Finding a Way in the Wilderness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  January 25, 2019

The desert isn’t the only place where we may experience wilderness. Sometimes a heavy snow or torrential rain or a blinding dust storm can provide an equally powerful stand-in for the places where we struggle to find both our way and our enlightenment.frozen water copy

A few months ago, I was among the many in Northeast Pennsylvania caught in a quick moving blizzard that unfortunately coincided with the evening rush hour traffic. Very quickly I realized that I was in a frighteningly dangerous perfect storm. Sleet and snow pummeled us so fiercely that highways became treacherous and visibility severely limited. For the last three miles of my commute I was basically driving blind, unable to see the road or any landmarks in front of me, hindered by windshield wipers totally encased in chunks of ice. I feared for my life and my safety and for the safety of other travelers around me and I unleashed some pretty desperate prayers into the universe. I’m deeply grateful that I eventually arrived home with my car intact.

My emotions took a bit longer to settle. And the memory of being truly powerless, unsure of the way forward, wondering if I would ever come out safely on the other side has invited me to sit with some parallels in the life of the spirit.

Around that time, a comment from a wise friend with whom I shared a spiritual struggle opened a window for me. My friend remarked that sometimes when we can’t see what is ahead, we feel lost but we’re not—we’re actually a little bewildered.

Bewildered. I had never thought of the word in that sense. So immediately I searched for its root. “Bewilder” is derived from the roots be + wilder, (to cause to become lost), or be (thoroughly) + wilder (to lead astray, to lead into the wild). So to be bewildered is to be utterly confused, puzzled, mystified, flustered, disconcerted, and yes—speaking to my travel experience–even snowed, for to snow under is to be utterly overwhelmed, to be bewildered.

When we think of Jesus going into the wilderness of the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), we remember he was tempted to exhibit hubris, to claim power, wealth, prestige. We can imagine he experienced all of the feelings that we sometimes share in other forms of the wilderness of the spirit. The sense of being lost. The sense of standing utterly alone. The sense that there is no clear, uncomplicated way forward. The sense that all the old and familiar maps and road signs no longer work in the strange new terrain in which we find ourselves. When we’re in a wilderness space, we may long to fast forward from Point A to the end of the story where the devil departs and angels arrive to minister to Jesus (Matthew 4:11). We may overlook the fact that, in Luke’s account, the devil ends his tempting and leaves Jesus, but only for a while (Luke 4:13). Whether we name it by geography—desert, blizzard, fog—or state of the heart—dryness, despair, confusion, uncertainty—the wilderness is not usually a place we desire to be.

And yet, in my own spiritual direction and in my companioning of others, I’ve discovered that the wilderness can be a powerful teacher, offering us lessons we may not be able to arrive at any other way. In the wilderness, we learn total dependence and trust in the Holy One. We learn there’s no escape, no detour, to distract us from an honest look into our own places of lack. Stripped of the usual supports and landmarks and staying with the difficult practice of deep inner soul work, we learn in the wilderness to see with a fresh clarity and perspective.

In “Desert Listening”, Wendy M. Wright notes of the early desert fathers and mothers that, “the greater and more difficult journey was not from the cities of the Roman Empire to the solitudes of Egypt, Syria, or Palestine; it was through the crooked pathways of the heart. To make those pathways straight for the advent of the Lord was the spiritual struggle of the wilderness.”

That is our spiritual struggle as well. Perhaps we’ve journeyed into the wilderness many times during our lives. Perhaps we are there now. Perhaps we’ve honed some of the skills of wilderness survival: profound trust in a God whose love is constant and unconditional; the company of wise and experienced wilderness guides who can listen and hear beneath and beyond the words we utter; faithfulness to the practice of prayer even when and especially when we feel like a mound of dry and brittle bones.buddingcrocusinsnow copy

As we plant ourselves in a state of discernment and attentive listening to Mystery, may time spent in the wilderness deepen our consciousness of the Holy One’s faithful presence, the Holy One forever at work in our wild and precious lives.

 

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Recall an experience of being in the wilderness.
What did that space feel like, look like, sound like?
Who or what accompanied you in your confusion and uncertainty?
Who showed you the face of a loving God?
Give thanks for holy companions and for the enduring presence of the Holy One in your life both then and now.

NOTE:

Thank you for your prayerful remembrance of all those who are part of the Directed Prayer Weekend January 25-27 at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA.

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Holding Fast to the Heavens

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  January 12, 2019

Watching the news coverage one evening, I heard myself say aloud to an empty room, “Nevertheless, it moves.” For years, I’ve adopted this mantra from the creative genius, Galileo. It’s a truth detector of sorts for me and seems to name the discrepancy between what is publicly being stated and the subtext that I intuit to be closer to the truth.earth copy2

Even though Galileo and I live centuries apart, I feel an unexplainable kinship to this
man who’s best known for promoting the Copernican view of our place in the cosmos. Galileo insisted that, in spite of everything humankind might want to believe, we on planet Earth are not in fact the center of the universe. In a sun-centered universe, all things do not revolve around us. It’s easy to understand how such a paradigm shift, this new way of looking at ourselves and describing ourselves in relationship to our solar system, created an uproar and won Galileo far more enemies and detractors than supporters.

The Church of the 17th century commanded Galileo to desist in spreading his theory that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. When he didn’t, he was summoned to trial, condemned as a heretic, and threatened with torture unless he recanted. To spare himself excruciating pain, Galileo publicly let go of his finding that the sun was stationary and the planets, including Earth, revolved around it. But I do so love the story that, after his public recanting, Galileo muttered under his breath, “Nevertheless, it moves.” Translation: your narrative is far too limited to encompass what my heart knows to be true.

Following his trial, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his days, a sentence far more harsh than it might be in our day when technology allows us to stay connected with the world wherever we may be. And that’s where the wondering comes in for me. I wonder what his remaining ten years of solitude were like for this man.

In the face of public shame and scorn by the authorities of his time and most probably the distancing of family and friends, was Galileo able to settle into a place of peace, unshaken in his belief in what his research and reflection had concluded, his eyes had seen, and his heart had intuited? Like prisoners of conscience languishing without a release date, like persons who have received a terminal diagnosis or seen a dream destroyed, an idea silenced, a cherished vision ridiculed and trampled into the dust, how did Galileo keep hope alive in the time remaining to him? How do we? What sustained him and what sustains us to keep believing that present realities, no matter how despair-filled they may seem, are not the final word?

I don’t know the answer for Galileo but I hope that, without receiving any vindication or affirmation during his last decade, he was able to hold onto hope as Langston Hughes might have admonished him:

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly. 

I hope he held on tight. I hope he continued to fly. I like to imagine that he, like all of us in the face of ridicule, dismissal, or silencing, held fast and that he knew himself, that we know ourselves, as God’s beloved.  I like to imagine that Galileo, who’s also credited with popularizing the use of the telescope to study the heavens, made a practice of carrying his telescope to the roof of the house where he was held captive those last ten years of his life. That he trained the telescope on the midnight sky, watched and waited and noticed. That he who had pointed to the heavens and glimpsed what was up there looking back at him did not, could not return to the limits of the clearly defined world of his time. That he found some solace in knowing that, in spite of what anyone else had concluded, he was forever deeply connected and immersed in a universe rich with Mystery.2014africandust_vir_2014175_lrg-1024x768 copy

I wonder if, during the dark night, he stood in awed silence and made a prayer of the heavens telling the glory of God. I wonder if, during the afternoon heat, he felt the sun warming his face and read it as a blessing. I wonder if he anchored his feet on the ground, felt the immensity of the Earth, and whispered, “Nevertheless, it moves.”

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on what gives you hope and helps to keep it alive.
If you’re struggling to remain hopeful in the face of the world’s indifference or cruelty, share this with the Holy One and ask for sustaining grace.
If possible, spend some time outside today being blessed by the sun, the sky, the Earth.

NOTE:
Thank you for continuing to hold in your prayer my entering into these January days as a time of deep reflection, writing, and planning for future retreats. 

Please also remember all those will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend, for which I’ll serve as one of the directors, at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA, January 25-27. Thank you.

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