River of Compassion

Life is a journey by road. On the way we travel the dust is thick and shade is scarce- let us know how to select the best place to halt and bathe our eyes, to shake off the dust that covers us, and to wash our sore feet. - Suzanne Aubert, Directory, p. 125

Walking down the river road with sunshine breaking through the rain clouds and the river swirling, murmuring and sometimes roaring over shallow rapids, felt delightful. I bounded along the tarmac in high good humour, breaking into snatches of song, talking to myself, just your average tramping oddball.

My midday destination lay about 12 kilometres ahead at the tiny settlement of Jerusalem. Rosa had made me promise to visit the Catholic convent and church there.

"Why, in God's name should I do that?" I had asked in Auckland.

"Because you'll find it interesting," she replied with devastating certainty. Then she delivered the knock-out punch. "Besides, I want you to," she added sweetly and bestowed a kiss on my cheek.

So, that was that.

Before I reached Jerusalem, an  energetic Spanish cyclist overtook me and switched down gears to keep pace. "I'm Maximilian!" he cried. He wheeled off to take a photograph and then sprinted back, gears clicking and Lycra-clad legs pumping. A nice connection: we stopped to take a photograph, give me a breather and exchange email addresses. "See you down the trail!" he cried. "Somewhere! Sometime!" I answered.

By the time I reached the signpost at Jerusalem, my fifty-three year-old legs and feet had had enough. I peered dubiously through sweat-speckled lenses up the steep and dusty gravel drive. Somewhere up there was the convent and church Rosa insisted I find.

"God!" I groaned. The things I do for love."

When I reached the car park, I flopped onto the grass verge and took stock. A flight of concrete steps led to a two-story wood-framed building, apparently deserted but neat and trim in its dress of cream paint and simple white-framed doors and windows.

"Food first, explore later," I* thought, prepared to be disappointed. A peanut butter and honey sandwich and a bottle of water restored me enough to creak upwards. The locked door resisted my tug and no-one answered my lonely, "Halloo!" so I walked around the corner.

Next, I found a simple, very clean block. After a refreshing wash of hands, face and feet in the toilets, I wandered onwards to a small rose-scented garden. "The Rosary Walk", I read. Someone had placed a bench inscribed with the words, "Why not sit and pray a while?" by the path.

It felt too soon. As I pondered, relaxing into the peace of this serene place, a plump, elderly Maori lady walked towards me.

We exchanged greetings and I told her about my journey from north to south.  Her brown eyes held mine, looking deep with almost tangible kindness.

To my surprise, I said, "It's turning into a bit of a pilgrimage."

I asked if I could go inside the church to sit awhile.

"Of course," she replied with a small self-contained smile. "It's always open. It hasn't been locked once."

We parted and I strolled along the building's flank. Unusually, you approach it from the rear. The church is sited like a pa or hill-fort and seems designed to take up a strategic overwatch of the all-important river below. The first thing waka paddlers coming upstream saw as they rounded the bend would have been the steeple.

Maori would have appreciated and respected the connection with war. I think the recently-converted chiefs lent a guiding hand to the siting. The founder of the church, the nun Suzanne Aubert, with her intuitive grasp of her chosen people's ways, would have listened.

Suzanne Aubert travelled to this remote back-country from France in 1885 after she saw the river and its people in a dream. For decades, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had vied with each other and with Maori healers to win the hearts and minds of the people. A Catholic priest had smoothed her path by walking over hot coals after his Protestant counterpart refused the challenge. However, Suzanne Aubert- tiny, cross-eyed and devout- cemented the opening. She learned Maori language, traditional medicine and ways. She created a clinic, a school and then an Order of Sisters of Compassion, charged with care of Maori. It is New Zealand's first and only home-grown Catholic congregation.

The people flocked to her and still do. Long-lasting, down-the-generation faith is a mystery to me. However, when I pushed the church doors open and entered that light-filled space, I understood how it can happen.

This church is a holy space.

I've stood in The Vatican and seen motes of dust hang in the air amidst the marble splendour, heard the choir in Canterbury Cathedral, sat for ten days in a row with earnest seekers during silent Vipasanna retreats and chanted "Hare Krishna" kirtans until my throat ached. However,  nothing, save certain wild places, has touched me as deeply as this much-loved church placed on its commanding position overlooking the  Whanganui River.

My skin rippled with goose-bumps.  Sinking onto a pew, I  closed my eyes, folded my hands, breathed deeply, felt tears prickle, and dropped into profound stillness.. The passage of time slowed  and then stopped.

Here was peace for the  weary traveller and I sent a sincere mental message of thanks to Rosa, far away in Auckland and yet so close to my heart,

Here, where I sat by the Whanganui's  flow.

When I eventually aroused myself, I wandered about the church in a happy daze. The photographs, pictures and plaques raised far more questions than they answered. A knowledgeable tour guide would have been handy. In lieu, I took a few photographs in the mistaken hope that I would follow them up later. Then I strolled outside to the Rosary Walk, admired the roses, the statue of Mary and the pictures of her story mounted on white columns.

The lowering sun passed the stinging stage and the road beckoned. I shouldered my pack and turned southward.

Where the road bent to follow the river, I turned and looked back.

The church looked tiny against the green hills. Yet from it, compassion for all weary travellers flowed upstream and downstream, back in time and far into the future, there for all who want to learn how to rest.

The day had started with thinking of the Whanganui as a river of blood and tears.

Now, it had also become a river of compassion,where its current is strengthened by tears of healing.

We parted and I strolled along the building's flank. Unusually, you approach it from the rear. The church is sited like a pa or hill-fort and seems designed to take up a strategic overwatch of the all-important river below. The first thing waka paddlers coming upstream saw as they rounded the bend would have been the steeple.

Maori would have appreciated and respected the connection with war. I think the recently-converted chiefs lent a guiding hand to the siting. The founder of the church, the nun Suzanne Aubert, with her intuitive grasp of her chosen people's ways, would have listened.

Suzanne Aubert travelled to this remote back-country from France in 1885 after she saw the river and its people in a dream. For decades, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had vied with each other and with Maori healers to win the hearts and minds of the people. A Catholic priest had smoothed her path by walking over hot coals after his Protestant counterpart refused the challenge. However, Suzanne Aubert- tiny, cross-eyed and devout- cemented the opening. She learned Maori language, traditional medicine and ways. She created a clinic, a school and then an Order of Sisters of Compassion, charged with care of Maori. It is New Zealand's first and only home-grown Catholic congregation.

The people flocked to her and still do. Long-lasting, down-the-generation faith is a mystery to me. However, when I pushed the church doors open and entered that light-filled space, I understood how it can happen.

This church is a holy space.

I've stood in The Vatican and seen motes of dust hang in the air amidst the marble splendour, heard the choir in Canterbury Cathedral, sat for ten days in a row with earnest seekers during silent Vipasanna retreats and chanted "Hare Krishna" kirtans until my throat ached. However,  nothing, save certain wild places, has touched me as deeply as this much-loved church placed on its commanding position overlooking the  Whanganui River.

My skin rippled with goose-bumps.  Sinking onto a pew, I  closed my eyes, folded my hands, breathed deeply, felt tears prickle, and dropped into profound stillness.. The passage of time slowed  and then stopped.

Here was peace for the  weary traveller and I sent a sincere mental message of thanks to Rosa, far away in Auckland and yet so close to my heart,

Here, where I sat by the Whanganui's  flow.

When I eventually aroused myself, I wandered about the church in a happy daze. The photographs, pictures and plaques raised far more questions than they answered. A knowledgeable tour guide would have been handy. In lieu, I took a few photographs in the mistaken hope that I would follow them up later. Then I strolled outside to the Rosary Walk, admired the roses, the statue of Mary and the pictures of her story mounted on white columns.

The lowering sun passed the stinging stage and the road beckoned. I shouldered my pack and turned southward.

Where the road bent to follow the river, I turned and looked back.

The church looked tiny against the green hills. Yet from it, compassion for all weary travellers flowed upstream and downstream, back in time and far into the future, there for all who want to learn how to rest.

The day had started with thinking of the Whanganui as a river of blood and tears.

Now, it had also become a river of compassion,where its current is strengthened by tears of healing.