Weeks ago Chaplain Mike asked the writers and myself to contribute content on the theme of “the wilderness.” I submitted one short poem and promised a longer piece, then waited for inspiration. This week I was still waiting. So, having difficulty writing about a wilderness experience, I instead went out and had one.
I was on my way to visit my parents and sister and took advantage of the opportunity to detour to one of my favorite places — Gethsemani Abbey. The place so beloved by Michael. The place now loved by Jeff and Chaplain Mike, too. I knew I could only spend a couple of hours there, and one of the primary items on my agenda was walking one of the trails through the woods.
As soon as I arrived I changed into my dog-walking shoes. I had brought them in anticipation of this trek because I knew the ground would be muddy from all of the recent rain. I passed by the Stations of the Cross and through the wooden gate. I grabbed a walking stick and set off wearing a small backpack containing the lunch I’d brought along. I started up the hill marked periodically by small signs reading, “To the statues!” (I add the exclamation point myself because…well… it just seems to belong there.)
When I got to my favorite little bench overlooking a lovely valley, I sat down and enjoyed my homemade bread, banana and yogurt. I prayed and meditated as the sun warmed my back and a gentle breeze swayed the tiny wildflowers at my feet. The distant bells called the monks to prayer and a couple of other hikers passed me on their way up the hill. It was wonderful. Carefully packing up the remains of my lunch, I donned the backpack and proceeded to complete the trail, carrying my leftover half-can of Pepsi.
I had walked this trail several times before. When I reached the end, I decided rather than retracing my steps I would circle around and go down by completing a big loop. I’d done this before, at least twice, in fact. I knew what I was doing, right?
Wrong. I’m still not sure what happened, exactly. Suffice it to say that I soon found myself in a part of the woods I’d never been in before, following a trail that was getting fainter with each step until there seemed to be no trail at all. I didn’t know where I was, where I should be going or how I had gotten there. It was one of those situations in which every potential decision might prove to be a mistake. I’ve come so far now. What if I turn around when I was really just a few yards from the end? Or what if I turn back and can’t find the route I took to get here? I could get even more lost than I am now.
Don’t panic, I kept telling myself. It was a gorgeous spring day, unseasonably warm, yet not actually hot. I did begin to get uncomfortable, though. My boots were kind of heavy and my athletic socks were rather thick. I had already rolled up my sleeves, but if I’d known I would be spending this much time outdoors I’d have worn shorts instead of jeans, and a cooler top. It was mid-afternoon, so I knew I had plenty of daylight left. Yet I was in an isolated place and nobody knew I was there. This is why they tell you to not go on a trail alone.
I called out every so often, but no one answered. There was not much of a trail at all now. I approached a small hill. This is the last hill, I decided. I can’t keep going on like this if I’m just going deeper into the woods. I had finished nearly all of my Pepsi. I could tell my face was beet red and I was slightly out of breath. All I could think of was Allen Krell’s recent IM post, “The Unseen Trail.” I don’t want my throat to get so dry that I can’t swallow! I had passed two spots where a small stream was coursing through the woods. At least I know where there’s water — if I don’t stray too far from it. But how am I going to get anywhere if I don’t leave the water? The Pepsi can. At one of the streams the water went through some rocks and spilled out in several teeny waterfalls. Who knows what germs are in it? But it looks clean. And if I’m dehydrating, water is water, right? I slurped down the rest of the soda and held the empty can under the mini-falls until it was full and again felt cold in my hand.
Time to seek divine assistance. I had already been praying, but I decided to call in the whole team. Blessed Mother; Saint Elizabeth Ann, my friend; Saint Anthony, finder of lost things (me!); St. Jude, my always-protector…MICHAEL! You know how directionally challenged I am; help me here! I stood still for a moment, waiting. Any hidden paths in the vicinity remained unseen. No angel appeared to guide me. So I moved on. The only miracle was that I stayed on the trail, and that was miracle enough. Little by little I found my way back to the meadow, back to “the statues!” and back to where I had begun.
I had sipped the cool water several times. Now I poured the rest of it out as a thank offering to God for providing for my foolish self. I hurried to the visitors’ chapel to further express my gratitude for His rescuing me from the beauties of creation. Before I left the abbey my eye was drawn to some papers in a basket in the guest house. What’s this? Oh, look. A map of trails at Gethsemani. Such great fun when God’s sense of humor shines through.
• • •
For starters, the wooded wilderness is a great place — for a squirrel. What makes the wilderness such a bother is that we are unprepared for it. If I had been in full readiness to spend the night in the wild I would have been “going camping” instead of “getting lost in the woods.”
How can we possibly be prepared for a crisis that we never saw coming? We can’t be ready for any and all events, of course, but we can try to “expect the unexpected.” Most of us, whether we realize it or not, carry with us the assumption that “it” is going to happen to somebody else, not us. We may secretly believe that being a Christian will protect us from bad situations. Perhaps we can lessen the sense of being completely blindsided by tragedy if we understand that it can happen to us, and that sooner or later it probably will.
Though we are never prepared when disaster strikes, maybe we can be less unprepared. An injury or surgical wound will heal more quickly if the person’s body is in overall good health. We must do what we can to stay in good shape spiritually. An active prayer life, knowledge of the scriptures and a network of supportive Christian friends will help us believe in God’s love and sovereignty in all situations.
Second, sometimes we have to go out the same way we came in. When lost and wandering in the wilderness, we hope for that unseen path to appear with a neon “Exit” sign hanging right above it. Short of that, we’d like to find that our steps have taken us full circle and we are back where we safely started. But there may not be a hidden path, and our best efforts may only take us farther from home. Instead, we may have to retrace our steps, slogging through the same mud puddles, bending low to pass under the same branches and giant-stepping over the same fallen logs.
There may not be a flash of revelation. We might not emerge from the forest with a notebook outlining our next essay: “Ten Things I Learned in the Spiritual Wilderness.” If we fall to our knees and cry out, “Lord! What am I supposed to learn from this?” our only answer could be the sighing of the breeze in the evergreens overhead.
But once we’re not lost any more, does it really matter how we got out? Unexpected trails, circular paths or back-tracking all the way, we can still drink cool water from the fountain and let it run down our chins. We can still kneel and give thanks to God for His guiding hand.
Oh, and what was the third thing I learned? Before you plunge into the forest…get a compass.