During Easter weekend we spent some time in Knoydart, self-christened the ‘last wilderness in the UK’. In a way, it’s probably better to go to the second-last one as lots of people seemed to have the same idea as us in wanting to see the LAST one. But a day of walking back from the village into the mountains and the label rang more true.
And – for someone feeling slightly wary and weary from wandering what feels a bit like a ‘spiritual wilderness’ for a while, it was an unexpected blessing. As I wander this way and that exploring what it means to pray, carefully (and sometimes not carefully) weighing my known ways of doing things, exploring the why behind the how, it sometimes feels a lonely and scary path. Fault lines realigning. So to willingly acquaint myself with and feel the physical wilderness seep into my pores, manifest through blisters, cling to my clothes like woodsmoke was a way of realising my feelings in a tangible way.
Somehow being in the physical wilderness made it easier to imbibe the truth that Jesus wanders with us in our spiritual wilderness places too. A reminder that, with the right guide – whom you know and trust, the wilderness isn’t a scary place. Dangerous and raw, perhaps, but nothing that cannot be navigated with someone who knows how to read the landscape.
It is good. To explore the hidden valleys and caves and feel the gradual twinge in the ankle from walking through hummocks.
It is good to reach the end of a long day and find an invitation to sit by the fire, eyes watering from damp wood smoke but body thrumming with the contentment that comes from exploring to the edges – and beyond.
It is good to reach the peaks and shed tears at the overwhelming majesty of it all.
It is good to have honest conversations in the less thrilling days where you commit to walk the valley path, one eye wistfully on the breathless ridges high above.
It is good to face the raw emotions that seem at once obtrusively loud and completely absorbed in and by the stillness.
It is good, because I know and trust my guide. He can read these peaks and valleys. The hummocks and secret shelters full of ticks and fresh springs.
I realise I know and trust Jesus, my guide. He knows every peak, and every valley. He knows the hummocks, the shelters, the ticks and the springs.
Yes he dwells in the churches, the meeting rooms, the liturgy and the structures. But He dwells here too. Lying beside me to marvel at the stars in the crisp darkness, silence broken only by the crackle of glowing wood.
I’m floored afresh as I realise the only reason He knows this place is because He chose to wander it too. Chose to know the raw extremes of human feeling – the agony and the ecstasy. Chose to know what it means to be outisde, on the margins with the rejected. Chose to take the cup which would lead to the deepest grief. To know what it is to be betrayed by a beloved, to be misunderstood. To be hungry, to be thirsty. To know the bittersweet of breaking bread for the last time with those he loved. To stare deep into the pain in the eyes of a woman bearing witness to her son’s dying breaths. To know separation from the Father – from his very self – for the sake of the world.
Yes, you know these places.
Back in London without the signposts of physical wilderness it seems harder to navigate the unknown paths. I love how in the physical wilderness John figures out our path by recognising animal footprints, following the barely discernible path which they have taken through the overgrown grasses and keeping in step with them – they who inhabit this place and know it well. How well do I do this in my everyday wandering? How well do I recognise the footprints of Jesus – barely discernible though they may be?
Because I trust that they are here. That he wanders before and behind. That he sets up camp on street corners, beneath bus shelters, in the forgotten corners, inviting us into rest. Inviting us to befriend the wilderness, to acknowledge the questions and doubts. Teaching us that it is safe to wander, looking for his footprints which make a way through the trees.