I was offered Gerald May’s little book, The Wisdom of Wilderness by our teacher this week.
Sometime in his 50’s, May felt a call to wilderness, to take off on his own for a night or two in the woods. Amidst his misadventures, he met in the wild something he called “a Presence” that showed up to him as “the Power of Slowing.” A Power, a Wisdom that as he put it, “beckoned, guided, taught, healed and showed me very deeply who I am.”
I’m not so sure if I have met this Presence or Power of the Slowing in the woods myself. What I know is that I meet something. What is it? It’s that deep joy that suddenly shows up in this deep exhale, in this relaxing and breathing as I stand at the beginning of the labyrinth yesterday morning. It’s what I found a few miles into the run out in the dark on the dirt road, in the steady pounding of my feet, a looking up and seeing the forest, knowing I was in the forest and not lost in all my thoughts about things not here. I felt just this peace, this release, this joy like I found coming down the trail in growing dark after finding my way back to the trail two, three times earlier that morning.
The author of the The Cloud of Unknowing uses some different terms to speak of what I hear as a similar thing. He calls it listening for Joy and following it.
“For the Love of God, then, be careful and do not imprudently strain yourself in this work. Rely more on joyful enthusiasm than on sheer brute force. For the more joyfully you work, the more humble and spiritual your contemplation becomes, whereas when you morbidly drive yourself, the fruits will be gross and unnatural.” (Chapter 46)
Maybe that’s it. Sometimes pausing along the trail, after the steady beat of enough miles, in a descent through growing dark, something is revealed not of my own making. It’s a letting go that helps me take in what is here and now.
Whatever it is, it’s something bigger than an emotion that the author of The Cloud warns his students of getting caught in – these roller-coaster emotions of ours that we so easily lose ourselves in, get lost and swirled and tossed about in their vortex. This Joy the author of The Cloud of Unknowing invites us to follow is different. It’s something quieter, stiller, bigger, deeper than just an emotion. Perhaps it’s akin to love, a recalling to what we had forgotten, to who we are like Gerald May found in the woods. And sometimes, yes, in the stilling and opening to this Joy, a clarity that we can just step in and follow. Life doesn’t become so difficult from this deeper vantage point of releasing, being, listening.
Sometimes, in the past when others have said they found God in the woods or God in nature I wondered if they were seeking too easy of a God, too comforting and peaceful of an experience of God. Wondered if they were missing out on, stepping away from, a God who demands, wants, needs more of us than the God of Nature. But I’ve come to believe that whatever that God is that we meet outdoors in the wild is the elemental calling God. A God who recalls us to a deeper kind of listening, a presence and grounding bigger than our own worries and preoccupations.
What we follow matters. What we tack to makes all the difference.
May writes, “If you are willing, and if you listen very gently and carefully, you will sense that this mysterious Wisdom is ready to lead you, guide you to where you need to be. It is your wilderness calling.” (P. XXIV)
The call to a discovery in the woods lasted for May for five years and then it was over. He’d found what he was looking for and after that no longer felt the call of the woods. However, that didn’t mean that his longing for the wild left him, he just found the wild in different ways and forms. What he discovered was wilderness is everywhere.
“You don’t have to go tromping to the mountains or desert as I did. You may find it in a local park, an open field or a small woods. As I have said, you may even find it in your own room, or in your own body and mind. All it takes is listening for Wisdom’s call.”
Yesterday as I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth, the question answered before it could even be asked. Just this present joy. Where does it come from? What brought it about? All I know is that a stirring, a wordless invitation had stirred me to get up from my reading and go outside to be recalled to what I had forgotten.