Touching hearts and souls
Tue 22 December 2015
By Terry Craig
The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture has been increasingly engaging with the broader community since Executive Director Stephen Pickard’s arrival. Rev’d Susanna Pain’s recent appointment as the Centre’s Associate Director, Liturgy, Arts and Spiritual Care is a further step in that engagement. Terry Craig talked to Susanna about her role.
Q: What does your role entail?
I work two days per week for the Centre. I am responsible for creating public ritual for significant occasions, as well as running creative workshops, meditation and prayer. This is alongside my work in spiritual direction, supervision and leading retreats. During the rest of the week I’m mainly involved in spiritual direction and pastoral supervision, retreats and quiet days, and well as facilitating InterPlay workshops, dance, movement, story-telling, and improvisation. I’m mostly at the Centre on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and some evenings. Last week I did the ordination retreat in Grafton.
Q: You were the rector at Holy Covenant for nine years, how is this role different?
Part of the difference is building a community and people who have a relationship with this site. It’s not a church, it’s a university, and it is something new and innovative. That’s exciting and daunting at times.
My role is not an academic role. Liturgy, the arts and spiritual care are the three prongs of it. Some of it is enabling liturgies to happen. It’s not doing it all myself, it’s engaging with the community, bringing people on board, listening to them, enabling them to do stuff. The arts are a wonderful tool for reflection and for getting under the skin, so the coming asylum seekers exhibition will engage people’s hearts and gut. There will be academic reflections, but I won’t be doing them.
I’m not creating and making things happen all the time, neither is Stephen, but we’re saying, “We’re here”. We are engaging with and enabling the Chorus of Women and the refugee action group. Some of it is very much dreaming and imagining and creating. Sometimes it’s leading from the front and sometimes from the back.
What I have enjoyed here is broadening my focus again. So I’ve been to the faith-based refugee action group, which is Christian and non-Christians working together, and a meeting with people who want to engage with indigenous people – there’s the same story: listening and ceremony. I went to a Chanukah celebration yesterday. I’m going to a party with the chairman of the interfaith forum on Saturday; he wants me to talk about Christmas.
Canberra is a very secular society and it’s often anti-Christian, however St Mark’s and ACCC are within the middle of the city. And there are people who are looking! I think things have shifted a little. There are people in the Parliamentary Triangle who are wanting people to speak on values and ethics, and want practices to enrich their lives. The Centre for Christianity and Culture comes out of the deep roots of Christianity, but is open to dialogue with people of different faiths or none. Stephen Pickard is visible and present at lots of gatherings. We have a place for people of faith and no faith, who want to work for the common good, and we host different groups using our space. People are coming here more and more who want a ritual or a ceremony, and part of ACCC’s work is to build up ritual and prayer alongside all these other things.
Hospitality is key. It includes being present with, listening to, and engaging those on site and beyond in dialogue, worship and activities to deepen spirituality, creativity and delight. That means hosting quiet days, discussions, events, rites of passage, rituals – both personal and community – which foster interfaith dialogue and offer hospitality. It ties in primarily with the arts, science, culture pillar of the Centre.
The people that come to me for spiritual direction –people on the edges – say, ‘I want to find out about Jesus.’ My faith and my relationship with God is part of who I am, and it is that Celtic evangelism if you like, being where people are at and listening and telling a story, like that of Mary visiting Elizabeth and the birth. Jesus and evangelism and mission aren’t words I’ve used a lot, but it is meeting people around the edges, people out there who have things to teach me as well as for me to share with them. To awaken spirituality, creativity and delight is an underlying thing I want to do.
Reflecting last week, while leading the ordination retreat, I noticed things coming to the fore in this job that weren’t being engaged personally so much at Holy Covenant. Here it’s getting out there, connecting with people. It’s fresh expression. Not my words! People come and meditate for half an hour at lunch time and they go, ‘Oh, I can work better in the afternoon.’ At the Campfire we had Christian people and people who are on the edges of Christianity or other faiths. I’m enjoying seeing people opening up and coming alive.
During November Susanna ran four ‘Campfire Reflections’ nights. It’s a simple concept based around Campfire in the Heart in Alice Springs where they have a campfire every week. “It begins with a shared meal around the campfire, then there’ll be a topic for discussion and one person will raise an issue. People will listen and maybe ask a question. Then we go around the circle for each person to share what that has brought up. Shane Mortimer, a Ngambri people elder, told us about eating yams from the grasslands here at St Mark’s. The largest number of people we had was 25,” said Susanna.
“I wanted to see how it went because we have the Place of Meeting outside the Centre and part of my brief is to be using the site in creative ways. When we talked about forgiveness, it was amazing to hear the stories of people, talking about resentment and forgiveness and how you get to forgiveness. It’s another way of doing church: sharing bread and wine, food, listening to each other, and that still, small voice speaks. We’ll do it again next year. Watch this space!”
Susanna also has started a lunchtime meditation group on Thursdays in the prayer room. This attracts people who work in the area among others, for a half hour of prayer and meditation. It’s “stillness in the middle of the day”.
On New Year’s Eve, Susanna will lead a walk for peace in the ACCC’s labyrinth. “If people in a liturgy do something: light a candle or write something down or stand up for communion, they remember more than if they are just sitting there being passive, so walking in the labyrinth is about being active and engaging. Some people just come down and walk the labyrinth at lunch time,“ she explains.
She is also helping to bring a two-week exhibition by asylum-seeker artists from Sydney, which was organised by International Settlement Services in Ashfield. Opening on 19 February, the exhibition shows the contributions that refugees and asylum-seekers can make to Australia.
Other projects in train include: a series of film and theology nights starting in March, a contemplative walk for justice and peace through the Parliamentary Triangle on Good Friday, in conjunction with St Barnabas Ministries, and support for the annual ecumenical service on Good Friday morning which has been run by the Roman Catholic Church. The ACCC will also be doing an interfaith service for Refugee Week and Anti-Poverty Week next year, and a NAIDOC week event. At the moment, the Chorus of Women are “resident” at ACCC. “They’re sharing my office and rehearsing here; they and I are looking at a Festival for Peace next year or the following year,” she said.
She is working on a Blues Festival in September (‘Blessings and Blues’) during Floriade, an art exhibitions next Advent, and a Filippino artist in August doing a workshop on the arts and culture, as well as supporting a Festival for Peace planned by the Chorus of Women.