On my drive to the office earlier this month, tuned to CBC Radio, I heard an impassioned elder blasting Parks Canada’s proposal to make WIFI available in Canada’s National Parks. This bellowing voice declared: “I think it is a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept, and should be eliminated immediately.” As I was listening to the impassioned rant I thought to myself: I don’t know if I agree with this guy but I am definitely drawn in by his heartfelt conviction.
When the rant ended and I learned that the voice was that of Farley Mowat my first thought was: Is he still alive? My second thought was: I’ve got to read that guy again, what passion. As it turns out, he was still alive but now he’s not. He was ranting, perhaps quite literally, until the end. I suppose a guy without those usual filters that screen what comes out of one’s mouth can become a bit tiresome. In the wake of his death I have only heard him as fired up prophet. 
I can’t get Farley Mowat out of my head. I am intrigued by his strong assertion that humanity is delusional. We think we are separate from the entire natural world, we think we have evolved to be superior to all other animals, we think that our self-consciousness gives us some sort of advantage. Mowat insisted throughout his lifetime that this was our great folly, that we are no more and no less than every other living thing. Convinced that we were on a path of self-destruction his hope for the earth was strong: he was convinced that life would continue, long after humans have self-destructed.
Mowat’s strong convictions were born at least in part from what one might call his wilderness experiences: he spoke often about the life experiences that had shaped him. His experience in the infantry of WWII was key. Soon after his return from the War he headed to the Arctic in some longing to connect again with what is true and meaningful. He chose an arctic wilderness and he found it to be just as the wilderness has always been: utterly harsh, trying and ultimately life transforming. It was not an idyllic place, certainly not untouched by the effects of commercialism but a place where his life’s path was affirmed and his truth took voice. It was the place where he became convinced that humanity is delusional about our place.
As much as I am intrigued by Mowat’s relentless convictions, his fired up passion, his rants ‘til his death: the truth is we can only hold on to the passion of someone else for so long. No matter how compelling and inspirational we can only use other people’s wilderness experiences to fire our own convictions to a point. Eventually our own spiritual growth needs to be born from our own spiritual journey. There is a lot that points to the fact that it is indeed in the wilderness that we make the greatest strides toward hearing the inner voice of wisdom that will fire our passion and inform our living.
Our places of wilderness might not look like the Arctic and we might not enter them of our own choosing. Our wilderness might look more like a hospital waiting room or like the bus stop you waited at the day you lost your job or like the parking lot where you sat in the car and wept the day your marriage fell apart, or like the bed sitting room in the seniors home where you wondered who am I now that I can’t do all the things I once did or maybe it even looked like that hollow place in your heart from which you cried out to any God who would listen and heard silence in return.
I know that this is not the season of wilderness, this is the Easter season and it might feel a odd for me to be insisting that we enter the wilderness when we are supposed to be working on resurrection and new life and our doubting Thomas moments with the backdrop of an Easter glow.
We spend lots of time and effort on keeping ourselves out of the wilderness: few of us are like Mowat and choose to keep placing ourselves in those difficult places. That said, we know that sooner or later we will find our way into the wilderness and I would argue we are called to lean into the wilderness far more than we might care to admit.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests this about the wilderness: “even if no one ever wants to go there, and even if those of us who end up there want out again as soon as possible, the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be. Take Jesus, for instance.
- How did he end up there? The Spirit led him.
- What was he full of? He was full of The Holy Spirit.
- What else did he live on? Nothing.
- How long was he there? Weeks and weeks.
- How did he feel at the end? He was famished.”
Taylor asks: “What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to him? It freed him–from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him. After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.”
Our Biblical tradition is filled with wilderness stories. Whether it is Abraham and Sarah heading out of Ur to an unknown future or Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt for 40 years in the wilderness: our tradition tells us that others have been led to the wilderness before and that there is much to be learned there about how God will provide.
The wilderness quest, journey if you will, is of course not unique to the Christian tradition. Certainly it is a rite of passage deeply rooted in the First Nations traditions and in fact is part of the traditions of many cultures in the world. Sometimes it seems more of our choosing and other times it feels like a decisive push into the woods.
I felt that call myself this past winter while sitting in front of my computer screen. I read of a wilderness quest to be held in Washington State on the eastern Cascade Mountains. With a group of a dozen others the quest promised to teach participants the ancient practices of solitude, fasting, council and ceremony….. the experience would include a 48 hour solo trip into the wilderness. So strong was my calling to the wilderness quest that I signed up immediately. I leave in just under two weeks for a land I have never laid eyes on to join a group of strangers and to spend two days all alone in the woods with any number of lions and tigers and bears. What was I thinking?
And now that I’ve signed up I’m rather terrified, not so much of the lions and tigers and bears. I’m not even terrified about the fact that I haven’t gathered any of the gear I need some 10 days out. No: I’m terrified of being alone for 48 hours with nothing to do, no books to read, no e-mails to check, no weather forecast, no glass of red wine with my dinner, no dinner, no children with relentless demands and bedtime snuggles, nothing. And I suppose that’s the point, the reason I have to go because there is something for me to learn about abundance perhaps in the places where there is nothing. Because of course it is not so much the nothing of the wilderness I fear most but the sheer abundance of sound and sight and smell and every sensory stimulus and all of it without a light or an off button.
Sometimes we are dragged into the wilderness from our places of brokenness, from the places where we are sure that our well has run dry and we have nothing give and no interest in learning. Other times we enter of our choosing. I go into the wilderness at a moment in my personal and professional life when I have a strong sense of abundance and hope: it seems a bit counter intuitive. Am I thinking that I need to suffer a bit, to justify my good mood? On this side of the journey to the wilderness my guesses at why I am going and what I will glean are only that, guesses. But I suppose more than anything; I feel the call to go, no more no less.
And now I’m telling all of you about it and my fears related to it and I’d be happy if you wrote me off as narcissistic because that would be far less vulnerable than being transparent and exposed with my fears. As much as we might like to write off Farley Mowat as an extremist, the fact that he never fully removed himself from the wilderness likely has something to do with the passion he never seemed to lose.
To go back to Barbara Brown Taylor: “Our minds are geniuses at telling us that losing our pacifiers is going to kill us, but it’s almost never true. Only you… know what devils have your number, and what kinds of bribes they use to get you to pick up. All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the desert is a great way to practice getting free of those devils for life–not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again.”
I wonder what it looks like for a community of faith to enter the wilderness to begin to let go of all that we use to protect ourselves and to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit to the places where we will encounter all types of uncertainty and temptation. The church has behaved for several hundred years like we are above the wilderness, like we reside in the Promised Land. As church membership declines and those of us gathered here no longer represent the majority point of view of our society we find ourselves collectively led into the wilderness. It might be that the Spirit is endeavouring to place us in the places where we might be broken open to possibilities beyond what our minds can conceive, to break us down that space might be created in our hearts for the new thing God is doing.
I don’t tell you about my wilderness journey for your praise or even your good advice: I tell you of it so that you will know I’ve gone and so that you will be so bold as to ask me what I found there? That I might be accountable to you, my spiritual community, upon my return to share the insights and the questions and all matter of scary and profound things. I tell you about my wilderness journey that you might know that even I am scared. I might return from the wilderness empty handed: what if I fail at the wilderness, what if I don’t learn a thing? Could there be anything worse than willingly being led by the Spirit to the wilderness only to come out empty handed? Will I find my inner Farley Mowat or my inner Ghandi? I don’t know really, all I know is that the stories we tell in this place insist that no one returns from the wilderness the same. And that I shall trust, even if I can’t believe.
In some small and humble way it is my hope that whatever wilderness you are in, or facing or will come your way: that you too might risk the vulnerability of naming your fears and walking face on into the wilderness. It is my hope that you too might know that the spirit that leads you into the wilderness will never, ever abandon you there. Amen