Saturday, January 14, 2006

Memories of New Years Day

John Muir, the Patron Saint of Wilderness once said that; ‘There is a love of wild nature in everybody…Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares drop off you as autumn leaves…In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world, the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.’

Just a few days ago on January 1st I, and a couple of mates, went into the mountains for an ice climb to welcome in the New Year. We climbed Blencathra by Sharp Edge which, with its high exposure, is one of the most difficult ridges in the Lakes – throw in Freezing snow and ice and it became a veritable tour de force on a beautiful clear but cold day. I’ve been climbing trees for years but mountains are something else, still, the two guys who were climbing with me weren’t exactly novices.

I was sandwiched in between two Marines, my brother-in-law Craig, a Sergeant, who having served in Bosnia and Iraq (twice) has now called it a day because of his disillusionment with our presence there, and Darren (aka Swifty), who is one of only fourteen people in over a hundred years to be awarded the ‘Stand Hope’ Gold Medal by the Royal Humanic Society. He was given this honour for rescuing a man on the summit of Everest two years ago. Due to head for the summit some time during the following 24 hours his team became aware of someone in difficulty. He sacrificed his chance at the top of the world at 7,600 meters at Camp 5 to save another. It still is the highest rescue that has ever been made on Everest. Suffice to say, I was in pretty good company on the extremity of ‘Sharp Edge’.

Soren Kierkegaard called God ‘the absolute frontier’, believing that it sometimes takes a journey to the wild to locate Him. It's a strange paradox that in the loneliest landscapes, as spiritual refugees, we can find healing by encountering the brokenness within us all. Jesus himself embodied this kind of wilderness pilgrimage – a man of no fixed abode, with nowhere to rest his head, who wrestled with questions and sweated blood.

Why, for instance, (to take another biblical heavyweight) was Moses called to scale the 9,000-foot peak of Mount Sinai on foot before he could experience the abundance of God? It wasn’t just to discuss the weather. The climbing was a profession of faith. Mountains, forests, and even labyrinths function as metaphoric and symbolic holy space of encounter. In their geographic remoteness from the inhabited earth, these places provide a space in which our minds may not be so prone to wandering. Where we empty ourselves of everyday clutter, and are still in the presence of that which longs to draw near. When we drift along the margins we become part of their story – we come face to face with God, closer maybe than a lover – and so consequently we find we can temper our inherent obsession with destination.

For me wilderness matters first and foremost because it humbles us – we realise how very small we are and, more significantly, how incredible and vast the love, heart, and creativity of God is. It also provides the purest of environments to experience a direct connection with God. But maybe even more importantly it provides us with something the Jewish tradition calls Yirah, which translates roughly as awe and wonder. Another meaning is fear. Wonder, mystery, attraction, fear and danger are all vital signposts to the gateway of an awe-filled encounter with God.

It's tempting nowadays to see fear as a negative force rather than a positive one. But the Bible tells us that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalm 111:10) It's a healthy part of life, which we should embrace, because its gift to us is the knowledge of our own insufficiency, and so consequently this sets us on a path of humility (filled with questions) rather than arrogance (where we are full of answers).

And yet wilderness is not the end of the journey. What I have discovered is that a stay in the wilderness should inevitably direct one’s attention outward as much as inward. It is impossible to dwell in the margins without our mystical encounters calling us to the position of engagement – engagement with community.

It was Bruce Springsteen, as he searched the mystery of love, who said that ‘in the end nobody wins unless everybody wins’. The call of the wild is always with certain people, but it only becomes useful when we, having gone into the wild, share the knowledge and experience and incorporate it into the lives of the rest of those who are part of our communities.

It is a Protestant myth that salvation is only worked out individually. We need to get back to inclusiveness, friendships, belonging and community - these are the catalysts for effective spirituality from within our post-modern, post-Christian culture. Spirituality has to reach into those dark places we would rather not visit. Not just the geographic dark wilderness, but also the wilderness of our soul, where our inner demons and resident Pharisees cause havoc. The pastoral needs of faith far outweigh the theological niceties. Philosophies in isolation are no good to anyone.

The wilderness is as discomforting as it is seductive, but I have hunch that it is from within these wastelands that we start our journey to spiritual maturity, so allowing a spirituality that will be earthed in the reality of the, at times, mundane, and broken lives of each other.

So, as we quite naturally pause and reflect at the beginning of this New Year on the issues of the day so, just maybe, we can put more energy into the more cerebral aspects of life. We are by nature ritual makers and there is something profound in that rite of passage that allows us to learn from and let go of the past. I am not talking here about some emotionally charged resolution that will be disregarded when normality once more reigns come mid January. Rather I am speaking of our duty to the wilderness of the soul. It may be time to go back to the drawing board, and begin to reconceive church as a by-product of following Jesus rather than a multinational with a gospel franchise.

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