“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness ….” (Luke 4:1)
The forty days of Lent represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. Lent invites us to enter into and explore the landscape of our own, spiritual wilderness. In this blog post, I would like to invite the reader to explore with me some ideas about what such a journey might look like, feel like, and what tools we need before venturing into our own “wilderness.”
(Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
CHARACTERISTICS OF SPIRITUAL WILDERNESS
When we talk about journeying into a “spiritual wilderness,” what do we mean? I propose it means a journey into a place where we dare to examine our deepest fears and darkest spiritual places:
- unresolved grief,
- lack of faith,
- unhealthy prior responses to trauma,
- fears of all kinds,
- identity issues,
- chronic physical pain,
- anxieties of an existential nature
- scars that haven’t healed.
Sometimes, merely the act of recognizing and naming these issues helps us to be more aware of negative ways they may have been influencing us. By bringing them into conscious awareness (e.g. like Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness), we are able to confront and overcome our own demons, or at least recalibrate the way we live our lives so that we are no longer ruled by fears. We become liberated to live a life that is more closely aligned with our positive values and goals.
A spiritual wilderness challenges us into a space where there is great questioning and ambiguity but also great creative potential. It lies in between the space of the future (what could be, what may be, what we yearn for, or what we dread) and the space of the past (what was, what has been, what we loved, what we hated). When we journey into a spiritual wild place, we accept an invitation to place our daily world on hold (at least for a period of time each day). This aspect of having time set apart is necessary if we are to carve out the mental, spiritual and physical space to embrace ambiguity, to face fears, and to re-calibrate our lives.
Ambiguity and feeling unsettled is a key characteristic. Jesus didn’t promise us an easy path with ready answers. Indeed, in his ministry, Jesus only gave direct answers to three of the 183 questions that were posed to him. As painful, uncomfortable as it may be, this process of questioning and co-creation is how God operates, to challenge us to find our own answers, from within.
DANGERS OF A SPIRITUAL WILDERNESS
A spiritual wilderness is an intense, uncomfortable time of questioning our most basic assumptions:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- What is the meaning of life?
- Why me?
- How can I recover from these scars?
- How can I reconnect with what I value?
- Where do I go from here?
One can imagine this to be an emotionally chaotic and uncomfortable experience. We risk feelings of chaos and disorientation. We may even fear losing our selves or losing our way among the competing paths. Just as one does not go into the wilderness without proper tools for survival, one should not embark into a spiritual desert place without spiritual compass and guide. The goal, after all, is to face our fears and put temptations behind us, as Jesus did, not succumb to them.
The blessing that is inherent in every true, sacred space is that there is something which anchors us with one, particular, and undeniable reference point. For the Christian, that reference point is God as revealed through all the ways that God speaks to us. It is promised in Acts 17 that God is never far from any one of us, for “in him we live and move and have our being.” In the darkness of our spiritual wilderness, we must listen for God. Scripture, hymns and sacred music, pastors and conversations with trusted Christian friends, these are the compass and the roadmap that keep us anchored.
If it is a hard struggle to find the anchoring presence of God, what are some alternatives? One temptation is to attempt to flee from this dark, uncomfortable place. Figuratively speaking we interrupt God and change the subject to something more comfortable. We create distractions so that we never have to face that dark and loneliness. Another temptation is to give in to anxiety and seek closure too soon. If we do either of these, we fail to do the work of this spiritual space. We either fail to deal with our own demons, so to speak, or we risk constructing our own, man-made Tower, rather than the new structure God would have us build.
We must be patient, with God and with ourselves. As uncomfortable as it feels to us, it is the very emptiness itself — the chaos and confusion we feel — that enables the re-shuffling and the making of a new creation. In this context, the words, “Be still and know that I am God,” take on even more meaning. Wait upon God, even when the waters underneath the surface feel they are swirling uncomfortably. Trust the psalmist who wrote, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
BENEFITS OF THE SPIRITUAL WILDNERNESS EXPERIENCE
Taking stock of our spiritual life, contrasting where we are with where we would like to be, requires that we contrast the transcendent and spiritual against the present and concrete. If we allow ourselves to become deeply unsettled by the contrast, we plow the field for the work of the Holy Spirit to renew us as we recalibrate the outward way we live so as to match our values, hopes, and dreams. Lent challenges each of us to use this ambiguity, and the undefined contours of our own wasteland, to make more conscious, deliberate choices toward that which we most desire.
The more we stretch ourselves in the fearsome, ambiguous wilderness of our prayer and spiritual lives, the greater the likelihood that the new self that results is a wiser self. A self that is more true to ourselves, and more true to our God. Jesus himself led by example, facing his temptations and putting them behind himself before embarking on his key ministry. Having encountered and grappled with our darkest fears in our liminal space, we become a new creation, able to move on in more positive ways, ready to embrace and more fully live into the joy and hope that is in the Easter to come.
I close with a poem by Barrie Shehherd, published just a few days ago in Presbyterian Outlook: http://pres-outlook.org/2015/02/lent/
Lent is a time to give up
time in reaching for eternity,
to set aside the minutes
and the hours and make living
space of time, room for the hurt,
neglect and fear that crowd
the days so near about us,
breathing room for reverie
and solitude, sufficient real
estate to stake one’s life upon,
even make a claim on the frontiers
of the beyond. Lent is a time
for mending time and shaping,
bending time toward the wilderness
whose questions clear a way
for silence, its severe