A number of years ago, accompanied by an excellent Jesuit director, I did a 30-day retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In the third week of that retreat there’s a meditation on Jesus’ agony in the garden. I did the meditation to the best of my abilities and met with my director to discuss the result. He wasn’t satisfied and asked me to repeat the exercise. I did, reported back to him, and found him again dissatisfied. I was at a loss to grasp exactly what he wanted me to achieve through that meditation, though obviously I was missing something. He kept trying to explain to me that Ignatius had a concept wherein one was supposed to take the material of a meditation and “apply it to the senses” and I was somehow not getting that part.
Eventually he asked me this question: “When doing this meditation, have you been sitting comfortably inside an air-conditioned chapel?” My answer was yes. “Well,” this wise Jesuit replied, “no wonder you aren’t able to properly apply this to your senses. How can you really feel what Jesus felt in his agony in garden when you are sitting warm, snug, secure, and comfortable in an air-conditioned room?” His advice was that I redo the exercise, but do it late in the evening, outside, in the dark, cold, subject to nature’s elements, and perhaps even a little afraid of what I might meet physically out there.
He made a good point, not just for my struggle with this particular spiritual exercise but about one of the major deficiencies within contemporary spirituality. Simply put: Our prayer and spiritual quests are not enough connected to nature. For all of our good intentions and hard work, we are too-platonic, too much trying to have our souls transformed while our bodies sit warm, safe, and uninvolved. The physical elements of nature and our own bodies play too small a role in our efforts to grow spiritually.
This is the major critique that Bill Plotkin, an important new voice in spirituality, makes of what he sees happening in much of Christian spirituality today. From our church programs, to what happens in our retreat centers, to the spiritual quests people more deliberately pursue, Plotkin sees too little connection to nature, to the sun, to storms, to the wilderness, and to the desert that Jesus himself sought out.
Plotkin, who doesn’t work out of an explicitly Christian perspective but is sympathetic to it, runs a wilderness center out of which he directs people who are searching spiritually. One of the things that his center offers is a wilderness quest. People are offered the option of going out into the wilderness for some days alone, taking very little to protect themselves from what they might meet there. While sensible precautions are taken and prudence isn’t irresponsibly bracketed, the people doing these quests nonetheless often find themselves pretty vulnerable to the elements and battling a good amount of fear.
And the quests are effective mainly because of that. Real transformation often happens and it is very much attributed to the battle that the one doing the quest had to wage in the face of fear and the physical elements. Plotkin’s book, Soulcraft, contains a number of powerful testimonies of people who share how what they experienced in the wilderness – real exposure and real fear – led to real transformation in their lives. For something to be real it has to be real!
Jesus knew that and went on his own “wilderness quest”, 40 days alone in the desert where, as the Gospels tell us, he did his own battle with “the wild beasts”. We read accounts in the Gospels too of how he spent whole nights outside, alone, praying. It’s no accident that his struggle to give his life over takes place in a garden and not in an air-conditioned church. Beautiful church buildings have power to transform but so too do the sun, storms, the wilderness, and the desert. It’s good to seek out both places, and lately Christian spirituality has been too negligent of the latter.
And it not just the things in nature that batter us and cause us fear to which we need to expose ourselves. Nature also waters the earth. There are few things in life that can induce the joy we can experience by drinking in nature. As the Canticle of Daniel (3,57-88) so wonderfully celebrates it, many things in nature nurture the soul and fill it with life: the sun, the moon, the stars, winds, fire and heat, cold and chill, dew and rain, ice and snow, light and darkness, lightening and clouds, mountains and hills, seas and rivers, plants and animals. Each of these can trigger special memories and special joys, if we stay awake to them.
We need to let nature touch more of our bodies and our souls, both for our spiritual health and for our health in general. For something to be real it has to be real!