Whole Person, Whole Globe, Whole God
A review of The Wild Land Within by Lisa Colón DeLay
Have you ever fallen in love with a title? Weeks before I started reading Lisa Colón DeLay’s new book, The Wild Land Within: Cultivating Wholeness through Spiritual Practice, when it was just another book in a pile I had yet to tackle, I would lie in bed at night, remember that title, and feel my heart beat faster. The wild land within, I would think. Do I have one of those?
It turns out, The Wild Land Within is not just another book. You know the type, books that promise but don’t deliver. This isn’t that. From her title to her final benediction, Colón DeLay maps an astonishing atlas, a companion guide for those who sense, in the stillness of the night, that our journey to understanding our own selves—and the God who is with us—has just begun. Reading The Wild Land Within is a little bit like attending a series of spiritual direction sessions. An experienced spiritual director herself, Colón DeLay gently guides her readers through a set of explorations designed for those who may have been frustrated by previous attempts at spiritual growth.
When I was growing up in the white evangelical American church, the recipe for spiritual growth boiled down to two steps. There were prayers to pray with acronyms so we didn’t forget any of the pieces, and there were Bible studies to fill out with numbered questions and little white spaces for filling in the correct answers. That was pretty much it. If we said all the right parts of the prayers and answered all the questions in the Bible study, they said, we would become more like Jesus.
I don’t want to dismiss the value of prayer and Bible study. Certainly, I grew spiritually during those years. But as a catalog of possible paths to knowing the almighty God, the acronym-prayer-and-preprinted-Bible-study list is woefully incomplete. On their own, these methods do not take into account the complexity of the person who comes to them—her fears, her secrets, her wounds, her trauma—and they do not represent the wisdom of the full complement of faithful ones who have walked before us around the world. So how could anyone expect them to lead us to the fullness of God? By contrast, in considering the whole person and the witness of the whole church, The Wild Land Within leads closer to communion with the whole of God.
Colón DeLay is not afraid of her readers. Not afraid, that is, to welcome them as whole people: people with pasts, needs, bodies, emotions. This willingness to reckon with the messiness of being human stands in direct contrast to the churches of my youth, which tended to operate, as Colón DeLay points out, with “separate sectors for the mind and heart, or for the brain and body.” Many white churches accept this dualism, passed down to Western Civilization since the Roman Empire. But when we equate “body” with “bad” and believe that intellectual assent is the only thing required for spiritual growth, we miss the vital information that our bodies and emotions have to tell us. From body scans to besetting sins, Colón DeLay broadens our perspective, nudging us to acknowledge every messy, aching, wounded piece of ourselves.
The Wild Land Within is persistent in its reliance on the wisdom of the global church. With the help of Christian guides from ancient, medieval, Eastern Orthodox, Native American, Black, Latinx, Asian, and other traditions, Colón DeLay decenters the white church experience and introduces readers to spiritual growth as it has been practiced for over two millennia and around the world. From Evagrius the fifth-century Egyptian monk to James Cone the twentieth-century Black liberation scholar, Colón DeLay tunes the ears of her readers to listen to a multiplicity of voices—and not just those among theology.
Song lyrics, historical events, passages from children’s novels, and the facial expressions of figures in paintings appear among the pages of The Wild Land Within. “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” writes Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lisa Colón DeLay knows this and teaches us to know it too.
One of the book’s most poignant passages is Colón DeLay’s account of her own trauma. During that season of her life, she began to ask questions: “Is the God who I was taught to believe in someone who can be trusted? . . . What is my suffering going to do to my relationship with that God? . . . Can my understanding of who God is and what is happening expand to encompass mystery?” Questions like these require more than formulas. They need space.
My attempts to follow the spiritual paths laid out by my childhood churches came to an abrupt end when I hit my own patch of trauma. The very same week my own life turned upside down—upended by revelations of childhood abuse and subsequent psychiatric emergency, I resigned from the weekly Bible study I’d attended since childhood. The little white blanks under the preprinted questions weren’t big enough anymore. I skidded out into an unmoored space, a place where formulas and acronyms couldn’t hold me. For years, I found myself unable to read the Bible or pray in the ways I’d once been taught. And yet, I felt myself tumbling, always, into an ever-widening awareness of the grace of God.
Recently, I’ve found myself longing for some new spiritual rhythms to guide me once again. It turns out, the paths I sought have been part of the global church all along. I’m so grateful to Lisa Colón DeLay for showing me these ancient ways. The Wild Land Within is an atlas—both trauma-informed and multiculturally attuned—for navigating the tumbling, unmoored space that opens up when we let go of old ways and search for new ones. In the space Colón DeLay charts, we find ourselves. In that space, we meet the holy one.
Cover image by Rasmus Andersen.