In the Bible, the ancient Jews feared the wilderness. They saw it as the abode of demons (not to mention the more ordinary menace, bandits). This is why the scapegoat was released into the wilderness: to be consumed by demons. In so doing, they were symbolically exiling the sin that had dwelt in and among them, returning the sin to its native place.
They saw the sea not as the fertile place we do, teeming with life, but as a desert. In the Book of Jonah, the whale ("great fish") is not seen as a benevolent servant of God, but as a symbol of the Devil. Jonah is the story of Everyman on his journey to the land of the dead (Tarshish), who because of his unwillingness to obey God is swallowed up by the Devil.
The ancient Jews would not have understood what we get out of camping and hiking. But when they really, really needed to find God, guess where they went?
Normally, God was to be found in Temple (or Tabernacle) sacrifice, in living by the ritual Law, and (later) in studying the Scriptures and attendance at the synagogue. But in times of great need, or when the ordinary wells of the Spirit had run dry, time after time those who sought God were led out into the wilderness to find him.
Moses led the Children of Israel into (and through) the wilderness for forty years, encountering God on Mt. Sinai. Elijah lived in the wilderness in time of drought and was fed by ravens. After his confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, he suffered a crisis of confidence and fled to Mt. Horeb, where he found the Still, Small Voice that had eluded him elsewhere. In the New Testament, Jesus frequently left his work and his friends to go into the wilderness to pray, to clear his head, to recover his purpose, to rest.
Of course, Jesus also encountered the temptations of the Devil in the wilderness during his forty day fast. But this was only to be expected. "Getting away from it all" exposes one not only to the wonders one is usually blind to, but also gives voice to the inner thoughts -- including those less attractive -- that are usually drowned out in civilization.
I tell the youth I take backpacking that I can guarantee that they will have two encounters on the trail, wherever we go and whatever our objective: they will meet themselves; and they will meet God. I can't tell them when or where, and I can't guarantee what they'll make of either encounter, but I know this to be true.
Sometimes the Self we meet is not pretty. Raw emotions, frustrations, the awful need to be more important than others can all pop up when you're out in the wild with a group you can't get away from. But sometimes, too, the Self we meet is a pleasant surprise. We can come to like ourselves out yonder. And in packing our soul, like a backpack, we can decide -- as a spiritual shakedown -- to leave some things behind. In so doing, we travel lighter and become better people.
Likewise, when we meet God, we might be exalted or brought low. We might well fall in love with him -- or learn to fear him. We might hear a call we had not been able to hear before. We might even become deluded, not knowing how to react to him.
Great, authentic experiences with God do not guarantee orthodoxy or maturity. Charles Williams wrote of those who came out of Broceliande, the mystical wood near Camelot. In his commentary on Williams' poems, C.S. Lewis said, "those who have gone . . . a little way into the wood . . . are changed when they [return], and that in one or other of two ways. Some are 'dumb and living, like a blest child in a mild and holy sympathy of joy'. But the majority come back as cranks -- panacea-mongers 'loquacious with a graph or a gospel, gustily audacious'."
Nevertheless, we shall be changed by these powerful encounters. Knowing this, it is important that experienced spiritual guides accompany those who are just beginning to explore for themselves. After all, we want those who meet themselves to know what to do with that self-revelation; otherwise, they might shrink from what they discover and refuse to go any farther. And we certainly want people to know what to do with God's revelation of himself. We want them to know him as the true God, according to his right nature -- "and Jesus Christ whom he has sent."
So beyond my own joy in exploring the wilderness, or just messing about in the woods, there is this call on my life to guide others into the Deep Places of the soul. For I know whom they will encounter there, and I want them to make the best of their experiences.
Copyright 2004 by Arthur W. Collins