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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wilderness

I was sitting in the office of an Episcopal priest trained as a Jungian whom I had sought out for spiritual direction and counsel when I heard myself say, “I feel like one of my ancient forebears wandering in the wilderness. Perhaps I am supposed to be here, but it’s hard.”

I didn’t spend forty years in the wilderness; I spent four. It wasn’t a literal wilderness; in fact I was in a city of 330,000 in southwestern Ontario, the most urban place I’d lived. What made it my wilderness was a sense of wandering, being uprooted, feeling disconnected from any sense of home, homeland or even myself.

I moved in 2003, after a profoundly tumultuous year, in the effort to make the best of a difficult situation. Canada had always appealed to me as a sensible and progressive nation so when the opportunity arose to serve a congregation there, I went.

The first shift I noticed was the flat landscape. None of the rolling hills I knew from Tennessee or the mountains and forests of New Hampshire. Because trees root me spiritually, their absence stirred an existential loneliness that began the way dampness enters the pores on a rainy day and ends up soaking a person from the inside.

Next I realized the absence of familiar cultural markers. While the public library celebrated Black History Month in February there was no one around who shared the personal meaning contained in iconic images of Martin Luther King, Jr. My friend’s father had performed his autopsy. My sister had been born under the curfew that befell Nashville the week he died.

And then there was a feeling of exile that intensified every time I visited New Hampshire and had to leave again. I pored over the local weekly shopper each time I spent a day or two with my mother, imagining that I might drop in on a midweek event instead of flying back to Ontario.

In that way, my experience diverged sharply from the legendary story of the forebears who escaped bondage in Egypt only to be led into a desert where they wandered for forty years. The ancient Israelites, contrary to what their name suggests, had not yet inhabited was to become their homeland. They departed the familiarity of Egypt with its constraint of slavery, and like many of us who prefer the devil we know to the one we don’t, cried out to return. As horrible as their experience in captivity must have been, there were long stretches when it felt preferable to the unknowable wilderness. For in the wilderness, conditions were harsh, resources scarce, and the landscape desolate.

It helped immensely to view myself in relation to a larger story of ancient people wandering in an unfamiliar land not knowing why or what was to come.

Inherent in the narrative of wandering is a sense of disconnection yet paradoxically when we place ourselves within it we feel less alone. When we become part of something larger, identifying with an ancient story we are no longer free-floating nanospecks in an uncaring universe. We are players in an epic drama. Conceiving myself as a wanderer in the wilderness invited me to seek meaning in a trying time.

Understanding my life through a lens of archetypes and archetypal events: figurative births, deaths, and transitions gave me a more nuanced view of the journey.

To look at our lives and recognize wilderness is to confront the ways we find ourselves, figuratively, in exile. I’m not speaking of the literal circumstances and life-threatening situations of political refugees and persons displaced by war. I am speaking of a spiritual condition where any of us might find ourselves removed from the capacity to access the comfortingly familiar, to feel as though we can climb into the lap of what holds us and be cradled for a while. I am speaking of a sense of spiritual disconnection that may originate in any number of human behaviors: addiction for example, wherein the compulsion for a substance to provide relief, to offer escape from one’s own self-alienation only serves to deepen the alienation. We might end up wandering in the spiritual wilderness because grief has uprooted us like a tornado and dropped us into a desert of desolation or despair. We could find ourselves exiled from the source of what grounds us by dint of fear or depression, which limit our choices by obscuring them. Or we might find ourselves wandering after years of living un-attuned to what connects us to the thrum of being.

For some of us, it’s all of the above.

What I came to discover, as did the ancient Israelites, is that the wilderness provides a container—not a warm fuzzy one—but a container nonetheless for a set of experiences that have the potential to inform the rest.

There’s a scene in the story of the ancient Israelites, as told in the Book of Numbers, the name of which in Hebrew is Bimidbar which means “in the wilderness,” where the congregation as it is called, is fed up. They cry out to God in their woe: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” (20:5)

How many of us have been there—crying out, “Enough is enough” or in the case of deprivation, “Not enough is not enough”? I suspect most of us know the feeling of being asked to carry more than we can. We look around and instead of seeing the normal plentitude we glimpse only empty stores: no figs, no grain, no pomegranates. Not even water.

It’s at this moment in our own internal wilderness we are invited to relate to the billion fellow human beings who actually don’t have clean water to drink: to realize our interior landscape is an external reality for one out of six people on earth. It is hard to feel alone in that kind of company.

But because alienation makes it hard to feel the presence of others even when they are right beside us, we too, cry out.

In the Book of Numbers, God tells Moses and his brother Aaron to “assemble the congregation and command the rock to yield its water.” What’s instructive here is that neither God nor Moses, neither Aaron nor the rock alone yields water: the water springs as the result of combined stirrings.

If in the wilderness we can attune ourselves to the combined stirrings, if we can hear our voice as one among many, feel in our yearning the pull of each being who longs to survive, we can tap into a collective force that summons humility and evidences grace.

What befalls us and what is bestowed upon us arrives on a wind not of our own making—but how we receive it— whether we welcome it, deny it, or diminish it is ours to choose.

While beloved hymns portray grace as an unmerited gift that appears unbidden, the wilderness invites us to participate in that grace. To take note and avail ourselves. Shortly after my arrival to Canada, when already I had doubts about my decision to move there, a woman in the congregation shyly asked as she exited the building one Sunday if I made hospital visits. I answered yes and asked who might want a visit. “Me,” she said. Within a matter of months, she was in a hospice unit of a large hospital, where I visited daily. “You have made my dying easier,” she told me one afternoon.

T’was then grace first appeared.

The seeming wrong turns I had taken suddenly led me to a threshold of undeniable purpose. To ease the process of premature death for the one dying is an honor beyond words. It comes through the simple act of being present.

Wandering in the wilderness summons our presence. Unsettling, unfamiliar terrain gives no free passes. It demands focus as it enlivens the nerve endings and awakens emotion.

The simple gifts of presence and attention become magnified.

My second year in Canada, the mother of one of the few close friends I made died. I recognized being there is what afforded me the opportunity to be a companion. To serve as a pall bearer. That’s when I understood spiritual exile is not abandonment. This is important because we often confuse the two. The universe does not prevent sorrow; it holds us in it. When Cain sets off as a fugitive and a wanderer after slaying Abel, he turns his face from God but nowhere in the text does God turn from him. The story needn’t be real to be true and a truth of the tale is that the connection is not ours to break.

Though it has become cliché to say a burden shared is halved, being present to someone in grief provides not only purpose but perspective. It regenerates connection. Grief is an underground pool that links one loss to every other. There is value in not feeling unique. In one Buddhist teaching, a woman asks a sage how to relieve her unbearable grief. The sage instructs her to visit every house in the village until she finds the one untouched by sorrow. To wander in the wilderness is to visit every house in every village and realize none remains untouched.

In our pain we are not always relieved, but the wilderness teaches that we are accompanied, if not by the ones we expect, by the ones who also know the dimensions of loss and the scale of despair.

As wanderers we may view the plight as only our own but the wilderness itself sees the big picture and issues a cautionary tale.

As the ancient Israelites bemoan their fate and struggle mightily, they enlist a vengeful genocidal God to exact wrath upon perceived adversaries in language so horrifying as to place contemporary examples of genocide in the larger context of on ongoing story.

From the thirty-first chapter of Numbers, “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (17-19)

In this wilderness, the holiest of holies condones infanticide and child sexual slavery. If read literally one shudders to think how modern perpetrators could read it as instruction; but approached figuratively, the call for such brutal desecration bespeaks an alienation so deep as to threaten the divine within each of us. Spiritual wilderness can be so disorienting as to unmoor us completely from our connection with the breath of the universe. When we become unhinged from our connection with the entirety of existence, when we can’t remember what allows us to feel it, when we forget, in Martin Luther King’s words, that “we are tied in a single garment of destiny,” we resort to tribalism, butchery, genocide.

The starkness of spiritual wilderness etches our humanity in sharp relief. In it we will find the gruesome geometry of terror and the unbroken line of connection depending where we look and how we act. For John Newton, the sea captain who penned “Amazing Grace,” the harsh angles of slavery led him to a point of reconnection with his own humanity and the divine.


In a much milder version of wandering, far from the high seas or ancient deserts, I have learned the usefulness of time in the wilderness; the way it tests us, not so that we earn favor or lose it, but so that we refasten ourselves to what matters, reconnect ourselves to what sustains us, and re-member ourselves to the universe that always holds us.

Some of us perish in that wilderness and some of us make it back.

In the office of the Jungian priest, I recounted a dream (because Jungians trade in dreams) in which I stare at a wall covered with vines of electrical cords, frantically searching for a loose plug and socket.

I interpreted the image as proof of my disconnection. “I don’t know how to plug back in.”

I don’t recall the priest’s exact words but they echoed Rumi, who in 13th century Persia wrote,

Listen for moan of dog for its master.

That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one has heard of.

Give you life to be one of them.[1]


My last year in Canada, I got a dog I brought back with me. She is of course a love-dog sent into the wilderness to bring me home. Every day we walk together on the dead-end road where we live, or in the woods that surround our house. The walk is equal part exercise and prayer. Each step occasions gratitude—for coming home companioned by a dog I would not have were not for my time in the wilderness, a roaming dog who reminds me daily we may wander but we are not lost. Amen.
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[1] The Essential Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks