“How can any one satisfy
these men with bread
here in the wilderness”
“I can’t get
no satisfaction”, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously sang.
Whether he sang it again at the post-SARS celebration in the wilderness of
urban Toronto, I am not sure. Regardless, the phrase captures evocatively, I
think, a modern theme, the theme of the wilderness that is within us.
What do we mean
by wilderness? For there are, of course, different senses to the idea
of wilderness. In general, though, I suppose most of us think of the
wilderness somewhat romantically as places remote and pristine, as paradises
of quiet solitude and natural beauty, unspoiled and unsullied by the inhuman
tyranny of post-industrial and technocratic society; in short, as paradisal
places to which we can go, like Canada’s National Parks, to get away from
the stresses and strains of urban life, from the mindless mediocrity of the
over-regulated bourgeois culture of middle-class life. Such
wildernesses suggest that in getting in touch with nature, with the land and
the sea in the simplicity of its cleansing freshness and rugged beauty, we
can recover something of the dignity of our humanity. There are, of
course, the blackflies.
The paradox is
that we need to get away, it seems, from the human community to regain our
humanity. And there is the further paradox of escaping to these
so-called natural wildernesses which are inescapably human and social
constructs, places which we have designated as areas not to be desecrated in
quite the same way by urban and industrial development. The wilderness
is a natural preserve within the complexity of forms of contemporary
culture. In a way, the wilderness is not out there any longer.
Even the West Nile virus has become an urban threat and not a wilderness or
This is a far
cry from the wilderness of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest
literary work in human culture. There the wilderness lies outside the
walled city, outside the human community and, in a way, threatens the city
of man. The wilderness is the mythical yet real “Humbaba”, the
guardian of the forest, an indeterminate and indefinite figure who expresses
the precise sense of the wilderness for such ancient cultures. The
wilderness is the fearful uncertainty that lies outside the city’s walls,
the fearful uncertainty belonging to cultures who often exhibit a great
practical wisdom but are unsure about the principle of reason itself,
namely, the Logos of God.
offer, too, a rich and sophisticated commentary on the various senses of
wilderness. There is the sense of the wilderness as the natural beauty
of God’s creation - the mountains and the hills, the valleys and the plains,
the wonder of such creatures like the monsters of the deep, Leviathan, whom
he made for the sheer pleasure of it, the power of the thunder storm, the
sea and the order of the seasons, and so on; in short, the wonder of the
wilderness as the place of God’s glory in nature, the wilderness as the
created work of God revealing his glory. “God saw everything that
he had made and behold it was very good”. In its created truth and
being, creation as wilderness is not a place of fearful uncertainty;
instead, it is emphatically and essentially “very good”.
Scriptures also know about the wilderness as the place of wildness and
alienation. This, however, arises from within us. The created
order becomes a wilderness because of our rebellion against God and his
order. It is the story of the Fall. It signals the underlying
meaning of human experience. The wilderness is not simply a physical
place - barren, isolated, remote, and wild - it is also a place spiritually,
a place within. The wilderness is within us. We make the created
order a wilderness by virtue of our sin and presumption.
The aspect of
the wilderness as a physical place, empty, remote and barren, and the
wilderness as the reality of human sin are presented to us in the Epistle
and Gospel for this day. Both senses of the wilderness, of course, are
related; ultimately the wilderness without arises from the
wilderness within. This is, we might say, the great Biblical
insight. In the Scriptures we are given the further image of the
divine provisions for us in the wilderness of our disobedience. The
point being that God does not abandon us in the wilderness of our
abandonment of God. He provides, for instance, the Law and the Manna
from on high for his wayward and wayfaring people. Such a view of
things has the profoundest consequences. It means that in the physical
wilderness we are constantly reminded of the wilderness within, on the one
hand, and the care and compassion of God “while we were yet sinners”,
on the other hand.
Such ideas come
together wonderfully in these lessons which have an unavoidable sacramental
quality to them. They recall us to the forms of sanctified life
belonging to our life in and with Christ. The Epistle speaks
sacramentally about Baptism by reminding us of the ultimate form of our
alienation from God such that our life is not just empty and nothing worth
from an experiential standpoint but, more seriously, from a spiritual
standpoint, we are dead in ourselves, dead in sin, the death that is the
rejection of God, the only reality there is. Dead to God, the
principle of all reality, we are little more than the walking dead.
But as the Epistle reminds us we have been “made free from sin”.
How? by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ. In baptism we die to
ourselves and live for God, but only by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice and its
application to us individually in the corporate reality of the Church.
We participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.
relates the familiar story of the feeding of the multitude in the
wilderness. In a remote and empty place, Jesus teaches, filling
hungering souls and minds with the good things of God, but he also sees to
their physical needs, the needs of the body. It is all of a piece, the
teaching and the feeding. It belongs to the redemption of the
wilderness within all of us, making the wilderness a place of compassion and
mercy. We cannot be satisfied in the wildernesses of our disobedience.
We cannot be satisfied with the illusory paradises of this world. They
are, at best, reminders to us of the greater paradise of God, “the free
gift of God is eternal life” and that is more than paradise recalled.
It is the paradise where we are with the God who cares for us and whose care
is the challenge of our lives.
To live in the
mercy of the God who has entered into the wilderness of human sin and
wickedness, into the barren wilderness of the human experience, is to live
sacramentally. It means to live through the provision he has made for
us, the provision which is nothing less than the gift of himself. But
he has done so to bring redemption, the redemption of all our sorrows and
the pain of our past and our present, but only through the radical sacrifice
of his cross. The Holy Eucharist is about our continued participation
in his life for us, “having obeyed from the heart that pattern of
teaching” that sets us free from the emptiness of human experience and
frees us to God.
We betray the
objective institutions of our lives, the family, marriage, church, school
and state - institutions which can be the vehicles of God’s redemptive and
sanctified grace - when we try to remake them in the name and in the image
of our contemporary experience. To do so is to make them barren
wildernesses. And we betray our friendships, those precious and
blessed things in which something of the grace and love of God is
communicated and known, when we try to make them marriages, something which
they are not and cannot be. The children of experience may have to
learn the hard bitter truth of experience. It cannot satisfy. We
are nothing unless we are grafted into the life of Christ and live through
his grace according to “that pattern of teaching” which is our life
in Christ. The church is not the church when she betrays “that
pattern of teaching” but becomes another barren wilderness of pride and
narcissism. We have to experience our own loneliness and emptiness, it
seems, if ever we will discover our communion with God without which we can
have no communion with one another.
wilderness, we have communion with Christ. It is the only satisfaction
that there is, the only satisfaction that matters, come what may in the ups
and downs, the sorrows and sadnesses, the pain and the dying of our lives.
He is our satisfaction even in the wilderness of our lives.
“How can any one satisfy these men with
here in the wilderness”