Finding the high way



In our society ethical questions such as those to do with marriage, crime and punishment, the beginnings and endings of life and freedom of speech are often 'highway' issues. Protagonists establish in advance the right way to go, keep their foot down and their eyes on the road without noticing the terrain the highway traverses. Road signs indicating another destinations or alternative routes are ignored and towns by-passed. Certainty is gained; understanding of country is sacrificed. 

xxxxx Ethical reflection can also be done by taking the tourist route, preferably by bicycle. The signpost promises leisurely travel. In practice the route is demanding. The road plunges off the ridge, down creek valleys and up steep hills. Although it preserves cyclists from speeding cars it puts them at risk from inattentive drivers looking at the scenery. But drivers hurrying on business drivers inattentive to the road and to cyclists. But through calves, eyes and ears the country and the ways people live there do leave a fuller understanding both of land and of what it means to live there.

It is the difference between a thick and a thin experience. One looks for defined instructions, sharp boundaries between safe and risky and between the direct and the circuitous, quickness and firmness of judgment and a clear route to follow that cuts through possibility. It is about ending possibility in the interests of certainty.

The other is interested in exploration, in human complexity, in the way in which highways came to be where they are, the experience of exploring other paths and of other lives, in comparing routes. It is about conversation that explores possibility.  

The Attachment, a selection of letters and email messages between writer, actress and adventurer Ailsa Piper with Sydney priest Tony Doherty is a fine advertisement for the tourist route. Its beginnings lay in Piper’s reading of a medieval practice in which pilgrims agreed to bear others’ sins on their walk, so freeing the sinners from their burden.

Piper, who has no church allegiance, was fascinated by the idea. She issued a public invitation to people to share with her burdens that she could bear them while walking on the Camino. She was astonished by the response, and later wrote a book about the project. Doherty, a Catholic priest, read it, found it illuminated his own pastoral experience, and dropped Piper an appreciative note.   A regular exchange of emails followed, and developed into a friendship that generated this book of email messages.

The conversation touches on many topics: their upbringing, ancestry, and life experiences; their respective love of swimming and walking; their shared delight in reading and shared care in the use of words, appreciation of cooking, good food and conversation. It also explores their different responses to such issues as sexual abuse in the church, clerical celibacy, relationships, religious faith and death. Death could hardly be avoided; in the period covered in the book Doherty’s brother and Piper’s husband died.

The conversation between two serious and lively people is notable for its openness and playfulness. It is an account of conversion—not in the narrow sense of the dramatic switch of adherence and judgment at the behest of the other partner, but a shared conversion to a grateful appreciation of the richness and complexity of all reality and of the inadequacy of words to comprehend it.


"What is lacking is leisurely shared exploration of the complexity of the relationships involved in all these issues, the part that our personal experience plays both in shaping and in narrowing judgments."


It is a study in friendship. The tourist road they took clearly had its frustrations as well as its delights, but both were essential in the growth they made.

The quality of their conversation illuminates by contrast the highway approach to disputed issues prevalent in our society. Here there is a rush to judgment, to defend opinions strongly and to assault opposed views about Muslims, the Catholic Church, gay marriage, bankers, freedom of expression, the balance between freedom and responsibility, and about young people in trouble with the law or about the economy.

What is lacking is leisurely shared exploration of the complexity of the relationships involved in all these issues, the part that our personal experience plays both in shaping and in narrowing judgments, and recognition of the inadequacy of words and formulae to do justice to the mystery and interconnectedness of reality.

The Attachment is a hymn to detachment. This is usually understood as a lack of passion, but more properly it is the freedom arising out of wonder at the richness of reality that makes one free to resist the temptation to hasty judgment. It privileges exploration over repetition of recipes, engagement over dismissal, conversation over shouting, truth over certainty, reconciliation over exclusion, and reflection over barracking.

These are the qualities needed in public conversation about the issues that divide us and our society


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ethical questions, thick and thin experience, conversation



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Existing comments

In our unethical society ethical questions such as those to do with marriage, crime and punishment, the beginnings and endings of life, and freedom of speech are not asked. Protagonists establish in advance how they can get away with it.
Len Heggarty | 27 July 2017

Thank you Andrew, from someone who grew up in a black and white world. Grey did not exist in the 50s and 60s in my home. We girls were told what to do, what to learn and what our life would be. And we were programmed for obedience to parents and of course, others first, self last. The high way was the only way. Now, I read and wonder what might have been possible. I am grateful to you and Eureka Street. Thank you.
Joan Daniel | 27 July 2017

Thks Andrew, I heard a snippet of their recent interview on the radio. Your article captures the insights from their relationship so wonderfully well! As with all gems this 'article of wisdom' will be circulated to the family. many thanks
John | 27 July 2017

All the time while I was reading this article I was thinking about the highways & byways that Pope Francis traversed on his way to the Papacy - a destination I am sure he never intended or ambitioned. But how well they conditoned him for dealing with the challenges of life on planet Earth in the the 21st century.
Uncle Pat | 27 July 2017

Interesting. From another specific 'church' perspective there is the Catholic Life Survey 2016 local analysis that has just been made available to the church I attend. Eucharist is the top value for some 60% plus of the people who belong to the church. There is a daily Eucharist early in the morning which is over within 25 minutes. It would be worth tracking us as individuals as we go on our way into the wide world.
Noel McMaster | 27 July 2017

Father Andrew, what you write today is sacramental. In placing human experience within the context of the frequently experienced and taken for granted activity of touring through God's creation, it emphasises the presence of God all around us - like all other sacraments.
john frawley | 27 July 2017

There is no Highway so enticing as the Pathway up the Mountain of God. Once awareness of it’s attraction is aroused, determination to proceed can overwhelm most other considerations, even the duty of care for fellow travellers , especially if they have a different interpretation of the way the path should lead. The impetus to move on can cause us to overshoot the mark, unless we take the time to free our vision of traditions that were useful in less enlightened times, and have never been updated to reflect present understanding of the complexity of life situations. We occasionally need the leisure and freedom to regularly upgrade our values and priorities.
Robert Liddy | 27 July 2017

Thank you Andrew Hamilton for this review which I will share with others. Now the book is a 'must read' for me - a reflection of what life is about. 'The other is interested in exploration, in human complexity, in the way in which highways came to be where they are, the experience of exploring other paths and of other lives, in comparing routes. It is about conversation that explores possibility.'
C. A. Choo | 27 July 2017

Both Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty are well educated, extremely literate and successful so I am not surprised that they struck up the friendship they did. I must confess reading a book on walking the Camino, by anyone, from whatever angle, would put me off as I think the whole 'pilgrimage' deal, unless it's by a Westerner to somewhere like Mt Athos or Valaam, which takes you right out of your comfort zone - which may have happened to Ailsa - bores me. I think there is a danger that all these sorts of conversations about religion and life between good, decent educated people can end up sounding a wee bit twee. One of the great things about being somewhere like Chartres is that, even if you come as a tourist, is that there is something about a place that has seen 900 years of continuous worship that renders you silent. It is a blessed experience to go beyond words, not to some cold, remote Nirvana, but somewhere warm and loving where you feel contained. It is an intensely Christian experience. After that, you cannot express it in words. Thank God. We need more Silence of this sort.
Edward Fido | 27 July 2017

Fr Andrew, you have (again) so masterfully articulated the realm of "possibilities" that evokes wonder, mystery and awe ... no highway for me thanks! Beautifully written, you have piqued my curiosity (again) to read this book ... thank you God for Fr Andrew's soulful mind.
Mary Tehan | 27 July 2017

Thank you for this illuminating and engaging review.
Sue | 30 July 2017

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