Several weeks into Lent it is not unusual to feel like our efforts are flagging, or becoming aimless. What to do about it? Jesus invites us to imitate his example and leave the confines of our homes and offices to go on an adventure into the “wilderness.”
The invitation has always been there, but we tend to gloss over it whenever we read the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Let’s look at the passage again from the Gospel of Mark: “The spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:12-13 RSV).
Did you catch it? Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the “wilderness” and was with the “wild beasts.” In order to better prepare for his mission to proclaim the Gospel for the next three years, Jesus went out into the wild and was alone with the natural world.
Why is this important? How does this help?
Studies have shown that spending extended periods of time surrounded by nature have both physical and spiritual benefits. Not only has it been shown to lower depression and stress, it also improves our own behavior toward others. Another study found that “patients with the view of trees tolerated pain better, appeared to nurses to have fewer negative effects and spent less time in a hospital.” It has even been shown that “contact with nature positively impacts blood pressure, cholesterol [and] outlook on life.”
Besides the positive effects it can have on our bodies, trekking outdoors also benefits our souls. In one study focused on children spending 5-10 hours a week outdoors, the children “believed that a higher power had created the natural world around them. They also reported feeling awestruck and humbled by nature’s power, such as storms, while also feeling happy and a sense of belonging in the world.”
Pope Francis also pointed out the spiritual benefits of encountering nature in his encyclical, writing that St. Francis, “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. ‘Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker’ (Wis. 13:5).”
While going out into the wild has numerous benefits, it is not without its risks. Nature can be a harsh place, especially the further you get from civilization. Poison ivy, ticks, bees and rattlesnakes (to name a few) are works of God’s creation that are dangerous. This means that Jesus’ invitation to follow him into the wilderness isn’t a simple walk in the park. It requires taking a risk and getting outside our comfort zone.
Then again, God is always trying to get us outside our comfort zones and take risks. He called Abraham to pack up his things and travel with his family through uncharted territory to an unknown land.
Going into the wilderness means consenting to be made vulnerable; it is an exercise in trust. This is true whether we are literally leaving the orderly pavement to walk a wooded trail, or spiritually abandoning “safe” habits and consolations to see what God has for us.
We are to be “sober and alert” of the dangers in our world (both physical and spiritual) but then trust God and walk in his footsteps. Even Jesus had to confront dangers in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan himself.
If your Lent is beginning to feel listless and sagging, perhaps take a break from the daily grind and immerse yourself in the “Gospel of nature.” Follow Christ “into the wilderness” and see how it speaks to body and soul.
Philip Kosloski is a writer and blogger. His blog can be found at philipkosloski.com.