Ian has asked me to say a word or two today about a theme which lies at the heart of this season of Lent – the experience of Wilderness. He knows, from our many conversations, that my work as a psychotherapist involves journeying with men and women through periods when life seems to have dried up, when all that once offered nourishment is replaced with a sense of emptiness and bewilderment. At times like these we can feel forsaken.
In today’s reading from Genesis, we encounter Abraham in a state of despair, as he contemplates his childless marriage. After all he has achieved in his long life it seems that it may amount to nothing, since he has no heir. This great leader who has travelled far from home has just returned from a triumphant battle with the kings of Mesopotamia. Yet, as he looks towards his own mortality, Abraham fears his life may not, after all, bear fruit. In his desolation, the voice of God comes to him and points to the innumerable stars, to indicate the extent of his legacy to future generations.
I have always loved this image of God’s promise of abundance. What strikes me, as a therapist, is that it is often when we have reached rock bottom, when it seems we have run dry and we feel utterly lost, that we finally encounter in the wilderness within, a deeper presence, a still small voice which could not be heard above the clamour of our busy lives.
A few years ago, in times when international travel was straightforward, we took a family holiday into the wilderness of Tanzania. Inspired by pictures of elephants, zebra and wildebeest, we knew this would be the trip of a lifetime. It was the dry season and our journey from the airport by road was long, bumpy and dusty. Eventually we reached a high ridge overlooking our destination, the wide-open plains of the Serengeti. There, stretching out as far as the eye could see, we found ourselves gazing upon what appeared to be a vast and featureless desert, a wasteland, a barren plain devoid of life. I felt my heart sink.
Thankfully our Masai guide, Mathey, ploughed ahead. As we descended to the plain, he turned our vehicle off the main track. Almost immediately his sensitive eyes spotted a Serval crouched in the grass, a rare wild cat native to Africa with large ears and exquisite markings. Over the next few days, he revealed to us a staggering abundance of wildlife. Mathey would often stop the vehicle and look intently into a stand of acacia trees. Signalling to us to stay still and quiet, we too learned to watch and wait for revelation. I remember asking him how he could spot creatures so well camouflaged in the flaxen grass. His answer was simple: ‘there is life all around us, all the time’, he said, ‘If you stay very still and quiet you can feel its presence’.
In Tanzania I discovered that wilderness is not empty or barren, but abundant and vital. Its richness however is not self-evident. It reveals itself in response to the faithfulness of our looking. I learned that it takes patience and practice to see hidden treasures that are overlooked by eyes accustomed to seeing at a glance. As a psychotherapist I recognise this quality of faithful vision, for it also applies to seeing into the landscapes of our own human nature. At the start of therapy, most people regard their inner realm of feelings, memories and longings ‘at a distance’, as I first glimpsed the Serengeti from the ridge. They imagine their hearts to be places of little interest, with ‘nothing much to see’. In time they learn to watch and wait for revelation. Their inner emptiness turns out to be a wilderness of wonder.
In the story at the heart of this season of Lent we are told that ‘Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness.’ He didn’t stumble, or fall, or end up there by accident. He didn’t lose his way or get led astray. Nor was he forsaken by God. He was led there by the spirit. He withdrew from the world at large to dwell for forty days and nights in a place of solitude, vulnerability and silence. It seems that Jesus knew there was a wellspring of life to be found in the wilderness, a hidden presence that would reveal itself, in response to his faithful watching and waiting.
The Gospels, especially those of Mark and Luke, note that alongside the imperative to go out and spread the word, to feed and heal the people, Jesus placed great importance on the practice of retreat. We see him taking himself away immediately before choosing his twelve disciples, before the Transfiguration and most poignantly perhaps, before the Crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before teaching the Lord’s Prayer Jesus urged his disciples to balance their ‘going out’ with regular moments of ‘going in’. Matthew recounts him saying to them ‘go into your room and shut the door’.
Behind closed doors, tucked away from sight in a quiet upper room on Replingham Road, I’ve come to see therapy most essentially as an experience of retreat into a place of wilderness. For an hour a week my clients leave the busy-ness and familiarity of work, leisure and family and step into a place shielded from expectation and distraction. It is an emptied and uncharted space. What happens next between us is not on any map. Neither I nor the person who enters know what lies waiting to be discovered. Nor is this process of self-discovery instant, it requires patience, courage and faith from both of us over many weeks. Most people’s journey in therapy lasts just short of a year – somewhere in the region of forty sessions.
The forty days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness suggest to me that cultivating the quality of attention that might allow us to feel the presence of the still small voice, takes time. The French word for time is ‘temp’ (T.E.M.P). It stems from a Latin word meaning to stretch something. So time is experience stretched out beyond the instant. The Latin root ‘temp’ also gives us our English words ‘contemplation’ and ‘temple’. Contemplation is attention stretched out over time, and temple was once a cleared space stretched out on the ground for sacred practice.
Along the way to revelation, the practice of retreat and contemplation is often beset with doubt, and despair. Untethered from our usual distractions, we may encounter forsaken longings, un-mourned losses, buried memories. It can be tempting to give up, to return to a familiar territory where the wilderness within is filled once more with busy-ness. My role as a therapist is not to offer a quick fix, a ready-made way through, but to hold the individual in their bewilderment, to help them stand firm against the lure of doing and consuming. Together we watch and wait for the still small voice of revelation. To make our way through the appearance of emptiness within, we need to slow down, to look around and above all, to listen. There is an intensity to this state of being. For it is precisely when we are lost that we become most fully present. Wits sharpen, instincts stir, our dulled senses awaken.
In the account of the forty days in the wilderness, we see Jesus at his most human. In this untamed and unfamiliar place, we might imagine that he encountered his own bewilderment. Perhaps in the many days of his solitude he even felt forsaken at times. The temptations of the devil play into this essential experience of human frailty. By suggesting a quick fix of turning stones into bread, the first temptation offers Jesus a way out of his experience of emptiness. By promising him power and glory, the second plays on his sense of worthlessness. And by suggesting that the intervention of divine forces means he cannot fall or fail, the third taunts Jesus in relation to his vulnerability. Emptiness, worthlessness and vulnerability are perhaps the most common feelings we all encounter when we take ourselves off the main track and first discover the wilderness within.
Living as we now do in this age of instant consumption and infinite distraction, we are never far from the quick fix feed of social media, twenty-four hour news and ready-made snacks. In the ever-present noise of our switched-on world, we may struggle to heed Jesus’ advice to ‘shut the door’. Yet without the capacity for retreat and bewilderment, we risk losing our connection to a wellspring of wisdom and abundant love. Jesus shows us, that if we are to hear the still small voice of God’s promise, we may need to bear with the experience of emptiness, worthlessness and vulnerability. To bear our bewilderment we may need the guidance of others who have already explored some of their own wilderness and cultivated a more faithful vision.
In these times of devastation and desolation, we need more than ever to feel the presence of God in our midst. Jesus reminds us that if we are to be instruments of God’s work in the world, we need to regularly take ourselves away, to learn to watch and wait for revelation. I will be forever grateful to my Tanzanian guide for showing me that there is life all around us, all the time. And that if we are to feel this vital presence, we need to clear a space in our lives, to stop the vehicle which drives us to keep doing and instead, stay very still and quiet for a time. The more often we encounter God’s presence, the more we learn to trust that, like the stars above Abraham, it is always there.