Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Contemporary Monasticism: The Margins of a Spiritual Wilderness
Ok, I think I may have posted this way back somewhere, but felt I should honour the kind award of "thinking blogger" with something I had been thinking about for quite some time. So here we are, a very shortened sound-bite of my MA Thesis that I wrote for the Magazine Third Way last year - pour a large glass of wine before you read, it's not a short post, sorry.
Oh, and another thing - these are the Uluguru Mountains and can be found not in North America, but rather Tanzania.
“The edge does not have to lead to nihilism. If we are careful, it is possible to recognise, accept, even grow from spirituality’s borderlands without being consumed by them…Historically, when the mainstream has been stunted, many look to the fringes for their spiritual life.”
Niles Elliot Goldstein, God at the Edge
THE Portuguese call it saudade: an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul. It’s as good a word as any for what took me out into the Adirondack Mountains of Northern Vermont in 1994. I needed some space to be still and to allow the Spirit to whisper to me through the beauty and solace of wilderness. And as I hiked homeward after two peaceful nights in my sleeping bag under the stars, I had an encounter which has stayed with me ever since.
Heading back towards “civilisation”, I realised that I had miscalculated both distance and time. I wasn’t going to make it back to the highway before the sun went down - unless I left the trail and cut through a larch forest. On the other hand, I didn’t much care for wandering the mountain without light, so I made an instinctive decision. Hurrying off into the unknown, I felt a mischievous, child-like elation at leaving the path. Until, that is, I lost my footing among the trees, tumbled disorientated down a bank, and landed face down in a clearing. Relieved to be intact, I slowly lifted my head to find myself looking into the yellow eyes of a wolf.
It was the most terrifyingly beautiful moment of my life. He was only a few feet away, and as I stared he shifted his head to one side and softly growled, revealing his sharp teeth. Time seemed to stand still – though in truth the moment could have only lasted a few seconds. I genuinely thought it was the end of the road for me. Yet as real as my fear was an accompanying awareness that something profoundly spiritual was taking place. As this stunning creature tilted his head I found myself instinctively imitating his actions. Observing me carefully, the wolf came even closer. He lowered his head like mine, and I experienced what I can only describe as mystical connection. Padding off towards a grove of trees, he stopped to look back once more with lowered head, before disappearing into the forest.
As I lay there, my heart pounding, I felt both shaken and elated. We humans are so temporary on this earth, and yet this wildness seemed so timeless. I realised that for the first time in my life, I felt part of something much bigger than myself.
FORESTS OF NIGHT
It was John Muir, that patron saint of the great outdoors, who stated that, ‘in wilderness lies the hope of the world.’ And if we understand that everything within God’s creation is connected to everything else, then this isn’t some romantic vision, but a prophetic word providing a legacy for a deep spirituality available to us all. The truth is that the great religions of the World have always been nourished in the Wilderness.
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 - with or without the help of a wolf. 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.
In the years since my trip I have become a great believer of questions, especially the ones that take us deep into the troubled places of our soul where we come face to face with our inner demons and resident Pharisees. It’s in this particular landscape of questions that we find ourselves spiritually naked, vulnerable and without our masks. Questions usually bring us to our knees – answers tend to swell our egos.
Yet in church culture the dominating voices make Christian maturity easily available and accessible, appearing to anaesthetise difficulties and hypnotise us into not walking hard terrains. Loneliness, brokenness, and traversing the wastelands of this world have become signs of weakness in many churches. This is more than unfortunate; it is a lie that has caused great turmoil for many tired people. It actually borders on heresy. It was enlightenment, not Christianity, which demanded that we remove the mystery from life and replace it with hard, provable facts. And in any case, it failed.
Wilderness spirituality is not about finding some blue-print that leads to salvation through nature, neither is it about worshipping mountains or hugging trees. Rather it is for those who truly seek the light, but recognise that this can only be found once one is willing to first explore the darkness.
In his extraordinary book on Wilderness Spirituality, Rodney Romney suggests that the image of the wilderness as a metaphor for life has a long tradition, from as early as Moses and the people of Israel to the temptation of Jesus. More than anything else though he challenges the idea of the wilderness always as a place to overcome, seeing it rather as somewhere we both live and learn. “A wilderness is an unexplored place,” he writes. “To the average person that means it is unmapped, unsettled and unfriendly. But every wilderness has its own distinctive markers and its own set of inhabitants. It is neither hostile nor friendly. It is what it is – an unexplored place that challenges and lures us away from the human institutions of civilisation and tradition.”
Part of the problem is that we are conditioned by much of traditional (Enlightenment) religion that these landscapes – the ‘Forests of the Night’ – are places where good, civilised religious people should never be found. Yet a God who was as as civilised as most Christians like to imagine would be useless to Christianity. For God is wild by nature (wonderfully tender also) but he/she is the embodiment of all that is full and untamed from this gift we call life. While God is everywhere by his Spirit, to encounter the full passion of God comprehensively we have to visit the wilderness edge, whether that be the desert, mountains, or deep forests.
Why, for instance, 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.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau left ‘normality’ and moved to the wilderness to live a simple life, free from materialistic complications, and to contemplate the wonders of nature. Walden is the classic account of a man who chose to live on the edges of society, the borderlands - a transcendentalist’s yearning for freedom and spiritual truth. Thoreau once said: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Leo Tolstoy echoes this sentiment: “I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”
Both Tolstoy and Thoreau remain convinced of one thing: that courageous pilgrimage is a must for a deep authentic spiritual journey. The way of the pilgrim is a constant perpetual moving on, a venturing out into unknown territory, where we find the comfort and companionship of God through fellow travellers we meet on the way.
Where do you feel God’s presence most: in a church, synagogue or mosque, or on a mountain, dwelling within nature, and embracing creation? I have been to moving services in many different buildings, built to allow spiritual expression and connection, but my deepest and richest encounters with the presence of God (apart from the birth of my son, Samuel, and my daughter, Hannah) have come while spending time exploring the frontiers of creation.
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 are the love, heart, and creativity of God. 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).
What wilderness does so richly is force us to embrace the present where we become aware of the responsibility to our soul. Not dwelling in our past prisons, and not worrying about a future that doesn’t yet exist calls us to the present, is both psychologically, and spiritually liberating. This practice literally makes room for God from within the cluttered mess of our lives. It was for this reason that I walked into the hills of Vermont all those years ago.
DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
Then as now, wilderness was not the end of the journey. Hitching back into town after my encounter with the wolf, I shared a whisky with a Native American elder who helped me understand what had happened. He listened intently as I retold my story, watching me with the kindest eyes I had ever looked into. ‘I suppose you think I’m crazy?’ I said, after telling him about my moment of connection. ‘Not at all’, he answered softly, ‘not at all.’ In fact, as a hunter of the Huron tribe, he had an understanding and respect for animal life often sadly lacking in Western spirituality. The wolf, he informed me, was known among Native Americans as a seeker of new ways – a pathfinder to new beginnings. He concluded that I had been graced by the presence of the greatest of teachers.
I was 24 years old at the time and whilst I remember being transfixed by his wise, almost prophetic insight, I had no real clue as to what that meant for me. But what I have discovered in the years since my encounter with the wolf 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 learn the spirituality of the wolf: where having gone into the wild, the knowledge and experience acquired is then shared and incorporated into the lives of the rest of the pack.
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. And of course for those of us with children to feed and responsibilities at home, a literal trip to the wilderness may not often be possible. Perhaps we may to find sacred space closer to home to hear the Spirit’s whisper. Either way, spirituality has to reach into those dark places we would rather not visit. Not just the geographic borderlands, but also the wilderness of our soul. The wilderness is as discomforting as it is seductive, but philosophies in isolation are no good to anyone. It is from within these wastelands that we start our journey to spiritual maturity, so allowing a spirituality that will be earthed in the often mundane and broken lives of each other.