Wilderness: Where the Journey Begins

Taking a journey

The journey has begun. Have you been on a journey recently? You probably have. Yet, how did you conceive of this journey? Did you even consider it a journey in the proper sense at all? Today we are the most travelled people in the history of the world. We travel often, travelling all over the country and all over the world. But is travelling the same as making a journey?

From the physical angle, travelling and making a journey seem to be the same. From the psychospiritual angle, to travel and to make a journey are not the same at all. The key distinction between travelling and making a journey lies in the focus of the activity.

In travelling our focus is on arriving at our destination. Whereas, when we make a journey, it’s the experience along the way that matters. We travel to get to our destination. We journey to experience a process of becoming changed along the way. The spiritual term for the concept of making a journey is pilgrimage. We make a pilgrimage to a place, yes. But it’s the experience of making the journey that matters. If you have not seen it, I commend to you the film The Way starring Martin Sheen. The film traces the process of transformation as Sheen’s character makes the pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of St James – Santiago de Compostela, set in the Basque Region of Spain. The Camino de Santiago  is one of the oldest and most venerable of all Christian pilgrimages and as with all pilgrimage routes amazing miracles of personal transformation happen along the way.

Readers of this blog will know that I often draw inspiration from the poet T.S. Eliot. C.P. Cavafy  is a less known poet, who is for me likewise, immensely emblematic. Cavafy lived in the early 20th Century, in the remnant echo of that 3000-year heritage of Greek –Hellenic culture in the Egyptian city of Alexandria amidst the embers of the Ottoman Empire.

In his poem Ithaka, he writes of a man who sets out for the Greek Island of Ithaka. The narrator advises the man to keep Ithaka always in his mind. Yet, although arriving is his destiny, arrival, i.e. Ithaka itself, is not the source of the richness he seeks. The wealth he seeks is gained through the time taken on the journey. Arrival is simply the end of this process of making the journey. It’s the process of the journey, the time taken, the experiences encountered, the transformation of perspective that is the source of the wealth being sought. In contrast, the destination, Ithaka itself is by the time of his arrival compared to all that has happened to him on the way: a poor place with nothing left to give him. 

Temptation – distraction from the journey

On the First Sunday in Lent, we are reminded that a journey has begun. The question for all of us is are we willing to undertake it? Luke tells us that Jesus after his baptism being full of the Holy Spirit was led out into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by Satan. Luke tells us that during this time Jesus fasted. Luke describes in detail a series of temptations that Satan presents to the increasingly starving Jesus.

It’s so like Luke to give us a ringside seat on a detailed interpersonal encounter. In Luke, people matter and he often articulates the feeling quality of an encounter or the inner thoughts of the actors in the story. For our modern ears, this gives Luke a very contemporary feel.

In his version of this story, Mark tells us only that Jesus is not led out, but thrown outexpelled by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted. He does not go into the nature of the encounters nor details about the different temptations. Mark tends to set the stage with the overarching vista of the story. For him, the individual actors are not his focus neither is the content of the encounters. For Mark, it’s the grand vista of wilderness that opens before us and remains the focus of Jesus forty days.

The Tradition has placed enormous emphasis on the nature of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. They have become allegories for the temptations that lure human beings off the path of the journey:

  • If we are hungry, why not eat, even if it is at the risk of exploiting our privilege?
  • As we navigate our way through a complex world of shades of grey, why not enjoy power and privilege when offered, even at the risk of misplacing the object of our true desire and colluding in the idolatry of the world?
  • Why not take crazy risks, believing in one’s own charmed invincibility?

What all the temptations Luke describes have in common is that they all center on an invitation to misuse power, privilege or position. What I discern in Luke’s story is that the greatest temptation is not to make a choice we know is wrong. We are all able to distinguish in broad outline the difference between right and wrong. We give in sometimes and knowingly make the wrong choice to suit ourselves. Guilt results. But guilt is healthy. It’s an indication that we have not lost our way because through repentance we can find our way back to our journey’s path, our camino or pilgrimage way. The last temptation is the greatest treason -as T.S. Eliot coins it in the voice of Thomas a Becket in Murder in the Cathedral –  to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Herein lies the concealed nature of temptation. 

Into the wilderness

We stray from our journey’s path without even realizing it at times because this is a path that takes us deep into the wilderness experiences of our lives. We avoid going there at all costs. The scenery along the way is often barren in it’s sheer ordinariness. We long for more dramatic and interesting vistas. Yet, spiritually, the wilderness is where the journey starts. This is the reason why before Jesus goes anywhere at the start of his ministry his journey begins in an encounter with the wilderness experience.

What do we encounter in the wilderness that is so off-putting? We could read Luke’s account of the temptations as an internal dialogue within Jesus. One that centers on the struggle against an experience of limitation. It has always been a hotly debated question – could Jesus’ divine nature have come to the rescue of his human nature thus liberating him from his wilderness experience? The fact that such a question is entertained is proof of the projection of our own illusions of omnipotence into Jesus. Because we flee from our own experience of limitation, we expect Jesus to have felt the same way. The experience of limitation is the true wilderness for us and we will chase after any temptation that offers release. In this way lies our propensity towards addiction.

This Lent if we are willing to undertake the journey, we will journey into the wilderness of our own lives. Of course, we are skilled at avoiding this place, and the function of the spiritual practices of fasting, meditation, repentance, prayer, and self-denial-control are the ways we can become mindful of our propensity for avoidance. in my comments on  Ash Wednesday I spoke about the function of all the spiritual disciplines enjoined on us in Lent as simply ways to cultivate a mindful awareness of ourselves.

In the wilderness part of our lives we come up against the fact that our lives are lived within the boundaries of limitation. Human life does not, in fact, thrive in the context of endless possibilities. As all good parents know it’s only when the limitation in the form of boundaries are held firmly that the space within becomes a rich place for our children’s experimentation and growth. Limitation forces us back into the space where our lives are actually lived and impels us toward the kind of creative adaptation imposed by limitation.

Food for the journey

This Lent, our program will focus on growing a rule of life using horticultural images of seeds growing into plants, supported and trained by the structure of a trellis. A rule of life is required to support us and hold us steady as we journey through our own experience of wilderness. A frequent assumption is that nothing grows in the wilderness. I lived for 5 years in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. There is a profusion of life that thrives on the knife-edge of environmental limitation through a skillful adaptation that only creative life makes in the face of profound limitation.

Where do you experience wilderness in your life? How do you feel about limitation? Can you become more mindful of the ways you habitually avoid facing up to this? I invite you all to use this Lent as a time to explore the possibility of wilderness becoming a space for what St Benedict calls the Transformation of Life.

The truth is that life is enriched because we live within limitation. Wilderness becomes a place where limitation by imposing necessary boundaries catalyzes us to thrive as the desert plants and wildlife thrive – through skillful and imaginative adaptation.

The journey has begun, let us continue on together!

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