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.
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.
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.
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.
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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2 thoughts on “Finding a Way in the Wilderness”
Hi Chris, I can relate to your experience of being in a blinding snowstorm alone or with another Sister! Lots of prayers were prayed! I have so much to be grateful for!!! Thanksfor your analogy and blessings on this weekend at Wernersville! Would love to be there-Peace, Joan
Joan, I’m sure we all have our own stories of living through a desert or blizzard experience or one that demanded deep soul work of us. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for your prayer for the directed weekend here at the Jesuit Center.