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Giving thanks for the Mystery

Jenny Brinkworth  |  18 February 2020

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) may have robbed Dr Michael Bowden of the ability to speak, but he still has something valuable to share with the world from his research into the spirituality of the Arrernte people in the Northern Territory.

Before Michael Bowden was conferred with his PhD by the University of Divinity at the Glynde Lutheran Church in Adelaide in December last year, he gathered with his family and closest friends for what he called ‘A Celebration of The Big Circle’.

The former Richmond footballer, Catholic school teacher, Indigenous educator and father of seven had drafted his ‘final lesson plan’ to bring the people he loves into ‘his world, his circle’.

Four of his sons – Sean, Rhett, Kane and Joel – gave reflections of what they had learned from their life in the Bowden family circle and his only daughter Majella read a poem she wrote.

Proudly donning his graduation gown and cap, the 72-year-old was silent throughout the moving ceremony. You see Michael can’t speak any more. A year ago, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. His wife Judy wasn’t in the circle. She has dementia. As her friend Carolyn Nunan said during the ceremony, Jude now lives in the timeless.

So devoted to caring for his beloved wife for the past five years, Michael refused an invitation to watch Richmond win the 2019 AFL Grand Final. He was a member of the 1969 premiership team and three of his sons played for the club, including Joel who notched up 265 games.

But football was far from Michael’s mind as he gathered in the circle that ‘has no beginning, and no end’.

Christ among the Mparntwe Arrernte
His focus was the journey of discovery that began in 1983 at Ernabella in the far north-west of South Australia where he was employed as a community adviser, and culminated in the completion of his thesis Searching Altyerre to Reveal the Cosmic Christ.

His understanding of Altyerre (Dreaming) – the creation of the world and the things in it, and its eternal existence – developed when Michael went to work with the Mparntwe Arrernte people of Central Australia in the Ntyarlke Unit of the Catholic high school in Alice Springs. Here he was introduced to the Ngkarte Mikwekenhe Catholic Community (NMCC) connected to the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) Church.

‘As I taught the teenage children of these NMCC families I was slowly introduced to Altyerre, although at first I was unable to identify its true character’, Michael writes in the acknowledgements for his thesis which was undertaken through the Yarra Theological Union, a member of the University of Divinity.

His understanding deepened through his association with Sr Robyn Reynolds OLSH who ‘accompanied me’ since 1988 in working with Arrernte Catholics of Alice Springs and was one of his supervisors for the thesis. 

He also gave thanks for his children – Sean, Rhett, Kane, Joel, Patrick, Majella and Charlie – ‘the greatest gifts of our lives’.

‘As both Jude and I now suffer terminating illness they have tightened their loving embrace of their Grizzy boy and Nana Jude wonderfully so that today the whole family (with the exception of Charlie who is committed to his own children in Melbourne) are now living in Darwin with us.’

Michael wrote his thesis while living in Alice Springs in a granny flat on the property of his daughter Majella, her husband Gordon Mallard, an Arrernte man, and their three children, Rashanna, Levi and Toby. Majella assisted him throughout the process and helped care for Judy who lay on the bed behind him as he sat at the computer.

Michael saved his final thanks for Judy.

‘My most beautiful wife Judy has travelled every kilometre of this journey’, he writes. ‘There is absolutely no doubt that the people who know us both and are mentioned in this thesis all love her in a deeply special way because she is simply the most honest person they have ever met. Every day she makes me a better man, thank Mystery.’

A gift to the world

‘Thank Mystery’ is Michael’s unspoken sign off for most things these days. In his thesis he refers to the ‘Mystery of the Cosmic Christ…the fleshed and ever alluring presence of the divine in the cosmos from its inception’. In other words, ‘Mystery’ is God. 

The aim of his thesis is to show that Altyerre in the hands of the Mparntwe Arrernte (the Indigenous people of Alice Springs) ‘has organically absorbed key elements of the Catholic imaginary into its own imaginary so to produce Altyerre-Catholicism, a world-view or imaginary that satisfies the need for finding meaning in existence, a faith to live by’.

‘Altyerre-Catholicism in the way it is lived is a gift to the Catholic Church and to the world’, he writes in his conclusion.

‘And in a manner beyond even the best of Charity known to Christians – despite Invasion, dispossession, marginalisation, impoverishment, incarceration, and the sad dismissal of their gifts by White Australia – they continue to offer this richness to anyone and everyone who walks up to their open front door. All can be One in the Cosmic Christ!’

Before Michael lost his speech, he took part in a MND fundraising bike ride, an event he founded to raise money for other charities while teaching at O’Loughlin Catholic College, Darwin, where his son Rhett is now principal.

At the time, he was still cycling up to 25km some days and in a local newspaper article he insisted that while MND was a life sentence ‘it mustn’t stop you from living’.

‘Don’t go to bed, don’t lie down – get out, and live the best way you can, for as long as you can’, he said.

With Michael planning to turn his thesis into a book to ‘make it more available without all the academic flourishes’, he is showing no signs of giving up on this mantra. The circle continues…


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