A tiny curl of flame rises from the small heap of birch bark. My sore fingers fumbling in haste, I feed it with curls of bark, my face inches away as I blow. Blow and pray: Lord, please let it catch this time…
When I arrived in this quiet woodland for my five-day “Beginners to Advanced” survival course, I was lugging a large kitbag containing, among other things, a February-rated sleeping bag and a tarpaulin. For three days we listened and learned as our instructor taught us how to build shelters and find food and water – but above all, how to light fires. If you can light a fire in February when everything is damp, he told us, you can light one any time. In the wilds without fire, you cannot stay warm, purify water, cook your woodlice or signal for help.
Growing up in an age of instant, electric light, I had never fully appreciated the symbolism of the Holy Spirit represented as tongues of flame. Fire truly is life. If fire is life, then firewood is the lifeblood. Firewood obsession took less than 24 hours to seize us. No matter what we left the main camp to learn, we would trek back laden with branches we’d been unable to stop ourselves collecting. Firewood obsession is healthy, smiled the instructor. And so it is. Not merely healthy, but utterly necessary. And that is why millions of girls around the world cannot go to school.
Those first three days were intensive, but we always returned to our snug, waterproof tarpaulin shelters at night. It put me in mind of Jesus’s disciples, spending three intense years learning and travelling with Him, but always feeling secure and safe. That didn’t last for them, and it didn’t last for us.
Early on Thursday morning all our comforts were taken away. It’s the assessment phase and we have to survive until the following day with what little we have left: a knife, a flint and steel, a mess tin, a small sack, a bottle of water, two very small Snickers bars, a bottle of Lucozade, and the knowledge that it’s February and there is literally nothing to eat in the woods other than insects. The loss of the certainty provided by our man-made comforts powerfully evokes the stripping of the disciples’ confidence as Jesus is seized and taken from them. Now they are alone in the wilderness of life and they must work, and work hard, to keep the fire of their faith, hope and love burning.
As must we, both spiritually, and – here in this woodland – quite literally. My hope that I’d have time to collect insects for supper turned out to be wildly optimistic: it took all day to construct my bed and shelter out of branches and undergrowth, begin insulating it with dead leaves, and to collect enough firewood.
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