Awakening the Sacred through Literature and the Arts Conference
Published: Monday 31st July 2017
Conference speakers Fr Laurence Freeman OSB and Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr.
The Awakening the Sacred through Literature and the Arts Conference was the fifth in a series of conferences presented by The Sacred in Literature and the Arts project since 2012. It was possibly the most successful, with around 220 people attending on Friday 7 July and 150 on Saturday 8 July.
Michael Griffith, in conjunction with the Australian Christian Meditation Community (ACMC), curated an extraordinarily rich array of speakers, artists and musicians. The conference opened with a meditative conversation between Fr Laurence Freeman OSB (director of The World Community for Christian Meditation) and the Aboriginal Elder and artist, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, a conversation between Turvey Abbey and the Daly River, the ‘monastery without walls’ and Dadirri, the spiritual dimension of Aboriginal culture.
Fr Laurence led daily meditations and also spoke on literature and the sacred (including references to Emma, his favourite Jane Austen novel, and Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence). Miriam-Rose reflected further on the importance of deep listening and quiet awareness in relation to her art practice and guided participants through her acclaimed series of paintings, Australian Stations of the Cross, which was showing in the McGlade Art Gallery.
The Gallery also featured 13 works by Michael Galovic, Australia’s most prominent iconographer, and recent ACU-graduate, Chelsea Adkins, both of whom introduced their work. Sasha Grishin, emeritus professor at ANU and internationally recognised art historian, critic and curator, launched the Awakening the Sacred exhibition and, on the following day, presented an enlightening paper on Russian and Byzantine icons and their influence on early 20th century Russian artists.
David Tacey, emeritus professor at La Trobe University and author of many books on spirituality and the sacred, offered an engaging spiritual reading of the work of American artist of light and space, James Turrell, with particular reference to his structure, Skyspace, at the Australian National Gallery.
Michael Griffith brought Australian poetry and painting together as an expression of the sacred in his paper, referencing Francis Webb, Judith Wright, Brett Whiteley and William Robinson, while award-winning broadcaster Rachael Kohn explored the exceptional contribution The Spirit of Things has made to Australian conversations about religion and the sacred over the last twenty years.
But the sacred does not reside solely in words, images and silences. Maeve Louise Heaney and her musicians, supported by the ACU Sydney student choir, conducted by Cate Gilpin, brought music and theology together in her lecture / performance on Friday evening – a much appreciated coming together of body and soul.
The conference ended with a spirited discussion on the role of universities in relation to the sacred, sparked by David Tacey’s observation that talk of religion and spirituality was anathema in so many universities. ‘Where would students who were interested in such matters go?’ he asked. ‘ACU’, was the immediate response. ‘And ANU’, Sasha Grishin chipped in, in relation to religion and the visual arts.
ACU’s commitment to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, underpinned by an appreciation of the sacred in life, was demonstrated in this conference and its predecessors. Their international significance is attested by the 2017 Oxford University Press publication of a special Australian issue of Literature and Theology (edited by Michael Griffith and Elaine Lindsay) which showcases some of the best contributions from the 2015 Grounding the Sacred Conference. The issue can be viewed here.
The 2017 conference could not have happened without its many volunteer planners and helpers, including Campus Ministry and members of the ACMC; Michael’s students and family; Mark Trevithick, Phong Lam, Tak Thapa and Netra Burathoki (Facilities Management); Duane Cabasal and Tan Nguyen (IT) and much appreciated support and encouragement from Professor Marea Nicholson, Associate Professor Patrick McArdle and Professor Anne Cummins.