Into the Wilderness

And immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness (eremos).”
Mark 1:12

(This is Neil.) Imagine yourself in the periodicals section of a good library. Generally speaking, I would expect that you would find articles about “wilderness” in two different places – environmental journals presenting vivid descriptions of and concerns about presently existing wildernesses, and Christian publications (this is Lent) recommending a spirituality of wilderness and describing the “wild beasts” of wildernesses past. The relationship between environmentalism and Christianity has been a tangled one, not without mutual suspicion (see John Allen’s column here). Does the environmentalist’s wilderness have any relation at all to the theologian’s wilderness? A very interesting article in the 2006 Comparative Studies in Society and History, written by the Newfoundland sociologist Judith Adler, would seem to suggest that we can answer positively. I would like to share a description of her article with you.

Of course, the positive answer doesn’t come immediately. How could it? As Professor Adler writes, “Most historians of environmentalist thought delve no deeper than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relating contemporary discourses on ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ to Enlightenment and Romantic themes, with at best a nod in the direction of an hypostatized unified ‘Judeo-Christian tradition.’”

But even if we limit our overview to American figures (for considerations of brevity), we see that early environmental writers (or, at least, those presently designated as such) drew on a familiarity with ancient literature and ascetic discourses. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy for Henry David Thoreau makes the author of Walden seem like a Desert Father. Thoreau, says Emerson, “disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends,” “never married … lived alone … ate no flesh, drank no wine, never knew the use of tobacco; though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.” He “knew how to be poor” and lived such a “simple, hidden life” that he “might fortify the convictions of prophets … by his holy living.” One day, Thoreau said, “the other world is all my art.”

Thoreau was himself well-versed in the Bible (as well as certain Eastern texts). He read various ascetic works, most importantly (for our purposes), Abbé Adrien Emmanuel Rouquette’s La Thébaïde en Amerique, ou Apologie de la vie solitaire et contemplative (1852), which perhaps inspired him with the idea that the American wilderness could actually become a new Thebaid (the Abbé drew from Chateaubriand’s “déserts du Nouveau-Monde”). In his A Yankee in Canada, Thoreau compared his beloved wilderness to a Catholic church, namely, Montreal’s cathedral – “the most solitary place imaginable,” a great cave in the midst of a city.” Regarding that church, Thoreau concluded, “we do not need such. Our forests are such a church, far grander and more sacred.” In his own way, Thoreau is following the logic of the Abbé, who thought of America’s wilderness as an “indestructible cloister” comparable to “the great cloister of the desert.”

But what is this “cloister,” whether in America’s woods or the Egyptian desert? Why did Desert Fathers and Thoreau long for the wilderness or desert (both terms essentially referring to uncultivated places)? While classical authors could counsel retreat to orchards and gardens for contemplation, Jewish and Christian authors saw eremos as the place where God finds us (Exodus 3:2; Deut 32:10), where we might find refuge (Psalm 55:7), where we should seek purity away from defilement. Jeremiah laments over the sinfulness of the people and says, “Would that I had in the desert a travelers’ lodge!” (Jer 9:1). And, later, “Judas Maccabeus and about nine others withdrew to the wilderness, where he and his companions lived like wild animals in the hills, continuing to eat what grew wild to avoid sharing the defilement” (II Macc 5:27). Jesus is led into the wilderness.

But why the wilderness? The first century Jewish philosopher Philo counseled others “to come into a wilderness to give … attention to some subject demanding contemplation.” The wilderness was away from the world – empty. Its quiet emptiness corresponded to the desired mind of the monk, emptied of fantasies to be then filled with the wisdom of God. Stripped down, it was thus a redemptive space. Professor Adler writes, “The saints and deserts of hagiographic literature mirror one another: ‘pure,’ ‘rugged,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘mountainous’ wilderness offers the very image of a holy man, whose ascribed qualities, in turn, sanctified real geographical spaces.” Athanasius wrote about Antony:

Antony was alone in that desert, for the place wherein he had his habitation was waste and desolate; and his mind therefore dwelt the more upon exalted things.

Being alone in such a desert … he was one who … was like Mount Sion.

There in the desert, away from the hippodromes, in the silence of a monastic cell, the holy monk could experience a striking historical reversal. He might have a kinship with wild animals (see my post here). He would often himself appear like an animal, naked. This movement to a simpler, innocent, and strangely prelapsarian life is also characteristic of writers prized by environmentalists. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was described as an “American Adam, a figure wholly removed, it would seem, from human society and history.” The Desert Fathers imagined the desert to be the site where the world would be re-created by God (this prelapsarian life is eschatological; our end is our beginning): “In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” (Isaiah 43:19). Evagrius believed that humanity was part of a sliding scale of created being, all of which might be saved. The Fall would ultimately be reversed. John Muir, reading Isaiah, would find proof, in Adler’s words, that “the redemption of wilderness and humankind are inseparable.”

Besides contemplation and the attraction to something like a prelapsarian life, ascetic and “environmental” writers also imagined nature to be a sort of Scripture. Famously, Antony, after being asked by a visiting Greek philosopher how he lived without books, answered, “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the books of God.” Likewise, James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo/Leatherstocking claimed,

Book! What have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books? I never read but in one, and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling: though I may boast that of forty long and hard-working years.

The very last line of John Muir’s autobiography is “I was only leaving one University for another, Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.” Muir also wrote:

The page of nature is replete with divine truth … I confess I take more … delight from reading the power and goodness of God from ‘the things which are made’ than from the Bible. The two books, however, harmonize beautifully …

Now, I won’t endorse that last line. But still, we can sense that the wilderness of the environmentalist is not so different from the wilderness of the theologian. Adler writes, “A world without wilderness might be one whose demons had been routed from their last stronghold by enterprising Christian pioneers, or one in which the empty spaces, chosen by God for epiphany and alliance, or by men for penitential purification, self-recreation and communion, had been irreparably destroyed by sin.” Perhaps, as the theologian reminds the environmentalist of his fourth-century predecessors and the environmentalist reminds the theologian of the poverty of seeing the “dominion” of Genesis as industrialization and cultivation, both can agree that our wildernesses must not be destroyed.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Into the Wilderness

  1. Talmida says:

    The Hebrew wilderness, midbar has as its root the word dvar, which means “word, thing, affair”. I like thinking of wilderness that way — away from words, from things, from affairs.

    It makes for a lovely play on words (!) when the Word of God comes to a prophet in the wilderness — the Word comes in the absence of words.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Talmida,

    Thanks. That’s really quite fascinating …


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