Sunday, 24 February 2013

On Wilderness

Not long afterward Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you." At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him. (Mark 1:9-13)
There was an interesting programme on television a few years ago, presented by Peter Owen-Jones, entitled "Around the World in Eighty Faiths". I watched it with my partner Annie, and one thing we both agreed on was that there was a dividing line between those religious practices that were very commercialised, very much in tune with modern capitalism, and those which sought a detachment, of separation, of being apart from the urban world, and out in the wilderness.
It didn't matter whether it was Christian or Hindu, or African Voodoo, as in all those there was a form very much about results. The Pentecostals in a large church, with huge numbers swelling their congregation, preached about a prosperity gospel, one that gave both spirituality and material wealth. The Hindu roadside sellers at shines were marketing spirituality. The African Voodoo priests would cheerfully cut the throat of a cat or dog and just casually toss it to one side, the power released would bring good fortune to those paying for it.
And in contrast to that were those seeking something simpler. It wasn't a retreat from the world, it was a disengagement from the world so that they could find renewal, so that they could return from that experience better able to face the world. There is that element of wilderness that it casts you back on yourself, that makes you confront who you are. It is something that is lost in the bustle of the everyday.
But it is not "back to nature", in some kind of nature worship. In the ancient pagan traditions, the wilderness is a conduit, a channel to the divine. There are healing springs, or healing waters at Bath, but people didn't go there to worship the waters, but to be touched by the healing power of Minerva-Sulis. And the wilderness is not to be worshipped, unless we close our eyes to the savagery in the natural world, because it is not all sweetness and light. The ancients knew that the sun could blind; Apollo could be a cruel god.
The modern wilderness is a managed wilderness, pleasant to wander, with pathways cut back, otherwise how can it be enjoyed? But that's not a real wilderness, only a space where we can approach the wilderness. It provides as opportunity to let go of the self, to smell the wild heather, to hear the waves crashing on the rocks. It can become an opportunity for renewal, but not always if we only enjoy the pleasant aspects of it. Sometimes the cold wind blowing, the rain beating down, and the way apart from the track would be a less managed wilderness, where we perceive our own transience.
And sometimes the wilderness is within. Those who suffer from depression cross the desert lands, they face the wild beasts, the mocking voices, and the bleak rocky mountains where cold and ice seem perpetual. We don't have to go far to find that kind of wilderness, but the noise of a busy life can drown it out; yet it may remain there, waiting for us. This is the truly demonic; our own self, our self-doubt and even self-loathing; the dark mirror of our sunnier disposition. It is not without good reason that the fairy tales have dragons and desolation together.
But we need not go out and seek the wilderness. We draw nearer as we get older. As age and infirmity creep up on us, as we perceive our own mortality, our own weakness and failing strengths, we can be sure that, avoid it as we might, the wilderness will always be there, waiting. There is a final journey into the unknown, the wild places where no traveller returns, the heart of darkness, through the mountains of pain into the land of the dead.

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