In the Wilderness

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We are just starting Lent, and church services at this time of year remind us of Jesus in the wilderness. The wilderness is fascinating in all sorts of ways, though I must admit that my knowledge of wilderness is somewhat second-hand. 

I caught something of the magic of the wilderness from Laurens van der Post’s films for TV, filmed in Botswana, and based on his book, The Lost World of the Kalahari. As the title implied, the desert life he was conveying was already fading by the time he filmed it, but he still conveyed something of the impressive depth and simplicity of desert life. 

I have also been moved by Jim Crace’s novel, Quarantine,which won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award, which retells theBiblical story of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. In 

Crace’s version, Jesus is one of a handful of people who have retreated to the Judean wilderness in search of enlightenment or purification. The mysterious Galilean had ‘put his trust in god, as young men do’. He had decided he ‘would encounter god or die’. “He had come to talk directly to his ‘god’ or ‘let the devil do its work”. Crace comments that it ‘would be a test for all three of them’. Jesus stumbles across the tent of a selfish and brutal trader who has fallen ill and been abandoned; his health revives, and the miracle is credited to Jesus.

The wilderness within us

My thoughts have also gone to Harry Williams, once Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, who left it to lead a monastic life with the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. Harry tells his personal story rather movingly in Someday I’ll Find You. He had been a fairly conventional Anglo-Catholic priest, in denial about his homosexuality. However, that had led to a long and rather public nervous breakdown, in which he did intensive personal therapy. When he returned he vowed that he would never again preach anything he did not know to be true from personal experience. 

One of the first sermons he preached on returning was on The True Wilderness. His point is that wilderness is within us, not just around us. The deprivations of the external wilderness evoke and stir up the psychological wilderness within us. The desert also serves as a metaphor for the wilderness within, and provides a language for talking about it. Harry urges us to spend Lent attending to the inner wilderness, rather than going through an ‘ecclesiastical charade’, and giving up chocolate.

The most interesting young academic I know working on all this is Nell Aubrey, who is doing a PhD at University College London, and is looking at wilderness as the natural habitat of the supernatural. Watch out for her work as it starts to be published in the next year or two.

For those of you living near Cambridge, UK we will be having a Contemplative Eucharist at St Clement’s Church in Bridge Street at 5.00 pm on Sunday 17thMarch 2019, with a rich selection of readings on ‘wilderness’.