Dee Michell launched Prayers of a Secular World, edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, Inkerman and Blunt 2015, at Dymocks Adeliade on 21st October 2015.
There are 5 reasons why I was delighted to accept Donna Ward’s kind invitation to launch this beautiful book:
First, it’s an opportunity to talk about spirituality in a secular world, and I don’t often get a chance to do that these days, theology not being the popular field of study it was when Augustus Short (1802–1883), the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, was wanting theology (as taught by the Church of England) to be the main subject in the new university.
As a theologian in a secular world I count myself lucky to have a job at all!
David Tacey in his thoughtful introduction makes the point that secular can mean hostility to religion. But I love living in a secular world, that paradoxical place where now the atheists are the zealots and the religious bullies of the past have had to back off; and where it’s the marketing companies and increasingly the state monitoring every purchase and phone call we make, where it used to be that old man God doing the surveillance; and that we say we live in a secular and multicultural Australia but where the major holidays are still Easter and Christmas.
My second reason is it was an opportunity to be in the esteemed company of Adelaide poets:
Jan Owen (who is important enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry-today’s equivalent to the old Who’s Who). And, who has been writing and publishing her poetry and making a significant name for herself in Australia and beyond for more than thirty years. And Rachael Mead who has had one of her poems, Kati/Thanda, or Lake Eyre, arranged and set to music and sung by the Young Adelaide voices in St Peter’s Cathedral. Listening to this haunting poem was a profoundly moving experience.
I’ve always admired those who ‘follow [their] genius’ (p.73), step to the music of their ‘different drummer’ (p. 210) as Henry David Thoreau advocates.
At a time when corporations rule the world it is heartening to have someone like Donna Ward step forward and start up a small boutique publishing business. Donna, this is an inspiring venture and of course is in the grand tradition of other small presses like that by Virginia and Leonard Woolf who founded the Hogarth Press in 1917 and published TS Elliott amongst others. From Australia I love the story of Bessie Guthrie who ran the Viking Press from 1939 to 1941 and published poetry and anti-war tracts, a good combination.
One meaning of secular is to not be bound by (monastic) rules, and I like that Donna feels sufficiently free of rules to follow her genius.
‘From little things big things grow’ Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote in 1991, and I hope that Inkerman & Blunt continues to grow and flourish.
The fourth reason is the beautiful production of Prayers of a Secular World. The design, the colour, all gorgeous and evocative of life in the world and yet beyond ourselves, which is of course the point of the book.
American priest and theologian Matthew Fox writes and I quote:
Beauty saves. Beauty heals. Beauty motivates. Beauty unites…Beauty allows us to forget the pain and dwell on the joy.
Beauty continues inside the cover with the entrancing poetry;
Spirituality for me means not only a sense of connection to others, and a search for meaning and purpose in life, it also centres on going beyond appearances and striving to notice the essential characteristics, the divine qualities, of a person, a place, a thing. And that’s what I found in each of the poems, great depth: There are many ways to pray, including asking the Divine for something (petition or shopping list prayer that David Tacey says is now obsolete but I’m not so sure), affirming the Goodness in the world as Elohim does in the 1st chapter of Genesis, to give thanks, to be still and listen for guidance and direction, as well as contemplating or meditating on scripture, or the meaning of life, or on someone, something we love. I regard these poems as prayers of contemplation and thanks, the gratitude expressed in the writing about and sharing that which has come from moments of profound meditation on aspects of life.
The poets have written beautiful words which feel like paradise inside my mind (c.f. Christine Paice): I was transported to India, Italy, Perth during the searing hot summer, to the northern hemisphere where people like Andrew Taylor tread on the silence of snow, and where men in religious orders like to grow herbs as I do. I experienced the patience and kindness evinced by Brendan Ryan’s dad in listening to the irritating local after church. I felt the importance of ordinary but connecting and shaping rituals, like standing in front of the bolts, screws and nails as Jennifer Harrison did with her dad. I loved the sense of appreciation, even for the daily dust, or in finding a poem fitting for one’s funeral. I was inspired to see inspiration in the prosaic, like a mandarin, or orange and yellow fruit in a bowl, the birth of a baby, or of a poem. I shared the delight Mark Tredinnick clearly takes in his child.
I was gently challenged, by the Kinglake fires, and the treatment of animals for food, and the prospect of ongoing climate change, but also confident that illumination can come from dark moments. I felt awe—at the skill of these artists in particular—and because I had just finished reading ‘Touched’ by Gita Mammen about a monarch butterfly when a small butterfly lighted on my left shoulder. It wasn’t there long before flitting off, but I couldn’t help, like the child in the next poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, feel grateful to be alive, and in a way I never am when I’m batting off the flies and mosquitos.
Reading Prayers of a Secular World brought to me a sense of healing—of well being, stillness, of being at peace in and with the world. I know this doesn’t last, the spell is broken all too easily because of the friction within me and with the outside world, but the beauty of the book is that I can always return to the poetry to regain this.
As Andy Jackson in his poem writes, ‘ordinary art arouses the passions, sacred art stills them’. For me this delightful book is sacred art and I’m glad to have read it, and commend it to you all as a treasure.
To finish, I’ve chosen to read Sarah Day’s poem ‘Hens’. I’ve never kept chooks but the poem resonated deeply. When I’m at my most neurotic, running around like a poor headless chook as the cliché goes, I can’t abide mess. But when I’m at peace, feeling whole and content, disorder doesn’t matter in the least. I’ve long taken issue with the orderly way in which the 1st chapter in Genesis is written—it seems to me that life is messy, but it’s very good too.
I think I’ve been waiting for you all my life.
To glimpse you through the kitchen window
scratching between iris and daffodil,
disrupting roots, sprawling moll-like
in a patch of sun, wings spread flush
with the ground, a coquettish leg
in the air and rolling lascivious eye.
You’re disruptive of course –
annuals, seedlings go by the wayside,
Christmas lilies cordoned off,
Brassicas like khaki interns on parade –
but what small price
for that vigorous rustling
as mulch scatters from under hedges,
to have you beady at my side
grabbing worms as I pull up buttercups;
or whetting your beaks on the path, this side
that side, like good chefs sharpening knives.
I love the way you pose like weathervanes
on the axe handle,
to watch as I wash dishes
how today’s menu, or tonic
is borage or bindweed or dock
that you will strip back
to a handful of cellulose spikes.
The way you share a laying box
when there is one for each of you
and midwife one another
through your confinements.
The way you lay eggs –
those warm white ellipses
on the straw.
Somehow for all the wreckage
the garden was never more alive.
You offer a remote conviviality
that I don’t presume upon
as I would, say, a dog or cat,
I’m afraid it’s species that I’m celebrating here,
that atavistic sense of well-being you provoke,
you unremarkably remarkable hens.
I’m grateful, watching you just now
splashing about in dust
for that reassurance you give,
of simple notions, like goodness.
– Dee Michell
Dee Michell is a feminist theologian and social researcher whose research incorporates the themes of lived experience, marginalisation and transformation. She has a broad interest in gender, religion and spirituality, and a particular interest in the women dominated 19th century American traditions of Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science and New Thought. Dee is currently Senior Lecture in Gender Studies & Social Analysis at the University of Adelaide.
Prayers of a Secular World is available from http://inkermanandblunt.com/home/projects/prayers-of-a-secular-world/