My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Renewal in the Wilderness, A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World by John Lionberger. Published in 2007 by Skylight Paths Publishing, Vermont.
Why is it so many of us find our spirits lifted in Nature and so often feel exhausted and unsatisfied in big urban sprawls? John Lionberger explores this question and provides some of the answers given in all the major religious traditions, including atheism. He also shares his own encounters with God and tells the stories of many other people who have used a canoe trip or a night out alone under the stars to reconnect with something larger than themselves – whether of not you call that God or Nature or prefer no word at all.
“There is an impulse so primal, so deeply embedded in our collective subconscious, that it goes back to the near beginnings of civilization. It is a hunger for something more connected, more vital, and deeper than we are; it is a hunger almost never satisfied in civilized places,” writes John Lionberger.
For many people, especially in contemporary Western cultures, talking about “God” is a turn off even though the experience of the divine may be very similar between believer and non-believer.
For myself, talk of a personal God – the God of the Christian tradition, the God of judgment, the God who is all loving and all powerful but not able to prevent babies being suffocated in earthquakes , makes no sense either rationally or in my own experience of life. Yet I share with many millions of people a sense of awe at the majesty of Nature, the power of natural forces and I recognize my own insignificance in the scale of the Universe. Perhaps the difference is that I do not ascribe this awe to a loving God who sits outside Nature orchestrating his Master Plan.
John Lionberger does his best in “Renewal in the Wilderness” not to get caught up by the “God word”.
“When people describe their experiences in the wilderness, they use words such as peaceful, uninhibited, in tune, whole, infinite, small, refreshed, joyful, enraptured. These are all words of health and connection – physical, spiritual, emotional – and they come from the very deep place in our genetic link with the natural world.
“We go to the wilderness to find a more authentic spiritual experience than civilization usually allows….Being in the natural world has worked for millennia to bring, spiritual wholeness to people on all parts of the earth, to create a sense of wonder, and to give us a knowledge of things larger more wonderful, and more permanent than ourselves.,” writes Lionberger.
This sense of renewal in shared by all of us, whether or not we are formally religious or not.
Lionberger admits to a very personal interest because he runs a ministry, the Renewal in the Wilderness, taking people on canoe and mountain bike trips in the wilderness of Minnesota and Alaska. But he makes a sincere attempt to be eucumenical and embrace all faiths (and none). He presents a worthwhile summary of what Christian and leaders of other faiths, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, have taught about Nature and renewal outside civilization.
Why do we feel “more alive, more in touch with ourselves” in the wilderness than a shopping mall? Lionberger suggests, “The natural world is what it is, without any makeup, and it is exactly what it needs to be. And exposure to it affects is the same way. When we are in it, it helps us know exactly what we are, without makeup – our intrinsic and essential character – and exactly what we need to be. For those who seek authenticity in their lives, this is an immeasurable gift.”
“Renewal in the Wilderness” is definitely aimed at the “stream-enterer” – soneone who may be interested but needs some convincing. It is not an intellectual survey of the literature nor a how-to of spiritual renewal in wild places. In a sense these are limitations on the book. It only really prepares and leads readers to want to take an organized retreat, rather than head out on their own and deepen their experience on a summer hiking trip. He does includes questions for reflection at the end of each chapter but they seem more like conversation points round a table than specifics for the forest.
It’s a pity the reading guide is not more thorough to allow readers to explore this subject more in the comfort of their own armchairs. However, all in all, the book is a useful primer for anyone who’s attracted by the idea of finding “God” in a swamp and for anyone who wants to convince a family member or a friend that it might help them in their lives.