In this season of Lent, I have been thinking a lot about wilderness- the place of no words; I have been reading the stories of the ancients, St. Anthony who stood upon the stone, Amma Matrona who wrote, “We carry ourselves wherever we go, we cannot escape fear with flight.” Others who chose to walk out into the bareness believing that it is only in suffering we truly commune with God.
Jesus’ own wilderness wandering is not unlike that of Old Testament prophet Elijah, the man of God who called down fire from heaven to smite 400 prophets of Baal on the high point of Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18). I am intimately acquainted with this story; Elijah is my favorite biblical character according to aptitude tests administered upon my acceptance to seminary. Those esteemed folk who read the bubbles colored in with a number 2 pencil said, I chose Elijah because his is the character with whom I most identify. It seems I have some deep resonance with this one who was fed by ravens when the famine took the land, Elijah who revived the widow’s son from the grave, Elijah who prayed and upon whose word the rain ceased to fall; Elijah prophet fierce and wanderer afraid.
Admittedly, I love the parts of the stories where Elijah is bold and fiery, when he mocks the prophets of Baal, rolls right around on the ground laughing at them. I am in awe of the conviction with which he stood before Ahab unflinching and am humbled by the unwavering stance of his commands. It is the part where he’s so afraid, so frail and insecure that makes me squirm in my seat. My face flushes pink and hot and I wish he had not run away from Jezebel, regret that he threw in the towel and was brought low by his fear, I twitch, I writhe, but I know.
I know what it is to lose faith, to lose composure, to lose the power to maintain the strong face you want to present to the world. I know what it means to be brought low and need help, to buckle at the knees and be found at the end of my own strength, again. In some ways this is the gift of the wilderness, what the desert mothers and fathers knew, that when we find ourselves stripped of all comfort and assurance uncertain of our own ability to survive, it is here where what is mystical is manifest and we find the solace of God.
It is in this deep poverty of spirit where heaven meets earth, when words are scarce but presence is real; it is here in the dust when the angels attend us. Perhaps it is wilderness that helps us speak our raw, real need, we cry out, “help!” And they come--with chicken noodle soup and chocolate chip cookies, with soft blanket and fuzzy slippers and valentines stamped with baby’s footprints. The words roll in text messages delivered with stardust, facebook posts, emails and cards through the mail as if they had flown in on gossamer wings, and this--this is oxygen, the humidifier in your childhood bedroom that helps you breathe, in and out and you concentrate on doing just that.
You begin to realize out there in the wilderness, what is true. Fear is not from God, but fear is a part of you and at some point you have to accept it all, even the broken parts of yourself that you wish weren’t there. In the wilderness you see the ugliness, the scars, the unhealed wounds and you have to find a way to love those places and then to show them to those who love you.
It is not easy, when you have fought so hard to keep fear at bay, to stamp it down and keep it covered to no avail, maybe the wilderness teaches us, you have to pick fear up and take it by the hand acknowledge it is a part of you so you can make it known and healing can begin.
Maybe the biggest step towards faith is making peace with fear because what you make peace with can no longer keep you down. For all of you, fighting great battles may the angels attend you as face fear and love your scars. May your lungs fill up with the oxygen of presence so that you might be revived and walk on.