Some of life’s most important lessons can be learned in the woods. That is probably the reason I don’t go as often as I’d like. I am not one for receiving life lessons easily.
Call me a Freudian, or a Jungian, or an Tydarian (Star Wars? Anybody?), but I am a firm believer in the power of the subconscious. And my subconscious has been trying to tell me something; something about chaos. I walk into my room and I regularly find my different pairs of shoes strewn at random intervals across the floor. I knew that I had left them there, but it almost feels like a second person had come in and strewn them about. Sometimes I stop and stare and try to figure them out, almost as if I’m expecting to find a message written in them. They fascinate me like crop circles, messages from another world – the world of my own interior life.
I really need a life.
I’m not entirely sure what it means. I think it means that there’s a part of me that is desperate for chaos. Or, perhaps this expression of a deep-seated hatred and fear of chaos. Or maybe both?
I mean, I do live a pretty chaotic life. Even though I am tense and controlling in my thoughts, I very much fly by the seat of my pants. I’m always slightly disheveled, even when I’m well groomed. I’m fairly absent-minded, and I lose things often. My desk regularly looks like a tornado swept through it.
A part of me is obsessed with chaos – either avoiding it, or embracing it. I’m not sure which.
For a few days, I had looked forward to escaping into the woods, along some hiking trails, some afternoon after leaving my church internship for the day. I had hoped that the separation from technology, the fresh air, the exercise, would do me some good. And I also hoped that it would be a time of good prayer. As I wrote previously, I have been learning about prayer that is not full of pretension or striving, or hand-wringing trying to get the right words so that I can get what I want from God – but prayer that is simply being in His presence, abandoning my sense of control, letting God be God, and letting me be me, before Him.
So, I planned on pursuing this further. I set an agenda of not having an agenda. I made a list about having no lists.
I was determined to practice and recreate what I had learned that past Sunday about prayer: to let go, to be, to not manipulate and tie myself in knots with analyzing and conjuring up the right words or emotions. I was determined to get to the bare inner-sanctuary of my soul, all work and pretense cast aside, and find God in the woods.
I walked for about half an hour or so, but again found myself tied up in knots. Why can’t I empty my head? I’m trying too hard! Why is this so much work? This shouldn’t be so much work. If I’m working I’m doing it wrong. But how do I work at not working?
I kept going, on a trail that I thought I knew. As the way became more rigorous, and the sweat came more heavily, my mind began to calm and clear. Still, I was not having the open, quiet, vulnerable prayer I had hoped for. It was not what I had planned for.
And I was on a schedule too. I had a particular destination in mind, but I wanted to be back home in time to do some other things on my to do list. I had my ‘unplanned,’ ‘uncoordinated,’ time of prayer scheduled into careful, safe, parameters.
As I went, I began to be mystified by the fact that this trail was remarkably more overgrown than I remember it being the last time. And more overgrown than it should be since it is, I thought, a popular route. Instead, it was somewhat chaotic.
And it was a lot harder than I thought it should be, for such a popular route.
I began to realize it was possibly a bit stupid to head out here on my own, especially since it was a lot more rigorous than I remembered/expected. I had cell phone reception, some people knew where I was, I knew how to get back, but if I took a wrong step, I could slip on some rocks, or down a steep hill. . .
Eventually my thoughts were focused on stepping correctly, wondering where I was and where I was going, and when/if I should turn back.
Was this why I came out here? To be forced by my conditions to quiet my mind?
Maybe. But I never quite found the prayer, or the solitude, I thought I was looking for. And that was perplexing, and confusing.
My attempts at control were thwarted. My attempts at controlled chaos – simply being were thwarted. I was thrown into chaos, and forced to deal with it on its own terms.
I never reached the destination I had planned on. I turned around. No pinnacle was reached, no moment of clarity or accomplishment – either in my soul or in my path.
At one point on the return trip, I realized I was no longer on the trail. I was just wandering through the woods. I could barely tell the difference. Wandering into woody chaos came naturally, easily, almost like I desired it. Did my subconscious crave the chaos of unruly terrain, like I have attempted to create with shoes on my floor?
I knew I was learning something important. But I wan’t sure what. And I’m still not sure what. Am I being reminded to embrace and ‘be ok’ with not being in control? Am I being told that I need to be more disciplined in order to navigate chaos – that is, do I wrongly see my whole world as chaos, and do I need to assert myself instead of playing the passive victim?
I’m not sure. But that ‘not being sure’ is itself an opportunity for growth.
The more I try to create order out of chaos, the more chaos is created. This is what I was learning about prayer in the first place. I am not the creator of my soul, I am not the orderer of my own chaos. And that is the ironic thing about it – only by embracing, allowing, giving up myself to chaos, will there be any form, any creation, any beauty. For God, the One who orders chaos, must do the work.
In the Scriptural world, chaos is associated with ‘uncreation.’ God brought creation out of chaos. Sin disrupted the creation and brought chaos into it. God re-orders and re-creates the chaos to make a new creation. And to do so, He had to enter into the chaos, even embrace it, and defeat it. Christ entered the pit of chaos, the pit of decay warring against creation, into the pit of de-creation, to turn it inside out. Along with my need for control,I can have hope in the midst of my co-existent passivity in the face of chaos, whereby I believe myself to be nothing but lost to the void of emptiness, that I am worthless, unloveable, having no beautiful form or created substance – and that the path is not worth staying on, that it’s not going anywhere.
Christ knew this chaos, I think. You see chaos seeping into His psyche on His way to the cross. Tears of blood. . Doubts about following the path (“take this cup”). Confusion (“why have You forsaken me”).
I continued to trample through the formless woods on my way back, deciding between looking for the trail uphill or forging straight down to the stream where I could find my way – getting caught in prickly bushes and hoping I wasn’t going to leave with a severe poison ivy reaction.
“Fine! I get it now. I need You. I can’t control my life. I can’t control You. I need You.”
In that moment, my foot caught on a plant and I nearly fell on my face. I had to cut the plant up to get out of it – it was so ensnaring.
Why have You forsaken me?
Chaos cannot be escaped. But Christ is in the chaos. Chaos is a necessary step to order, to re-creation, to resurrection. I need not fear the chaos. Chaos means that I am not in control. But I also need not resign myself to chaos. Resurrection, purpose, meaning, comes out of chaos.
A character in a not-all-that-great TV show I watch said: “Control is an illusion.”
I came out of the woods soaked in sweat, my head pounding, prayer far from my mind – I was frustrated, defeated, angry.
And maybe the emergence of those feelings tells me something about my relationship to chaos, my dual need to control it, and my fear that it cannot be controlled and I must be lost to it. That tension is a point of anger and defeat.
But maybe in spite of myself, in spite of my ill-advised attempts to manufacture openness and vulnerable prayer, I found myself in a forced moment of honesty. It didn’t feel like anything special. It felt awful. But I was honest. There was a form to my chaos, and it was not brought about by me. It was found in the chaos itself; which is where Christ is found.
Yes, indeed. That’s the sort of thing you learn in the woods.