wilderness heals

The power of presence in the wilderness

Lynne Smith, OSB Living in Community Leave a Comment

wilderness heals

During my staycation I read The Wisdom of Wilderness, by Gerald May. I highly recommend it.

Gerald May was a psychiatrist and a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He wrote many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology.

He writes of his experiences camping solo in the wilderness of the Allegheny mountains.  He says he was called into wilderness and guided by a Presence that he names “The Power of the Slowing.” He equates this Presence and its guidance with Wisdom. I was captured by his experience and description of “The Power of the Slowing.”

“One who sought me out and drew me there [to the wilderness]…it was this Power that seemed to beckon, guide, teach, heal, and show me very deeply who I am. All my life I had longed for such a palpable and immediate encounter with a divine guide in Presence, a feeling of unity with the world. This lifelong prayer was answered during those years in the outdoors, and as I now look back, this may have been Nature’s greatest gift to me.” (xxiv)

I can’t say that I have experienced The Power of the Slowing in the same way May did. He acknowledges that each of our experiences of The Power will be different. Over the past three years, nature (and my own aging) has been slowing me down. Because of everything going on inside me, compounded now by concerns about COVID-19, I simply cannot keep going about my daily tasks at the same pace I used to keep. Being forced to slow down, I have discovered that mindfully walking on the prairie or in the woods, sitting on a bench gazing at Lost Lake or at the horizon helps me get into my body and actually feel my emotions. The Power of the Slowing reconnects me to myself and my feelings. She is teaching me to be present. I equate the Presence I feel with God-in-all-things. This is a healing Presence that evokes an immense sense of gratitude in me.

“Nature’s teaching is also a healing. And although we must indeed be taught, it is the healing that we need most. We have been fractured. We have been broken off from the nature of our world, broken away from the nature of one another, broken apart from our own nature.” (169) “…no matter how kindly we feel, we will never be able to participate in healing the world around us as long as we keep seeing Nature as something different from ourselves…. Before we can effectively heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the rest of Nature, we must allow ourselves to be healed. And we must allow the rest of Nature to help us.” (170) He continues, “I have never been able to do this for myself. It has to come through grace, in the Presence of the One I called the Power of the Slowing, the Wisdom of the Wild.” (171)

I know my need of this healing, this Wisdom. One of the “gifts” of the pandemic is that it has thrown us all into our own wildernesses. For some the wilderness is an imposed slowing down. For some it is a wilderness of anxiety and uncertainty. For others it is the moral trauma of making life and death decisions effecting those who are suffering.  We are all looking for some kind of guiding Presence and Wisdom in this wilderness. We need each other, and we need a Wisdom beyond our own in order to find healing.

Mays’ experience and our faith gives us good hope that we are not forsaken in this wilderness. God/Wisdom leading the Hebrew people through the wilderness out of Egypt into the Promised Land is the paradigm of this guiding presence in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the paradigm in the Christian scriptures. And we can look to our own lives for this presence within, this quiet voice or sense that runs like a thread through our lives and will lead us even now if we can allow ourselves to become receptive. We need help to hear this voice. The Power of the Slowing can be the help we need.

May has some pretty dramatic experiences of Presence in the wilderness. However, he writes: “I know it doesn’t happen this way all the time, not even very much of the time. But the bare-naked possibility of it, the fact that life can be lived with such Presence is a wellspring of endless hope for me.” (83) May wrote these words at the end of his life as he was living and dying with cancer.

May The Power of the Slowing touch each of us as we find our way in our current wilderness.

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