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Into the Wilderness

Article by Trish Stefanik (August 2017 eNews)

I used to live in the mountain wilderness of West Virginia. I also love to spend time in the high desert of New Mexico. Both places of natural wonder open me to God. Confronted with the magnificence and starkness of the landscape and the infinite variety of creation, I am compelled to stop, be still, listen, and see. In the face of Nature’s simple presence, anything I have in mind to say or do becomes insignificant and ineffectual. God has me where God wants me: filled with awe and gratitude. Little known to me in the moment, I am being energized with the love of God to infuse all my experiences in life. I am reinvigorated in the call to be faithful and true.

It is on the mountain and in the desert where I am inclined for Sabbath-keeping. It is there that I am reminded again and again of who I am at my core and my humble, precious place in God’s world. There is not a lot of baggage any of us can take on a trek up a mountain or across the desert. It will eventually become too heavy or cumbersome, and we must leave it behind—the stuff of a lifetime of accumulation, external and internal. Mountain and desert experiences call us to lay bare any and all expectations and claims. We are called simply to receive God’s grace. I have discovered that God’s grace is revealed in many forms in the wild, whether they are moments of amazing beauty or incidents of sheer terror.

Beauty is all around me. It is in tiny wildflowers and towering trees, an intriguing diversity displayed in a vast spectrum of color, shape, pattern, and texture. The four seasons lend even more splendor and mystery to reality with their particular expression in life’s cycle. All of my senses are engaged as I encounter bloom and fruit, rock and clay, still and running water, light and shadow at play, clouds morphing into whatever I can imagine, seedlings stretching down into the dirt and up toward the sun, fanciful mushrooms and ferns and other living things growing where I thought it impossible, and leaf and limb swaying with the wind.

Then there is the incredible array of creatures from insect to bird to mammal and other kind. My ears perk up at the call of a cricket, tree frog, or coyote. My eyes delight in the graceful spring of a white-tailed deer. My heart flutters as a striking black-and-white magpie whirls in flight. I watch my step and crane my neck for all that moves underfoot, overhead, and around the bend.

All of my experiences with Nature have not been pleasant. There are the bug bites and stings, sunburn and rashes, thorns and thistles, stumbles on loosened rock, and seeing up close what I would rather not see—a snake, for instance. The most traumatic encounter I have had was with a rabid fox. I survived the attack and the shock, but the occurrence begs the question, Where was God in that? I took the opportunity later to imagine wrestling like Jacob with an angel to learn to trust God more deeply. A few months after the incident, I was taking Sabbath time in a different natural place and met another fox. This one leapt away immediately. I again explored how my relationship with God could deepen. A few more months later when I was on retreat in the desert and spied pointy ears and two eyes staring at me from a ravine, I was filled with fear as I imagined the desert’s version of a rabid fox. I soon was relieved when this fox turned out to be the Abbey cat. I took the opportunity to smile at God as I would with an old friend.

With each new venture into the woods or canyon I do not know what to expect, and somehow that is good. I cannot be naïve about “the wild” in wilderness, but what it has to teach me about my self, God, and life is invaluable. Ultimately I realize that my nature is mysteriously connected to all creation. To be out of touch with that is to never fully understand what it means to be human as well as to miss an invitation to know God more intimately.

To be in communion with Nature helps me realize that there is something both beautiful and terrifying in me. And I must learn to make friends with that. To take the time to be in solitude and reflect prayerfully helps me to get in touch with God’s love and to discern how I might respond. There is much I do not understand and will never know. But one thing has been emblazoned on my heart by Sabbath on the mountain and in the desert: I am not alone. God is with me. And God is with each one of us through all of life’s experiences. That is something worth taking the time to recognize and to behold with gratitude.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Shalem’s Annual Report for FY 09-10.

5 responses to “Into the Wilderness”

  1. Dana Greene says:

    What a beautiful article, Trish. And so true. We are off to Montana and you have prepared me for what will be given. Many thanks.

  2. Thank you Trish for your work of finding words to relate what words alone cannot contain….think of you often when I see the Zuni’s….Ed

  3. Lovely reflection, Trish! I resonate deeply with it. Was hiking in the mountains, volcanic craters, and black ash beaches of Iceland in June, and in the Canadian Rockies in Jasper National Park in Alberta in July. As you note, “what it has to teach me about my self, God, and life is invaluable.”

  4. Your words spoke to my soul, as I begin a sabbatical sabbath journey that I hope will be filled with silence, solitude, nature and beauty. Thank you for expressing your experiences with the Divine in natures so articulately and poetically. I treasure this reflection

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