, broken wire on windows with only a security door. However, accommodation soon faded into the background when we took a moment to survey the grandeur of the mountain ranges and the beauty of the environment surrounding us.

The call to evening prayer summoned us to our sacred space in a marquee where a specially prepared liturgy was celebrated. (Any feelings of anxiety I had soon dissipated as I heard a voice deep within saying, “It is good for you to be here”, and I felt a peace flow through me.) Leisurely we walked from our sacred space to savour the beauty of the starlit sky and sense the quiet and peace of our surroundings. What a sight to behold!

Shortly afterwards we met our Aboriginal chef and co-workers and what treasures they proved to be. A call to the kitchen was always an encounter with their gracious, gentle professionalism. There was much learnt about Aboriginal spirituality from our informal chats in the kitchen.

The next morning the core community gathered for the final preparation of the retreats. I was assigned to work on registration and certificates, the liturgy group and the sale of t-shirts. The timetable encompassing prayer, leisure and work was set in place for our first retreat and was reviewed at the end of each retreat.

On the second day we travelled into the Alice where some welcomed our first pilgrims at the airport and all were then welcomed to the country by the Arrente Elders at the Camp Fire in the Heart, just outside Alice Springs. We then lunched around the camp fire and even watched how the kangaroo tail was cooked before tasting it.

One of the highlights was the richness of our liturgical celebrations, morning and evening prayer and Eucharist. With the variety of gifts of the liturgy group, the themes chosen reflected the spirit both within and around us. The day began and ended with meditation.

Other highlights included a session on Aboriginal spirituality which had been prepared by a student at Abergowrie College, the Desert Fathers and Benedictine spirituality. Under a star-studded sky we were awed by the story of the universe through the experience of a “Cosmic Walk”, and honoured our own place in that story.

Daily, the advantage was taken to sit or to walk alone in our environment learning to be with the sacred whether it be the sunset, the sunrise, the mountains, a rock, a tree, a piece of bark, the animals or a sound of the bird song. “Being for nothing in the desert – but for everything” became a reality for us. Our visiting artists’ in residence enriched our days by helping us to awaken the artist within either with pencil drawing or wood sculpture – working with the womb of the wood. While all who participated did so with great enthusiasm, our American youth who were leaving a day early worked well into one night to ensure his/her work was polished in time for departure. They were so proud of their efforts. Pencil drawing aspects of the landscape was another challenge presented us.

It was the rays of the sun which awakened us to the grandeur of the mountain ranges in shades from cream to red and from green to black on their shadow sides. This awareness was intensified as the days passed by. People at any given moment alerted us to the beauty around. “See with the eye and hear with the ear of your heart” was the persistent and encouraging invitation.

There is so much more I could say if space and time permitted. May I conclude by saying that I am deeply grateful for being given this opportunity to come to an appreciation of what “Being for nothing in the desert – but for everything” truly means. I hope I have learnt and experienced the true meaning for my need to “slow down”.

From: Sister Beryl Amedee RSM (Rockhampton)