When Jesus was baptized the spirit descended upon him like a dove and God said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” It must have been a great feeling, but it didn’t last long. The next thing Jesus knew, the nice spirit that had descended like a dove became aggressive and drove him into the wilderness. There he spent forty days of deprivation, self-examination, and confrontation with the devil. He suffered; he struggled; he was tested. Jesus’ solitary struggles to remain true to his covenant and calling echo those of his ancestors, who spent forty years in the wilderness establishing a religious community.
Wilderness is a part of every person’s soul-journey, and part of our journey together as human beings who seek to live in community. Time in the wilderness is always a time of struggle. It is also a time of transformation and renewal. In traditional terms, it is a time of purification. The journey into wilderness reminds us that we are alone and not alone. We are neither where we have been nor where we are going. There is danger and possibility, risk and promise. In the wilderness, the spirit may descend like a dove and lift us on its wings of hope, then drive us into the depths of despair; it may affirm us with a gift of grace, then challenge us to change. In the stories and rituals of Eastern as well as Western religions, a journey into the wilderness represents a time when we both pursue and resist the Holy.
We may choose to enter the wilderness like the people of Yahweh, to escape bondage, or, like Henry David Thoreau, to “live deliberately.” Or we may, like Jesus, be driven there without much choice. Once there, even our markers of time and space collapse, for this wilderness is not in space or time, but is the boundless territory of the soul.