A wilderness of separation

"Indoors or outdoors, the outside was so much a part of you. It was like you were just a speck living amongst all the organisms surrounding you." Photo: Opspeculate/Shutterstock
Published March 2, 2020

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:12-13)

Do you remember when you first learned about Lent? Were you a small child, imagining a dry desert in a faraway place, like something out of a storybook? Or did you picture something nearby—perhaps a wilderness you already knew? Did you think about Jesus’s isolation, wondering if He was lonely and separated from the Creator? Could you see Jesus there, praying among the sparrows?

I recall my dad reading about Jesus wandering in the wilderness. When I was young, we lived on a trapline in the North. He likened Christ’s experience to our own, living in the wild—just with no contact with other human beings.

Life on the trapline was freedom. You were not contained by four walls within a building. Our dwellings were canvas teepees and sod buildings made from split logs, which were arranged in either a cone or in a tent frame. The cut side of the logs faced the inside. The outside was banked with sod or earth for cover and warmth, and in winter it was covered in snow for insulation. The earth was also insulation, either to keep it cool or warm. The flooring on which we lay and lived was of the bare earth, only covered with pine boughs— which were replaced weekly.

Indoors or outdoors, the outside was so much a part of you. It was like you were just a speck living amongst all the organisms surrounding you. The world was a fresh aroma of earth, trees, and water, the taste of droplets pooling on leaves. You inhale deeply the scents enveloping you, and everything about you is vibrant and alive—because everything belongs in this breath, this breeze of freshness from only the One you know could have created the world for your eyes to behold. Your breath feels alive within your whole body.

Climb a hill or even a small mountain, and you can see for miles the vast, spacious land. Birds fly in the distance, little sparrows dart from tree to tree nearby, and crawly little critters move in all directions by your feet. At times you might see a squirrel or a rabbit running, stopping and running again, until it disappears into the brush or behind a rock. The wind rustles leaves and branches by your head, where whiskey jacks await, hoping to join the gathering—although they may only wish to be fed by human hands some morsels of bannock or scraps of your lunch. Blueberries and cranberries carpet the hill. Where rocks jut out, pools of fresh rainwater fill the indentations. From the hilltop you see the ponds, winding rivers and lakes—lakes where you can see the bottom because the water is so clear. The pebbles on the bottom sparkle in myriad hues for which I have no name. Glistening especially when the sun is out, the water on the surface dances with the little bugs fluttering over it. On your lucky day, you may see fish swimming.

When we were children, our life on the trapline shaped our understanding of the wilderness Jesus entered—the wilderness my dad read about in Cree and that Mark and Matthew both describe—where every minute detail of God’s creation seemed to be breathing. My wilderness was this living place, which offered beauty, life, sustenance, air with a capital “A”—everything to help me feel as one of its elements. A Creator, who I learned was in everything and everywhere all at once, gave me my every breath. In this wilderness, there is such a presence of the Creator/God in all that has breath and equal share of the beauty that has been given. For us, it wasn’t hard to imagine Christ’s ecstatic unity with the animals and angels.

Yet we also knew that it wasn’t enough to simply picture Jesus spending 40 days along the trapline. His wilderness was complicated, one of temptation and loneliness. My father asked us to imagine what it would be like living alone and having no contact with humans. You’d feel lonely, abandoned by the world, as Jesus was.

It’s important to note that I say “the world,” because people abandon and exclude, never the Creator. I truly believe He never left Jesus, nor does He leave alone the things—human or otherwise—He has created. Even when we’re down and out, the Creator does not separate from the Created. And when we feel on top of the world—that we’re accomplishing everything on our own, going it alone and in no need of divine help—Creator/God always waits for our voice to call and whisper for help. No matter where we are in life, the separation we feel is of human making.

So was this the wilderness that Jesus went to, to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights? The desert where our Lord walked and lived—the seemingly contradictory place of divine unity and human separations—I believe, is our desert. As I did in my childhood, I think we must take that extra step in our imaginings around Lent and come to see the side of the desert we have created. When we enter into that wilderness of human pain, this worldly desert, we see many who are already there, waiting for us. They walk in suffering because no one has called or whispered a prayer on their behalf, and escape seems beyond their reach. It’s not that those trapped in a wilderness of isolation don’t want out—it’s because we, in our societies and structures, have created too many situations in which there’s no turning back. We’ve reshaped our world from a place created for everything to breathe into one where some must suffocate—with systems where success and belonging are scarce, available only to the chosen few. For many, this is a desert of no life, no moisture—with only fleeting moments of hope, here and then gone again. But there is reason for hope. Our Lord knew this wilderness, and He endured it in order to become a complete servant for His beloved people.

Lent is a season in which we commemorate the sacrifice and journey of withdrawal that Jesus went on, venturing into the desert before His death for all mankind. For many of us, Lent is often less about desert than dessert, more about sugar than separation: we worry about cutting things out of our lives, not about walking with others. Sure, we need to cut things out that hinder, burden and blind us from seeing our Jesus’s life in all. But Christ calls us to much more. As I have grown older, I’ve come to see Jesus calling us not to a Lent along the trapline or focused on waistlines. Instead, we are called to enter into and pray for this wilderness of separations: to live among all the lives in our world that don’t quite function, with those who live in depression and homelessness, or alongside people who seem aimless and without purpose. Jesus wants us so terribly to walk amongst these people and bring a spark of what light, His Light, that He has given to us. He asks us to share, to lend that Light until it feels right for them and they can actually depend on it—no matter how deep in the wilderness they find themselves and even when they’re tested by the devil.

In this season, we reflect and prepare to celebrate our Lord’s most precious, ultimate gift: death on a cross and His rising again to redeem His beloved. Why did our Lord go to the desert to be tested? Did He go into the wilderness for nothing? No—Jesus emerged from the desert and showed us how to minister and live a life committed to the gospel, carrying His message without partiality to anyone. Christ left the desert and offered a gospel which was equally available to all who believed and wanted to walk this road and follow—no exceptions, no separations.

Not long ago, we celebrated the “Light of the world” that came among us in flesh, in the form of a child: the Christ child, most precious of all gifts, living among us. A Light has been given, but not all accept. We all need prayer to help spark that Light within each one of us that is divine. Not one of us is excluded from the grasp of the sinful temptations of our world—sin that only this Light can extinguish.

I believe Lent is not the only time to reflect on the sacrifices our Lord made on our behalf—but it is such a time. In Lent, we need to bare openly the existence of these sacrifices. We must acknowledge that our own sinfulness lifted the son of God upon the cross, and that with God’s help, we are redeemed from those sins. Above all, let’s seek the love that raised Him from death—so that the wilderness we walk through may be one in which we join all of wild creation and the angels, removed from sin but separated from nothing. This Lent, let us see our Creator’s power working in us as we walk through this world—this time, this space, this wilderness.

The Rev. Grace Delaney, deacon, lives in Moose Factory, Ont., and is affiliated with the Wemindji Cree First Nation. She serves Moosonee and Moose Factory in the diocese of Moosonee. Grace extends thanks to Matthew Townsend, editor, and the staff of the Journal for their discussions about this piece.


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