Mention the word ’ wilderness’ these days, and the images which come to mind may well be filtered through the lens either of the Romantic movement, which began to find the wild places and the uninhabited lands not life-threatening but life-enhancing, or that of a more recent sensibility, a conservation movement which seeks to preserve some parts of the earth as (nearly) untouched by human intervention, and finds in that a powerful good. Our remaining wildernesses are no longer fear-filled, distant from all that is humane, encouraging, civilised, as they were for so many generations and are still for some cultures and in some parts of the world. They have largely lost their edge of danger; rather than places of threat, they are seen as places of a strange and powerful beauty. For us, the children of a comfortable, largely urbanised society, they have become the settings for adventure or recreation. If they are places of challenge, it is often a very carefully orchestrated challenge, a battle for survival created as a source of entertainment employing the enmeshed forces of media and celebrity.
So we still have stories of ventures into the wild, often solitary; expeditions into the rainforests of the Amazon, treks across the Antarctic, solo crossings of the oceans in small boats. These are our narratives of risk and heroism, these are the tales of individuals deliberately placing themselves where their very survival may be at stake. In these stories of our own time and culture we can still hear an echo of the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. They are stories of the testing of the human spirit, they involve separation from the norms of daily life, the conscious placing of the self in danger, the denial of comfort, the need for inner strength, for great reserves of courage. However, at the heart of most of these stories is (in the tradition of the Romantics) the individual him or herself, asserting or proving a practical, emotional, and even spiritual self-sufficiency – however fulsome the tributes to the back-up teams at the end.
When we listen to the accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, especially those in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear something different. We hear not about self-sufficiency, but about dependence: dependence on God as the source, sustainer, and shaper of life. If we move on a few centuries, to those other seekers-out of the wild places, the desert fathers and mothers, we learn not only about dependence on God, but dependence on each other. The physical and spiritual battles fought in the deserts of Egypt by those men and women of the 4th and 5th centuries are known to us because their struggles were so often resolved through conversation and exchange, through what was shared.
Whatever the wild places, of body, mind, or spirit, we find ourselves in this Lent, may we have the wisdom and the courage to recognise that we can’t flourish, or even survive on our own; may we allow ourselves to depend and trust on and in God’s sustaining presence, and to allow others to help make that presence known to us.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford