Launch of Bernadette T Wallis, Dear Mother Dear Father: Letters Home from John Corcoran Wallis 1927-1949 (Coventry Press, 2019)

The great storyteller, Tolkien in Lord of the Rings records a wonderful dialogue between the characters of Frodo and Sam:

But so our path is laid,’ said Frodo. 

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We only hear about those who just went on…. I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo, ‘but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale.’” [1]

Yes, the tales in which we discover ourselves are unknown in their destination. We surrender to their unpredictable twists and turns as their horizons open before us in new and surprising ways. And the tales we realise have found us challenge us to realise that, in Robert Dessaix’s words we are not simply tourists but travellers.[2] As he writes, the tourist is the one who must follow a prescribed course adding up to something.  But a traveller is someone else. A traveller is someone who allows whatever happens to them tell a story, as we see evidenced in this wonderful collection of John Wallis’ letters.

Dessaix’s observation reminds me of another distinction that emerges in epic journeys – the difference between ‘discovery’ and ‘exploration.’  In The Road to Botany Bay, a postmodern reading of Australian history, Paul Carter sees two attitudes epitomized in the characters of the botanist Joseph Banks, on the one hand, and the seafarer, James Cook, on the other.[3] Carter puts the distinction between ‘discovery’ and ‘exploration’ in this way:

“For, while discovery rests on the assumption of a world of facts waiting to be found, collected and classified, a world in which the neutral observer is not implicated, exploration lays stress on the observer’s active engagement with his environment:  it recognises phenomena as offspring of his intention to explore.  Despite the tendency of most historians to regard the terms as virtually interchangeable, the pleasures of discovery and exploration rest on utterly opposed theoretical assumptions.  The delight Banks took in discovery was summational, a matter of adding up discrete experiences.  For Cook, it was quite different.  To be an explorer was to inhabit a world of potential objects with which one carried on an imaginary dialogue.  And, in so far as they had already been imagined, there was a sense in which the explorer’s most valuable service lay in progressively clearing them away, in allowing the uncluttered space of the journey to emerge in its own right and speak.”[4]

Carter suggests that Banks’ journals are founded on changeless, universal axioms, in which everything had to be catalogued in a predetermined place.  But those of Cook are “nomadic discourse, which, by contrast, engaged phenomena as they presented themselves to his problem-solving consciousness.”[5]

It is the same distinction we see in ‘parades’ and ‘pilgrimages.’ In a procession the route to follow is closely marked out in accordance with tradition, usually according to inherited maps. There are guides to remind the travelers that they won’t get lost or in trouble if they stay within the boundaries of the way that is marked out for them. Pilgrimage, however, is a very different experience.  We move into the wilderness; we stumble into surprise and wonder; our earlier understandings and arrangements are challenged by new experiences of presence and absence; our lives embraced by solitude and new alliances; we find ourselves away from what we have taken for granted and held on to; we are unprepared for some event that rises up to question us, or an unexpected grace; we move on with silence, exclamation, wonder, yearning, watching, listening, waiting.

These are the qualities that the more contemporary Australian pilgrim, explorer and traveller, Robyn Davidson identifies.[6]  She observed of the nomad, as we might of John Wallis himself,

“I watched him out of the corner of my eye. A man unused to sitting still, restless hands, darting eyes. Looking for water, feed, camping places, villages for food and medicine . . . Calculating, observing, comparing, deducing, holding massive amounts of information in the head, juggling it around – the paradigm of human intelligence. This was what nomadism required – resilience, resourcefulness, versatility, flexibility. The capacity to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, to seize opportunities. And to make connections.”[7]

We must learn again the heart of the nomad, the pilgrim, the explorer, the traveller:

“The world is approached as a series of complex interactions, rather than simple oppositions, connecting pathways rather than obstructive walls. Nomads are comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. They are cosmopolitan in outlook because they have to deal with difference, negotiate difference. They do not focus on long-term goals so much as continually accommodate themselves to change. They are less concerned with the accumulation of wealth and more concerned with the accumulation of knowledge. The territorial personality – opinionated and hard-edged – is not revered. Tolerance, which accommodates itself to things human and changeable, is. Theirs are Aristotelian values of ‘practical wisdom’ and balance. Adaptability, flexibility, mental agility, the ability to cope with flux. These traits shy away from absolutes and strive for an equilibrium that blurs rigid boundaries.”[8]

John Corcoran Wallis had all these qualities. He was truly a pilgrim, an explorer, a traveller. And because of this we remember his story, grateful that he never turned back in the tale in which he discovered himself but kept pushing forward. Because of this we need to remember his story. There are, of course, different ways of recalling his story. Biography is one. But what truly brings us to the heart of John are his letters, and especially his letters to those closest to him. Bernadette has, therefore, provided us with a great service in this publication. Not only has she kept preserved what is an important collection of Tasmanian and Australian social and ecclesiastical history, important as this is. More significantly, she has encapsulated for us a spirit that we too must imbibe. 

Because we see in these letters not simply John’s attraits – those inner spiritual attractions about which the French writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade speaks, but the way in which these are weaved together at creating change in the world and in the Church. We think of John Wallis as a pioneer, and indeed he was. The Tasmania in which he ministered was such a different society still characterised by large pockets of isolation. John’s spirit of the traveller and explorer was able to engage the context and look always for the possible, to allow the unexpected to open up new possibility. Our own context is vastly different, but like John, we too stand on the edge of a new era that requires the same inquisitive and imaginative mindset. The Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig in one of his cartoons has a character playing chess. The chessboard rests on both the lap of the player and the sill of a window that opens out to an evening sky. The partner of the chess player is the sense of infinity. In some ways, the issue of our own future is in a similar situation. We have a board that is aligned in a particular manner, just as John, himself, enjoyed, and on our board, like him, we have a number of familiar pieces, each with their own logic and rules of play. Like him, with the pieces before us we are seeking to be responsive to an unpredictable future. We move the pieces in different ways, at different times, and often with risk. In assuming the risk, we know ourselves to be in continuity with our tradition but also in process. This is why our memory of John, and the preservation of his pen, is so critical. His own example teaches us how to weave memory and imagination together into new forms of possibility for our Church and world.

As the late Irish writer, John O’Donohue observed, “We do have a deadening desire to reduce the mystery, the uncertainty of our lives . . . We bind our lives in solid chains of forced connections that block and fixate us . . . Our sense of uncertainty and our need for security nail our world down . . . Each time we go out, the world is open and free; it offers itself so graciously to our hearts, to create something, new and wholesome from it each day. It is a travesty of possibility and freedom to think we have no choice; that things are the way they are and that the one street, the one right way is all that is allotted to us. Certainty is a subtle destroyer”[9] Our memory of John reiterates this to us in a very particular way. It challenges us to pray for his same heart. In one of his last journals, A Vow of Conversation, Thomas Merton quoted from Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, saying, ‘[To be free] is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future’. To this he made comment: ‘Simply to enclose oneself “in the given” is no glory to God. It is an evasion of life and of growth, a hiding of your light under a bushel.’[10]

We give thanks that John Wallis was never content with the parade or the procession, that he was never merely the tourist or the discoverer, that he never was simply encased in the given, but that through grace he preserved the nomadic spirit, exemplified in the symbol of the caravan for which the Missionary Sisters of Service became famous. Like them, we too are in the telling of a tale that we pray will not be forgotten: the tale of a compassionate God for all that is vulnerable and that promises us a humanly unimaginable destiny of communion.  

May our memory and celebration of John Corcoran Wallis lead us into the future of that tale so that it may never be forgotten.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkein, The Two Towers, Part Two of The Lord of the Rings (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1966; first published 1954) 402-3.

[2] See Robert Dessaix, “(and so forth)”, (Sydney: Macmillan Publishers, 1998), 140, 148.

[3] Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay:  An Essay in Spatial History (London and Boston:  Faber and Faber, 1987

[4] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 25

[5] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 28.

[6] See Robyn Davidson, ‘No Fixed Address: Nomads and the fate of the planet’, Quarterly Essay 24 (Melbourne, VIC: Black Inc., November 2006).

[7] Davidson, ‘No Fixed Address’, 41.

[8] Davidson, ‘No Fixed Address’, 49.

[9] John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes.

[10] Thomas Merton, A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988) 24.

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