Solid rock, sacred ground: thirsting for Mass in the desert

Uluru at night, beneath the magnificent panorama of the Milky Way. Photo: Luke Tscharke
Uluru at night, beneath the magnificent panorama of the Milky Way. Photo: Luke Tscharke

In the last week of July, my wife and I were lucky enough to holiday at the Ayers Rock Resort close to Uluru in Central Australia. Judging from the preponderance of foreign accents among staff, visitors and on the various tours we took, most Australians, (before a visit) think of Uluru as a place they might visit “one day”.

So with our youngest son away at World Youth Day and our other three children either at work or university, our “one day” had finally arrived. Having been there, I would now recommend delaying no longer; it’s a remarkable place and, ideally, one you want to visit while you’re still sprightly enough to take the many amazing walks on offer. Missing these means missing some of the best highlights of Central Australia.

It’s possible to fly directly to the Ayers Rock Airport (Connellan Airport) which is located at Yulara. Then, it’s only a few minutes by bus to the Ayers Rock Resort. Over 300,000 passengers take this route each year. An alternative is to fly to Alice Springs and catch a bus or drive from there, but keep in mind that Uluru is around 460km southwest of Alice Springs.

The resort comprises several types of accommodation catering for all needs and for most budgets – from camping and caravans to basic rooms, right up to luxury accommodation at the Sails in the Desert Resort. But it’s worth remembering that at Ayers Rock you’re in the middle of nowhere and this is reflected in the prices of tours, accommodation and food.

While every Australian has seen countless photographs of Uluru and of Kata Tjuta (still known to most Australians as the Olgas, a set of 36 rock domes located about 35km west of Uluru and often included in tours) it’s often said that no photograph can really hope to do justice to the beauty and complexity of these marvels. It’s true.

The same is true of the extraordinary and otherworldly landscape at King’s Canyon, a mere 306 km (about three hours by car) away and well worth the drive.

In a separate category altogether is the amazing night sky. At Uluru, on a clear night, you will see the glorious heavens visible like you’ve never seen them. In Central Australia there is no denying that “[t]he heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)(NIV).

Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta have a rich spiritual meaning for their traditional Aboriginal owners – the Anangu – and form part of the Anangu law, the Tjukurpa. This law seems to combine, what we would call civil law with custom, spirituality, morality, ethics and religion.

The Tjukurpa not only seeks to explain the history of Uluru’s physical features, together with those of Kata Tjuta and the surrounding countryside but those features are said to provide physical evidence to the Anangu confirming the truth of their creation stories and of the Tjukurpa itself.

In other words, the Tjukurpa creation stories do not just explain physical existence. They also convey important survival skills and are guides for moral and ethical behaviour. For example, the Tjukurpa teaches the proper role of men and of women. Anangu culture has a very natural law and, what might be described by some in Australia today as a binary Cisgender approach to sexuality.

The Tjukurpa identifies Kata Tjuta as a place solely for men and it identifies certain features of Uluru which are specifically for men and other features specifically for women. These features inform the understanding of each sex of their particular roles and obligations. These roles can be seen in the rarely discussed Uluru Bark Petition.

This Petition was created by a group of Elders and called on the Commonwealth government to ensure that the institution of marriage is not redefined and to “honour the sanctity of both the tradition of marriage and the spiritual implication of this sacred union.” (It is accessible at ulurubarkpetition.com)

Uluru was climbed by Anangu males as part of a particular Tjukurpa at the very site where chains were inserted for tourist climbers in the 1950s. Climbing the Rock is still permitted but it is regarded as culturally insensitive to do so and discouraged by the Anangu. We didn’t. It’s now possible to walk around the base of Uluru on a pretty flat surface. The walk is beautiful and takes 2.5 to 3 hours. Unlike climbing, the walk is easy – at least in winter – although the same journey in summer when the temperatures can reach 45 degrees might be another story. Helpfully, two water stations are strategically placed along the walk.

There is also the beautiful and quite-easy walk into the Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta and more difficult walks into the Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta and around the rim of the King’s Canyon. All are highly recommend.

Walking around the Rock, into Kata Tjuta and over the rim of King’s Canyon it’s impossible not to marvel at God’s handiwork. It’s no wonder these physical features of the landscape have such a spiritual role to play for the Anangu people.

They speak deeply and confirm St Paul’s observation in his letter to the Romans: “For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to [human beings], since God has made it plain to them: ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.” (Rom 1:19-20).

In addition to the spectacular physical features of the Central Australian landscape, the beautiful Field of Light – an art installation by Bruce Munro – is presently located in the desert near Uluru. Of extraordinary beauty, it features more than 50,000 solar powered colourful glowing glass spheres; the installation opened in April 2016 and will be on site for a year.

Unfortunately, Ayers Rock is one of only a very few places I have visited in the world where Catholic Mass is not available every Sunday.

When we checked in we were told there was no Church service that weekend. Since our visit, the resort has informed me that they are not in a position to offer a weekly service for any faith, but that that they have a schedule of religious services throughout the year.

Knowing of the large number of visitors to Uluru and the resort, I suppose I just assumed Masses (at least on a Sunday) would be held there. Coming from the University of Notre Dame Australia where we are privileged have daily Mass at St Benedict’s, not being able to attend Sunday Mass was a challenge.

However to help myself put missing Mass into some perspective I thought of the Catholic convicts, soldiers and free settlers in the early days of New South Wales and of the 28 years of polite requests which it took for the Colonial Office in Britain to allow official Catholic chaplains into the colony.

I know that there are people all over Australia and the world who cannot access Mass.

Being in the desert and not being able to attend Mass, the words of the psalmist kept coming back to me: “God, you are my God, I pine for you; my heart thirsts for you, my body longs for you, as a land parched, dreary and waterless.” (Psalm 63:1).

The accommodation, food and staff at the resort were all excellent. The intensity of the night sky, experiencing the indigenous people and their stories and the astonishing rock formations were moving and spiritual.

Attending Mass in such an environment would be powerful. With the hundreds of staff and thousands of visitors each year it would be wonderful for a Catholic Church – or at least a priest – to be at Uluru if only on each Sunday. So unless things change, make sure you check whether a Catholic Mass will be available during your planned visit – or maybe come with a group and a priest.

As Pope Francis observed in Laudato Si’: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love; his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, and mountain: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning: we all remember places, and revisiting those memories do us much good.” [84]

Uluru and its surrounds are now such a place for me. You should visit – not “one day” but today.