Early one morning in December, several years ago, I was lying sleepless in bed at 3am, grappling with issues in life and ministry. Around 3.30am as I struggled to pray, it was as if a divine voice broke through the gloomy fog of my mood and commanded, “Get off your backside and do something!” So I rose and showered, dressed and packed, and at 4am set off to walk 11km from Kew to my office at the Welsh Church in La Trobe St, Melbourne.
It was while walking down the long hill beside Studley Park, just below the old palace of the Catholic Archbishops of Melbourne (now home to one of Melbourne’s business tycoons) that something in me cried out “Lord, I need a staff, a pilgrim staff!” So I stepped into the bush in the early morning light and fossicked around until I found a fallen stick of about the right thickness. I used my foot to break it to the length that suited me and together we rejoined the road and journeyed on.
I later found that the name of that episcopal palace and business mansion – Raheen – means ‘wooden hill fort’ in the ancient Irish tongue. What a great name for the wooden staff of a pilgrim! As I carried Raheen on that first day we had many experiences and insights together as I journeyed through suburbs and places connected with the previous 30 years of my life.
As I walked, the bark around the staff started to crack and break off, revealing that beneath the bark the timber of the stick had been carved in intricate patterns by generations of insects living between the bark and the wood. These patterns are evocative of some of the indigenous designs of Australia’s First Nations people. Is it both beautiful and very meaningful, as the tracks carved into the wood by the bugs that lived there tell the story of their lives from birth until they break through the bark into another realm of existence. It is not only a ‘walking staff’ but also a ‘story stick’ with many life stories woven into its intricate designs.
Raheen now has a silver ferrule on the top, round in shape like the traditional staffs of medieval pilgrims. It has a rubber crutch-tip fitted to the other end, making it reliable for support and steadiness in all ground conditions. It is a talking point with many I meet on my walks, and even on my rowing pilgrimage trips. So if you see an older man, walking the roads and tracks of Australia with a gnarled and scribbly old bush staff with a silver top, hail him and chat about life on the road and the joys of pilgrimage!