Our theme for October is “Why I Believe.”
Recently, I’ve been leaning into slow mornings. Coaxing myself to life with coffee and poetry and echoing melodies. Refreshing my senses with fried eggs and buttered toast, cooked with a generous crackling of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. It’s a time to reflect and to listen and to pray and to think a bit.
Morning after morning, I’ve been pulled to The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, a collection of history, thoughts, and meditations on desert monasticism. The Desert Fathers and Mothers have become something of a recent obsession. Early in the days of Christian faith these remarkable and probably half crazy monks, nuns, ascetics, and hermits cast off from civilization in order to find God somewhere in the sands.
They didn’t go to find Him in the pink Amarillo sunsets or the grandiose, cliffside vistas. Rather they sought Him through the emptiness. The desert pointed to God not from its great beauty but from its overwhelming vastness and its unrelenting harshness. They sought a great expanse and a great hardship in order to empty their minds of themselves, and, through such ferocity, allow some of the Creator to bleed in around the edges.
I think I feel this. This draw to wildness. I think our culture feels it. Nowadays, we express it often in romanticism. Muir talked about his California mountains as a vast cathedral. Emerson and Thoreau advanced a quiet transcendentalism through simple spirituality. But this enshrining of the backcountry is really a modern phenomenon. It’s only been since we convinced ourselves of mankind’s collective might over the earth that wilderness has gone from foe to friend. For the Desert Fathers, if it ever became friend it was only because they warmly greeted it first as a foe.
Ed Abbey, the mad prophet uncle of our modern day environmentalism, had his own type of desert monasticism. It involved less prayer and more moonshine, but I think he struck a balance between the transcendental romantics and the ancient forbearers. Abbey accepted that the desert was a place of incredible beauty but never lost sight of his insignificance in it. The desert was always terrifying in its beauty; the shifting sands hiding an incomprehensible power.
In that way, Creation reflects our Creator. God’s wildness is a multiplied version of the boot-quaking awe we experience when we gaze upon the Grand Canyon. The wildness of God causes us to acknowledgement sheer power and majesty, to realize our respective size to that of the universe’s, and the universe’s size in respect to the Creator. It’s an acknowledgment of other, and it’s a face to face with something infinitely grander than ourselves.
There’s a difference though, between our earthly wildness and the wildness of God. The wildness of our world culminates into utter indifference. You are nothing to the mountain, to the rapids, to the rise and fall of the ocean tide. The wildness of God culminates into a fearsome love. To the Creator you are worth tumbling the walls of Jericho, splitting the very seas that would engulf you in its storms. Worth columns of fire and cloud and of gentle whispers after of “I am” after the pulverizing winds and shattering rocks.
And that’s what I feel deep in the woods, in the midst of snowstorms and frozen nostrils and adrenaline defying drops. His is a wildness of unspeakable fervor, yes, but it is a wonderful wildness. It’s by no means tame. In fact, there’s no guarantee that it’s even safe. It’s a wildness terrifying in ferocity but overwhelming in goodness. It’s the wildness of peace, which envelops me in the relative quiet of my living room mornings and spills over into reveries of wind and sand and the overwhelmingly solace of fierce landscapes.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.