The idea of wilderness as a place of deep spirituality is not new at all. If we delve into Old and New Testament roots of spirituality in the wilderness, we see that many – if not all – of the major figures in the Bible sought quiet time in the wilderness to confront, deepen, or connect with their own spirituality.
What changed? Spirituality – as part of the religious life – became institutionalized. As Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, it moved into closed spaces and became subject to rules, presided over by priests and organized into a formal religion. For Western European and American Christians, spirituality became a boxed-in, regulated practice virtually divorced from its early connection with the wilderness. Even in the late twentieth century, prayer was generally something you did in the church building or at the dinner table or before you tucked yourself or your children into bed. For most Christians, the rich tradition of spirituality in the wilderness was forgotten.
But life changed around the turn of the twentieth century. Cities and villages had always existed, but in the mid-twentieth century, people in Western Europe and the Americas began a long and civilization-changing migration from farm to town. They began working in office buildings and living in apartment buildings, suburban home developments, and other medium to high density venues. The farm was left behind, and so was almost all connection to the natural world. The “outdoors,” for most people, became a city park or a back yard. If you want to connect with the natural world, you have to make an effort.
The connection between the wilderness and spirituality has never been more needed or well-suited for humans than any time since the ancient world. As church participation and attendance continues to plummet, we might appreciate that time in the wilderness is a time-honored spiritual practice. If a majority of Americans do not darken the doors of churches any longer, it may because they have chosen quiet, soul-nourishing spiritual experiences that are just as much a part of Christianity as a structured liturgy led in a boxed-in building.
This blog post is an excerpt from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in both e-book and paperback editions at Amazon.com.