The Desert/ Wilderness
A Call Towards Solitude
In this short excerpt from a journal entry by the late priest Henri Nouwen, the author describes the need to make a significant change to his life during a very difficult period in his ministry. Nouwen senses the need to have a wilderness experience, free from the daily routines and busyness of modern life:
You are living through an unusual time. You see that you are called to go toward solitude, prayer, hiddenness, and great simplicity. You see that, for the time being, you have to be limited in your movements, sparing with phone calls, and careful in letter writing….The thought that you may have to live away from friends, busy work, newspapers, and exciting books no longer scares you….It is clear that something in you is dying and something is being born. You must remain attentive, calm, and obedient to your best intuitions.
Digging Down Deep
I’m more of an aboveground type of girl, as in, I like the stuff you can see. Flowers, trees, and vegetation symbolize life, growth, and transformation. The problem with focusing on external manifestations, though, is we don’t see what is beneath the topsoil. If a root structure is shallow, nothing will stand. And when the topsoil is stripped dry? There’s very little in the way of tangible life.
To survive and even thrive in the desert, plants must send their roots deep to push into hidden springs to find life-giving water. Humans are no different. In the desert seasons of life, we must root into the goodness of God, into being known and loved by God. We need to be rooted in our identities as the beloved creations of a merciful and divine Creator. We store these truths, allow them to spur growth, to deepen our roots, to bring us to bloom in even the most trying terrain.
The Drama of Humanity & Nations
In his excellent little book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly describes the inward reality that governs the course of history:
Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others.
And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history. It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of man. It is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hills comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. It is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare. It is the drama of the Double Search, as Rufus Jones calls it. And always its chief actor is—the Eternal God of Love.
Enjoying My Own Company
…When I venture into wilderness, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy my own company…The person I travel with there isn’t worried about his performance. He sheds the polished persona he tries so often to project to others. Scribbling in my journal under the shade of a pin oak atop Bell Mountain, I’m happy as a lark. I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness.
The Great Temptation
In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling describes one of our greatest temptations in the modern age: hurry:
Hurry is a great temptation. Hurry looks like impulsive, knee-jerk reactions: “I’ll act now because I may never have another chance!” The temptation to hurry is fueled by the lie that the only good to be had must be grabbed now or never.
Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness right after his baptism at the Jordan illustrates the hurried nature of temptation and a holy response to it. Jesus is a master of the unhurried response to tempting suggestions.
Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Happy Night
Eventually, God sends all who truly seek to know him into a spiritual wilderness. That’s why St. John of the Cross calls this dark night, this desert of ours, a “happy night.” The night is happy because, though it brings “darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything; . . . although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up. N.T. Wright notes, “Wilderness has been used in Christian writing as an image for the dark side of the spiritual journey. Conversion, baptism, faith—a rich sense of the presence and love of God, of vocation and sonship; and then, the wilderness.”
The spiritual desert wilderness is harsh, wild, and uncontrollable. Barely inhabitable and yet breathtakingly beautiful. Inarguably dangerous and possibly deadly but also transformational and even miraculous. Solitary and unfamiliar but full of grace and spiritual activity. The desert is a blessing disguised as a curse—a study in contrasts. While theophanies and divine epiphanies regularly occur there, so do unimaginable times of depression and despair.
We hear many voices and sometimes have difficulty distinguishing among God’s, our own, the world’s, and that of devils toying with us, meaning to eat us alive. The desert heightens our senses; paradoxically, we’re acutely aware of both God’s presence and his seeming absence. Truths once obscure, or mentally assented to yet not experienced, suddenly stand out in sharp relief, while the superfluous recedes into the background. In the desert wilderness, miracles happen, temptations lure, and judgment occurs.
The Perfect Soil for Winemaking
My first call to ministry was in Eastern Washington state. It turned out to be one of the most prolific winemaking regions in the country. One of the things I learned from a local winery was really quite fascinating. But let me back up for just a moment. When it comes to soil for growing things, whether it be flowers or vegetables, trees or shrubs, generally speaking you want a rich, fertile soil. Lots of organic material like compost or manure provide the nutrients necessary for the plants to grow in abundance.
But apparently, with wine it is quite different, if not the opposite, from other plants ideal growing conditions.
The perfect soil for winemaking is actually quite low in nutrients. In our area, there was a vinicultural heritage site, in other words, a place set apart as an ideal location for growing wine. Interestingly enough, it was almost entirely made up of sand, which as any gardener will tell you, is devoid of the kinds of nutrients we would expect to create the perfect grape for wine.
But just as interesting is why wineries prefer soils with such low nutritional value: when this is the case, the majority of the nutrients go, not to the vine, or the leaves, but straight to the grapes. What a great metaphor for our lives.
Sometimes we need to go to desolate places, not the lush, green landscapes of an Eden, but rather, to the wilderness, where there is so little life, where pain and suffering are intrinsic to the experience, in order to really “bear fruit,” if you will allow a little pun. It is often in the wilderness that we learn the most about God, about our own sinfulness and need for repentance.
But it is also out of such a place that the best of us: a newfound humility, a greater capacity for compassion and love. A deeper reliance on the “vine,” that is God’s sustaining us over the comforts of this world can take place. So perhaps, when God plants you in a desert, devoid of most nutrients for healthy production, he is actually doing something spectacular to help you grow a deeper understanding of yourself, and more importantly, a deeper love for Him.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
A Place of Revelation
On this earth, then, in our deserts, God personally reveals and names himself. When he does so, his pleasure floods our senses, his beauty engulfs us, and our God-misconceptions are devastated. He moves us from make-believe to reality. The knowledge of who he is and the never-ending implications of being his children overwhelm us.
The Privileged Site of God’s Comfort
Especially in the Hebrew Bible, wilderness is the privileged site where God comforts the Hebrew people or their representatives at times of crisis in their lives. In the wilderness God calls and leads them to decisions and witnesses their shortcomings; and God disciplines and punishes them for their sin and rebellion. Throughout the gospels wilderness is important for Jesus as a place of encounter with the Father.
Re-Wilding and Restoring Balance to Nature
In 1995, the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a seventy-year hiatus. Scientists expected an ecological ripple effect, but the size and scope of the trophic cascade took them by surprise?
Wolves are predators that kill certain species of animals. But they indirectly give life to others. When the wolves reentered the ecological equation, it radically changed the behavioral patterns of other wildlife. As the wolves began killing coyotes, the rabbit and mouse populations increased. Thereby attracting more hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. In the absence of predators, deer had overpopulated the park and overgrazed parts of Yellowstone. Their new traffic patterns, however, allowed the flora and fauna to regenerate. The berries on those regenerated shrubs caused a spike in the bear population.
In six years’ time, the trees in overgrazed parts of the park had quintupled in height. Bare valleys were reforested uvirh aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees. And as soon as that happened, songbirds started nesting in the trees. Then beavers started chewing them down. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, building dams that create natural habitats for otters, muskrats, and ducks, as well as fish,’ reptiles, and amphibians.
One last ripple effect.
The wolves even changed the behavior of rivers—they meandered less because of less soil erosion. The channels narrowed and pools formed as the regenerated forests stabilized the riverbanks.
My point? We need wolves!
When you take the wolf out of the equation, there are unintended consequences. In the absence of danger, a sheep remains a sheep. And the same is true of men. The way we play the man is by overcoming overwhelming obstacles, by meeting daunting challenges. We may fear the wolf, but we also crave it. It’s what we want. It’s what we need.
Picture a cage fight between a sheep and a wolf. The sheep doesn’t stand a chance, right? Unless there is a Shepherd. And
I wonder if that’s why we play it safe instead of playing the man—we don’t trust the Shepherd.
Playing the man starts there!
Ecologists recently coined a wonderful new word. Invented in 2011, rewilding has a multiplicity of meanings. It’s resisting the urge to control nature. It’s the restoration of wilderness. It’s the reintroduction of animals back into their natural habitat. It’s an ecological term, but rewilding has spiritual implications.
As I look at the Gospels, rewilding seems to be a subplot. The Pharisees were so civilized—too civilized. Their religion was nothing more than a stage play. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. But Jesus taught a very different brand of spirituality.
Foxes have dens and birds have nests,” said Jesus, “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So Jesus spent the better part of three years camping, fishing, and hiking with His disciples. It seems to me Jesus was rewilding them.
Riding the Monsters
Entering the wilderness is a larger metaphor for dealing with our own demons, our own motivations, be they good or bad. In this short excerpt, Annie Dillard shares the value of entering the wilderness of our own introspection:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us…But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other.
God uses the wilderness experiences in our lives to teach us his name. If we, like Moses, wish to see God’s glory, it will often be in the wilderness that we see it. The beauty of the desert experience is in beholding God. It’s as if he woos us out into the wilderness so we can behold him. In the desert, he seeks to know us and to be known by us. As we behold him, we come to know him. We learn his name and his ways and become increasingly whole. To borrow a phrase from Father Greg Boyle, “We marinate in the intimacy of God.”
Throughout our wilderness experiences, we will become familiar with different facets of God’s character and thus different aspects of his name. There are a variety of circumstances in which we will come to know God intimately as Jehovah Jireh—“God our provider”—not just a financial provider but the provider of our wholeness and the wholeness of others.
In our injury and in our sicknesses, we will come to him, needing him to be the “God who heals us,” Jehovah Rapha. He is Jehovah Rapha for us and also for the world. God will nurture deep trust in us as we begin to discover who he is as revealed in his names throughout Scripture. In our desert experiences, probably more so than at any other time, we learn just who God is and, consequently, who we are.
The Topography of Discipline
In the wilderness, life is stripped of distractions. It is quiet. The topography demands discipline, simplicity, and fierce attention. Solitude in the wilderness makes irrelevant all the people-pleasing habits that have become interwoven into your personality.
…The soul hungry for approval starves in a desert like that. It reduces the compulsive achiever to something little, utterly ordinary… Solitude in the wilderness changes your experience of time. Normal life happens in ordinary time—the commute to work / do the dishes sense of time. But the wilderness marks time in eons; nothing changes quickly.
The Value of Wastelands
The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.
The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
What Happens to Performance Identity in the Wilderness
What happens when a ‘gifted child’ finds himself in a wilderness where he’s stripped of any way of proving his worth? What does he do when there’s nothing he can do, when there’s no audience to applaud his performance, when he faces a cold, silent indifference, if not hostility? His world falls to pieces. The soul hungry for approval starves in a desert like that. It reduces the compulsive achiever to something little, utterly ordinary. Only then is he able to be loved.
What We Must Go Through
Before God can divulge our God-given identities in our desert-of-the soul wilderness experiences, there is something we need to know: he requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves and with him—just as Jacob was. If we desire to find out who we are, we have to confess who we have been. What is our name? Who are we right now? That is, what defines us, what condition are we in, what has been our bent? Are we lust-filled, greedy, or self-righteous?
Are we blind to our own sin, deceptive, full of pride, or adulterous? Do we exhibit laziness, a weak will, or fear? Are we manipulators and opportunists, materialistic or addicted? Are we living independently of God? It seems that I’ve been most of those at one time or another. Thomas Merton reminds us that “we are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.” Yet God is keenly aware of our tendency to cherish self-illusions.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on the Wilderness. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!