When Gael Donaldson-Stiff came to NSW from Western Australia to be the Anglican Rector of the Parish of Wauchope, she never dreamed that within 18 months she would be running a health food shop. Chrissy Jones chats with Gael about her spiritual journey.
>Tell us about your life as a woman Priest Gael …
I was trained and ordained in Bunbury, in the South West of WA, and was the fourth woman ordained in that Diocese.
If I am honest I will admit that I always struggled with being a woman in what remained a very patriarchal institution. I remember the Priest who supervised the first part of my training telling me that, although he recognised my call, he could not agree with women’s ordination as the Anglican Church was not prepared to make the radical changes necessary to give women an equal place in ministry.
He was a wise man and many times I found myself acknowledging the truth of his words. There was always the sense of having to work so much harder, to achieve more, in order for one’s ministry to be accepted.
It was very important for me to be a WOMAN Priest. I believed that if God called women to the priesthood, they were not called to act or dress like men. I continued to wear my hair long and put on my makeup. I hated the dog collars – men’s shirts shaped a bit to fit women. Thankfully, in time some feminine shirts found their way onto the market.
> Did you enjoy being a Priest?
Yes I did. I was blessed to have been involved in two successful church plantings and another opportunity to regrow a parish in areas where there were lots of families and children. One of the very positive things about Christian community is the feeling of being one big family. It was lovely to have parishes where ages ranged from 0 to 90s.
As time went on, I acknowledged to myself that the business of ministry was hindering my own spiritual growth.
> What inspired your Celtic spirituality?
I was very attracted to Celtic spirituality, which was enjoying renewed popularity in Christian circles through the work of the Iona Community in UK. After a great deal of searching I found an Arch-Druidess with Christian beliefs, who is taking me through a three year course in Celtic spirituality.
This was the most wonderful experience and I was forever changed. I have always loved trees and flowers and birds and animals. The Celtic way connects very deeply with the entire created world. We are encouraged to acknowledge the life in all things and to show that life great reverence and respect.
We live our lives in harmony with the hours of the day and the cycle of the seasons. We also recognise the seasons of our hearts – it may be Spring all around but in our hearts we may be going through Winter, a time of things ending and dying. Thus we are gentle with ourselves and acknowledge that this is not the time for using lots of energy or celebrating.
> What is the Celtic way?
A very balanced and whole way of being and worshipping. One of my greatest challenges has been to embrace a ‘whole’ view of the one we call God. In Celtic spirituality God, who is neither male nor female, is often acknowledged as Mother, as all of creation is born of her.
After years of calling God ‘Father’ this was very alien to me, but in time I came to relate to the Divine as both Mother and Father, thus bringing balance and new dimensions to my worship and understanding.
> How did you come to live in Wauchope?
We were living in Perth by this stage. My husband was unwell and we discussed moving to a country town where I could spend the last 10 years of my ministry and then retire.
When we saw Wauchope we fell in love with it. We loved the mountains, the forests, all the beautiful birds and the sub tropical climate. So we came to Wauchope and the town fulfilled its promise. We loved it.
We did the tourist thing and travelled up the coast and really loved all the pretty towns and beautiful beaches. I was ready to embrace my ministry and be happy.
Then my husband had an operation for cancer. The operation went wrong and he was very ill. Eight months later he is still very unwell. We found ourselves turning to alternate therapies during this time and were encouraged to see improvement in some of the more serious of his symptoms. I think it is a common experience for those who have had a brush with death to evaluate their lives very seriously.
I was struggling to give the parish what it needed during this time, as issues were arising that needed to be dealt with in the immediate future. I also continued to struggle with the patriarchal culture of the Church.
By this time women had been made bishops, but I could not see that we had made any progress. I was still hearing objections about the length of my hair. I was being encouraged to deal with the issues in the parish in a patriarchal ‘top down’ manner.
I could not do this and felt out of balance and unwell. I recognised that the unthinkable was happening and that I was beginning to consider a life outside the Anglican Church.
> How did your new venture come about?
At what should have been the worst time of my life, I experienced great grace. I was able to make this difficult and painful decision – even more painful because of the hurt I knew would be felt by some of the lovely people in the parish. I withdrew at this time, but I never felt alone. I knew God was with me and that angels guided me each step of the way (the angels are very important to those who follow the Celtic way).
My husband recovered enough, after going to a health retreat, for me to consider another career. The health food shop in town was for sale. I thought of the spiritual life that was now so important to me, that of living in balance and harmony with creation and looking to the natural world for health and healing. There was no other industry that would have suited me better.
> What do you love about your new role?
Since taking over the shop I feel overwhelmed by God’s grace. I feel blessed to work among the good fruits of creation. I love the smell and textures of the essential oils and the organic fruits and the herbs. It is wonderful to hear testimonies of how small changes in diet or lifestyle have caused big changes to a person’s wellbeing. I think of all of the wonderful things that were created for our good, so many of them from our own abundant country, and I constantly give thanks to the One who made all things so well.
It is good also to be involved in selling organic goods. I think people are sometimes afraid to come to a health food shop in case we try to persuade them to become vegetarians or to give up the things they enjoy. That’s not, to my mind, what we’re all about.
We want everyone to enjoy their food – and organic food tastes wonderful. However, we want to encourage our customers to consider the ethics of what they eat. If we’re going to eat animals, let’s consider how those animals are farmed. If we’re going to eat fish, let’s try to eat line-caught fish, which is a sustainable way of fishing that will ensure survival of the fish species. If we eat sweets, enjoy raw chocolate that hasn’t been processed.
All this calls for changes to how we shop and cook, but it’s win/win. We end up healthier, eating great food and our long suffering planet and its plants/animals benefit too.
> Your vision for the health food shop?
Wauchope Wellness, (the name I gave to the shop), is to offer the spiritual dimension as well as the physical. In the past I have led courses on Spirituality and more particularly Celtic Spirituality. I’d like to do that again, not as part of a church, but as a part of a group of people who want to live wholly and joyfully as God intended.
However, at the moment there’s hardly a spare moment. There is lots to learn, there are customers to get to know and there’s a whole new way of life opening up for me. I’m very much a dreamer and a visionary. I could think up all sorts of possibilities for the future, but at this point I realise that it’s more important to be in the present and grow through this new experience.
Whatever the future holds I am confident that I will not be alone on the journey. In the words of a very popular hymn …”Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will see me home.“
> Thank you Gael.