Spirit of the Age: Finding myself in the wilderness

IT IS NOT what it was, the wilderness. I had spotted a leaflet advertising a Wilderness Retreat, deep in the Yorkshire Pennines, organised by a group called Christians Aware. "We expect to hear God speaking to us in the wildness of our surroundings," said the leaflet. Packed lunches included.

But when we arrived at the Scout hostel at Blake Dean, although it had bare rough-cast white plaster walls and cold stone floors, it also had central heating and hot showers. Quite what Baden-Powell would have made of that - with his predilection for roughing it in the bush and taking cold showers to cool his over-ardent manhood - I wasn't sure. There were even bunk beds in dormitory. It's not what it was, Scouting.

But then maybe the rest of us aren't what we were either. The idea of wilderness has long been a potent one in mankind's spiritual quest. The Buddha went off and lived in it. The Jews wandered through it for 40 years after the Exodus. Jesus routinely withdrew to it for space and solace. And then there were in the 4th and 5th centuries in the sandy wastes of Egypt, Syria and Palestine the men (and women) who became known as the Desert Fathers.

Their kind of wilderness was serious stuff. These coenobite fathers and anchorite mothers enjoyed, as one commentator put it, "not much sleep, no baths, poor food, little company, ragged clothes, hard work, no leisure, absolutely no sex and even in some places no church either". How, I wondered, would the dozen folk in the Christians Aware group, who had travelled up from London, Leamington and Liverpool, have coped with that.

At first sight we seemed ill-equipped, that is to say over-equipped, with our Karrimor rucksacks, High Force anoraks, Gore-Tex boots and cars parked handily outside the hostel. But the talk by the spluttering wood stove after the evening meal gave the lie to that. A number of oblique shafts in the conversation, as it ventured out into that territory where people hint at their own vulnerability, intimated that the wilderness can be a psychological as much as a physical state. Spiritual journeys begin with an awareness of a sense of inner need. In our cars we had brought our wildernesses with us from the city.

Next morning we set out in heavy hanging cloud and fine drizzle up the side of steep bracken-clad hillsides which veer steeply up from the higher tributaries of the River Calder. All around the purple flowers of the moorland heather were fading into crumbly ochre husks which crackled in protest underfoot. The route took us across the surmounting heath past a farm called Egypt and along a rough, pathless high valley called Noahdale. With admirable restraint the leaders of the party made no forced allusions. (Just as well, we had already passed a place called Slack Bottom and the map showed another called Pisser Clough).

Instead we began a long tour of the ruined farmhouses of these upper reaches. They were once handsome buildings of fine-cut stone with elegant archways and mullioned weavers' windows to give extra light to the upper stories. Changes in the market for wool had forced their abandonment in the mid-19th century. Wilderness, the ruined habitations seemed to say, can come to places which least expect it.

At the valley top we struck out on a compass-bearing across a deep bog. An hour later we stopped and stood in silence on the blasted heathland. All around the barren, brown heather stretched to the horizon. The vista was broken only by the odd windswept bush whose bare branches were curved like the spine of a bent old woman. It is on mountain tops, the traditions of so many religions have it, that as the mist lifts, an awareness breaks through of something we can only half-grasp.

Back in the hostel, at the end of the five hour trek, the silence continued. The wood fire crackled like a live animal as the wet boots steamed gently before it. But otherwise there was nothing to unnecessarily interrupt the shared silence as some slept and others read or watched the flickering flames.

Of course, there was nothing here to match the privations of the real wilderness. And yet we were perhaps as far from the norms of our daily routine and its rush of noise and activity as were those Desert Fathers from the harsh facts of everyday life in 4th century Judea. Silence is not an austere preference for aloneness, the early fathers believed, but the opportunity to listen. It is a lesson in which our modern world is showing renewed interest; the National Retreat Association lists over 200 centres with year-round programmes in its handbook, which is already out of print for this year.

Finding wilderness, as with so much else about the contemporary search for the spiritual, is a question of finding new vehicles for the old verities. So it did not seem odd, the next day, Sunday, to share a service of communion high on a hillside by a broken stone wall. The words were quite conventional and the actions simple, with one of our number, an Anglican priest, celebrating. It was understated yet apt.

The mist descended with a vengeance. We walked in swirling cloud through the knee-deep heather but along a path that one of our party had reconnoitred some time before. We strode on, with our mist-shrouded eyes fixed on the uncertain ground and our thoughts occupied with unarticulated metaphor.

It was late lunchtime when we arrived at our destination, Top Witherns, the ruined farmhouse that was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. The place was full of sandwich-stealing sheep and Japanese tourists for the Bronte town of Haworth was not far the other side. But it did not matter. When is comes to hearing the voice of God, it is the journey rather than the arriving that counts.

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