November 2018

On having a ‘fallow’ year

After many years in church leadership, 2018 has been a ‘fallow’ year for Sister Clare Condon, an experience she says has enriched her spiritual journey in ways unexpected.

BY Clare Condon SGS

After some years in church leadership I have enjoyed a ‘fallow’ year in 2018. In September, I travelled to Kiribati in the central Pacific for a month’s visit. On the first evening, one of my Kiribati Good Samaritan Sisters asked me what I was doing with myself now that I was freed from responsibility. When I told her I was having a sabbatical year, she asked, “What is sabbatical?” Fortunately, I’d done my own research before launching into the year and could confidently explain what sabbatical had come to mean for me.

I referred back to Scripture. The law of Moses, as outlined in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus, states that every seventh year was to be kept holy and that the land had to remain uncultivated. Whatever grew of itself during that year was not for the owner of the land, but for the poor and the stranger and the beasts of the field. It was also to be a time to release debt.

The law of Moses presumed a stable community of people with a common set of values and expectations – a community who valued their land and possessed a strong responsibility for one another and to future generations and their well-being. The law emerged from a way of life, a way of being close to God, and a way of responding to the needs of each other. The law, in a sense, bound the people together.

How was I to translate such a concept for myself in the year ahead, after some years of deliberate concentration on ministry in our 21st century Australian church and society? What would sabbatical come to mean for me? How was it to become a time to keep holy, a time to allow myself to be uncultivated and to remain still and fallow, a time to respond to the poor and the stranger in a different way, a time of renewal and redirection?

As the year has unfolded it has offered me multiple opportunities to explore new living landscapes, external and internal; time to forgive debts and to be forgiven for debts; time to enter the lives of the ‘other’ and the stranger; time to be the stranger and to reflect on what the messages might be for me.

Earlier in the year I spent some time in remote and rural Australia with the First Nations people at Santa Teresa in the Northern Territory and at Walgett in the Central West of New South Wales. My experiences with Indigenous women in these communities were welcoming and learning moments, especially as the women shared the depths of their Indigenous spirituality and its connection to Christian Gospel spirituality.

At the Santa Teresa Spirituality Centre the women there live a traditional way of life and express their identity with clarity through their paintings and art works. It is in this space that they find some inner peace and self esteem. Their Aboriginal and Christian heritages inform their daily lives in a partnership that is enriching and holistic.

At Walgett over the past few years, a small group of religious sisters and brothers representing the leadership teams of their congregations has met annually for a “Yarning Circle” with Indigenous women of the Central West of NSW and the religious men and women who minister alongside them. This year, Theresa Ardler, a young Indigenous woman from Australian Catholic University, led us in a reflection on the creation stories of both traditions, and then in a reflection on our individual journeys of faith, through the medium of art. In doing this we became aware of similar storylines between aboriginal creation stories and those of the Christian tradition.

These experiences reaffirmed for me that the Australian church community still has much to learn from the First Peoples of this nation. These gatherings reinforced my strong belief that all of us must listen more profoundly to the stories of this land and its original people if we are ever to come to maturity as a society.

Another sabbatical journey took me to Richmond in North Queensland where I had the opportunity to experience the rural ministry of a Good Samaritan Sister. Richmond is a small town some 500 kilometres west of Townsville and serves a vast area of cattle stations. In a town where most of the population has a Christian background, faith is expressed in the daily interactions of family and work. Often it is expressed through survival in harsh conditions of drought and searing heat.

These are a practical people who are close to the land; it dictates their experiences, their livelihoods and their religious beliefs. In the physical remoteness from the major cities, they can feel forgotten and marginalised. For many, Sunday worship is no longer a priority, especially when it means a 100-kilometre journey over unsealed and rutted roads. The great challenge for the churches is to re-think ministry in practical Gospel ways for people yearning to belong meaningfully, but for whom traditional ways of connecting no longer meet their human and spiritual needs.

Although I have been to Kiribati a number of times over the years, this year I set out to spend a month there with my Good Samaritan Sisters. My time there was suddenly cut short. I fell and fractured my wrist and needed to fly home for medical attention not readily available at Tarawa. With that realisation, I became more acutely aware of being the stranger in unfamiliar territory, despite receiving kind hospitality and support.

Even spending such a short time listening to people on this vulnerable atoll in the vast Pacific Ocean I was drawn more fully into my own personal responsibility to care for this fragile home we call earth, within a mysterious evolving universe of God and in the context of my Christian faith.

So this biblical concept of sabbatical has come to enrich my spiritual journey in ways unexpected. The outward journeys of encounter have led to a deepening inner journey, a journey within the unfathomable mystery of an incarnate God. Perhaps it is a journey of keeping the time holy in the true sense of the word. The interaction with ‘the other’ – the stranger – and realising afresh that we are all strangers, has brought new insights, understandings and perspectives, as well as an enhanced appreciation of the richness of diverse cultures and spiritualities, and the common humanity that we all share.

And yet it seems to me, all of this can only be woven together and integrated if I recognise and appreciate my own vocational story, of belonging to a stable community with a set of common values.

On my return from each sabbatical journey I’ve been gifted to be part of a faith-filled community of prayer, hospitality and service – to a community which St Benedict describes as “the school of the Lord’s service”, where “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we [shall] run the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue: 45, 49).

Not everyone has the privileged opportunity to have a sabbatical – but it’s something I’d encourage and recommend highly. And there are simple ways of renewing one’s soul and being enriched by the other and the stranger, of spending time in an uncultivated way. Perhaps it’s seeing long-service leave or annual holidays as time for a short sabbatical rather than simply following the latest travel brochure?

However, as Sheridan Voysey says in a recent article, there is a cost in having sabbaticals and fallow years: lost productivity, lost progress, lost income. But he adds: “When the people of Exodus worry about this, God in essence says, ‘Trust me. Give me the fallow year and the following years will be even more bountiful’.

“We reap what we sow, and our harvest will be small if the soil of our lives is exhausted.”

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence.

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