I've always thought that having a guide is a good idea, especially if I'm touring a land where my untrained eye might miss the very things I've travelled so far to see. Without a guide in Tanzania we might have missed the leopard leaping from his tree to slink through the tall grass and go after a warthog and her piglet. Without a guide in Israel we would never have known we were standing on the spot made famous by biblical lore, where David slew Goliath.
The spiritual terrain is no different. As long as it's familiar, like the neighbourhood where we live, we don't need a guide. Churchgoing, for instance, becomes a reassuring pattern that comforts us in its predictability. The pew is comfortable, the people friendly, and God never steps outside the bounds of our expectations. Life itself feels manageable through our taming of it and we breathe a sigh of relief that, here at least, we're safe.
But step outside the church, into the vast unknown territory of soul and spirit, you can get lost, you can get hurt. If you're searching, as I am, for the wild God the church has shut out of its assemblies, in those wild places where nothing is tamed, nothing is safe, you're going to need a guide.
My recent interviews on The Mystic Cave reflect my attempt to identify such guides. Michael Trotta helped me refocus my attention on the natural world, quite literally, in my own backyard. Richard LeSueur reminded me of the roots of our Western spiritual tradition, which are found in the wilderness of the Middle East. Now, I'm readying myself to get out into some wilderness of my own, to encounter God in the exchange between my soul and the Soul of the Earth.
Like the vision quests of Indigenous peoples around the globe, a modern-day soul encounter in the wild requires serious preparation. You must attend to any unaddressed psychic wounds that might otherwise trip you up, hijacking your quest with the ego's insatiable demands—“Am I good enough?” “Do I belong here?” “Am I loved?” You must be in reasonably good physical shape. And you must face your fears--of nature itself, of your ability to survive in a wild environment, of your readiness for a soulful encounter that may change your life.
I have enlisted, for this part of my journey, the guidance of the Animas Valley Institute, an Outward Bound type of program that takes people into the wild places, prepares them through teaching, reflection, and ritual, and then releases them for three days and four nights with only a bedroll and a bottle of water. The hope is that, with your body weakened and your ego stripped of its usual props and masks, you might have a luminous encounter with nature that will help you learn your true place and purpose in the world.
In this week's episode of The Mystic Cave my guest is Doug Van Houten, a guide with the Animas Institute. I’ve been meeting with Doug online for a series of one-on-one conversations and I’ll be joining him and others this fall in Kentucky for an initiatory program, a "Soulcraft Intensive.” This is to prepare me for what Animas calls a Quest (also a Vision Fast, or a Soul Initiation), which I hope to do next summer, 2023, when I’ll be turning seventy.
Doug believes that our souls are capable of guiding us to our true selves through a renewed (though also, very old) relationship with Nature. The premise is that we are part of the natural world, not outside of it. That world has a unique place for us, as a species and as individuals. An immersive Quest experience, like Animas offers, provides us with the opportunity to rediscover what that place is, and so to assume the "eco-niche" that Nature is holding out to us.
I'm scared, to be honest, going down this path. I might not be up to it. I might get hurt. I might fail. But, one by one, I'm facing those fears and feeling an excitement I haven‘t known for years. I'm preparing to meet my God, my Maker. Not the neat and tidy God of religious belief and practice, but the wild unpredictable God of the wilderness, the God who is still capable of breaking through our defences and leading us to our soul's true calling.
This week in The Mystic Cave: "Soul Encounter: Doug Van Houten on Becoming our Natural Selves.” You can listen to this episode simply by pressing the Play button, below ...