A Walk on the Wild Side
I wonder what images spring to mind when you think about wilderness? My first thought would be my back garden! Once I get beyond there, I start thinking about wild places that I know, starting with Yorkshire. I remember various walking trips in the Dales and the Northern Pennines, the North York Moors. They seemed pretty wild to me when I was tramping across great expanses of heather and peat bog on various Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, generally with the rain being driven through your waterproofs by the horrendous wind; the barren, featureless wasteland (so it seemed) that made map reading impossible, the lack of trees and hedges – in fact the lack of anything behind which you could shelter! A couple of years later saw me at teacher training college in the Lake District. That seemed quite tame when we were taken up to Scotland for snow and ice climbing. Rannoch Moor seemed vast and inhospitable.
I’m not sure whether I would have called any of these places’ real wilderness though. I had a very clear idea in my head about what that would look like. In my mind it was vast, featureless, hot (even though I know there are plenty of very cold places!), dry and dusty. This was a vision of wilderness formed by years of singing ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ as a child, of looking at the pictures in my Bible that included one of Jesus in the wilderness. A few years after we were married, Jonathan went to the Holy Land with the Chaplains Department and spent some time in the desert. He showed me photographs and it was exactly as I expected; dusty, rocky, hot, dry, big – and I thought, ‘that looks boring. Why would anyone want to go there?’ Well, leap forward a few more years and I was in Texas – Fort Hood to be precise. This was a trip with the Royal Wessex Yeomanry when I served as their padre. We were welcomed by a captain of the Home Guard and told that Fort Hood was bigger than Wales. We had to drive over an hour just to get off base and all we could see were miles and miles of scrubby, dry, dusty hills. This is probably the nearest I had come to what I expected wilderness to look like and I still found myself thinking, ‘Why would anyone want to come here?’
Over the last few months – actually it’s probably nearly a year now – I’ve found myself thinking of a different sort of wilderness, an internal one. From the shock of those first few weeks of lock down last year to where we find ourselves now, I have had many conversations with people who have spoken to me of a sense of loss. There have been real losses – thinking of Rosemary Hopewell and Roger Deadman – that, with COVID restrictions in place, we haven’t been able to mark in the way that we would have. Some have lost jobs. All of us have lost time with friends, family, work colleagues. For some, the loss of church as we know it has been painful. It almost feels like we’ve lost time, as one day morphs into the next and they all feel the same. One friend said to me that she hated people asking how she was and what she’d done because there was so little to say. Real conversations and meetings replaced by phone calls and zoom have become ‘normal’. In the first lock down people spoke of getting the garden sorted, clearing out the attic, reading that pile of books that had been sitting around, learning a new skill…this time feels harder, the time spreading out into a vast space that seems endless. And on top of all this, it’s Lent! As if we needed anything else to make us feel miserable!
Well, enough of this misery. I don’t think I’d be doing a very good job as your vicar if this is where I left you. And I suppose where I want to take you next is the obvious place. In 2019 I finally found myself in that wilderness that Jonathan visited all those years ago. We were driving from Tiberius down to Jerusalem and we drove off the main road so that we could see the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho – the place where Jesus set the story of the Good Samaritan. When we got off the bus we were hit by the heat and the strength of the sun. But we were more powerfully hit by the overwhelming beauty of the place. Yes, it was dusty and hot but the air carried a scent I have never come across before and the majesty of what we saw before us was breath-taking.
We read the account of Jesus in the wilderness as a time of trial and temptation, which is true, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. However we understand Jesus’ struggles with the devil, with temptation, I’m sure it was agony but I’m also sure that this wasn’t the whole story. When you stand out there you get a sense of the paraphernalia of 21st century life being stripped away. There is time and space to reflect on what really matters. I’m fairly sure that Jesus would have felt that same sense of sorting out priorities whilst having his soul recharged by that breath-taking beauty.
Mark Oakley, who is Dean and Fellow of St John’s College Cambridge, described Lent as ‘a snowfall in the soul’. He went on to say that as snow makes us see our landscape in a different light, Lent invites us to see our lives in a different light too, to try and re-find a sense of balance and proportion, to live a ‘life that really is life’. Lent and wilderness are not always bad and difficult places to be.
The journey of Lent is not an easy one and we know that it gets harder as, week by week, we follow in the footsteps of Christ to Jerusalem, to betrayal and to death. We know that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. But on Easter Day, as we gather in the dark (which we will even if we have to be outside!) we know that the dawn will come, and with it resurrection, a sense of promise, of new beginnings, new potential, new life, eternal life.