How To Learn From The Wilderness

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Jan 20, 2021
The Rev. Patrick Sipes

This article is a taste of the session Rev. Sipes will be leading at the online retreat sponsored by Seeking the Spirit Within on Feb 20, 2021. Register for the retreat and experience this prayer style in person (well, in virtual person) with Patrick. It is a deep and meaningful type of prayer.

How an outer wilderness hints at our inner wilderness times

On our honeymoon, my wife and I stayed in Flagstaff and toured all over northern Arizona. We went to many parks and monuments, toured ancient pueblos, saw the Grand Canyon, and even took a turn “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” 

The thing that all of these places had in common were directions. There were signs telling us how to get from one place to another. There were well marked paths to keep us from getting lost. There were informational displays that let us know what to look for or what we were looking at. All of this worked together to help us have a great self-guided tour of some amazing sights. 

 And then, we decided to step into the wilderness area in the northern section of Painted Desert National Park. Before embarking on this little hike, we read the signs that told us to bring water with us (which we did), we signed the paperwork letting the rangers know how many were in our party, what time we had left, and when we expected to be back. Then we stepped across an invisible barrier and we were in the wilderness.

Immediately the signs that told us directions to the next interesting sight stopped. The signs that told us where life-sustaining facilities were located stopped. The signs that warned us of potential dangers stopped, and as we walked down a trail that was easy to follow, it continued to branch and the path continued to fade, until the footsteps we made were the only ones that could be seen, and we were left wondering how long, if ever, it has been since another human had stepped on this particular piece of earth. 

For our part, we experienced all of this while never actually straying out of sight of the ranger station. We had an enjoyable and uneventful hike, but our brief experience of the wilderness was all at once freeing for its lack of boundaries, oppressing in its demand for responsibility to self, and a bit overwhelming in its boundlessness.

In the Bible, important transformations happened in the wilderness

Throughout Holy Scripture, we see people who are in the wilderness. Moses, the Israelite people as whole, David, Elijah, Jesus, all of these people and more find themselves at one time or another cast into the wilderness. While there, they also seem to follow similar patterns which can be seen most clearly through the Israelites in the book of Exodus. 

The pattern is this: 

  1. They go through some life changing event that forces them to leave their former life behind. 
  2. Their route of fleeing leads them out into the wilderness. 
  3. Once there, they are confronted with a conflict between their life that was, their life that is, and their life that could be. 
  4. In confronting their life that was, there is a tendency to romanticize how great things used to be.

For instance, the Israelites cross the Red Sea in chapter 14 of Exodus and by the beginning of Chapter 16 they have forgotten the forced labor, the bricks without straw, and the killing of their children and what Egypt is remembered for is “fleshpots” and “bread” (Exodus 16:3). 

In confronting their life that is, the wilderness serves as a place rife with learning new ways of being. The Israelites must learn to rely on God and learn new ways of following God that keeps the well-being of the whole community in mind. 

Jesus in his temptation in the wilderness is basically confronted with the realization that he has unlimited power, and must discern whether that power is to be used for himself or for the good of others. Finally, there is a confrontation that occurs regarding what life can be. 

We in our own plight are in the wilderness, not by our own choice but by circumstance. The question arises, then, what might we have to learn if we entered the wilderness voluntarily? Or finding ourselves here as we are, accepted that fact and let go of our conflict with our life that was? What if we focused on what we might learn here, and what our vision for the future is?

The REv. Patrick Sipes, Certified spiritual director

To get to this point takes truly letting go of the past. He has to learn the lessons the wilderness is trying to teach and develop sufficient vision for what the future can be. Then, he can move beyond the wilderness. 

This vision takes longer and shorter times for different people. It’s an often forgotten part of the exodus story that God tried to send the Israelites into the promised land soon after they left Egypt, but they were scared of the “giants” that lived there. They refused to go. It is only after this that they are doomed to spend 40 years wandering. 

We are living in a metaphorical wilderness time now

As I look at these stories of God’s people in the wilderness, I have noticed how much our lives during Covidtide have paralleled them. We have all been forced out of our former life and into a wilderness by circumstances beyond our control. 

Many have spent a good deal of time longing for the way things used to be. In my experience these longings are most often preceded by the words, “when we get back to normal.” Like others in the wilderness, we have had to learn new ways of being, both for our own good and the good of others. 

And our time in this wilderness has given many the opportunity to envision a different future. I’m not convinced, though, those visions are strong enough yet to carry us out the other side together and united.

What I’ve also noticed about all of these stories is how the entry into the wilderness is a forced one. Every one of the people I’ve mentioned from scripture, Jesus included, is driven into the wilderness by something. 

We in our own plight are in the wilderness, not by our own choice but by circumstance. The question arises, then, what might we have to learn if we entered the wilderness voluntarily? Or finding ourselves here as we are, accepted that fact and let go of our conflict with our life that was? What if we focused on what we might learn here, and what our vision for the future is?

In our Christian history, some brave souls voluntarily walked into the wilderness

In the history of the church, we find such voluntary wilderness wanderers in those who are referred to as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These hermits were active in the 3rd and 4th century. Having renounced all their worldly possessions, they would go to live a life of solitude in the desert. 

Their lives consisted of what many now consider an overly harsh asceticism, eating and drinking a bare minimum to keep themselves alive, while spending long days (and nights) in prayer. They might tend  a small garden to feed themselves and sometimes engage in handcrafts like basket weaving. 

Unlike the people of scripture whose wilderness journey usually lasted a few weeks, or 40 years in the case of the Israelites, the Desert Fathers and Mothers stayed on their wilderness journey until their death. For some of them, that was more than 90 years. 

The legacy of these desert hermits is a collection of sayings or “words” of sheer wisdom. Wisdom that you don’t just hear and then move on, but wisdom that you are left chewing on for years to come. Wisdom that can change a life because it comes from a life that has been changed. Wisdom gained from confrontation of what was, what is, and what is to come, as they not only survived but, in their own way, thrived in their small dwelling places in the desert.

A method for learning the wisdom of the wilderness

As we who have been forced into the wilderness struggle with our own conflicts, as we struggle to develop visions of what might be, the words offered by these desert Fathers and Mothers can be of great use to us. As a means of introducing ourselves to their wisdom and taking time to sit with it, the process of Lectio Divina or Divine Word comes to my mind as an excellent way of accomplishing this. 

There are abundant resources available online to go deeper into Lectio Divina as prayer. I will outline below a simple process you can use to get started. I’ve also drawn in some reflection prompts that come out of the ELCA Book of Faith Initiative

1. Read

There are numerous collections of sayings available. One that I have found useful in my own life is The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Paraclete Essentials) by Henry L. Carrigan Jr. available in paperback and e editions. For the purposes of prayer today, I’d like to offer one of my favorites:

A brother came to Father Moses and asked him to give him a valuable teaching. The old man said, ‘Go sit in your room in solitude, and your room will teach you everything.’

Take time to slowly and contemplatively read this wisdom several times. 

2. Reflect

After you have read the saying several times, sit with it for 5-10 minutes. Notice what thoughts and feelings are arising within you. If it helps, write down what is coming up. 

To help you get started, I offer the following questions to guide you. 

  • As you read this saying, what words or phrases did you notice that were sticking out to you? 
  • What did you notice that was hard to hear? 
  • What stories or memories did you notice were stirred up within you, or 
  • where did you find this phrase meeting your own life?
3. Respond

Take some time to have a conversation with God about all that you have noticed. Especially pay attention to how you feel God is calling you to be in the world or what God might be calling you to do.  

4. Rest 

Congratulations, you have done some heavy lifting with your soul. Before jumping up and returning to your day as quickly as possible take some time to rest with God. During this time, keep your heart open to whatever God might have to say to you. When your time of prayer has ended, offer a simple “Amen” and then continue with your day. 

I pray for you, dear Wilderness Traveler, that the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers may help ease the burden of this time and offer you a new vision for the future. 


The Rev. Patrick Sipes, Certified Spiritual Director

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