The wilderness is a place of prayer.
By the time Jesus heads into the wilderness, a thousand years, give or take, after David, the wild places have been plundered for their timber. No-one would appreciate this more than a carpenter, a labourer in the construction industry, the work of whose hands in a very literal sense extends civilisation at the cost of the wilderness. Again, civilisation – external and internal – is not bad per se, but has a cost – and must have its limits.
[As an aside, I have a couple of hunches about prayer: that many people feel inadequate at prayer, believing that they are better-able to serve in some other more practical way; and that often, people come to prayer later in life, as their capacity to serve in other ways diminishes. As I say, these are hunches. They are based on anecdotal evidence, untested observation. But if they were in any way close to the mark, this might suggest a correlation between prayer and the wilderness.]
At first glance, the wilderness is a lifeless place. Look again, more closely, and you discover that it is full of plants and animals that have adapted in order to make this place their home. From a scientific viewpoint, this can be described as evolution (and from a theological perspective, evolution describes how life has responded to God’s invitation to be fruitful and fill the earth, every habitat). From a theological viewpoint, the same adaptation can be described as every living thing looking to God, and receiving all its needs from God’s hand. In short, the desert lizard, the ibex, the jackal, at prayer.
It is into the wilderness that the Holy Spirit leads – or even drives, with urgency – Jesus, that he might pray with the wild animals. That he might learn from them, at home in their dependence on God.
How, then, do the wild things pray?
As the family of all the living;
the wilderness displaying God’s glory;
life willing to flourish in a fragile ecosystem, to be fruitful and fill the earth;
with an awareness of their physical needs;
aware, also, that to eat in order to live has inevitable cost, but taking only what is needed, the food chain being part of the delicate balance of interdependence;
in a shrinking ecological footprint where resources are reduced and life squeezed by the actions of others.
That is, the wild things pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
What does it look like to pray from within our wild places? Really, to deny our self-sufficiency and to repent of – to turn away from, to head in a different direction – competing with one another in order to satisfy our desires.
But how might we pray in the wilderness, where we are confronted with our inability to do anything, including prayer? Wilderness prayer is simply being before God, perhaps even wordless like the wild animals; finding ourselves in a place where God searches us out and finds us in his love for all that he has made.
In the wilderness, Jesus wrestles with the temptation to provide his own daily bread; to claim the pinnacle of human achievement, in cultural grandeur and societal power; and to embrace an all-encompassing civilisation that imposes itself on the wilderness, crushing all non-conformity. The wilderness stands as a testimony against such glittering folly. Far from judgement passed on a failed or failing life, our wild within is a precious gift. Perhaps it is only from that wilderness that we can resist what would ensnare us. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Perhaps that is why we follow.
Today parts of what remain of the Judean wilderness are protected as National Parks. Might we learn also to protect and value our internal wilderness?