Friday, April 27, 2007
this was my prayer, my moment with the Almighty this morning...
When were you last slapped,
hard in the face,
out of the blue,
so you were stunned,
had pins and needles,
lost your sense of being for a second
and then watched your skin swell, darken, run
...and stretch to its limits?
When did you last last hold a baby up to
your own face, God,
smell the warm body,
touch the innocent skin,
know the life pass between you, with no words?
Do you have feelings too, God?
Do things touch you?
Are you spirit or are you substance,
for real or only ether-real,
or you there or everywhere?
If we reached out and touched you
would our hands pass right through
...your elusive, divine self?
What about any distinguishing characteristics?
What colour are you God?
How's your eyesight,
what's your body like,
would we spot you in a crowd,
would we stare at you for some disability?
How many senses have you got, God,
five, six, eighteen, ninety-four?
And your sense of touch,
is your handshake firm as a vice
or slippery as an eel?
What do you smell of God?
Anything in particular,
the universe, is it,
planets, oceans, space, skies?
If it's true that your Spirit is always willing
...is your flesh ever weak?
And if the Word was made flesh,
are you flesh of our flesh,
bone of our bone?
Is that you there, meek and mild,
meanly wrapped in swaddling clothes?
Is that you, Baby J,
Word of the Father,
now in flesh appearing,
is that you, screaming as you arrive
like the rest of us,
screaming at the shock of the new,
the shock of the cold and old and broken?
Is that you,
slipping clumsily out from between
a Virgin's legs,
covered in blood and gunge and straw,
when moments before,
you had been covered in glory?
Tied to the mother of God by stringy flesh,
sucking for your very own life on a woman's breast
...what a come-down.
And is someone slapping your bum,
God gets a thrashing,
God gets to feel flesh on flesh
and it makes him cry?
Still, at least you had an audience,
cows, was it, or maybe a goat or two?
Did they look at you in awe and wonder,
were the cattle lowing a bit,
or were they a smelly nuisance?
But 'little Lord Jesus no crying he makes'.
Well, that doesn't sound right.
The thing about flesh is that it makes you cry;
for better or worse, you've got to cry.
'Who is he in yonder stall
at whose feet the shepherds fall?'
Did they fall?
Did they recognise you up close,
did they know that it was you, God,
starkers, in the flesh,
or were they just intrigued by
the heavenly host
and that funny star?
And did the flesh inconvenience
and annoy and anger you,
like it does the rest of us,
your fleshy creatures?
Did your nose run green,
your skin flake or bruise red,
Did your breath catch with asthma
in that smelly barn,
your chest tighten in fear?
were you irritated by flies and gnats
(ones you had made earlier),
...or did they show some respect?
And later on, what did you do about
your fleshly lusts?
And, just out of interest, where, on earth,
did you go for your private moments
- are there miraculously fertile plants
trees with roots for miles
and branches into the heavens
forever bearing fruit
...or are those places
where the divine squatted in squalor with his
and wiped his bum with leaves,
just like any other place?
When you were tired,
when it was all going wrong,
when your friends misunderstood,
did you think,
'What did I get into this body-business for?'
swapping spirit for flesh,
swapping omnipresence for being somwhere
Did you feel trapped in that body,
or didn't you know what it had been like
before you became body?
When were you in-carnate
...did you recall what it was like
Flesh doesn't fly, usually,
flesh can't be in more than one place at a time,
flesh is limited, awkward.
Did you ever notice it,
did you wonder at the restrictions of
the body corporeal,
or were you just one of us,
Did the flesh exhilarate you,
did you run and laugh and fall,
did you sweat and wrestle and argue
and were you grateful to live
to be one of us?
"He was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew,
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness."
And how's your body now,
do you wear a halo, or a crown,
is it of gold, or is it of thorns,
are there marks on your palms,
have you got blood on the side of your shirt still?
Jesus of the body, of the flesh,
Jesus of the teeth and hair and toenails,
welcome to the body, God
and thank you for taking it,
for putting flesh on the bones of
our skeletal lives,
thank you, Jesus, for becoming body among us,
that veiled in flesh Godhead we see.
Flesh is all we have
but, as you know now,
flesh is not all we are.
Crafted by this great man, my friend Martin Wroe from his book, 'When You Haven't Got a Prayer: A journalist talks to God' (Lion, 1997)
Friday, April 20, 2007
Watched an episode of 'Friends' the other morning and amidst the genius comic timing (very Laurel & Hardyesque) of Joey and Chandler was a very funny moment from Pheobe where she goes to her happy place. And it got me wondering where mine was, where was the most beautiful place I have been.....
Here it is.....
Question is, where's yours? Answers on a comment please....
ps, this was my pathetic attempt at being Ansel Adams
Here it is.....
Question is, where's yours? Answers on a comment please....
ps, this was my pathetic attempt at being Ansel Adams
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
GROWTH DOES NOT RESIDE IN A PLACE CALLED COMFORTABLE .....
"In times of change
will inherit the earth
while the knowers,
will find themselves
to deal with a world
that no longer exists."
I have been very very poor at responding to people's posts and even questions asked from my own - for that I apologise - the dialogue, the openness of many people who stop by is deep and I should treat it with more tenderness than I have of late. Will aim to remedy that...
One of the questions asked of me by Blue Mountain Mama was what do I mean when I talk of level 5. Well, it's a term concerning communication - different levels have varying consequences for our growth and relationships. Pip is the Godfather of L5 communication, a deep and tender soul whose high in life is loving people (particularly the unloved) and peeling their layers to find their innermost beauty...I once remember him saying that every morning he didn't go to work, he went to love - wow! I nicked this illustration from his blog - me thinks I will be forgiven
tragically this is the only picture I can find of the two us...
Speaking of Level 5, I re-read C.S. Lewis' 'The Great Divorce' yesterday - where Lewis, through fable and allegory, finds himself in a bus which travels between Hell and Heaven - it's the genesis of an extraordinary meditation upon good and evil which takes issue with William Blake's 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'.
A remarkable book which asks big level 5 questions if we embrace them - the first one came in the preface - so much so, I had to stop reading and look deep into my own troubled soul for some time:
"You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you leave behind. We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. it does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good as it ripens becomes more continually more different not only from evil but from other good."
that last line particularly still has me reeling, as I said to a friend last night, carpe diem is an onion....
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
...they say they are new every morning.... i hope so
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. ~Kahlil Gibran
...for those now in some better place and those left in Virginia
Sunday, April 15, 2007
'Don't lose yourself, don't let yourself be lost'
What is it about 3am? Sleep will not be mine tonight so I am just going to type and see what happens. Normally i know what I want to write about, but if I'm honest, i have no idea where I going with this post.
I have so much stuff, so many issues raging through my head, all vying for position, I'm not sure this will be the most coherent piece of writing I've ever accomplished.
But maybe that's not such a terrible admission. Maybe we should admit a little more than we do that most of the time our lives are rather confused and a little messy. Lots of events recently remembered have caused me to take a hard look at my life and faith - generally, no, specifically, because they are both a little messy.
Whether it was the birth of my children, or the tragic death I recalled yesterday once more of Brother Roger of Taize, or the crazy homeless guy called Warren I met in London who had stitches all over his face from a knife wound, or whether it's just the simple fact that we haven't got life quite figured out the way we'd hoped by now - all of these things and, more importantly, how we work through them, are, and will be, a little muddled, maybe even chaotic.
And maybe (I'm using that word a lot at the moment) we should start not only admitting our chaos but also embracing it a little. Let me use a couple of the above moments as an example. A while back I was sitting at a wine bar by Liverpool Street Station enjoying a chilled glass or 3 of Sauvignon Blanc enjoying the spring sun, when I noticed an unkempt man heading in my direction. He was trying to talk to the other people enjoying the sunshine and their wine, but no-one even looked his way.
As he approached me, I saw that his face was covered in stitches. I asked him how it happened - he told me he had asked someone for some money for food, that an argument followed and that a man produced a knife and sliced open his face.
I asked him to sit with me.
We talked for a good hour, and there he spilled his story (and it was pretty disordered), but more than anything I realised how lonely Warren was, how he longed more than anything for community and belonging.
Brother Roger founded founded a community of monks in Taize, in eastern France (that became a remarkable ecumenical movement) because of this type of loneliness. In this community, he encouraged people to embrace their loneliness by dovetailing it with solitude because this, he believed, would become the doorway into community and belonging. What do I mean? Well, the writer Alain de Botton in his work often talks about the pleasure of sadness. Now, he is no manic depressive who wants us all to be miserable for the sake of it. Rather he believes that sometimes our transient state of being, our own failings, griefs and disappointments - however bleak they may seem - may acually console us.
Why is it that when we are most sad, sad songs and melancholy works of art are the very things that comfort us? Maybe they invite us to feel empathy with those whose stories are being told in their isolation. For what it's worth, I think that sensitively saturated works of art serve as an omnipresent symbol of an emotional texture of the person we want to be and feel deep down, somewhere, we are. It is a feature of love overcoming loneliness and one with which we should all, in whatever way we can, assist.
I remember many mourning the tragic passing of Brother Roger, primarily because he in some small way allowed them to belong. there are many Warren's who wander the streets of big cities around this world who ae lonely because no-one notices. maybe we need to start noticing a little more than we do or, as Marcel Proust suggests, that our lives shouldn't be about looking for new landscapes, but rather seeing the one we belong to with different eyes.
I have often felt lonely, even when I am not alone. Yet my faith gas always supported me through some pretty obscure, surreal, lonely and difficult times and actually I am no longer afraid to need it. I am ceratinly no Saint, but i do feel his presence in those quiet moments when I am still enough to listen - and it means the world to me.
Perhaps more than ever, no matter where we find ourselves in the wild, crazy, painfully beautiful adventure called life, we should all spend more time, occasionally, searching for His pleasure...........
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
The sun was hot, little Hannah tired as if she was waiting for lesser things, samuel wondering why we were visiting the cemetery on Easter Monday. It was another cruel ending. We picked flowers for a man I never met, a beautiful troubled soul who all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put back together again.
We stood by his grave and placed the flowers gently by the stone - he was 32 when he left this world. I asked Samuel if he wanted to say a prayer - he said that he hoped he was having a good time in Heaven and that God was being kind to him. I said a heartfelt amen. i am sure he is.
why did we do it? I simply thought that no-one should be alone and everyone remembered, especially during the great feast of Easter....
There's a scene in Thornton Wilder's play 'The angel that trouble the waters' where a doctor suffering from meloncholy comes to the magic pool with healing powers to be healed of his troubles and his gloom and sadness but the angel guarding the water tells him he cannot enter. The man says, 'but how can I live this way?' the angel again says, 'I'm sorry this moment is not for you, this healing is not for you'.
So the doctor again pleads 'but I have to get into the water, I can't live this way' And the angel then says...no this moment is not for you, and he says, but how can i live this way? And the angel says to him, doctor, without your wounds, where would your power be? it is your melancholy that makes your lower voice tremble into the hearts of men and women, the very angels in heaven cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children of this earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living...in loves service, only wounded soldiers can serve....
he was truly a wounded soldier who served better than any of us know...
truth is communicated through brokenness, sadness and vulnerability...and our scars should always remind us of this, our dear friend Martyn knew this and penned this beautiful song about his life
'he was a good man, went around
with compassion in his eyes
he'd do anything for anyone
loved truth and hated lies
some say he was burdened
some think he was free
some say was driven
this man of empathy
at night he'd slip away in sleep
and run down winding roads
to where an angel stood...
before healing waters
he was a good man who would not choose
to walk on middle ground
believed he had to lose himself
in order to be found
walking in his brokeness
and desperate honesty
with questions there inside him
aching to be free
at night he'd meet his angel
said 'let me bury all this pain'
but the angel would not let him
said 'one day i'll explain'
broken on the wheels of living
broken by this life
broken yet still held together
by this love
one day he just lost it
the anger blew inside
he pushed past his admirers
and found a place to hide
he was a good man who pushed down the locks
and turned the engine on
prayed there for forgiveness
and hoped it wouldn't take too long
soon he slipped away in sleep
and ran down winding roads
to where an angel stood...
before healing waters
for all those who need healing waters and the shelter of storms...eventually, maybe, the road seems to straighten right out despite the bridges burned and despite the route we take
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Yet again I am in that lonely place called the small hours of the morning, just trying to stop the child-like fear of the night, and maybe figure ‘it all out’.
Have tried to write for days now but nothing comes, we have been through the two most holy and precious days and all I feel is numb. The Thursday we call Maundy and the Friday we call Good usually evoke deep feelings but this year I just don’t feel part of the Easter story
I guess I’m looking for connection – sadly it’s elusive.
Still, in a few hours I will enter the mystery of faith once more. Ask most thinking Christians what the most important part of their holistic worship is and they will simply say, the Eucharist. It is about the only action Jesus asks of us to remember him by. I would say it is the last great mystery of faith. The whole transubstantiation debate will go on and on. Frankly I don’t mind either way, and the more time we give to that argument the more we will continue to miss its point.
What’s my point? Well, on Easter Sunday last year a Eucharistic initiative caused both the Catholic and Anglican to unite in condemnation. Why? Fr Iggy (couldn’t have been scripted better) O’Donovan and the Revd Michael Graham celebrated a special mass to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising. Fr Iggy said that his intention was not to ‘flout’ church rules, but rather to be ‘inclusive’. And here’s the thing. I believe that the Eucharist is many things and one of those is that it is a missional tool - I have heard too many times that, 'if you are in a right relationship with Christ you are welcome at this table' - frankly (and i use a hebrew word here) that's bollocks! Where does Jesus say that? ALL are welcome....ALL no matter what!
Jesus made it absolutely clear that Christians who love one another in unity are capable of proving to the world the divine nature of Christian fellowship and the deity of Jesus Christ, and I think the mass plays an important role in revealing this. I would suggest that mission is the communication of grace, both verbally and non-verbally, lived out in community but always in the direction of others and away from ourselves.
Writer Brennan Manning has an interesting slant on what we may have to be, to play our part well in effective mission. He makes an analogy between John the Baptist and Jesus, then parallels this against task driven churches and graced ones, remarking that ‘Jesus feasted while John fasted. Whereas John’s call to conversion was essentially linked to penitential practices, the call of Jesus is fundamentally connected to being a table companion, eating and drinking with Jesus in whom,’ and I think this is important in explaining Fr Iggy’s initiative, God’s merciful manner with sinners is made manifest in the family meal.
In other words we need to accept the blunt acknowledgement that we owe our lives, our very being and salvation to Another if we are to allow grace to resonate in us, before we can allow that to then permeate into those around us – in a way God, by Her Spirit provides. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to a missiological Eucharistic life. I think we need to learn to distinguish between crucial Biblical truths and secondary preferences of cultural practice, which unfortunately have been so prevalent when a good story has been told so badly. Asceticism was not only inappropriate but also unthinkable in the presence of the Bridegroom. If we could only live this instead of theologising it the communities we are part of would be radically different. Communities where although ‘we see dimly’, enough light comes through the glass to enable the shape of the story to be discerned.
Ecumenism is badly understood if it is reduced to inter-church co-operation. The ecumenical movement doesn’t simply ask that churches learn to get along, but that their churches must be renewed and transformed.’ When the World Council of Churches met in Canberra in 1991 they revealed that the nature and vocation of the ecumenical movement was to call generations of people to commit themselves to the unity and renewal of Christianity, existentially to an ecumenical pilgrimage. This movement has its roots in one particular, and it can be argued, unanswered prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17:21 that: ‘…they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’
To be ecumenical is, of course, to embrace the whole inhabited earth and to reach into those difficult conversations and relationships where faiths often clash but where God’s clarity can be found. Yet how can we realise unity when it is still uniformity that Churches are more comfortable with and continue to nurture? The late M. Scott Peck suggested that: ‘we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. True unity starts at home…perhaps it should start small.’ Perhaps even in an Augustinian priory in Drogheda, Co. Louth.
It is wisely taught at Alcoholics Anonymous that the only person you change is yourself – it is a good place to start. Unity has to do with people living together in freedom and love. These are simple words, but they are not simple actions. Genuine Christ-like love requires some very hard decisions and unity neither comes naturally nor is it purchased cheaply. This will (in the case of both ecumenism and the Eucharist) involve dropping our ‘them’ and ‘us’ categories, and greeting people as equals. When we do we continue to learn what God is doing in a changing world. Unity surely has to be a two-way street. As writer Mike Riddell says ‘to go with the expectation of having all the answers for other people’s questions is a form of arrogance. It is among ‘them’ that we learn who God is, and why they remain part of ‘us’.
Fr Iggy concluded last year, that he had ‘no regrets’ and he can expect to have the support of many who do not see the relevance of theological niceties. The wisest conclusion I remember hearing was that if the ceremony breached the letter of Church law, it celebrated the spirit of Christianity.
I for one am grateful that there is wideness in God’s mercy that I do not find in my own…really, I am.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
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.