Bruegel: The Return of the Herd

Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent in the Christian tradition, a time when one of the traditional readings comes from the Book of Luke. In this reading, John the Baptist is living in the wild, described as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…’”

We can see Advent as a time of being in the wilderness, just as we can see it as a soft opening or wayfinding. In many ways, these themes go hand-in-hand. Even if Christianity isn’t your cup of wine (or water that was turned into wine), perhaps this time of year feels a bit more wild. Beyond control. Busy, harried. This is one side of wildness.

But the other side of wildness is returning to what is primal, eschewing the speedy-busy-ness of our lives to find something more natural. To go to the woods to live deliberately, as Thoreau did. As John the Baptist did. As the Buddha did. Most religions have at least one narrative of going into the wilderness to find some deeper level of meaning. Which is what attracts me to the etymology of the word wilderness: in the natural state, uncultivated, untamed, undomesticated, uncontrolled.

Bruegel The Return of the Herd.jpg

When faiths fail us, when human actions harm the veracity of our spiritual guidance, it’s easy to tailspin. We’re thrown into a situation that is uncontrolled. But we can also choose to find the warmth of also being in the natural state. We begin complaining about the cold as soon as it drops below 50°, yet we run out into the first snow. We grouse about the holidays just as quickly and enthusiastically as we buy fir trees and decorate them with tinsel and lights. We say that Hanukkah “isn’t even a high holiday” just as we get nostalgic about candle-lighting. We’re finding our natural state in situations over which we don’t have complete control.

Perhaps I’m coming back to my roots here by revisiting Bruegel with another panel from his seasonal series, The Return of the Herd. The dark, foreboding November sky looms in the corner as a group of farmers bring a herd of cattle back to a controlled state. There’s drama in the color, there’s a sense of turmoil around what’s to come. But there’s also a sense of coming home, of returning to our basic roots as humans.

We recognize the dangers of the wilderness, but we also return to it time and again for the sense of wonder it offers us. It gives us a sense of intimacy, a sense of what’s vital. We tap into the collective whole and the beauty of the universe.

We return.

Today’s Contemplation

As you sit, notice when your thoughts begin to wander. Consider your breath as home. As you get lost, remember to come home. Can you sense the wild unknown? Can you, at the same time, sense the intimately known?