I am neither a priest nor a theologian, neither a devotee of nor a spokesperson for any particular spiritual tradition or path. I am an ordinary woman with an extraordinary hunger: to live with an awareness of the Sacred Mystery, the Beloved-God-at the center of my life and to learn from this presence who I am and why I am here....
I am willing to do whatever it takes to know and live the meaning in my life. I am convinced that I have to and am able to learn to do it differently.
And I am wrong.
Not knowing I am wrong, in the summer of 2002 I decide to go into the wilderness alone to do a forty-day vision quest, a ceremonial time of fasting, praying, and deep listening found in different forms in many spiritual traditions. Over the past eighteen years I have done eight personal vision quests, some for one to four nights and one for twenty-two days and nights. I am feeling strong, prepared, and cautiously optimistic.
I am lying facedown in the dirt and pine needles, waiting for the sharp pains in my belly to soften and ebb away. For the third time in as many hours I have vomited onto the ground the small sips of water I keep swallowing in an effort to stay hydrated. It has been twenty-four hours since I have been able to keep anything, including water, down. Trying to eat small bites of an apple hours before was like trying to swallow razor blades. I can feel the rapid fluttering of my heartbeat behind the steady throbbing in my head. When I roll over the whole world, a dizzying swirl of rocks and ground and leaves and sky, rolls with me and keeps on rolling even when I have stopped. It takes several minutes for my view of the gray sky above the tops of the trees that surround me to stabilize. The nausea and aching muscles have made sleeping difficult. I have been awake for almost forty-eight hours.
I have been alone in the wilderness for six days. Because I plan to stay for forty days I am not fasting continuously. Half of the time I am eating one light meal per day of a quarter cup of rice, one vegetable protein patty, and one apple. The other half of the time, for three-day periods, I am water-fasting.
Feeling ill took me by surprise on day four after only eight hours of water fasting. The severity and suddenness of my symptoms remain a mystery. I have fasted many times for much longer periods with much less preparation and experienced no physical repercussions. Several years earlier I water-fasted during a twenty-two-day quest with no ill effects. Having had chronic fatigue syndrome many years ago, I generally keep a close watch on my overall health and can anticipate and usually avoid any major immune system crashes by resting and using herbs and supplements. I'd arrived for this quest rested and healthy. The weather and the animals have been gentle. There is no apparent reason for being so sick.
And I hear a voice, the voice of one of the old women I have seen many times in my dreams and have come to call the Grandmothers. The voice says quietly, simply, "Go home."
I hold my breath, listening for more. Anger flashes through me. Is this a test to see if I'm sincere in my intention to be here for forty days? Are they trying to measure the depth of the desire I have poured into my prayers? Seeing me struggle with physical discomfort, are they testing my resolve, trying to tempt me into giving up? The tears I would not allow as an expression of discouragement come now as outrage, hot on my face. My words are choked out from behind clenched teeth: "Don't fuck with me!"
The voice comes again, slower, sadder, and impossibly softer, a breeze rippling through the maple leaves above me. "Oriah, go home."
And I break. I roll over and press my face into the earth, sobbing. How can I go home without an answer? I want to know how to do it differently, how to let the love I know is within me guide me when I am tired and impatient and judgmental with those around me. I think of them now, the people I love: my two beautiful sons, Nathan and Brendan, now young men of nineteen and twenty-two, both beginning their studies at university; Jeff, the man I am about to marry, who despite not really understanding what I am doing out here helped me pack in my supplies and waits for my return; my parents, restraining themselves from expressing their concern for their crazy daughter who, just before her forty-eighth birthday, has gone out into the wilderness for six weeks alone; the friends and students who have supported me, the many people who are praying for me. Is telling me to go home the Grandmothers' way of telling me I simply can't do it, I can't live differently, I can't live fully present with a deep sense of connection to myself and the Sacred Mystery guiding me all the time?