Gerald May on the Wisdom of Wilderness


It is so easy to get stuck in the “manage my life” mode. By this I mean that state of mind where the present moment isn’t what holds me, but the endless list of things that need to be done, acquired, fixed, managed in some future moment. It makes for restlessness and irritability. The world considers it the normal state of affairs. The bombardment of advertisements plays into this state of mind, giving us a never ending assortment of things to covet.

In the creation story, the command to observe the Sabbath honors the necessity of stepping out of the “manage my life” mode; to simply be, and not do, or worry about future doings, to experience again that at the heart of creation it’s all good.

Moments of grace come to us spontaneously that call us out of the rat race of life. It is important, however, to make room for this experience.

Wilderness, by virtue of the fact that it is, by definition, untamed by human beings, is a setting that lends itself for returning to this other state of mind — the one we were intended to discover in Sabbath rest. I experienced this most powerfully in the Quest I took alone in the woods a year and half ago on my Sabbatical. The fact that so few of us have a real connection to wilderness does not bode well for our collective spirituality.

There have been a handful of writers in whose words I have found access to a sense of immediacy marked by contentment and centeredness. One of these is Gerald May. Trained as a psychiatrist, Gerald spent the majority of his adult life exploring the spiritual life, writing extraordinary books such as “Addiction and Grace.” He died two years ago after a long illness. Recently his last book was published, written as he was dying, entitled “The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature”, and this morning I finished it. Parts of this little book touched me deeply and led me into that experience of grace of which I am speaking. I want to quote a couple of passages. In the first he describes his first experience as a middle aged man of going out in the woods alone to camp. Previously Gerald had spent a lot of time in the outdoors camping, but with his mother’s fearfulness living within him, he’d never camped out overnight alone. He describes sleeping in the tent on the second night: “I sleep again, dreaming of sounds, snappings and whirrings and then a growling that awakens me and I am certain the grow has come from a close wild presence that is just a few inches from me, just on the other side of the thin shadow canvas of the tent. I am sharp wake now and smell something right here, a brusque, wild smell, the smell of something alive and very near. I lie still, nostrils open to the smell, ears sharp into the silence, eyes keen into absolute darkness, and it growls again.

“The bear is right next to me, its side brushing the tent canvas, its growl deep, resonant, slow. This is no dream and I am terrified and yet I feel a strange calmness over everything, so difficult to describe. It’s like some kind of fierce embrace. I lie absolutely still, staring wide-eyed at nothing. My mind appears, thinking fast. What do you do to get rid of a bear? I heard somewhere you bang pots and pans together. Okay. Do I have any pots and pans? No, dummy, you put them in the car with the food so they wouldn’t attract bears. Okay. Okay. So there’s nothing to do, still nothing to do. Still nothing. Lie here, still, be scared, nothing more to do. And here, maybe, another deeper voice, just a hint of touch of the Power of the Slowing whispering, ‘Be frightened. Just be frightened.’

“The bear paws at something, ambles toward the picnic table, comes back once around the other side of the tent. And leaves. Just like that. A patrol through my campsite with no wasted motion. No more growls. Nothing. My back and legs hurt from the cold hard ground and from keeping still. My heart is beating so loudly I’m sure the bear must hear it. And I have never felt so alive.

“I lie unmoving for a very long time after the bear leaves, my senses completely alert, not thoughts, no images, seeing nothing, hearing only my heart and breath and the sounds of the night. For the first time in my life, I am experiencing pure fear. I am completely present in it, in a place beyond all coping because there is nothing to do. I have never before experienced such clean, unadulterated purity of emotion. This fear is naked. It consists, in these slowly passing moments, of my heart pounding, my breath rushing yet fully silent, my body ready for anything, my mind absolutely empty, open, waiting. I am fear. It is beautiful.” (pp. 31 -32)

This is strange stuff to we who live with so much skill at keeping our fear at a safe arm’s length.

The other quote comes from the end of the book, as Gerald is quite conscious that he is dying of the cancer within his body, and the futility he recognizes at such a moment of trying to understand and master the illness:

“But there are many situations, of which mine seems a good example, where one can exhaust every bit of one’s intelligence, knowledge, and expertise, and understanding simply does not come. Things remain irrevocably incomprehensible, deeply mysterious. In such cases, one is confronted with a choice: keep on struggling for an impossible comprehension or relax and accept the essential mystery. I have never seen the first option lead to anything but rage and exhaustion. In the second option, contrary to popular opinion, there is the possibility not only of peacefulness but also of great hope.” (p. 187)

I’ll let these words speak for themselves.