“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
For centuries upon centuries, the wilderness has been utilized as a multifaceted place of divine encounter. All the major founders of the world’s religions, the primary figures in the Bible, saints, prophets, philosophers, apostles, monks, hermits, and ordinary people of all generations have ventured into the wild for a variety of reasons. Some went to find solace, solitude, inner peace and a greater connection with the sacred. Others journeyed deep into nature to be put to the test, gain discipline, go to war with one’s inner demons, and to be purified and strengthened in mind, body and spirit. There are those who have spent time immersed in the wild to learn wisdom, to die to themselves and the world they know, in order that a new one may emerge. Some go to do penance, pray, prepare or study. Others go to experience a sense of “freedom,” or at least to find a neutral setting of indifference, and a sense of comfort in living a life on nature’s terms, instead of those of the civilized world. No matter what the initial inspiration, those of pure intention walk the path into the wilderness to encounter, and hopefully find, that which is ultimately good, fulfilling, nourishing, liberating, healing, and restorative. The pure of heart seek divine, supernatural gifts, from spending time in the natural domain of creation.
The flip side, however, is that there are also those who enter the wild to seek and carry out dark, dastardly deeds in the secrecy of nature. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and criminals of all kinds have been drawn to the hidden realm of the wilderness in pursuit of terrible atrocity. Just as portrayed in sacred scripture, in the “garden” there is present the opportunity for humanity to engage in both great good and horrific evil. The indifference of the wild is ever present. In the midst of it, one is faced with many temptations and serious, life-altering choices.
It’s precisely because of this indifference found in nature that one discovers the full-force of objective, unfiltered reality, and the need for making strong, conscious decisions while spending time there. Mother Nature does not “spin” the facts, and one’s opinion or status is utterly meaningless to her. When faced with both great beauty and savage brutality, one must choose and gravitate to that which is the higher good. When confronted with both surreal joy and life-threatening chaos, one is terminally required to make the conscious decisions necessary to unceasingly strive for one, and avoid the other. When one’s self is the only human present to witness or judge the morality of one’s actions, one is faced with the raw essence of ethical choice. When the sustaining of our life comes down to fulfilling four basic needs (shelter, water, fire, and food) we are fiercely reminded of what is truly essential for life. We realize how fragile and precious it is, and how so much of what we kill ourselves to attain and accomplish during our time in the “world,” is laughably unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
While it can be easy to judge this “indifference” of nature as being something “evil,” it is, in fact, good and necessary. Just as the “bad,” potentially destructive forces of nature can bring about regeneration in the long term, so too, the “bad things” that we experience in the natural world have the potential to bring about tremendous growth in us. Even Jesus, who Christians believe is God incarnate, experienced tremendous temptation and hard choices, as well as the wrath and extreme discomfort of nature, during his time in the wilderness.
A Positive Indifference
The indifference of nature can, and should, greatly inspire us to choose and strive for that which is good. While we are not forced to do so, we come to realize quite alarmingly the consequences of making bad choices. Perhaps, one of the most important, truly divine lessons that the wilderness teaches is this one. We are created for goodness. Our relationships, the core of who we are as human beings, the power of our will, our ability to make responsible choices, our true freedom, etc., all revolve around, and are contingent upon, our ability to consciously choose that which is good. As all major religions teach, that which is “good” is that which is of God.
Indeed, there is a tremendous amount to be learned from the Creator through creation. No matter if one is simply spending a few hours, the better part of a weekend, or if one is on a hard-core, extended stay in the wild, lessons will be taught and an education will be received. Nature has a wonderful way of teaching us what we need to learn or experience, not always so much of what we want to. The old saying holds true, “Man plans and God laughs.”
When one stands at the trailhead, there is an endless world of possibilities that open up. A vast library of knowledge becomes available, and a gallery of sacred beauty, which goes far beyond the imagination. There are challenges ahead that will forge one’s will into steel, or break it in two. The trail can lead to a life-changing encounter for better or for worse. The choice is ours. We must seek the “good way,” and walk in it. Whatever the case, there is no retreating once the feet are in motion on the ancient path. As reminded by the prophet Jeremiah, every step is an opportunity to find rest for the soul. Come and see. A new day is about to dawn!