July 28, 2014

Lost in Gethsemani

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Lost in Gethsemani (Denise Spencer)

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.

• • •

I had plenty of time during the second leg of my journey to ask, So what have I learned from all this? What pithy truths can I share with the iMonks?

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.

Comments

  1. Denise, I enjoyed this essay very much. I am directionally-disadvantaged myself, so I understand getting temporarily lost!

    I particularly like, “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.”

    Thank you sharing this with us. Peace to you. Your Michael will always have my gratefulness for having started this blog and for his wonderful, heart-felt writings.

  2. ‘What makes the wilderness such a bother is that we are unprepared for it.’
    Yes! Thank you Denise for this perceptive and helpful reflection.

  3. Yes, we are called to be ready in season and out of season. The only thing is, we don’t really take that to heart until we’ve been caught out of season a few times and experience the panic or the hardship firsthand. Then we start packing the spiritual compass whenever we step out the door.

  4. I find that I really want my Christian walk to be like the first part of your journey–quiet, peaceful, meditative, church bells ringing, lunch-inclusive.

    But in reality it is more like the second part–frenzied, desperate, wandering, hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable.

    And the funny thing is that I think that the second is where God wants his children to be so that they will look to Jesus for help.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    Denise, thank you very much for this piece. You said “What makes the wilderness such a bother is that we are unprepared for it.” How true that turns out to be.

    I have a friend, a grown man, who is afraid of the woods, especially as darkness approaches. The inability to see very far, the night sounds, and the lessening light bring fear to his heart. When someone is with him, however, the fear diminishes.

    If we are looking for lessons to learn, then the two I pick up are: be more prepared for those unmarked trails, and have some friends not too far away. However many times we don’t learn these things until after the experience.

    Even though I lived in Kentucky for many years I’ve never been to Gethsemani. Hopefully I can remedy that in the future.

  6. Thank you for this, Denise. It’s just what I needed today.

  7. Joseph (the original) says:

    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.

    yes indeed, “it” happens…

    to sinner & saint in equal measure…

    and then there is the other irony: striking out on the ‘straight & narrow’ path inevitably involves twists, turns, detours, desert places, a barely perceptible path & at least one tour thru the Valley of the Shadow of Death…

    no wonder so many choose to take that wide road.

    {sigh}

    strengthen our steps, O Lord, for the path we have chosen to follow is challenging & at times scary. nourish us, guide us, protect us, call us onward. amen…

  8. As I read I notice our wilderness journeys from another time with the same thoughts of another writer “God, listen! Listen to my prayer, listen to the pain in my cries. Don’t turn your back on me just when I need you so desperately. Pay attention! This is a cry for help! And hurry – this can’t wait! I’m wasting away to nothing, I’m burning up with fever. I’m a ghost of my former self, half-consumed already by terminal illness. My jaws ache from gritting my teeth; I’m nothing but skin and bones” from Psalm102, The Message

  9. How can we possibly be prepared for a crisis that we never saw coming?

    ——————–

    Indeed…the hardest things was the sheer shock of the bad news. January 12, my phone started to go off and my sister texted me about my Dad and a stroke. It opened a door to something I didn’t want. here’s another one that scared the hell out of my college roomate and stunned me. My birthday in 1996 when a loved one was in a mental health hospital experiencing a mentl health emergency and later schizophrenai diagnosis. To this day I can remember those phone calls from my sister when she was in full psychosis. The paranoia, her belief that she was going to be killed. And nothing that could be said or done could make a difference. How can you speka logic to someone in severe psychosis? When that happened I sat in my dorm room on 22 birthday and cried like you wouldn’t believe.

    That was the part of the essay that touched me.

    • Radagast says:

      My roomate in college had a lithium imbalance which manifested itself as manic depression. He was OK unless he went off his lithium, then he would not sleep, which led to hallucinations and caused him to run. I experienced one of his episodes when he was gone for a few days and then showed up at our college apartment saying they kept moving the roads on him. I later asked him who “they” were, after I suggested we watch TV and he stated “they” said no. He said the voices inside (as I looked around to make sure no sharp objects were in sight). His girlfriend asked me to keep an eye on him until the guys from the hospital got there. His parents were around the corner, knowing full well that their presence would aggravate him. At times the experience was surreal, but a part of his reasoning mind was still “on” so we had fun with what was happening until they came for him. I rode with him to the hospital, and talked to the doctors about his behavior. Experiencing his world for a while through his eyes was an eye opener indeed.

  10. I love the woods, though I have never been lost in them. It’s the place i go when I want to feel the deepest sense of peace, the air thick with oxygen, the drifting scents from flowering plants, the babbling brook, assortment of bird calls, the pesky gnat…

    This summer I took my two oldest boys on a short three-day backpacking trip in the mountains. It just happened to be the hottest day of the year and we had gotten a late start since I worked that day. The first camp stop was a mere seven miles away, but the terrain was very steep with several large changes in elevation (both up and down) each mile. But the views were breath-taking. I had different emotions and thought surging throughout the first part of the trip, from feeling blessed to being able to share this – finally – with my boys (I used to do the same trail 25 – 30 years ago) and realizing that my age was beginning to catch up with me. The sights and sounds were beautiful, and yet I also realized we would run out of water long before completing this adventure two days forward. And my feet hurt to boot (and I was drenched with sweat, and my shoulders hurt, and…)

    We ended up filling our canteens from a few fast moving streams, hoping we wouldn’t catch some parasite. And at the end of the trip I had some pretty huge blisters. But I created some new memories, and had some very quiet moments of reflection along the trail, and some very excilerating ones as well (like walking up on a coiled rattler on the trail).

    Denise, your post resonated and I do practice what you preached – always carry a compass!

    • David Cornwell says:

      “I love the woods, though I have never been lost in them. It’s the place i go when I want to feel the deepest sense of peace,”

      Amen to that. In 1990 my daughter and I took a trip to Isle Royale National Park way way up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. It was one of the best happenings in my life, and we still talk about it. I can’t resist putting a link here to a photo from the trip: (you will have to copy & paste).
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_cornwell/3688533432/

      • Radagast says:

        I see you had big rocks to walk on too (walk on enough of them and your feet really begin to hurt). Nice pictures!

  11. Incredible article! I would propose that the journey through the wilderness is much less taxing when we understand the full concept of God’s love for us!

    The wilderness is truly a trying time, but the results of the process is more than worth the pain!

    • David Cornwell says:

      ” I would propose that the journey through the wilderness is much less taxing when we understand the full concept of God’s love for us!”

      I understand what you are saying here, but not sure I agree. David had been through many things with God, but his travails and trials were not any easier. It’s like being in the woods, lost, without someone with you. That person may be at home far away and your cell phone is dead.

      Job understood God better than his friends, but it only got worse and worse. I don’t think it was any less taxing for Jesus on the cross, not in the least, when he cried out to his Father “why have your forsaken me?”

  12. Here’s another one…do you remember when your faith started into a spiritual crisis? What preceeded it? Maybe it was something of the following…

    1. You learned that that youth pastor who you looked up to molested your child.
    2. You realize that you are facing church discipline perhaps due ot your beliefs in evolution, or another theological issue. All the love, grace, and service you gave means nothing as the church proceeds forward.
    3. Perhaps the church goes after you as a poor family leader when your teenage son/ daughter is in full rebellion. All the prayers, pleas and help are ignored…but the church moves forward and disciplines you. You are told that you are unqualified to led with Bible verses thrown at you.
    4. You learned that your son is gay when he sits down with you and tells you something you never thought you’d hear.
    5. You go to the doctor expecting a normal check up, the doctor finds a lump does a biopsy and weeks later your in a battle with cancer.
    6. The child you raised and loved tells you that he/she doesn’t believe in God anymore and that Christianity is a joke.
    7. Your daughter who is obedient, sweet and loving is raped. All the teachings of protection and guidance you realize are not true.
    8. You follow God’s will as you were taught in church. You do this because of your love for God and passion for serving him. So…you take that leap of faith only to have it backfire. Then the community you are in turns their back on you and you are left holding the bag trying to re-build your life after “Christian faith’ backfired.
    9. You learn that your husband had an affair for years and he wants to leave you. How could this be you wondered? I invested time in him, was a faithful wife, raised the kids, went to marriage retreats and conferences. I did all that I was taught…this makes no sense….?
    10. You’ve tried conceiving kids for a while. You’re in a culture that makes family an idol. And you desperatly want children so that you can have a family and fit in more at the church you attend. Every time you hear of someone getting pregnant it’s like a dagger in your back. Especially after all the service, prayers, and effort.. THEN it happnes..you and your husband learn you are pregnant. You are excited, you share the news with family, freinds and church. People are elated….and happy for you. A few weeks into it then the unthinkable happens and you learn you have a miscarriage. Now what…?

    Oh there are plenty of events that will hammer you. And of course the Christian chruch will just add on to those experiences. For many their Christian bubble is waiting to be popped.

    • Radagast says:

      And that’s what will happen when your whole life, whole identity, is wrapped up in a particular church, and in particular, a fungelical church that has cultic tendancies to keep members in line (now that may not always be the intention but the tactics push people that way).

      That has not been my experience. The church I belong to is declining. The population is aging, the membership is decreasing, there aren’t that many programs and the chrch is inside of the school (now closed) soits certainly not beautiful from the outside. We are all not particularly close, yet when there’s crisis people reach out, even if its just to make a meal, or put a hand on a shoulder to say – we are here for you. Sometimes its an older parishoner with a couple words of wisdom. But the jist is that we are a community with good and bad. It is my community and for that I don’t leave for the better homilies, or the glitz and glamour, or the better programs.

      Yesterday I was out playing basketball with my son (I stink at basketball) when I noticed a cleric coming from a neighbors house. By his garb I guessed him to be Serbian Orthodox (good guess on my part since the neighbor is serbian). I introduced myself and for the next 15 or 20 minutes we had some great conversation, and were joined by others who were out and curious. Community – not forced rules and spiritual abuse coming from those who float higher than the rest of us.

      Hang in there Eagle…

      • Adrian Z says:

        So true about having your whole life / identity wrapped up in a church. Particularly when you have your faith experiencenasna teenager and know nothing else. Sometimes it takes 25 painful years to find what is real and not

        In some ways still looking but Without (most) of the guilt!

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    And the ones with bubbles still unpopped turn on the one who popped like a feral dog pack, in an attempt to tell themselves over and over that THEIR bubbles will NEVER get popped. Destroy the Other so you can reassure yourself It Can’t Happen To Me (I say all the prayers right, I tithe all the tithes right, I parse my theology right…).

    I figure THAT’s the dynamic in play.

    Contrast that with Jesus’s reply when asked the sin of those who died in that tower collapse in Siloam.

  14. Radagast says:

    “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.”

    Although somebody will be trying to write a book about it… most of the time for me there isn’t an answer, or a lesson. Sometimes it takes of few of these similar experiences to see something that is glaring to others because I am blind. Or sometimes, as HUG has pointed out on several occasions, stuff just happens. In my experience I usually take two steps back for every two steps forward. I try to remember the pattern of thought that my old drunk boss had (he was the manager of a local movie theatre). He used to tell us:

    “You boys (we were all high school and college age ushers) are all taught in college that the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. Now I never went to college, so to me the fastest way from Point A to Point B is a circle! And that’s the way you will take the garbage out – not straight thru my theatres but in a circle around the building – or i will can your sorry a$$” – or something to that effect.

    Anyway- sometimes we don’t know the reason, and sometimes we can’t take the quickest route – instead we have to take the long way, or the way back, or just sit and ponder for a while.

    And sometimes I can’t succumb to ADD and I truly have to read the post all the way through and absorb it – before I comment…

  15. “What makes the wilderness such a bother is that we are unprepared for it…How can we possibly be prepared for a crisis that we never saw coming?”

    Even some of the best prepared adventurers were unprepared for what they encountered. I think there is a real temptation to seek a life where we are prepared for every unexpected situation before we set out. It leads to paralysis.

    • It is like the temptation to put our kids into a buble so they will not EVER get sick or be at risk…..but they never get a chance to grow and mature or learn how to deal with failure and pain, either. It is growth stifling.

      There is line between common sense preparation and being frozen with fear of the future. On the secular side, we have a lot of insurance, take our medications, wear seat belts, and the like.

      Spiritually, I try to stay close to the Master and ready for what comes, without fearing overly for my life or that of those I love. If anything, I tend to be the person who DOES expect the rotten stuff to happen and am thrilled when it is for a week and not a year, or for 50 lbs of burden instead of a ton.

      • ” I tend to be the person who DOES expect the rotten stuff to happen and am thrilled when it is for a week and not a year, or for 50 lbs of burden instead of a ton.”

        I like that, a lot!

      • Ah… Pattie – now that’s a Catholic point of view… the closer we get to union or deeper we get in our journey, the more we know that things will befall us to derail us from our path. That differs a bit from the atitude that if one is in God’s favor then one is protected or prosperous or elevated or…

        Some of the great Christian Mystics have encountered a thing or two…

        • With apologies to the Saint in question (since I am home with pneumonia and a fever my recall is off..) who so famously told God “If this is how you treat your friends it is no wonder you have so few of them!”

  16. The idea that faith leads to a life of health and wealth – free of adversity or doubt – does violence to the whole idea of faith. I think that is why I highly regard books like “Dark Night of the Soul” or “Cloud of Unknowing”. Pursuing God in a time barren of consolations feels much like being lost in the wilderness. But this is where real, meaningful growth takes place. I don’t say that lightly, because I find myself in one of those times right now, where God seems much like a “Ghostly Friend”, as the author of “Cloud of Unknowing” calls Him. It’s life without carrots and sticks. Rather than being whipped like a mule or led by the nose like an ox, what keeps us on the path, wondering and groping for our way, is our desire for God.

    • Hang in there D OX ( that’s white guy being hip hop), your in the company of saints. You really are.

    • I am right there with you… The Cloud of Unknowing is a book I always take with me on retreat, or if I am in a dry time. The Dark Night of the Soul (or any other Saint John of the Cross selection) is to me like the engineering manual of faith – highly technical and concise (suited for my mind). Your comments hit home.

  17. humanslug says:

    I live about 30 minutes away from a National Park with a fairly intricate system of hiking trails — and over the past few years, I’ve taken up day hiking as one of my favorite diversions. I love getting away from all the stress and noise of human civilization for a few hours. And there’s something about being out in nature that brings a feeling of closeness with nature’s Creator. Plus, I really need the exercise.
    And, yes, I’ve gotten turned around a few times and taken some wrong turns — sometimes finding my way back with only a few minutes of sunlight left. That was a little scary — but also kind of fun to have a perilous adventure with a happy ending.
    But with every wrong turn, I have expanded my personal knowledge of the trail system and increased my hiking options for future treks.
    In an odd way, getting lost and then finding your way back makes your world a little bigger.
    Maybe that’s one reason God so often calls us out of our comfort zones and well-worn paths.

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