Lent Challenge – Wilderness
When I think of the word “wilderness” a couple of things spring to mind. First of all I get the mental picture of a wide expanse of emptiness, with no visible living presence anywhere. I see dusty rocks and dry river beds, dried out husks of stunted trees with maybe a tumbleweed or cactus to break up the never-ending vista.
But then the image changes and the emptiness is gradually filled with forest life; big tall trees, grasses and ferns, cat-like creatures skulking threateningly in the shadows, a river tumbling and boiling its way down a valley in the middle distance.
In both of these scenes there is an overwhelming sense of emptiness, being alone, and of fear. Those three feelings dominate and hint at what being in a wilderness means to me, and you may well have your own ideas about what a wilderness looks like and feels like to you.
The 40 days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting after he was baptised. During that time, he was tempted by the devil in three ways: materialsm, hedonism and egoism. John the Evangelist calls them “lust of eyes”, “lust of body” and “pride of life” respectively and they corrupt the three main things that make us human; that we think (mind), wish (soul) and feel (heart).
The wilderness for Jesus in the Bible is portrayed by Matthew, Mark and Luke as being a physical place, with corporeal and material components to it and many people in our contemporary life make a living from existing in the wilderness or by showing us how to exist in it. Think Bear Grylls for example, or Ray Mears. They know how to living alongside the nothingness of the wilderness, and how to conquer the fears and desolation of being alone in it and they quite willingly share their knowledge with others.
But what about the wilderness that isn’t a physical place, but is a mental one instead?
I have experienced times in my life where I have felt the desolation and emptiness of being in an emotional wilderness, and – ironically – I’m sure I haven’t been alone in going through it. I have experienced poor mental health, including post natal depression and clinical depression on several occasions, family problems and emotional breakdowns. I live with an ongoing health condition which affects my daily life, and for as long as I can remember I have had financial worries and difficultIes. Both the visual images I have of being in the wilderness can be applied to the experiences I have had of being emotionally and mentally challenged. I can remember the times where everything felt as dry as dust, with nothing living in my soul and nothing except a hot sun beating down on me wearing me down day by day. There have been days where instead of the hot sun there has been the relentless rain in a darkened forest, with the threat from unknown wild animals lurking around every tree. They are the days where it feels that to make a step forward means to put myself further in danger, and to expose myself to further threat, but to stand still means letting my feet sink into the rotting layers of leaf mulch and mud. Those are the days where the choice of moving forward is as dangerous as standing still, all the while keeping senses on high alert for further threat from unknown and unseen sources.
I think we all go through situations like that, and for the most part, we work our way through them eventually with varying degrees of ease and success. But there are times when the wilderness really does feel endless, and the lurking threat really does feel real enough to paralyse us. There are times when it really does feel like there is an absence of another living soul, and like for Jesus, those are the times when we are at our most vulnerable.
In the past, I have questioned my purpose, and questioned whether there is any point to going on living. I have recognised the presence of other people in my life and that they need me to keep going, but it hasn’t felt enough to make me believe my own worthiness. Obviously I haven’t succumbed to those feelings – I’m still here after all – but I can see how it is for those who feel that their personal wilderness will never change and that there really isn’t anything worth living for. The lurking beasts, the hot desert, the relentless cold and damp rain, the arid dust bowl extending far out into the future all mount up and it is hard to fight against it all.
It’s at those times when some of us turn to other things to help us through, where we can allow the corruption and perversion of our human spirit to take place. Whether it is through the desire to spend money (whether we have it or not) on material things, or through alcohol and drugs to try to numb the pain, or even through the pursuit of relationships (even if they are bad for us) to make ourselves feel less alone, we can allow the wilderness to dominate and control us if we are not careful.
Whatever the reason we find ourselves in a personal wilderness, we need to remember that things are not always as they first appear. There are signs of life – small plants taking root in the dry earth against the odds, streams of water forcing their way up through the rocks, overhead there will be birds in the sky and on the horizon there will be a sunset or a sunrise bringing the promise of endings and new beginnings. When we accept that all is not as terrifyingly lonely as we first felt it to be, we can perhaps get a sense that the things we are threatened by are not actually threats, but opportunities and chances to thrive and to grow.
In the same way we might look to the Bear Grylls of this world to help us in a physical wilderness, we need someone to help us with the spiritual and emotional ones too. For some people it may be professional counsellors and doctors, for others trusted family and friends. For yet others it may be a matter of revisiting the source of all guidance, comfort and wisdom and that is our creator, God.
However we view our personal wildernesses, we must remember that as with Lent, they are a fleeting phase and that they do come to an end at some point. Nobody can exist in a spiritual and emotional wilderness, and it is reassuring to know that they do come to an end eventually.