As a bagger of Wainwrights’s summits and occasional gully-scrambler I’ve always been faintly depressed by the vision in Isaiah 40 of every valley being raised up and every mountain lowered: perhaps it’s living in Lincolnshire which makes mountains something to be longed for rather than obliterated as the mind’s eye conjures up a landscape rather like Salisbury Plain (but without the archæology) spray-painted beige and with a café every half mile or so. Some years ago, coming down off a snow-covered Lakeland ridge, we met a group who wanted to know where the path went and whether they’d find a tea room at the end of it: we couldn’t help but feel that they were missing something.
There is a fascinating dialogue to be encountered between those passages where God prepares the way for returning exiles and those where the pathway is prepared for God himself to come — rich soil for the exegete and the poet. But it was a recent study day which changed my own take on the taming of the wilderness, as it became apparent that the clearing of the ground was not about making the journey easy and effortless. It was about making the journey possible.
This fed my understanding of what it is to be (in any sense) a spiritual accompanier. We know that we can’t make the journey for another person, for that would be hubristic and inauthentic. All we can try and do is to clear enough obstructions out of the path to make undertaking the journey feasible.
It’s essential, though, that ‘spiritual accompanier’ shouldn’t be cramped into the space marked ‘spirituality’: the Gospel of our accompanying of someone also touches the emotional and the material. When John urges people to clear the way, we may note how he tells the soldier, for example, not to place obstacles in the way of other people through extortion. And this is where the Advent preparation of the way touches on our own society and its treatment of the vulnerable and the marginalised.
An acquaintance with ‘inside knowledge’ told me of the way in which those working with the unemployed and other vulnerable groups are pressured to place as many obstacles in their path as possible to deny them their legal entitlements. Perhaps in order to provide the tabloids with red meat for the readership, the safety net has been removed to provided edifyingly hard landings for those feckless enough to lose job or health or home. Far from clearing the way, every effort is being made to ensure that, for vulnerable groups, the journey is impossible, the demands superhuman.
In the interplay between the two Advent themes of restoring homeless and of making the path straight for God we may find a mirror-image of the scapegoating and the deliberate impeding of the vulnerable which seems to play so well in Europe and the US. A faith which takes the Advent message seriously may have hard questions to ask of a society which keeps its exiles at a distance, which makes the rough places rougher and the crooked more bewildering, which ensures that the route home is as harsh and as daunting as it possibly can.
David Rowett is a priest in the diocese of Lincoln
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