by Colin Drury
I love hiking and I love the wilderness where I hike. But “wilderness” means something else too.
In Lent we think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where, after his baptism he spent 40 days (and 40 nights in KJV) in the Judean desert fasting. He was tempted by the devil but resisted, and then started his ministry. Many others have gone through this time in the wilderness, and have been transformed. Moses in Exodus led the Israelites through the wilderness, going alone up Mt. Sinai to speak directly with God. John lived in the wilderness of Judea—which is where he began his ministry of baptism. Mohammed spent 10 days in a cave in the wilderness, and was given the words of the Quran by the angel Gabriel. Even Siddhartha left his palace and wandered for six years seeking enlightenment through asceticism before he became the Buddha.
The physical wilderness was always there for desert people like the Jews and Muslims, just beyond the circle of civilization. It was a place of wild beasts and outlaws, but also a place of solitude.
I love people and enjoy their company. But I do like being alone at times. It gives me a breather from people-to-people interaction, and from most of my accumulated possessions. Solitude is peaceful, not like loneliness, where you long to be with others but cannot. I get lonely driving along the Kensington expressway or cycling to work where I have to interact with traffic rather than people.
True solitude is the wilderness experience. Hiking alone is an obvious way to find this, but so is sitting on the dock at Rushford Lake viewing the Milky Way, the planets and the stars. It is a time to perform a repetitive skill (walking) or just sitting and breathing, to find solitude, and to avoid the dangers of the wilderness as they are distracting. But I have had danger: one of my best solitude experiences was walking alone on an island by the Great Barrier Reef.
I was dropped by an outboard boat early in the morning near the only house on the island, and walked all day through waist-high grass and scrub trees. I went to the highest point on the island and saw all the surrounding rocky cliffs. As the only walker on the island, this was truly a wilderness experience. I returned to the house in time to get my ride back across the sea, and chatted to the couple who lived there. Now, Australia has the most deadly species of snakes in the world, so I remarked that I was relieved to be on an island and away from such dangers. That’s when the island’s inhabitants told me there were lots of snakes there, presumably drifting over on trees that were washed by the sea from the mainland. I could never have taken that walk if I had known about the poisonous snakes!
Was my solitude protected only by ignorance, or by God? Perhaps you need the knowledge that comes from civilization to appreciate the wilderness properly. Perhaps that is why wilderness was such a potent image for our desert ancestors—they knew its dangers and could appreciate those who survived the wilderness.
What do you do in the wilderness? Walk, absorb God’s world and let your mind follow its path as your body follows the trail. There is always beauty, and I do enjoy photographing it, but just attending to it is most rewarding. You are nearer to natural (God’s) creation than you are to human creation and that gives you feelings of well-being. But you also have the chance for an extended thinking through of your own issues. That is what you learn, whether you see it as God’s guidance or as a psychological phenomenon. It is all too easy to fill your life with activities to put off the day when you need to think. The physical wilderness allows you to overcome that temptation.
Ah, but what about our wanderings in the spiritual wilderness? This is a much more difficult question. We can find solitude and the time it gives to think, but what do we think? The spiritual wilderness makes me lonely, not from lack of potential companions, teachers and friends, but from coming face-to-face with doubt. With time to think, and no escape through the usual path of logic, I must confront doubt as a fact of my life. I have learned the easy lessons of God in the physical wilderness but will I ever learn to just trust God where the spiritual realm is all there is? The wilderness of spirit can indeed be bleak.
This is the fifth in a series of stories by people who shared their “Stories of Good News” during the Lenten season at North Church in February and March.