Encountering God in the Desert (part 2)
By Vickie MacArthur of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. -Matthew 4:1-2 NRSV
We began a two-day Landscapes of the Sacred retreat by gathering in a circle and listening to a number of readings about nature and desert spirituality. Before we left, we each reached into an envelope and chose a piece of paper with a poem or phrase written on it. I stuck mine in my pocket without reading it.
The majesty of Smith Rock is overwhelming-towering granite rocks reaching up into a clear blue sky. We began the hike by walking down into a beautiful river valley, surrounded by these huge, volcanic rock formations.
As I hiked along the river, I noticed steep stairs in the rocks climbing the side of the mountain. Something about those stairs called to me. An older man was sitting at the top of the steps enjoying the vast view of the valley below. As I approached him, I remarked that this probably wasn’t part of the hiking trail. He smiled, then, sizing me up, told me there was a small opening in the rocks that led to the ridge on the other side. Someone small and nimble like me might be able to squeeze through. As I watched him slowly fade from sight, I felt that irrational nudge to keep going.
As I gazed upward, I saw the opening with a small patch of blue sky beckoning. Coming out on the other side, I looked down from dizzying heights, catching my breath. Above me were boulders and rocks strewn everywhere. I climbed a bit higher in hopes of finding the other side of the ridge. Slipping a bit on the gravel, I listened to the sound of rocks and pebbles displaced by my unsure feet. The taste of fear began to rise in me. “I’m alone. Nobody knows I’m here. What if there’s an earthquake!”
As I looked at the huge rocks towering above me, I sat down. I took a long cool drink of water, gazing at the beautiful river winding its way like a snake below. I sat and breathed in that feeling of both fear and heart-expanding beauty. As I looked around, I realized, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, I wasn’t sure where the opening was that I came through. How would I find my way back?
I reached in my pocket and found the piece of paper I chose before the hike.
Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step into a new place there will be…a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place.
-Wendell Berry, as quoted in Backpacking with the Saints, Oxford University Press, 2014
This hike is the perfect metaphor for my life, perhaps for all of us. I’ve been going through a bit of a “dark night of the soul,” questioning everything in my life, my beliefs about God, what I do, who I am, my place in this church, my place on this planet. I realize that this fear of change, this fear of loss, this not knowing where I am or where I’m going, or whether I can go back has to be faced. It is a necessary part, indeed the very essence, of the spiritual journey. Once we’ve begun this journey of uncovering our True Self, we can never go back to who we were before.
God, may my deep hope align with your deep vision. Release in me anything that keeps me from freely following your Spirit. Amen.
Invitation to Spiritual Practice
Breathe deeply as you enter a time of silence. Become gently attentive to what may be restricting you from faithfully responding to the divine invitation in your life. Are there priorities, attachments, tasks, or motivations competing for your response? What does freedom for God look or feel like in you this day?
Today’s Prayer for Peace
Engage in a daily practice of praying for peace in our world. Click here to read today’s prayer and be part of this practice of peace.