Wilderness Experiences

by Will Fletcher.

Our church is using the film Casablanca as the basis for our Lent group study. In some ways it is a timely film of refugees fleeing persecution and war. The story revolves around a café owner, Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) who is confronted by an old flame seeking safe passage from Casablanca to the United States via Lisbon during the Second World War. Early in the film, Rick is sitting outside the café with Captain Renault the Captain of the Police. In response to the Captain’s enquiry as to what brought him to Casablanca, Rick states that he came for the waters. Given Casablanca’s desert location, Renault expresses his surprise, Rick’s droll response: “I’ve been misinformed”.

Desert and wilderness experiences are common themes for reflection through Lent. We begin the season remembering Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness;[1] we may also reflect on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. One of the thoughts coming out of our Lent study is that it is quite possible to be in the wilderness even in the middle of a bustling city. When we feel isolated and cut off from other people, when we live with loneliness, or when we are unable to see signs of life around us we can feel as though we are living in a wilderness, regardless of what else is around us.

In these unlooked for wilderness experiences it can be tempting to think we must face them all with a smile, to believe that they must all be part of God’s plan for our own good and happiness. Yet in those moments when we feel like we are in the wilderness and times are tough it is okay to long for escape and freedom. We can join with the psalmists in lamenting our current circumstance and crying out to God for deliverance.[2] In these times it is quite acceptable to dream of a different vision for how your life and world should be, and to share such a vision with God.

Just because it is right and appropriate to seek escape from unlooked for wilderness experiences, does not mean all wilderness experiences are bad. From the early days of the Church women and men have travelled into the wilderness seeking to escape the trappings of the world and forge a closer connection with God. People in our Lent group who have had experiences of travelling into a desert or other wilderness environment were amazed by the signs of life that were still about. In the harshest of places, life can still flourish. In intentionally leaving the world behind to journey into the wilderness we too can discover those surprising signs of life that weren’t there or we hadn’t noticed in the midst of our day to day living.

We have previously reflected that one doesn’t need to travel to an actual desert in order to feel as though one is in a wilderness. We can make that journey into the wilderness by switching our phones and computers off for a day; by finding somewhere to go for a walk away from our usual pattern of life; by being silent or by fasting; and there are countless other examples. They all point to leaving behind our world and its comforts and distractions, in order to forge a closer connection with God and notice those unexpected signs of life.

It is common when talking of those moments of spiritual experience that might be called mountain-top experiences to say that, amazing though they are, we are not made to live on the mountain-top. Well, I believe, we are not made to live in the wilderness either. These times of surrendering from the world and journeying into the wilderness can bring real spiritual growth, but we are then meant to allow that growth to shape us as we return to the world and our usual patterns.

So in these last few days of Lent, it is worth considering whether you already feel in the wilderness and desire to escape, or whether you are in the hustle and bustle of life and need to take time to journey into the wilderness, even if you do so from the comfort of your own home…

[1] Matthew 4:1-11

[2] E.g. Psalm 43 or Psalm 137

One thought on “Wilderness Experiences”

  1. Thank you for this Will, I agree we are not made for the wilderness which is an interesting reflection, I wonder, given the experience and inclinations of the Desert Fathers and Mothers whether there is a difference between desert and wilderness and what that might be.


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