Call of the Wilderness

The Desert Fathers saw it as faith’s testing ground. The Transcendentalists saw it as sanctuary. The Gospel writers had their own views. /

I still recall my first encounter with the American wilderness, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I described the sight at the time, one defying all superlatives: “Before us opened out a vast valley—18 miles across—the precipitous slopes of our upland vantage point tumbling down to a lower plane, itself scarred with deep chasms, where, almost a vertical mile down, with the aid of a keen eye or binoculars one could occasionally espy the might of the Colorado River. All the way to the horizon massive peaks and ridges rose as a lithic pantheon, standing in solemn splendour over the canyon floor far beneath.”

Many have enjoyed the experience of awe when beholding some stretch of wilderness, even one less iconic. Wilderness in and of itself can inspire, but it does much more. It has also afforded deep reservoirs of meaning to many human societies, and has provided an anvil upon which men and peoples are forged. Through their relationship with the wilderness, societies have preserved, revived, and articulated crucial human values—but especially spiritual ones.

We witness this, for example, in the works and practice of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Perhaps the most famous was Anthony, whose life was recorded by Athanasius. Around A.D. 270, Anthony followed Jesus’ call to the young man in Matthew 19:21, sold his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and went into the desert. Athanasius’ biography describes how Anthony faced Satan and his demons and overcame them by a courageous faith. In Athanasius’ account, the desert appears like the front line of a spiritual conflict, a site where a person’s spiritual mettle is most proven. It’s where the reality and effectiveness ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 29 / August 20, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 29: Fishing with fathers, what we go out into the wilderness to see, and how Joy began to find Jesus. /

  2. Reeling from Joy in the Texas Bay

    Fishing with my dad lends itself to all kinds of spiritual metaphors and benefits. But that’s not what keeps me casting. /

  3. The World’s Most Astonished Atheist

    The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed Joy Davidman’s worldview, too. /

  4. Lines Cast

    ‘So this is the face of the ocean.’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 29: Links to amazing stuff /

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