The Wilderness as Transformative
Our current crisis intersects the Jewish and Christian calendars at a fascinating time – Passover and Lent and Easter. Much of the inner meaning of these events relates to being taken out of our narrow, restrictive, mundane ways only later to emerge in the broader freedom of moral and spiritual renewal.
The Israelites are freed from their bondage in Egypt to wander in the wilderness and eventually arrive at Sinai. In the Christian tradition, Lent, the forty day period of reflection and reassessment, is akin to being in a wilderness of sorts, as well.
In the sacred writings of both traditions the wilderness is a symbol for a place that promotes self examination and interiority. The wilderness removes us from the life we are accustomed to and strips us bare of many of the comforts, habits, and routines that can interfere with us seeing life and ourselves clearly. The wilderness is a liminal space of transformation for those who engage it.
The Jews wander in the wilderness learning who they are and learning Torah. The process of wandering is not only self revelatory, it’s purifying, or at least it can be if we allow ourselves to be open to change.
In Christianity, before starting his public ministry, Jesus goes out into the desert (the wilderness) to pray, to search his soul, and to solidify his priorities. Lent encourages Christians to do the same, at least on a spiritual-psychological level. It’s a chance to strip away the extraneous and probe the depths of our truer selves.
In the same manner, the forty year wandering in the wilderness was a time of formation and transformation for the Jewish people. Each Passover, Jews are encouraged to question from what forms of limitations and slavery need we free ourselves and how can we break free of narrowness to emerge into a fuller sense of living and wholeness.
Crisis as Transformative
Covid-19 has caused billions of us to undergo various forms of lock-down, shut-down, and social distancing. While we are not thrust into the literal wilderness, many of us have been thrown into facing ourselves without many of the usual distractions of work, social life, and daily errands. We now find ourselves in the wilderness of unplanned time and we’re forced to come face to face with our own lives in ways that many are finding extremely uncomfortable.
Many of us are now through our third or so week of staying at home. We find ourselves with abundant time to think. We’ve been freed from so many of the routines that help keep us numb and too busy to ask ourselves about what really matters and what’s essential.
Tragically, the virus is killing thousands of people and causing many others to suffer. Few, if any of us, are not worried, concerned, and anxious for our health, the health of loved ones, as well as for the economy and our livelihoods. Thankfully, the vast majority of people recover from the virus. And at some point in the future, the economy will recover as well.
Despite the eventual recovery, we and our culture will have been changed by this experience. Most of us are looking at possibly another month, or more, with our familiar daily routines suspended.
For those of us who can, we should make the most of this situation. Many of us now have abundant amounts of unstructured time. Rather than substitute new distractions, I encourage those who can to meditate, pray, and reflect. Read and study our sacred texts and spiritual writings. Go deep within ourselves and ask the tough questions of our lives. Take a spiritual and moral inventory. Take stock of what’s truly valuable, truly vital, and truly meaningful.
When this period of isolation ends, hopefully, many of us will emerge from this form of wilderness, having left behind that which no longer serves us.