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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Wilderness Wisdom ~


Excerpts from "Live Like You Are Dying"

Finding wisdom in wilderness.

"The screams began at midnight...I reached for my pocketknife and stumbled over my gear, peering out into the foggy dark. Now, it was quiet, the deep silence of wilderness. The only sound was my adrenaline-crazed heart, thumping loudly. Clutching my knife, I pulled my sleeping bag around me and convinced myself I had been dreaming. But in moments, the screams started again. Something wet trickled down my hand -- in my terror, I had cut myself. Sucking the wound, I felt pure fear. And I realized I was helpless to do anything to alleviate it.

"In The Wisdom of Wilderness, the final book Gerald May penned before his death, he writes about his own baptism of terror. He awakes in his tent, alone — but not alone, because a growling bear is brushing against the canvas. 'For the first time in my life, I am experiencing pure fear,' he writes. 'I am completely present in it, in a place beyond all coping because there is nothing to do.' When the bear leaves, he experiences overwhelming gratitude. 'Fear, like any other strong emotion, can make you exquisitely conscious of living, perfectly aware of being in the moment.' "

My first reaction to this book review was of amusement. I camped in black bear country where the bears would delightfully come up to sniff at my tent. Of course, I knew enough to hang all food high up on weak tree branches when backpacking or lock the enticing delights in our vehicles when driving in. They left without needing to pull out penknives. In Glacier Park, Montana, grizzlies were interested in my camp. After passing by my sleeping bag on a tarp (I didn't use a tent) they examined the camp and decided they were not hungry enough to try to climb the bear poles the park service provided at designated camp grounds.

Pulling out a pocket knife in response to a threat of attack by human or beast is a futile response. Of course, this little knife could be used to cut open the rear of the tent and allow the person to scramble away. After all, the bear was not interested in him, but in the content of his tent, namely smelled food. If I had forgotten to empty my tent of all foods and a bear decided to investigate for such, I would have made my exit and watched the bear, not in fear in but exquisite delight of this encounter of God's creation. I would have been caught in the moment, not out of fear but out of awesome wonder.

"We don't like for things to be out of our control [like wandering bears]. We don't like to feel things too deeply. It hurts. It frightens us. May, a psychiatrist and theologian, writes that he spent much of his professional life helping people cope with their emotions, tame them. But he comes to believe that coping can be a bad thing. 'Wild, untamed emotions are full of life spirit, vibrant with the energy of being. They don't have to be acted out, but neither do they need to be tamed.' What he's advocating here is not letting it all hang out in a hurtful way (such as screaming at our spouse) but staying in touch with our deeper self. Letting ourselves feel, and giving ourselves enough room — apart from busy schedules and demanding people — to stay in touch with our God-given inner life. For May, wilderness was where this happened.

"Letting ourselves feel our emotions is only one piece of wisdom May says he learned from being outdoors, where he encounters what he calls the Power of the Slowing. He writes that he had many experiences of what he'd call Divine Presence indirectly — through the birth of his children, the love of family and friends, the beauty of sunsets and music. These he saw as evidences of God. But he yearned for more: 'I could not help my desire.' He feels the Power of the Slowing as a feminine presence, which, although it will trip some Christians up, is a helpful way to free us from some of our ingrained preconceptions about how God works through creation.

"And perhaps nowhere does God seem so present to some of us as in nature. May went to the wilderness almost a decade and a half ago, feeling an increasingly passionate yearning for … something. I called my longing for God, and of course that's what all our deepest longings really are, but I could have just as well have said it was a longing for love, for union, for fully being in life, for being vitally connected with everything.' The precedent is a good one. Christ had a pressing agenda, crushing demands, and a strong sense of purpose concerning what needed to be accomplished during his short time on Earth. Yet, Jesus modeled for us that these desires to do what is right and good must be balanced by times away in solitude, in wilderness.

"May's writing is invitational, and his dry humor appealing. As he plans one solo camping trip, he regrets he ever saw the movie Deliverance; 'I actually thought about buying a gun,' he confesses. He writes with joy and awe, but also unsentimentally. Unlike many nature lovers, May isn't afraid to look at the darker side of his experiences in the outdoors, which at times become almost too painful to read (as in the story of a tortured turtle).

"It's not always pleasant or easy to strip ourselves down to the place where we live in a state of attentiveness. Gerald May had his bear. Mark Buchanan had his lions. I had my night with the screams. Several days later into my hike, I heard them again in daylight with a Park Ranger. 'Oh, that,' she said. 'The wolves killed a moose. The screaming is the sound of the ravens fighting over the remains.' So much for the serial killer I had envisioned.

"And what are we afraid of, if not of death itself? Even if we talk about our yearning for our eternal destination, we're not so happy to have a ticket dated for the next heaven-bound train. This fear of death can keep us busy coping, running, drowning out our anxieties in a welter of activities, afraid to be in touch with what we feel in any given moment. Perhaps May's book is so authentic, so vibrant, and so vulnerable because as he was writing it he was aware of his own impending death from cancer. When we 'live like we are dying,' as Tim McGraw sings, we are in touch with what is most important. And perhaps that is the biggest piece of wisdom that wilderness teaches us."

Cindy Crosby is the author of three books, including By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paraclete), and editor/compiler of the upcoming Ancient Christian Devotional (InterVarsity Press).

Indeed living like we are dying is a reality on many levels of meaning and experience. The Gospel of the Christ teaches we must die to self in order to live in His Self. That makes sense since there is no room for ego in the economy of the spiritual realm where God is All. At a wedding anniversary celebration of dear friends, some of us at our table engaged in spiritually related conversation. I was asked, "Are you reformed?" as in a "Reformed" denomination, like "The Reformed Church of Christ" or the many other church titles that begin with "reformed." Often times it is good to shift such questions into a higher realm of thought, and I wish I could do it more often. This time, I found myself saying, without consciously thinking, "Yes, I've been reformed many times over." Those listening enjoyed a shared laughter. They understood and related to that expression of ongoing conversion and sanctification that continues until we die in our physical bodies and in our souls.

My reformation (re-formation) takes place in trials of suffering, my own and that which I share with others, in prayer, in self-examination and repentance, in contemplation of Scripture, and in the wilderness. In those places I experience "the power of the slowing" and the power of the here and now.

I hitchhiked across the US when I was eighteen years old. The powers of "slowing" and of "the here and now" sustained me. That adventure sticks in my mind as though I just returned from it yesterday. I remember talking to my occasional anxiety: "Right here and now, I am well, healthy, safe, fed, comfortable and content? Yes!" Anxiety would retreat and I would fall asleep smiling and grateful. The challenges of yesterday were part of my reformation and the challenges of tomorrow were mystery. The only way to prepare for mystery is to be fully alive and aware in the here and now, today. That learning "on the road" happened over thirty years ago. And I strive to keep relearning it today. At least I haven't forgotten. There is hope for me yet.

"Don't ever worry and say, 'What are we going to eat?' or 'What are we going to drink?' or 'What are we going to wear?' Everyone is concerned about these things, and your heavenly Father certainly knows you need all of them. But first, be concerned about his kingdom and what has his approval. Then all these things will be provided for you. So don't ever worry about tomorrow. After all, tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (The Christ recorded by Matthew 6:31-34).

Please review another Weekly Reflection on this topic.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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