Soul search: the Aboriginal heart of Australia’s spirituality


'The Last Journey of Christ' by Artist Kutjunga, Balgo
'The Last Journey of Christ'. Artist: Kutjunga, Balgo.

By Peter Gresser

Catholic Diocese of Parramatta Priest Fr Eugene Stockton has spent a lifetime searching for Australian Spirituality.

While his journey has taken him through doctorates in theology and philosophy, a licentiate in sacred scriptures and studies of archaeology, anthropology and social issues, Fr Eugene is certain he has discovered that the heart of Australian Spirituality lies in Aboriginal Spirituality.

In his 1995 book The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality of a Nation, Fr Eugene theorised that modern Australian society is influenced by Aboriginal Spirituality’s tenet of contemplation (known as ‘dadirri’ in Indigenous Australian culture), as well as its celebration and reverence of life. Fr Eugene’s book also found parallels in Aboriginal Spirituality with the teachings of Christ.

“There’s a number of sources of our Australian Spirituality: our environment, our history and the Aboriginal influence. This influence is growing stronger and stronger, especially through the popularity of Aboriginal art,” Fr Eugene said.

“Aboriginal art is powerful and provocative – and it’s having an effect on the Australian psyche. It’s working by osmosis: Aboriginal feeling is creeping into our national feeling.”

‘The clearest picture of Aboriginal consciousness’

Madonna by Artist Richard Campbell
'Madonna'. Artist: Richard Campbell.
More recently, Fr Eugene has explored traditional religion and the vibrant role it plays in modern Aboriginal communities in his latest book Aboriginal Church Paintings – Reflecting on our Faith.

The book features the varied responses by several Aboriginal artists to the Christian message and its relevance to their tradition culture – and reveals the extraordinary depth of understanding of the Gospels held by the artists.

“Art is the most natural and the clearest expression we have. In Australian Indigenous culture, this is especially so: Aboriginal people are highly sensitive to the hearer, so will express themselves (verbally) in a way that will accommodate (the audience’s) way of thinking,” Fr Eugene explained.

“That’s why the art is so important: when it’s created solely as an expression, it provides the clearest picture of Aboriginal consciousness and feeling.

“I wanted to draw out the theology in the paintings in this book, rather than focus on the aesthetics. What I found was these paintings embody a profound theology.”

‘The depth of one soul can reach out to another’

Fifth Station by Artist Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann
'Fifth Station'. Artist: Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.
The artworks in the book have been reproduced from photos Fr Eugene has gathered from his time visiting missions and Aboriginal communities throughout Australia.

“I found myself profoundly affected by the (editing) process and the paintings. I have this feeling that the depth of one soul can reach out to the depth of another soul,” Fr Eugene said.

“There’s a consciousness that reaches out from the artists in this book that contacts what is deep within us.”

Fr Eugene’s search for Australian Spirituality and his exploration of Aboriginal Spirituality have led him to walk side-by-side with Indigenous Australians through more than 40 years of ministry.

Fr Eugene first began working with Aboriginal people in 1968 and throughout the 1970s. In the 1980s, he helped established a new model of self-determination for Indigenous people involved with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Sydney. Fr Eugene was also the first Assistant Priest of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta’s Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (now Aboriginal Catholic Social Services), when the Diocese formed in 1986.

Fr Eugene said while Aboriginal art was a good entry point, investing some time and complementation were among the best ways to gain a greater understanding of  Aboriginal Spirituality – and, in turn, Australian Spirituality.

“The art is good place to start, but the main tenets are also quite easily accessible: the proud attitude to land and life and the strength of the concepts of community and family,” Fr Eugene said.

“But further to this, there is unifying idea of mysticism. I believe that it is in this mysticism that we (all Australians) are going to find our meeting point.”

Aboriginal Church Paintings – Reflecting on our Faith is available through Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust. (RRP: $20 Bulk Orders: $15 each)

Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust

254 Great Western Highway
Lawson NSW 2783
Ph 02 4759 1034
Fx 02 4759 3654

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