So begins a well known quote.
I remember starkly when the concept of being first dawned in my adolescent awareness. I had finished school, prepared myself for university with a touch-typing course, the purchase of a nifty portable typewriter with black AND red ribbon (costing all my savings), and a speed reading course during the Christmas holidays. Then I had left home. It’s still quite dizzying in memory, and I see it through a sort of fog of defencelessness: it was what I longed to do, and yet I was more the passenger than the driver somehow. But on a particular Sunday night, within a couple of weeks of moving into Duval College, New England University, I abruptly woke up. I was in the back of a mini van, a people-mover, looking to the west as the very last motes of light left the distant mountains. A car full of young christians heading back from an almost clandestine charismatic church meeting in Uralla. The churches in Armidale seemed so formal to us in our flared jeans and bare feet, and we were so adventurous! Mind you, the rest of the student intake was knee deep in beer at the same moment (which I only learned later was the expected behaviour) so our adventure was comparatively tame, to say the least. Nonetheless, as I gazed west into darkness through the minivan window, like the daydreamer I was, it dawned on me suddenly that my parents did not know, at that moment, where I was! I barely knew myself. It was thrilling.
Individuation takes a lifetime I think, it’s our grand journey and starts in our earliest years. I knew it had started for my own children the moment they first said,
And I knew it was irreversible when they came home from school saying,
“Miss SoAndSo taught us that 2+2=5 Dad! So I know you’re wrong.”
The dazzling reality that was unveiled through the minivan window was me. I, myself, and not another. And then I began, gently at first, to test the depth of this reality by casting aside the controls and expectations which I felt, wrongly perhaps, confined me. Although invitations to join the main crowd knee deep in beer came frequently, I declined. My rite of passage was destined to be very marginal and, well, weird. First off I began to attend the Catholic Mass which I discovered was held daily in a chapel in a neighbouring college. It was unlike any church I had encountered before, it had solemnity and grace that I could almost touch. For a good little Congregational Protestant this was an enormous stretch; one which ended unhappily within a fortnight when the priest made the observation that I was a good little Protestant, not one of his flock, and that I was playing off-side, as it were. I was sent off the field, deeply saddened by this first experience of division.
Then I was befriended by a senior student in the college, someone of my own height which is exceedingly rare, and someone who also wore shorts, lace up shoes and long socks, which is rarer still. He remains a dear friend so many years later. He was, of all things, a Baptist! From him I learned that the divide could be crossed.
And there was a very small, very bright catholic nun in our college, a student like the rest of us but a decade or two ahead in age. She was unaware of the priest’s perspective it seemed, and welcomed all to her expansive 4th year room filled with candles and strange catholic music. It was excellent. It occurs to me only now that it was very likely her influence that led me towards the next step: a short biography of Mother Theresa by Malcolm Muggeridge.
Throughout my childhood I had watched nature documentaries and collected animal books, including a 24 volume wildlife encyclopaedia which my parents gave me at the excruciatingly slow rate of one volume for my birthday and another at Christmas. I had wanted nothing so much as to study natural science at university; but here I was with Muggeridge in one hand and the New Testament in the other, deferring my degree and walking out of Armidale, quite literally, with a backpack and a few belongings to find out where in the world I belonged.
It was, looking back, a perilous and naive beginning. After a brief, lonely, cold and fairly pointless spell on the road I answered an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald which I remember exactly because all it said was “Christians wanted. Phone: etc.”
The phone call led to an odd little community in Glebe, which was then a gray and dirty inner city suburb riddled with hardship and squatters. We stood on soap boxes sharing our wisdom in the Domain (I say “we”, but I think I only listened). We visited psychiatric wards. We got up at 3.00am to clean factories for our bread and butter. We sang and we prayed. We wrote left wing pamphlets for the Labor Party (I’m not sure they knew we existed) which it fell to me to type on my nifty portable typewriter with black AND red ribbon. Strangely enough this turned out to also be brief, lonely, cold and fairly pointless.
But, glory be, within months I was living in Central Australia among the beautiful Ngaanyatjarra people as a sort of junior missionary with the Uniting Church “Order of St Stephen”. And that was a grand adventure indeed.
I … me … this long and lanky body I inhabited … me! I had discovered being.