stained glass


When I was a child, Good Friday was my favourite day of the year.

It was deeply melancholic. A time to ponder death, sacrifice, forgiveness. All the big stuff.

And days like that, steeped as they are in deeper meaning, are rare when you’re an Anglo-Australian born into an atheist household.

stained glass

Back then in country Victoria (and I’m old enough to start sentences with ”almost half a century ago”), the shops and pubs were shut. There was no cheering for your footy team. No treasure hunts for sparkly, foiled eggs at the local park (or at Kirribilli House, I imagine). No cheery ”Happy Easter” greetings.

Everything just … stopped. I didn’t quite know it then, but what I was appreciating was a day devoted to quiet reflection.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was made when I was 10. ”Awww. Truly this man was the Son of Gahd,” is the infamous quote from John Wayne, improbably cast as a Roman centurion.

The movie was playing at the cinema in town and my father wouldn’t take me to see it. In his mid-30s, he had declared himself a ”humanist”. No more Church of England Sunday school for us. It was the end of any religious malarkey.

However, I’ve remained deeply attracted to the tale of suffering and resurrection at the heart of the Christian narrative. Endlessly fascinated by accounts of religion, belief, myth, legend and fairytales from any and every culture.

Yes. I’m one of those pathetic non-believers philosopher Alain de Botton bangs on about.

The sad, godless orphans who can’t pass a church or temple without entering to light a candle or offer a flower.

We sit in abandoned pews or kneeling on woven mats inhaling the fragrance of incense and marvelling at the extraordinary human labours that built such glories to their gods. We’re envious of the belonging true believers enjoy.

And, also, we wonder. What comes next?

Like de Botton, I’m in no need of a god to worship. Not for comfort or moral direction. I’m quite sure about that.

But also, as de Botton says, I do wish our society – one of the most secular on earth – would borrow from the calendars, rituals, oratory and the exhortation to physical action that propelled even my atheist father down to the river to catch a fish for Good Friday tea.

There’s a hunger in this nation for something beyond the gaudy flag-waving of Australia Day. We have been having this discussion for decades. Time to move it along.

Gough Whitlam was a proud atheist. Bob Hawke, an agnostic, declared he learnt this at his father’s knee: ”He said if you believe in the fatherhood of God, you must necessarily believe in the brotherhood of man. It follows necessarily and, even though I left the church and was not religious, that truth remained with me.”

None of our prime ministers of recent times has been overtly religious – apart from Kevin Rudd, who sought the role of kindly vicar. Defeated by nihilists, he would probably argue.

Today, we have the confirmed atheist Julia Gillard and devout Catholic Tony Abbott in opposition. They seem to have made a pact not to offer up their beliefs for popular debate.

But with the election ahead, can you imagine a more riveting discussion from our political leaders? Do you believe in God? Or not? What’s at the heart of it? What’s it all for?

Even the children in the house would draw closer to the television. Beyond the meagre fare of tax, welfare and infrastructure, we’re all famished for such sustenance.

I’ve seen that hunger satisfied at literary festivals, dubbed the ”new religion”, where 400 people gather under canvas on Sunday mornings to listen in rapt attention as much-loved authors exchange ideas and provoke roars of laughter or heckles from the back row. Sermons where the congregation talks back.

I’ve been at Marieke Hardy’s Women of Letters events where almost every speaker, beautifully articulating life’s losses and joys, ends up in tears as the audience sobs in unison.

As host of the the Sydney Festival ”Hope” series of talks I heard the survivors of the Black Saturday fires speak of resilience and I, like everyone present, was uplifted, spirits soaring.

You can see that our children want something more, too, as they flock to Anzac Day in record numbers, drawn by its grand, enduring theme of the ultimate sacrifice.

Halloween is easy to write off as a schlock-fest of lollies and dress-ups but it’s captured our children’s imagination, allowing to them linger on death and mystery. They’re drawn to the US Thanksgiving ritual too, which has more purchase than Christmas in the great American multicultural society.


And so I wonder what we offer our children – apart from the odd ethics or special religious education class in schools?

How do we make the public space for quiet gratitude for this peaceful society, born from such pain and inhumanity? It’s hardly during ”the race that stops a nation”. How do we cease our frenetic activity, stop and give thanks for the ”boundless plains we share”?

This year my municipal council is offering Easter ”vacation activities” at its care centres with visits from ”professional magicians and DJs”, excursions to the reptile park, cooking classes and a workshop on how to create your own TV reality show.

On reflection, I’d rather sit down with my kids to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told.

”Peace be with you. And also with you.”

I’d love to borrow this simple ritual from the Catholic Church where you turn and offer the greeting to the person sitting next to you. Imagine it observed at the State of Origin. Just after the national anthem is sung.

”She’ll be right. I reckon.” It could be our answer to the war cry of the haka.

An expression of respect and reconciliation. Born of suffering. Powerful. Undefeatable. Uniquely us.




Boo! Scream! It’s Halloween

The Humble Art of the Eulogy

What a Priest Knows About Grief


This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and is re-printed with kind permission.


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  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Some great questions in this piece that I have also been thinking of lately.
    I heard you talk re the same topic on ABC radio, but only really ‘listened’ when your idea of turning to one another and saying ‘peace be with you.And with you’. Wouldn’t the world be a better place for this if we adopted such a ritual along with acting and behaving with meaning to support the belief.
    A couple of thoughts… I believe this ritual comes from Islamic roots and ironically the Jewish greeting of ‘shalom’ also means peace, however (and sadly) there is a fundamental flaw between the espoused words and the actions. Which is repeated outside of these religions.
    Despite this observation, from today I will attempt to start a new ritual….an Easter resolution.
    Peace be with you.

    • Reply March 30, 2013

      Wendy Harmer

      And also with you.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Nel Matheson

    Thanks for a great article, Wendy. As always, thought provoking. I grew up in the Baptist tradition, but grew away from religious belief of any kind as I became an adult. Over many years of theological searching, it seems to me that as human beings we have a very real hunger for a spiritual life and we respond positively to ritual. A great cathedral thrills me, not because I believe in an all powerful god, but because of the community of people who congregate there for a spiritual regeneration and community affirmation. It is encompassing, and comforting for those believers. I delight in the Buddhist philosophy, if not the religion itself. It gives me guidelines I find valid, ethical and realistic, but for a wholehearted spiritual experience, I head to a cathedral, complete with organ, choir and acoustics. Failing that, a full- blown orchestra in joyful triumphant noise to give me a lift, spiritually!

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Wendy Harmer has also demonstrated some awesome forgivin’ and forgettin’ on Twitter over the last few days – great to see, and it must have been tempting to do otherwise. At a youth cricket match recently, I was saying to someone else wouldn’t it be amazing if the old-school cricket convention of politely applauding well-played moments from either team was adopted at the football. Can you imagine that AND a bit of peace be with you? I love the idea…a pleasant change to see an article relating to religion which isn’t adopting the fashionable stance of blaming it for everything bad in the world…sure it has its many faults but the idea that it has nothing valuable to say about the human condition is a little overdone lately

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Personally, I think it’s great that our political leaders stay out of any religious debate. We are so lucky in Australia that politics & religion are viewed as two separate entities, unlike other nations. But I do agree that we need a day for quiet reflection, one that has a special spiritual significance for all Australians, regardless of origin or religious beliefs.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    sue Bell

    Knowing there are no Gods at all, I also have no need to enter churches or temples, they mean nothing to me and in fact usually make me angry, the landscape is enough for me. But we do need ritual and times to contemplate. Therefore I suggest we need a wonderful, noisy festival of death and I think Sorry Day should be a day when we can reflect on our relationships to our families, friends community and the earth and make amends to those we have hurt, knowingly or unknowingly.
    Easter reminds me of all the ancient Fisher King stories, people at the mercy of the weather desperately trying to bring forth good crops so they do not die. That is what easter is about, not the death and resurrection of a god figure but the ancient attempt to ensure good crops. The Jesus figure is much more a rebel trying to rid the country of the Romans and to bring about a better far more compassionate society, as an Australian I relate far more to Ned Kelly, a man fighting bigotry, persecution and trying to establish a free Irish state in North eastern Victoria. In the end both men knew their actions would lead to their death and both were prepared to take that action.
    So I will say Happy fertility rite days to all the Hoopla readers and may your gods go with you.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    I’m not a believer but the beauty created by the craftsmen who built the great cathedrals endures and touches the soul. I can walk into any and feel awe. It’s the same awe you feel when you see a giant of the forest or a creature of the sea so I guess that’s the answer. Why the need to invent a God figure when there is so much beauty and serenity to be had in nature itself. And it’s touchable, reachable and concrete – true and uninvented.

    There’s nothing old in our country except the forests and the bible has nothing to say about them. Nothing at all.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Wendy Green

    Alas, Jesus life and death happened so long ago, we have lost the awesome wonder of the meaning of it all. Closer to His existence on this Earth, the grandest and most powerful art, music and architecture – all consecrated to Jesus Christ – were created. All the great composers wrote music dedicated to God, and awesome music it was too! Look at the wonderful art and sculpture works of people like Da Vinci, Carravagio, Michelangelo! What about the magnificent cathedrals and churches around the world already alluded to by others here? In our modern, busy, reckless lives today, we have forgotten what really counts: to recognise that we are not the most intelligent life in all of Creation, which presupposes a higher power, and that we exist to serve one another in love.
    PS Just wanted to clear up something mentioned earlier by HJ – when Jesus initiated the term “Peace be with you” He was using the Jewish greeting, “Shalom”, which means ‘peace’. It certainly does not have its roots in Islam, which came 500 years after Jesus death. Muslims may use the term too, but it’s my understanding that the quote initially came from the Gospels in the New Testament. And Wendy, I like the idea of saying, “Peace be with you. And with you.” at sporting venues. Wouldn’t it be great to spread the love around that way?

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    sue Bell

    A lot of great art and music but let’s face it only the church was employing, private commissions were few and far between. The works were not consecrated to Jesus or God by the artists, they were commissioned to paint them. Look at Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and behind God you can clearly see the human brain. In other words Mick was saying that mankind invented God not the other way around. Faced with starving or painting anyone would chose to continue their art. People were too scared of losing position in society or their lives to speak out, if the church pays you, whether you are a mason, a cook, an artist or a priest in those days you shut your mouth and did the work. Nothing sacred about that.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Sir Brian

    Wendy, your vision of the crowd at the State of Origin giving each other the sign of peace will haunt me forever. Brilliant!

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    helen b

    With you Wendy. We really need to take the essence of the ideals and ethics on which religious dogma has been founded and reclaim these principles within our world.

    Doesn’t matter if you believe in God or are attached to some religious belief system. We need to stop arguing about whether or not God exists. It’s a total distraction from building a foundation for living now.

    The ‘essence’ of Christianity was ‘love’. Unfortunately religious dogma and human interpretations of the teachings of Christ have led away from this essential truth.

    Although I had a childhood of Sunday School and church, my parents weren’t churchgoers. I loved the stories of Jesus and remember the ‘essence’ of those words quoted as belonging to Christ. Old Testament didn’t do much for me, though ‘the stories’ were good. Mind you, I went to a moderate Presbyterian church, so no hell fire and brimstone.

    Late teens, turned away from the church, wondering why everyone kept going to church to hear the same message every week ‘Jesus loves you’. Nothing new there!

    I never related to ‘God’ as some all encompassing entity outside of me. Quite young, I decided ‘God’ was everything in the cosmos, a creative energy which just keeps creating.
    Christ said it ‘God is in you’ (not exact quote).

    My ‘God’ was the earth, the trees, the animals, space, every one of us. etc. The knowledge of Science, Quantum Physics, is to me the explanation that encompasses my understanding of life. However, that doesn’t mean there is no mystical element. Any scientist will tell you that the mysterious, undiscovered realms are the fascination. Why else would they posit a hypothesis (often based on suppostion, unless building on a widely researched topic) which has no direct proof. Where does that hypothesis come from…the imagination, I believe. Einstein would agree with my thinking.

    I also believe, we all have a yearning to feel the mystery of life and a sense of belonging, love and beauty. If we get it in church/cathedrals/gardens/mountains/with loved ones…it’s all good. There’s too many people in the world feeling separated from love and life.

    I think it’s time to get Jesus off the cross and maybe all the people carrying their own cross in the world will feel that little bit better. Every day a resurrection!

    We need to remember that 60’s catchcry ‘make peace not war’! And, as you say Wendy, build it into the culture, into our awareness, into our rituals.

  • Reply March 31, 2013


    On Friday, I heard a lovely interview with Michael Leunig on ABC local radio being broadcast nationally. He talked about suffering, and being persecuted for truth telling and in and from a state a suffering we might still find connection, love and creation if we are not overwhelmed by fear.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    helen b

    Ro, I can relate to what Michael Leunig said, as I imagine you could also.
    But do we keep accepting suffering on this planet as a means of reaching love. I know the Buddhists accept this as a given, that suffering is endemic to earthly existence, that it is how we handle it which can defeat or uplift.

    Transcendence, yes. But I like to think we can transcend without the suffering. I’m an idealist and a dreamer, dreaming in a more kind and loving world. The judgements are, I believe, the big stumbling block.

  • Reply March 31, 2013


    Yip Helen~ suffering is not is not a way I would advocate, but it is a part of life. I have experienced moments of grace in my life which I assume are transcendental~ like awe in nature which have lifted me from one state of consciousness to another. I don’t think we need to suffer to give or receive love today!!

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    Not for me thanks. I am an atheist, always have been (we are all born atheists aren’t we?) and always will be. I am not spiritual or ‘deep’ in any way. No urge to enter churches or light candles or any of those things, they simply mean nothing to me. I just don’t have any patience for any of that palaver so the idea of having a peaceful moment at the footy (haha!) or a day to ‘contemplate’ things would be entirely lost on me, though I do enjoy a day off 😉 religion has been the cause of so much harm and hatred and exclusion, and it still is, so I can’t get behind it very much. I know everyone is an individual but as a group religion can be damaging and I am definitely glad that we are not a christian nation in the sense that the US is. Having god on our currency? Ergh.

    I like looking at pretty things, I enjoy nature, love animals, I think ghost stories are interesting. I reckon the world is a pretty amazing place overall. But it’s all dumb luck, there’s no divine meaning behind anything. It’s just biology. We live and then we die. In between we should be kind, because humanity is gross enough and destructive enough already. But there’s no agenda there, for me. I’m perfectly comfortable with that!

    I’m not sure why we need to teach kids all this stuff. I mean, sure, teach them that religions exist and some people are spiritual and all those things. But not that it is ‘right’ to be deep and meaningful or whatever, or that there is a god. Let them be critical thinkers and make up their own minds. Present them with information and let them grow into whatever is right for them.

    Anyway. I stand fairly alone in this but that’s okay with me 🙂

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    I have had an inspirational easter. I had the privilege to talk to about 300 kids about the Jesus story. I entered into the mind of Pilate and Jesus playing parts and interpreting the story.

    In Jesus time, the church has become staid, irrelevant and hung onto power using the Roman coat tails. Everyone in power was doing quite nicely thank you and did not see any need for change.

    Jesus enters Jerusalem on the biggest weekend of the year, mocks the Romans by riding a donkey (on the same day the Roman army entered with their war horses), then upset good business people making a living in the temple by turning over the tables (not happy church people either), promptly got arrested and killed.

    But, you think this could not happen now!?

    I read the article by Peter Hartcher in SMH on Iraq 10 years. 100,000 Iraqis dead, with our state and church support (or at least weak response). So you think the world has changed then? Could we imagine the headline – 100,000 Australians killed, but it is OK, because we fixed them up – they were a mess!

    If Pilate was here, he would be quite happy with the “Jesus saves me” story. The story made harmless and conceptual instead of threatening social and religious power, supporting the lost and marginalised.

    We need to spend more time each thinking about this story. We have come far in 2,000 years in terms of supporting the sick and widowed and in other ways, have barely scratched the surface.

    The atheist/christian debate which this seems to spark is largely a distraction to the real need and the real story. I am with Wendy.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    Typical redundant Harmer tripe. Who cares about your conjured musings.

  • Reply April 7, 2013


    Kel, you obviously do to come to HER site and to make a comment. Stick to the brain surgery.

  • Reply April 12, 2013

    Ms Behavin

    A little past Easter but I thought I would mention how this easter my daughter (late teens) said we didn’t need to celebrate it as we are not religious. I told her I have always thought it was an opportunity to celebrate ‘new life’ which seems to be the theme. Ok, so in the Southern Hemisphere it isn’t spring, but the good old chocolate bilbies fit the occasion as we need to save them (real bilbies) from extinction and the choccy ones raise funds – I also found save the koala chocolates this year. On a bigger scale, I am feeling more and more that maybe, this planet is ‘Gaia’ and looking after her and those who dwell upon her really should be our mission. Your article and some of the messages here are great inspirations… Lets hope we can find more opportunities to breathe new life into old traditions in ways that do some good…

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