Friday 4 September 2015

Reminders of Eternity

Prophet of meaning (“Mr Eternity”) Arthur Stace, caught in his nocturnal round.  Decades later, Ignatius Jones echoed the call.

As a boy growing up in Sydney, I remember going to town with my father and finding the tell-tale tag of the mysterious “Mr Eternity”.  Arthur Stace was a reformed alcoholic who wanted to remind his fellow-Sydneysiders of their ultimate destiny.  For forty years, until dying in 1967, he chalked that word Eternity in beautiful copperplate script on the streets of Sydney – perhaps half a million times.  I saw that word on countless street-corners and in many a stone doorway.

That iconic image returned to Sydney during the millennium celebrations when, on that New Year’s Eve, we saw it writ large in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  That fiery logo was the brainchild of one of the College’s most creative alumni, Ignatius Jones.  He, together with current parent and opera diva Amelia Farrugia, entertained us at last week’s Masterclass Luncheon.  Amelia was fresh from New York and interstate engagements.  Then, following snippets of his musical and acting history, our Ignatius shared visuals of his inventive creations for both the Sydney and Vancouver Olympics ceremonies, the Shanghai World Expo, and his fantastical displays for Vivid Sydney in recent years.  But it is that Eternity emblem, drawn from Arthur Stace, which stays with me.

Stace had once heard a revivalist evangelical preacher cry “Oh for someone to write Eternity on the footpaths of Sydney!”  Arthur Stace recalled saying to himself, “Here is something I can do for God.”  To discover that “what I can do for God” is the task of all discerning seekers of meaning.  To refine that discovery, St Ignatius posed similar questions in his Spiritual Exercises: “What have I done for Christ?  What am I doing for Christ?  What more can I do for Christ?” he asks the retreatant.  Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was later to write “Each mortal being does one thing and the same . . . crying What I do is me; for that I came.”  The ‘what I do is me’, is our uniqueness, our personal calling.  We call education a ministry of meaning.  A teasing out of who I am, of what I am called to be.  Those prayerful considerations of Ignatius and that naming the “one thing” of Hopkins, steer us in that long search for meaning.

There is such an immediacy in our current culture.  Instant fixes from fast foods to fast travel.  Credit cards that boast “taking the wait out of want”.  Condensed degree programmes that mitigate against reflection and a savouring of the process.  Truncated childhoods projecting the young into adult worlds all too prematurely.  Almost as a counter to this, a prayer of the mystic palaeontologist and Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, begins

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

But, he goes on:

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

At Riverview we believe in such a long-term vision – being “in suspense and incomplete”.  Taking time.  Most boys and many parents are tempted to think that the end of schooling is the HSC, or a maximized ATAR.  But these are not ends in themselves.  They are beginnings.  Schooling is a means to an end – to Eternity, as Arthur Stace reminded a former generation so often.

Yes, I hear you say, that is an ideal.  It is what a Rector would be expected to say!  Yet our end is with our Creator God in heaven.  But that is not simply some other-worldly pie in the sky.  The Jesus of the Gospels told us that “the Kingdom of God is among you.”  It is here.  This is where Eternity begins (if, indeed, Eternity can have a beginning).  This is the expansiveness of God’s vision, the scope of God’s invitation.  This is why, like Stace, we are called to seize upon that something we “can do for God” – and, by implication, “can do for others”.  Right now.

In his reminiscences of Riverview in the 1970s, Ignatius Jones recalled how limited in resources we then were, and perhaps a little starved of matters artistic.  If you wanted to learn the trumpet, your only recourse was to join the cadet band.  The stage was limited to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  It was all starting to sound a little bleak.  But then Ignatius mentioned the two most important Jesuits in his life, one who taught classics and the other debating.  They pushed him, he said, to ask the “Why?” questions.  To see things from a different angle, from a alternative perspective.  To probe, to test, to reflect.  The first steps, really, on that search for meaning.  That quest for the things that last.  Not the transient, but that which stands the test of time.  Pointers to the Eternal One.  To Eternity, of course.

Fr Ross Jones SJ