The film, Wild, which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoire, is a deeply moving reflection on one woman’s pilgrimage along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s untimely death and the personal trials that follow it. The pilgrimage reveals what all true pilgrimages do, which is that it is only in going on a journey that we discover afresh the place in the universe that we already inhabited. It is rarely a question of discovering something new, something that we did not already possess, and more often a question of learning to see afresh. Enlightenment always has that quality – the discovery of our original face, the realisation of our true nature.
But is the Christian story of redemption not something different? Is it not a case of receiving something we did not already have, like forgiveness, or reconciliation, or grace? Is the Christian narrative not one of rescue rather than realisation? At the end of the film, Strayed says something like (and please forgive this paraphrase, this is how I remember what I heard!) ‘When was I redeemed? I always was.’ This seems to be a novel use of a word that might usually be thought of as denoting precisely a kind of rescue, an intervention from ‘outside’ that sorts us out and gives us what it was that we lacked. But its use here is much more in the territory of enlightenment or realisation. Strayed discovered in her long walk the woman her mother had always raised her to be – it was a question of learning to become what she already was.
I think this is a lovely way of talking about the Christian story of ‘redemption’. When were you saved? Well, there are many ways of answering that question. You could say, ‘Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the gardener uttered my name.’ You could say, ‘I was always saved. It was always in the way of God to create life, always in God’s heart to bring that life to the full realisation of the beauty of being alive. It was always true that each created being found its fullness in being truly awake.’
In this account, the death and resurrection of Jesus reveal what has always been true about human life. It is only in giving ourselves over to self-transcending love that we wake up to the truth of who we are. But that ‘giving over’ might be a demanding journey. Like Strayed, it might be a bruising trek through desert heat which confronts us with things we had strived to put out of mind. Like Jesus, it might be that fourteen-stationed crossbar haul through a city’s streets to a hill that demanded everything and then gave it back, shining like the sun.