The Grand Canyon, The Spiritual Wilderness, & a Place to Call Home

This is the first post shared here by Rev. Gina Purcell. This is our first direct contribution by anyone with an ordination, and it seems fitting that it is not an ordination from the UUA. She shares her story of how her choice to fellowship with UUs has been tested, and why it matters that we follow our truth, even when it is uncomfortable. It is longer than most of our posts, but it is a story we wanted to share ~ Thomas


From time to time in my life I find myself in what I refer to as my spiritual desert. What I mean by that is it’s a time of deep reflection, often set in motion by a major change in my life or a major loss. It is always a time for me to go inward and reflect on who I am and who I am becoming. One of the stories of my Christian tradition that resonates with me during these times is about Jesus going into the wilderness. The story tells us that Jesus, just after his baptism is driven by the spirit into the wilderness for 40 days where he was alone, fasting and praying and surrounded by wild beasts. Toward the end of his 40 days, we are told he was visited by the tempter. And the tempter tested him 3 times, offering him food, power and money if he would deny who he was called to be. When Jesus had finished the tests, the tempter left him and Jesus was attended to by angels.

Back in December, I found myself driven into my spiritual desert. It actually felt more like being shot out of a circus cannon head first into the desert. But needless to say, my life changed, dramatically, painfully and unexpectedly. I woke up in the wilderness. Actions and circumstances beyond my control resulted in my position as a hospice chaplain being eliminated. I was devastated, angry, incredibly hurt and afraid. What do I do now? I know I am not alone in this experience. People everyday face life changing events. I provided spiritual support for people facing terminal illness, and used this story about Jesus in the wilderness as a means of helping them find hope in the face of despair. And although my events were not nearly as dire as those I had bore witness to, my shock and my grief were just as deep. It was my turn to learn.

I had been planning already to take a trip to the Grand Canyon. For me, the Canyon offers a place of sanctuary from my crazy busy world. There is raw beauty, and a stillness I can’t find anywhere else that provides me a place to be alone with my thoughts. I try to take a pilgrimage there every few years just to stay in touch with my inner being and God. So now more than ever seemed like a perfect time to go. As I journeyed into the canyon, I took this story of Jesus with me.

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I recognize that for the physical part of my journey I had a little more time to prepare than Jesus did. Somehow God failed to mention to Jesus about the 6 week camping trip he was going on before he started his ministry. So he went into the wilderness with nothing more than the clothes on his back. There was a video I saw once that had cartoon illustrations of the 40 days in the wilderness. It depicts many different possibilities of emotion Jesus could have experienced during his time. There are scenes of Jesus deep in prayer, another where he is chasing birds, still others where he was hiding from a storm trying to find shelter, or shaking his fist in anger up to the sky at God. I thought of these images as I hiked. The day I arrived, the winds were gusting at 60 mph and it started snowing. My first instinct was to cancel my hike. Steep, narrow trails did not seem the safest place to be in those winds. On top of that, the forecast for the next day when I would actually be on the trails called for a 100% chance of rain. But my spirit kept telling me, go anyway.

So the next morning when I arrived for my hike, it was cloudy and about 35 degrees out but the winds were calm. I headed in. Not more than 30 minutes after I began, it started to rain. Not torrential rains, but enough that now the steep, narrow trails were becoming steep, narrow, slippery, muddy trails. For the record, hiking downhill on a 6% grade in the mud, not as much fun as it sounds! Several times, I wanted to turn around. It takes twice as long to hike out of the canyon as it does to hike in during normal conditions. I was fearing how long it might take with the added difficulty. But my spirit again kept telling me, keep going anyway. A couple of times I was told I was being ambitious, wanting to get all the way to Indian Gardens in the elements and back out before dark. This was from the park rangers who were passing me on trail.

I remembered that in life, we don’t get the option to simply turn around. We follow the path in front of us no matter how scary it may seem. After 3 hours, I made it 4.5 miles and arrived at Indian Gardens. My body was tired, my legs wouldn’t stop shaking from trying to stay steady in the mud, and I was pretty hungry. So I found a rock by the stream and ate my lunch. It felt good to sit and rest, but more importantly, I felt a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in weeks. It was like I had entered into a bubble and all the worry and stress I had been carrying was released. I decided to leave as much of that stress and worry as I could there in the canyon.

I gathered a little water from the stream to take with me and headed back out. The rain had stopped and the ground had absorbed much of the water so the path was not as slippery but it was still a difficult climb. But now my head and my heart-felt clear so although the physical journey was more difficult, spiritually I felt lighter. I wondered what things Jesus was carrying in his heart when he was driven into the wilderness. Was his heart heavy? Was he concerned about how to accomplish this mission ahead of him? Was he afraid of the reaction people might have to him? Perhaps he was still trying to discern what exactly the message was that he was being given. Could he hear the rhythms of his own heartbeat or had that gotten lost in the noise of expectations surrounding him? I imagined that in the beginning of his journey, he might have felt physically strong just as I had at the rim of the canyon. I wondered if at some point his head and heart also cleared so he could really begin asking the questions he needed to ask to discover who he was and what he was becoming before facing the world again.

I think often when we find ourselves with our lives turned upside down in the wilderness, we lose sight of who we are and what is important to us. Often it is in the physical exhaustion of the journey that we become still enough to hear our inner self. That place where the divine resides in us. This is the place where our lessons reveal themselves. As I continued my trek out of the canyon, my body was screaming at me that I am not 25 anymore, and had I lost my mind? But my spirit was now reminding me that every step I took was leading me closer to my destination. All I had to do was make one more step. There was a sense of accomplishment as I approached each turn, and believe me there were a lot of them!

Then I started finding the angels. Other hikers who offered encouragement as I climbed. It reminded me that even when I am hundreds of miles from home, I am not alone. I am always connected to someone. I did not know their names, where they were from or any intimate details about them, only that we were all walking the pathway together. That was important.top-of-bright-angel-trail

At one point I met up with an older couple who were heading down just a short way, but they had not been prepared for the hike. We stopped and talked and I was able to share some fruit and nuts with them and offered a bit of my water. It was a communion of sorts. I encouraged them to walk with me out of the canyon but they insisted they wanted to go further. As they continued on their way I was concerned for their safety. The sun was getting lower in the sky. I said a prayer for them and reminded myself that I could not walk their journey for them. Sometimes we have to speak our truth in love and then release control of a situation. As I encountered people, I smiled and spoke to each one. It feeds my spirit to connect in even the smallest of ways and I remembered that relationship is everything in life. Relationship with family, friends, self, and the divine.

Who am I without relationship to others? It’s why I became a chaplain in the first place: to offer connection to those who find themselves in the wilderness. But relationship is not one-sided. You cannot offer connection to someone without receiving connection from them. Connection requires us to become vulnerable with one another. But it is in acknowledging our vulnerability that we often find strength. Once I returned home, I unpacked my backpack but knew I would be unpacking the lessons of my journey for quite a bit longer. I also knew that although my life circumstances had not changed much, I was on my way out of the wilderness experience.

I want to shift gears for a moment. I wanted to talk about my job situation some more, and my experience with a local skilled nursing facility. The short recap is that I was offered a job as chaplain; they interviewed me, I spent time doing prayers and devotionals with the staff to see if I was a good fit for the position. It was determined that I was. However in a conversation with a resident I mentioned that my ordination is through Metropolitan Community Church but my local church membership is with a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Since the facility is associated with the Lutheran church there is an expectation that the chaplain will support Trinitarian beliefs. When I was questioned about my membership here I assured the bosses at the national campus that I was still able to support Trinitarian doctrine (although not in a traditional sense) and be a member of the UUA. Furthermore my ordaining body is Trinitarian.

But when I was asked if I would consider revoking my membership with the UU church in order to keep the job, I immediately went back to Jesus in the wilderness. The test that Jesus faced offered him money, power and resources: things that he could have done so much with, if he would only deny his truth. Who he knew he was called to be.

I told the national administration that I would not revoke my membership with this community. The great great grandson of the founder of the organization was on the phone with me and he asked me why it was so important that I stay connected with this church. I told him because I stand with you in the search for truth and meaning, because I, like you, value the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Because I believe there is truth and wisdom in all spiritual paths, and because this church holds open its doors for anyone who is seeking community and connection, just like you did for me. This connection with you is important. This is my family of choice. In the end, it was determined that my involvement here would be problematic for the residents there and I was released from the position. I disagreed with their assessment.

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I want to lift a few things up about this and then I’m done. First, this story is not being told to glorify one side and demonize another. The local administrators were just as troubled by the decisions made as I was and they affirmed to me repeatedly that they stand by their decision to hire me. In the process of my talks with their leadership, every conversation and meeting began in prayer. That is an important piece. We listened to each other and held each other in respect. It would be easy to lash out in anger at apparent religious discrimination. But that is not who we are. We speak truth in love. I did my best to educate the leaders on who we are and what we stand for. They were not able to hear it yet. And although I disagree with their decision, I know they did the best they could with what they had, and I respect that they made their decision out of love and concern for what they believed was in the best interest of their community. Many of whom are no longer able to speak for themselves.

My time in the wilderness allowed me to quiet the chaos in my head so I could be prepared for this most recent event. So I could stand firm in who I know I am called to be, with you. My prayer is that together we become more resolved to speak our truth in love, to educate and become more visible. We have a great calling as a community to be angels for one another but also to be angels for all those who are wandering in their own wilderness looking for peace, looking for rest, looking for connection that they will find here. Our presence in this world is so needed. May we all have courage to face our wilderness journeys and embrace the lessons they present so we may become a stronger presence of truth and love in this hurting world.

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One Response to The Grand Canyon, The Spiritual Wilderness, & a Place to Call Home

  1. Jenny May 30, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Bless you, Gina, for having the courage to speak honestly about your journey. Your words, and the tender spirit behind those words, certainly touched my heart.

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