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Benedictines at the Billabong

Apr 12, 2024

Retreat centre

In July 2023, 14 oblates from around Australia responded to a call to be pilgrims at Alice Springs in Central Australia, on a national oblate retreat. This landscape is characterised by dry sandy creek beds, giant ranges of yellow, red and ochre, vibrant blue skies, wind and cold – and everything between light and dark.

Campfire in the Heart, the retreat centre, is situated in the East MacDonnell Ranges. It was established 20 years ago by meditators David and Sue Woods and now continues in the safe hands of oblates Judi and Paul Taylor. We were in a splendid bush setting, with varied flora and fauna. A Chartres style labyrinth, created with red earth and red stone demarcations was life-giving and healing. The campfire, set in a circle of seats, was perpetually lit. It challenged us to see, to listen, and to be. The circle embraced us, and we it. There were many transcendent experiences, treasures for us to take home in remembrance.

A walk into the East MacDonnell Ranges on our arrival was a sacred walking pilgrimage. Memories of the songlines of our indigenous, and the treks of early explorers came to mind, and we left our footsteps on the earth.

We had a precious Welcome to Country by Mali, a beautiful indigenous lady. As we sat around the campfire she shared how by listening deeply we could hear the groan of of the land and the gumtrees drinking water. In the silence she opened us to feel the spirit of the land. In seeing deeply our faces shone in the desert landscape – Beaté, Derek, Judi, Paul, Josephine, Mary, April, Barbara, Cheryl, Gloria, Janet, Lorraine, Adele and Joy.

A pilgrimage to Simpsons Gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges was splendid. Known as Rungutjirpa to the Arrernte Aboriginal people, dreaming trails and stories cross at this important spiritual site. In the footsteps of our indigenous ancestors we walked to the gap and had lunch by the billabong, sitting under the gumtrees. It was reflective, a space full of majesty, wonder and awe.

The retreat days were filled with a deep sense of community. They were marked by the rhythm of the daily office, prayer, meditation, kitchen duties and some silence. We had a moving ceremony in the prayer room of receiving Cheryl and Adele as Novices and the renewal of Oblation vows for everyone else.

A post retreat pilgrimage took us to some sacred aboriginal sites which were inspiring. We could feel the land beneath our feet, drawing us into its embrace. We were called to be desert pilgrims at the heart of our nation. We left transformed, each in our own way, and open to the insights that will come in the future.

Our Benedictine Oblate community was strengthened by this time together. In this place, in the busyness in the silence and in the stillness we could feel the fire in the heartbeat of God.

–  by Joy Hayes

This article was first published in the WCCM Australia February 2024 Newsletter. View as PDF.

Fran Pegrem (left) with Nicola Pitt (right)

A visit to Simpsons Gap