“Spirit, when we cannot part the weeds
Of our own traditions and old languages,
When the old pathways feel choked
With briars and thorns,
Would you make a path in the wilderness
For us to find you in new ways,
Would you meet us in the wilderness
and set out a feast?
We are hungry and thirsty.
We will tell you the truth of our lives
And of this world.
And we will listen to the truth you speak back…”
-Sarah Bessey “A Rhythm of Prayer”
“Wilderness” is such a rich metaphor for spiritual life. In the Light House virtual community where I’ve been travelling with other contemplative women for the past year our theme in March was “Wilderness” and I was amazed by the multi-faceted richness of the theme. I love the solace, respite, wisdom, and healing that I’ve found in physically visiting wild places, and I also know the fear and longing that happens when I’ve found myself in the metaphorical wilderness outside of my faith community or life in general.
One community member spoke about how we contemplatives, as light-bearers, can be companions to others in the wilderness. I had fun thinking about metaphors for this: guides, sign-holders, rangers, flaggers, trail-blazers, lookouts, scouts… I could go on! And it made me think about how there are probably those who, through experience or disposition or training, are better equipped for the wilderness, and perhaps even called to be there for others.
I was involved in Girl Guides (like Girl Scouts in the USA) growing-up, and spent much time learning to navigate wilderness and developing tools to find my way through it. And here I don’t just mean literally learning how to pitch a tent, cook over an open fire, and use a compass to find my literal way through unknown areas, leaving trail markings behind for myself and others (although yes, I learned all these things and more). But I mean all of these things in a metaphorical way as well – making shelter for myself and others by being welcoming and taking on leadership when required, nourishing body and soul together, and using what we do know to navigate the unknown. One could say that much of what I learned made me who I am today.
In my twenties (2001) I was asked to help out as a last-minute replacement leader for a big summer Girl Guiding event. Thousands of women from around the world were descending on a small patch of wilderness in the interior of the Canadian province I live in, BC. We were all scheduled to arrive at different times so as not to overwhelm the area. My Mom and my sister were also headed there with a different small group than the one I was with.
My group travelled through the night, on a bus, and arrived rather bedraggled around 6am. We hiked to our designated area, carrying our equipment, and before we could set-up camp, we had to clear the spot that had been staked-out for us. It was difficult and tiring work and even more so since we were exhausted from the journey. We used gardening tools and our bare hands to try to tame our little stake of wilderness. Once we had cleared, our energy for setting up our tents and tarps waned, and then it began to rain.
The co-leader I came with and I did our best to lead the charge, but in our own exhaustion I accidentally gave her a black eye while wielding a piece of equipment! Things were not looking good, and I realized what we really needed was help. So I went out to find my sister and my Mom, who I knew had arrived the evening before. Scouring the maps I found the area I’d likely find them in, and after a bit of a hike through the rain, I came upon their group’s camp site. As I walked up to those familiar faces and stepped under their shelter and out of the rain, I started to weep. They welcomed me in, hugged me tight, handed me a hot cup of tea, and pulled me into a chair by their fire. Overwhelmed by the hospitality, I could barely make out my plea: “I can’t stay, we need your help!”
Immediately my sister and her friends sprang into action. They picked up their tools and headed off to help my bedraggled group, while I lingered a few minutes to finish my tea with Mom. My sister and her friends taught my group some new tricks and guided them through the process of setting up the camp, never taking over, always assisting and supporting. It was just the confidence boost they needed, and to have young people only a couple of years older to mentor and shepherd, they no longer felt like they’d been defeated by the wilderness.
The struggles of that experience didn’t end on that first day, but, the sense of community support fed and nourished me for the rest of the week. I learned a lot about resilience, about asking for help, about letting go of control, and of trusting my own inner resources when things got tough. The leader who I replaced had chosen activities I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for myself, and there are other stories about mountain climbing and interpretive dance from that week that I will save for another time! Most of the week was spent outside my comfort zone, and I grew all the more because of that.
When we left, that piece of wilderness we tamed on the first day had been transformed into a campground where others could then visit and enjoy the beauty of that landscape. The work we did paved the way for others. Through the years I’ve often returned to this story and the lessons of that week. Wild places in me were also transformed that week.
I think that it parallels other experiences of wilderness I have had, ones not so literal: the interior wildernesses of feeling alienated from the holy and my community. Asking for help, and recognizing that there are others who have been in similar situations, I believe are both essential to navigating our wildernesses. And because I’ve learned to navigate those wildernesses, I can be a guide for others.