The promise, and peril, of wilderness

A few weeks ago there were a string of news reports about a cyclist who had gone missing in Israel/Palestine. From Northern Ireland, the young man had gone on ‘a journey of personal discovery’ on his bicycle, covering thousands of miles across Europe and finally through Israel. But his family contacted authorities, worried about his disappearance there. Others found his personal belongings scattered in the desert, pages with his handwriting scrawling out Scripture. He, himself, was nowhere to be found.

Media sources speculated about whether the young man was suffering from Jerusalem syndrome, in which visitors to the Holy Land, captivated by the intensity of the religious significance of the place, experience a cluster of symptoms labeled ‘psychotic’ and ‘delusional.’ Isolating themselves from their fellow travelers, setting off alone, sometimes sufferers believe they themselves are an important figure in the religious narrative, or believe they have a unique role to play in bringing about apocalypse. While some speculate that Jerusalem syndrome is more prevalent among visitors to the city who already experience challenges to their mental health, the transformation of a modern-day pilgrim into a toga-wearing street prophet is disturbing at best. Jerusalem does have an energy that is unlike any other place I’ve been. I can understand how the history and intensity of faith there would be intoxicating, even to a skeptical person.

In Lent, we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism. We practice our own wilderness experiences, returning to God in prayer, silence, fasting, other spiritual habits. And in the midst of the salutary return to our deepest identity in God, the story of those who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome is perhaps a timely and liberating caution for us.

Delusions of heroism can lead to isolation and spiraling disconnection from God, self, and others. We might not be at risk of Jerusalem syndrome per se, but pride – whether it’s in our spiritual fortitude or in our belief that our privilege calls us to help those less fortunate – is just as much a temptation for us. For a church in which many of us believe deeply that God calls us to serve those less fortunate, an unexamined mindset of ‘noblesse oblige’ can lead us into toxic charity, burnout, disillusionment, and even discounting the very people and causes we thought we were called to serve.

There’s cool water in this desert if we’re willing to drink it. The tenets of Beloved Community offer a helpful shift of mindset: We meet God in each other. We find each other with our unique identities and skills and power. Sometimes we have to let go of our privilege to be with each other well. Listen first, and share your truth too. God is not using you to be the savior of others; rather, the Kingdom of God breaks in among us, perhaps most noticeably when the social barriers that divide us most of the time have been set aside due to crisis or shared purpose. We get to show up, receive what we need, give what we have, and rejoice when the Spirit moves among us. It is not heroism nor is it powerlessness. It is participation, with each other, in the mission that God has already seeded around us. The isolation of a Lenten wilderness offers us the chance to examine ourselves, to return to silence, to listen to God’s call — and then return to community more honest, more brave, and more loving than before.

May your Lenten practice, your journey of personal discovery, lead you back home from the wilderness, remembering where that Beloved Community has manifested in your experience. May we all have the wisdom to say yes when it beckons again.