Pilgrims: a selection of personal stories from members of St Philip's

Retreat to the Red Centre

by Philippa Wicks, (from Anglican News, 2012)

Simpson's GapWe came from Canberra, Toowoomba, Sydney and Braidwood. We came with little or no experience of the great Red Centre of Australia, but we wanted to know more.

A small disparate group of pilgrims, we came with a yearning for prayer, or a hunger to know the land, or a question about how — or if — God might be alive in the desert. We came with full hearts, questions and desires.

In glorious April weather we arrived at Campfire in the Heart, near Alice Springs, in the striking Macdonnell Ranges. And we were met with such warmth and gentle hospitality by our retreat centre hosts, Sue and David Woods*, that it was very soon clear: God's Spirit is alive and well in Alice Springs, and in the vast country beyond. (Readers may know of Sue and David Woods from their years in Goulburn, NSW, as founders of the community of St Joseph's House of Prayer.)

Each day began gently, with Morning Prayer. We focused daily on a particular theme, inspired by the natural elements, the land and the Spirit. Each morning we loaded up into the trusty Kombi van and drove to a different Place of remote beauty a short distance from town.

On the 'Earth' day we arrived at the dry bed of the majestic Todd River, and dispersed quietly to explore. Some of us walked, finding tracks in and out of the river bed; others sat and marvelled at the landscape of ancient gums, of grasses and bird life. I chased the shade, sheltering near bushes, listening to the breeze and the bird-calls, tracing the wanderings of lizards and ants through the sand.

On the 'water' day we found ourselves at Simpson's Gap, awe-struck at this rupture in the mighty Macdonnells. To our delight, in the heat, there was water: after two years of good rain, the waterhole was in places knee-deep, and rich with grasses, insects, and birds.

We pondered the place in silence, some of us trying to sketch its beauty, others drinking it in or sitting in prayer. What was it about this water that so nourished our minds and spirits, as well as cooled our bodies? Some of us tried to express these thoughts as we shared the morning billy tea prepared by David. For others, the questions remained a mystery to ponder gratefully.

Throughout our stay at Campfire we were nourished body and spirit. Sue Woods, gracious custodian of Campfire with husband David, prepared fresh, varied meals for us, often with vegetables from their garden. Some meals we shared in silence, others with lively conversation and much laughter.

Our prayer and meditation sessions offered a refreshing depth. We were blessed with retreat leaders Reverends Susanna Pain and Nikolai Blaskow. They chose readings from Scripture, from literature, and contemporary thinkers, to stimulate us to new experience of ourselves in relation to God, to each other, and to the remarkable desert land.

As the days unrolled, our appetite for prayer and for silence blossomed. I — and, I sensed, others too — felt like desert seeds after rain. On our last precious afternoon, we went to Undoolya Hill, where after a long silence Susanna celebrated a simple Eucharist.

On this remote hilltop, site of an important rearming story dense bushland surrounded us, richly coloured and somehow deeply stirring. Like others in the group, I felt a great sense of privilege in that place, and for the week that had been.

We had been led not so much to look at the land, but to look into it, and in it see ourselves. We left rested and nourished, wondering at the depth and beauty of what we had shared.