The Inner Wilderness

wildernessby Matthew Russell

I grew up in a church that offered a program for Lent called “Ten Brave Christians”. It was a based upon John Wesley’s famous words, “give me ten brave Christians who fear God and nothing else, and hate sin and nothing else and I will change the world”. In and of itself it was a wonderful program but it came at a time in my adolescence when I was dead-set on performing for God in order to secure God’s pleasure, acceptance and favor. And so I got after it – I gave perfection my best shot. Looking back now what I remember most about those 40 days is the ungodly early mornings, the loads of scripture memorization and the weekly fasting. I remember my quick-witted brother saying to me as I fumbled, groaningly out of bed one morning, “I don’t think even God wants to be around you at this hour.” It was probably true. But there was a powerful inner chorus that kept me going: “Work hard, please God, don’t mess up”.

Today I find spiritual practices to be a vital part of the rhythm of my recovery, but as a young person in a culture of ‘spiritual performance’ it became a series of check-lists that promised me control over my world. It allowed me some mastery over my own inner program for happiness, my own plans for security, self-esteem and control. I had not yet learned how to hold together the awareness that my behaviors did matter, my actions could honor God, with an equally strong awareness that all this activity could be a way of exerting my own self-will! It would be a lot of pain and many years before I came to the limits of myself. But when I did reach the limits, when all the heroic spiritualities and determination were unable to ‘cure’ my addiction, the pathway of recovery was much more visible. A door of grace opened, and I found that God’s greatest surprises were wrapped in the ugliness of my own weakness and frailty.

Much of what gets passed off as Christianity really is just ‘performance spirituality’, comparing our insides to other’s outsides and the endless voices that tell us we should be doing it differently, could be doing it better, ought to be doing more of it. These endless efforts can easily become a seabed of resentment. Richard Rohr, in Breathing Underwater, recounts what Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, said he resented in most Christians was what he perceived as a constant underlying resentment: (1) a denied resentment toward God for demanding sacrifice, (2) toward others for not appreciating our sacrifice, (3) sacrificing as much as we sacrifice, (4) and a resentment towards others for not having to do it!

Many of us, having come to grips with the unmanageability of our addiction, gave up trying to make ourselves better through our own grit and determination. We discovered the profound relief that came through accepting our powerlessness as the gateway to freedom. Freedom is not what most of expected when we came to the end of our own capabilities. But it is what the Apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “power works best in weakness”. It is a spiritual paradox that “when I am weak I am strong.” Because of our powerful experience of our inability to do what needed to be done, it makes a lot of sense that when we see the season of Lent’s ‘high-beams’ cresting over the hill that we get a little jumpy, that we feel a little threatened. We wonder if this is just another religious guilt trip, just another checking of the boxes to get through an exercise that promises so much but delivers so little. So when we find ourselves in Lent many of us in recovery step in to the fray, look the other way and let it pass.

But surely there is more to this season than a 40 day slog through discomfort and irritation. Harry Williams in his wonderful book True Wilderness says that it is a down right tragic disaster when we think of Lent “as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasures of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of who we are.” Ouch. When our spirituality becomes a competitive (or contact!) sport or a series of activities that we can use as some objective proof that “I’m ok, I’m in control, I’m on the path of being right” we inevitably find ourselves lonely, isolated and farther from connection than when we started. Having found that we cannot ‘muscle’ our way to change, many of us gave up, gave in or gave out on this path.

The Invitation

For years I co-pastored a church that was full of recovering addicts. The community observed this ancient season in the life of the Church and we encouraged folks to use it as a time to work the 4th – 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous. A local Catholic retreat center would host a 4th and 5th Step weekend during Lent every year and many of our community would regularly participate. The ancient rhythm of the church and the practices in recovery began to meld in some wonderful ways. Through the combination of this season and the tools of recovery I deepened my practice of surrender, of vulnerability and came to terms with the specific things in my life that were creating an inner blockage to the grace and freedom of Christ. My recovery gave me a new lens to see and to understand Lent and, in turn, the practice of this season have profoundly shaped my recovery.

The invitation of this season is an appeal to come away from the incessant noise and activity that can fill and dominate every space in our lives. It summons us to spend time away and to cultivate and to create a space for solitude, mindfulness and quiet. In this space of inventory and self-examination we are able, with grace, to confront all the ways we use language and activity as a games of control and image-management. We often use words to re-enforce our reputation, defend our position at someone else’s expense and shade the truth to cast ourselves in a better light. The solitude and silence of Lent encourages us to ‘tap the brakes’ on the momentum of all that stuff, all the noise, and gives us an opportunity to look at the multitude of disguises worn by our ego. In the quiet we face the truth again that “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” (Ludwig Wittgenstein).

As I practice Lent through the life of my recovery I find that each year I am given the opportunity to come face to face with my own powerlessness and to enter into the renewing waters of surrender. I am given the opportunity to remember that my weakness and sin is always the doorway to grace and trust. It is here that humility greets us, that grace comes like the dawn, and we are drawn by God’s spirit into vulnerability and trust. This season of reflection and inventory is not intended to be a space where we turn loose the “thought police” on our own consciousness, or indulge in our “endless capacity for self loathing” (Henri Nouwen). It is not intended to be a time when we cart out all the voices of shame and let them yell and belittle us. Actually, Rowen Williams in Silence and Honey Cakes says it is just the opposite, “the truth is that we are looking or listening here for speech and space that will affirm and open the way to life. . .for words that disturb and change us not because they threaten but because they ‘fit‘ a reality we are just beginning to discern. If communities of faith took this seriously they would be extraordinary signs of transformation”.

The Wilderness

Lent is traditionally a time when we think about Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. Each of us have been in our own wilderness, the stories we tell in our addiction can be one long ‘wilderness’ story. But Lent shows us how to do ‘wilderness on our knees’, surrendered and open to God. The wilderness will always come—it’s not just relegated to our addicted past—it is a present and painful reality in many of our lives. The wilderness belongs to us. It is always lurking somewhere as part of our experience, and there are times when it feels like wilderness is all that there is. Wilderness everywhere.

The realization of the wilderness is what drove much of our addiction. I had a hunch early on that it was there – I could feel the fear, anxiety and desperation. It was my addiction that attempted to cover it up, numb it out, promise me that I could find an “easier softer way”. But when I got sober the wilderness was still there. Sobriety does not give us a free pass through the wilderness, it makes available the spiritual tools to go through this terrain and it re-forms us if we let it. But it is not an easy journey. It exposes what I can only characterize as a despair that runs underneath our lives. It can come in the form of a question that haunts us and echoes the Psalm of David: “How long, oh Lord, how long? How am I to live this? Where am I to put this? Does my life get reduced to an endless string of grey days, forced laughter, crappy TV and streaks of downright pain? How long? Oh Lord, how long?”

This is the true wilderness that no amount of our addiction could cover up. This is the place where true Lent meets us. It has nothing to do with giving up sugar or Guinness for a few weeks or trying to feel as bad about yourself as you can. Because Lent is located in our own wilderness, it has a place in the life of the Son as Man as well. This man of sorrows, this one who was acquainted with grief did time in the wilderness. And as we attend to the way Jesus experienced the wilderness we can learn what is happening within ourselves. In his wilderness we can see deeper movements of our own sobriety, a life that is deeper than despair, mental illness, resentment and lack of meaning. A life that can root our very being in the resounding echoing truth of our baptism into the way of Jesus, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” If this does not get down in our bones, if this truth is not allowed to permeate the dark shadows of our lives, we will always live in a type of shadow land. We might not return to our drug of choice but we will never be free to dance in the sun light of the spirit. And we were made to dance in the sun not to toil in the shadows. So the wilderness is ours. If we let it, it will teach us to dance.

How does this story about the wilderness of Jesus, inform our understanding of our own personal wilderness?

Let me suggest a few things.

The first is that the wilderness is inevitable. You cannot avoid it, you cannot buy your way out of it, achieve yourself around it, out smart it, out pray it – it is a part of you and you will experience it. Those who attempt to create hyper-religious reasons for the wilderness, or programs for by-passing it, are usually called “actors”, “mask wearers” or hypocrites by Jesus. And the sad state of affairs is, that instead of entering into the wilderness (where the world is) the church has, for the most part, tried to offer programs that promise a type of spiritual circumvention around it, or explanations of why people go through it. Maybe that is why the church is no longer “good news” to most people. But when we accept that the wilderness is inevitable we ‘live life on life’s terms’ and there are immense gifts that come with this acceptance.

The second thing we learn from Jesus’ wilderness experience is that somehow God is here. The presence of God, the love of God and the purpose of God are not separate from the wilderness. In spite of the darkness, in spite of being swallowed by it—still the purposes of God are at work. Lent reminds us that a “light shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1). Part of the importance of the church reclaiming the wilderness as our own—and not seeing it as something caused by sin or not being spiritual enough—is that in our own vulnerability we become the dwelling place of God. This is the great paradox of “hitting bottom”. The bottom is the dwelling place of God (Psalm 139). It is a place where our ego and “self-will run riot” finds it’s self overwhelmed by the unquenchable love of God. It is here that we learn to drop the pretenses of ego and come to one another, vulnerable and open. It is here that we experience the depth of our own self, and our need for each other. It is here in our own powerlessness and loss of faith that we learn surrender and communion. The purposes of God are present here.

The third thing about the Lenten experience of wilderness is that it does not last forever. The Spirit that drives us into the wasteland is the same spirit that carries us out. It may feel like it will last forever and we may be tempted to give up, tempted to despair, tempted to cynicism, tempted to cruelty, tempted to pull in and not serve others, tempted to dabble on the edges of our addiction. We may be tempted to push the button that says, “I just don’t care, what’s the use?”. We may be tempted to become a part of the mass of dead eyes that pass us on the street. We may be tempted to not take risks anymore, to let our hearts become hardened and lifeless. We may be tempted to shirk back from the most ordinary and undangerous of things. We may be tempted to disbelieve our true identity as “beloved son’s and daughters”. But this is our Lent. This is what we are faced with and must deal with. Life, death and resurrection, and it happens over and over and over, until we learn to dance unfettered in the sunlight of the Spirit. The only spirituality we will ever have will emerge from the wilderness. This is the great paradox of the wilderness, presence and absence, fear and angels, beasts and Spirit. And they live together in the wilderness, and they live together in you and in me. Whatever communion we experience in life will emerge out of the grace we have been given, the grace that carries us to and through wilderness.

The doing of Lent is the embracing and enduring of wilderness. It is how we learn to hold each other and to move towards each other. It is only in wilderness that we learn to allow love to do its work and to saturate the most isolated place of our humanity. As this happens we come to believe the deep reality of the second step that Paul put like this: ‘who shall separate us from the love of God, shall persecution or distress shall tribulation or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? For I am confident that neither height or death or angels or principalities or powers or things past or things to come or any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God.”

Even in wilderness we can find Easter in disguise.