Senior Chaplain’s Report.
It has been almost nine months since I (one pre-dawn January morning opening my laptop to get wireless email while on retreat at a monastery on the California coast) received an email from Sr. Virginia asking if I would be interested in being the Senior Chaplain at RMIT. When I read that, then all I could do is thank God that I had a fresh-brewed cup of good coffee at my side as I looked out the window over the Santa Barbara coast to the lightening Pacific and considered some of the amazing possibilities.
A lot can happen in nine months. Much of the first trimester, even the first half, had to do with easing the transition, getting ready for the move. Sr. V. needed to go through much material and farewell with many people, but her prime motivation was to make for a smooth transition for her successor, and I am very thankful for her work. I ended up with a collections of papers titled, “The Chaplaincy Code, or What Da Vinci Never Knew!”, which I often refer to for help in getting through and making sense of this Byzantine campus and its constituent communities
The second part of the journey, following the farewell, has been looking at the ecology of the place, thinking and rethinking where chaplaincy might sit and how it might move under my watch. Some of this had meant looking through drawers and files, getting a sense of where we had been as well as where we might go. A lot of it was talking to good co-workers like Libby, Okkie and Agus, Rob, Tony and James, going to meetings with the Body, Mind, Spirit committee of SSG, starting conversations with Angela and Lisse, with strangers on Bowen Street, in the Caf, Library, anywhere really, and simply listening, praying, letting go and letting be.
But the way I finally make sense of things is to write, so I decided to look at how chaplaincy had been written about in the past and then put together a new series of brochures and fliers to articulate who we are and what we are about on campus. In doing this, I realised there were three areas where I saw the chaplaincy taking place.
The first was to identify ourselves as a broad-based resource for the whole RMIT community, not unlike the fitness centre, art gallery, counseling centre or library: helping students and staff connect their educational experience with the wisdom of the major religions and spiritual traditions, offering a variety of resources to broaden and deepen both present educational experience and future endeavors. The second aim was to offer a variety of gatherings conversations lectures, performances that connect the themes of personal and corporate faith with issues of heart and soul, justice and mercy, conviction and community. The third was to follow from this and use these offerings and gatherings to create opportunities for deeper and more personal connections, for pastoral relationships and for personal counseling. As I put it elsewhere, "This might mean offering suggestions for a local worship community or a spiritual home, but it can also mean a cool glass of water or a hot cuppa during a difficult day, simply sitting alongside or standing nearby to encourage people through the trying moments when life closes an old doorway or opens a new challenge".
By all this I don’t’ mean simply “tea and sympathy”, nor is chaplaincy some kind of “Counseling-Lite!” Rather that we try to open and honor a place on this campus where questions of identity and occupation, solitude and community, fear and hope may be articulated and honoured. The great thing is that a cup of tea and a biscuit seem to help the process immeasurably! As an aside, I‘m happy to note that a number of people are being referred to us by the Counselling Centre.
In addition to the initial brochure on the Chaplaincy, we have built, with the able assistance of Kieran Dell, a brochure on the Spiritual Centre, using text from the RAC. Both these, in addition to various fliers for specific programs and series, are gradually covering the campuses and will soon be on the new website which is almost, please God, finished. In addition to this, Libby Austin designed and placed a wonderful history of the space in the glass cabinet on the first floor of the Spiritual Centre. Together with the new brochures, this exhibit points the way to increasing the profile of this great landmark building for the campus and the larger community. I would hope we can increase its popularity for weddings and other transitional ceremonies in the future, but that’s yet another brochure and one more website!
There’s a lot happening in the Spiritual Centre. Continuing from an initial offering last year, Philomena Holman, Lyndon Medina and I are co-facilitating two weekly opportunities for group meditation. “Opening Silence” happens every Tuesday at 3:30 and every Thursday at 12:30. These gatherings are open to students and staff and provide a good place to begin or deepen a meditative or contemplative practise. The response to this has been wonderful. Building on the success we had with our offerings last semester, and with word of mouth, posters and emails, the numbers are growing nicely with a high of over twenty people at some sittings! We are now keeping supplies on-hand for a cuppa and a biscuit following and, again, and this is opening opportunities for pastoral work amidst a growing community of staff and students.
For the last two years my own work in tertiary chaplaincy at RMIT and La Trobe Universities has been partially underwritten by a ministry grant from Bishop Philip Huggins and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. After much groundwork and many meetings over the last year, we received word that the Melbourne Anglican Benevolent Society has approved my work in “Opening Silence” as a suitable tax-deductible designated project. We are hopeful that will be lead to increased funding for the future of this particular offering in the coming year and may serve as a template for future chaplaincy programs in the future. Also with regards to funding, I want to acknowledge and give thanks for the honorarium which I received this year from SSG. This amount, along with the existing funding from the Anglican Church, and with the blessing of Bishop Huggins, has enabled me to give four plus days a week at RMIT for the transition period at the Chaplaincy. I am hopeful that the constellation of funding from these and other sources will allow this level of support for the chaplaincy to continue into the future.
Getting back to the Spiritual Centre, we started a weekly 12:30pm Eucharist in early August, and will be using a variety of nearby clergy including Tat Hean Lie (a chaplain at St. Vincent’s Hospital and RMIT alum) and others from St. Peter’s Eastern Hill as well as other ordained people from a variety of faith communities. Our numbers for these services are small, but I am hopeful that we will gather a community over time. Libby Austin continues to officiate at “Morning Prayer” on Tuesday morning at 10:00 with a group that finds that the weekly gathering of Psalm, Scripture, Reflection and silence wrapped in prayer a good and enriching experience.
I have also begun a multi-faith prayer time on Friday morning at 10:00. This is open to people of any and no particular tradition or belief and is a time of prayerful presence to all people, those who are known to us and those unknown, all who are suffering and in need in the world. This service stands as a template in case of any crisis-situation emerging in the world, whether personal, ecological or political. In addition to these offerings, the Islamic Students are using the Spiritual Centre for their worship every Friday along with a regularly scheduled time for the Christian Union later in the day. So speech and silence, petitions and prayers for all kinds and conditions of people and places are finding a venue at the old Melbourne Gaol Chapel.
It is also a site for an in-class student project! A design studio course, taught by Rochus Hinkel and Tim Schork (who were referred to us by Leon Van Schaik), has some twenty students busily working on ideas, images and models for furnishings, with plans for an exhibit by the end of this semester. A happy benefit of this is that several members of the course are now part of the meditation gatherings.
We’re running some old and new things in the Chaplaincy Centre as well. On Tuesday at 12:30pm we meet for “The Loop,” now known as “Opening Conversation”. It is a time to talk through the most important things: movies, money, politics, poetics, sex, drugs, rock and roll, economics, ecology, education, and taking care of yourself and others. We’re aiming to bring a variety of viewpoints, traditions and tastes together as we discuss some ways and means to make our lives livelier and better and asking people to bring their opinions (and lunch) for some good times together. So far we’ve just had a few people show up, but I think it is important to put the effort out and to let people know that the Chaplaincy is a safe place to discuss some of the more difficult issues. Our topic for next week is, “Is Religion Healthy?” We’re also meeting on Thursdays @ 5:00 to “listen, read, pray, explore, agree and disagree” on “Opening the Gospels!” The numbers here are low as well, but I am committed to follow this through the semester to see if it can gain some momentum.
We had another great idea but nobody came! Jillian Bull (Counselling) and I put together a six week series for Wednesday afternoon called “The Table, the Journey, the Breath of Fresh Air” to help people look for the place where past, present, and purpose meet, but found no takers. We might look to offer it again at another time in the future. I might also offer this format – it comes from an undone book I started several years ago – as a one day retreat at the Spiritual Centre towards the end of the semester. There will be more about this in the coming weeks.
As my time at RMIT increases I am hoping to do more in the classrooms. This semester I will be giving a lecture on Thomas Merton for Des Cahill’s class on Globalism and Religion and will be giving a presentation on “Teaching from the Centre” for “Teaching and Learning at RMIT” as well.
We’ve had a good team in chaplaincy this year. I have mentioned Libby Austin, whose time will conclude in September, as well as James Grant, Robert Miller, Tony Salisbury and the super student assistants, Okkie Tanupradja and Agus Effendy. I’ve spent good times with each of these people and their full mix of presence, prayers, encouragement, criticism, candour, help and humour has made this semester much less of a climb and much more of an adventurous pilgrimage in good company. I am hopeful that the RMIT Chaplaincy increasingly makes sense as a variety of communities, and if that is so, it is because these people have helped to make this ideal more of a living experience. I hope that their ministry has been enlarged and enhanced by our recent work as mine has.
With regards to our chaplains, we are now in the process of regularizing Tony’s status within CCTI’s guidelines and perimeters and increasingly his visibility within the deaf community and on the campus. I am glad to report that James Grant and I are talking about ways in which his new position as the Vicar of All Saints’ Parish, Preston, may help us support a renewed presence for the chaplaincies at the Bundoora campuses of both RMIT and La Trobe University. To look to the future, I have either started or am continuing dialogue with ministers and representatives from Baptist, Buddhist, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Uniting traditions to explore how they might be a part of the mix of resources and offerings sponsored and supported by RMIT Chaplaincy.
In this line, I attended the third annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim conference in July and found it to be equal parts of education, revelation and delight. I am still following through on some of the contacts made during the conference and it is still quite an amazing and rich experience which I think will bear much fruit in the future.
In late September I will be attending the annual meeting of the Tertiary Campus Ministers Association in Perth. I will be giving a talk on Thomas Merton as a paradigm for chaplaincy, and hope to gather information on how various Australian chaplaincies make sense, create community, meet and monitor the various “visiting religious professionals” that are increasingly found on campus. Following this, I will be working to establish a set of clear expectation and norms for visiting religious professionals – Visiting Chaplains? – that are consistent with a multi-faith and multi-cultural environment such as RMIT.
There’s probably more that I could add, but this already far too long for an overview and there are other things to do. I am looking to do a series on Thomas Merton and the Christian-Buddhist connection, we’re looking to start a series on “Spirituality in the Pub” early next year, I am excited about some of the creative connections coming within the larger web of SSG and the greater University, and I am already working too hard and that worries me!
Early this year I saw that one of the thing most prevalent on this campus was simple burnout. So many people working so hard on the edge, as I have said, between creativity and chaos. I’ve looked into that abyss more frequently lately, and it worries me. Too many good people work too hard and too long, it is not healthy for them and it does not model a good world for the students and the communities we serve. Part of what I hope to do in the coming year is to ask question of how we can learn and work and live as RMIT as a whole (holy?) and healthier community. I am not sure how that can take place, so I need your help. Please take some time to consider your responses and ideas on how we can make this place a better place for all of us in our great work together.