Vision Quests: More Interfaith than You Might Think

by Vicki Garlock on July 23, 2014

Spider Web

Spider Web with Dew Drops WikiCommons: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

On Monday, I dropped my daughter off for another week of Growing Goddess camp. The moms joke that it’s just a bunch of naked girls in the woods, but the truth is that my daughter has matured in wonderful ways, in part because of her experiences at this camp. Last year, I was profoundly moved by her vision quest story. I have pretty high expectations of my kids, but I totally underestimated her on this one. At the time, I also failed to appreciate the extent to which her participation in this ancient and sacred practice connected her to traditions around the world.

In all honesty, I had no idea my daughter was capable of being alone – or quiet – for any length of time. As a toddler, she always preferred the social stimulation of other humans over the relative silence of being alone. And during elementary school, I never once saw her leave a room with people in it. In many ways, this still holds. Of course, things are changing a bit now that she is a teenager. Netflix, her Kindle, and her cell phone all offer ways to be with people without really being with people. Nevertheless, she’s a true “people person” at heart. She sees people for who they are – faults and all – and loves them for it. It’s one of her best qualities.

Given all that, I listened with a certain amount of anticipation as she shared her story during the camp’s closing ceremonies. My daughter, along with six other middle-school girls, had spent the week living on the land outside of Asheville. The camp kicks off with an opening ceremony where objects are placed on a portable altar that travels with them throughout the week. They sleep outside, eat native plants and flowers, and connect with nature. On Thursday afternoon of that week, they participated in their vision quests.

Vision quests almost always include some form of seclusion and some degree of fasting. Several of the world’s great spiritual leaders engaged in similar sorts of quests. From the Hebrew Bible, we have Moses who “was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights: he neither ate bread nor drank water.” (Exodus 34:28) At the end of his time on the mountain, Moses received a second set of commandments from the Lord to replace the ones Moses angrily smashed after seeing the golden calf. From the New Testament, we have the story of Jesus, who also fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Biblical code for a specific period of trial/testing) before being tempted by the devil three times. Jesus refused promises of food, worldly power, and earthly kingdoms, and then “suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:11) The end of his quest marked the beginning of his ministry.

Such experiences are certainly not limited to Judeo-Christian history. Muhammad was also well-known for frequent fasting and hours spent alone in prayer and meditation. Certainly, he fasted during the month of Ramadan, but many claim that he also fasted on Mondays and Thursdays and during the month preceding Ramadan. He also spent innumerable hours in a cave near Mecca. He began experiencing spiritual dreams which ultimately led to his first revelations from the archangel, Gabriel, and the start of his prophethood. Interestingly, the Buddha’s quest was slightly different. He began his spiritual journey after leaving his princely life in the castle. He stopped eating in an attempt to free himself of desire, which he had concluded was the source of all suffering. Eventually, as the tradition goes, he became so emaciated he could feel his spine through his stomach. He no longer had the strength to meditate, so he ate. And that’s when the Buddha’s true visioning began. The result was his Enlightenment and the founding of the Middle Way.

But vision quests are not just for the founders of new religions. Many “regular folks” have participated in vision quests. In the Americas, the practice has primarily survived through various Native customs. According to those traditions, quests provide much-needed time to commune with the earth – to connect with the land, the sky, and the spiritual forces of nature. They are often done during adolescence as a rite of passage, and the length of time spent on a quest varies from about one to four days. Alone, and without much sustenance, questers become more open to the wisdom and guidance that creation offers. One’s destiny is revealed, one’s purpose is illuminated, and one’s life becomes transformed.

At least that’s how vision quests are described. I’ve never done one, and while I certainly didn’t have such grandiose expectations for my daughter, I was curious to hear how she handled several hours of mountaintop solitude. The girls were well-prepared for their experience. The counselors had explained how vision quests often work, and they had shared their own vision quest stories. Both counselors had participated in four-day quests, which made the girls’ six-hour ritual seem quite doable. The girls were pampered in the morning with a big breakfast. They were also allowed to take a water bottle, a rain jacket, and a blanket to sit on. It had rained regularly in the days leading up to the vision quest, but the weather conveniently cleared up late that morning. And then she was there – sitting alone in the spot she had chosen – for the entire day. She says she actually stood for much of the time, but neither of us is sure why.

And then it happened. As she described it, she saw a light streaming through a spider web woven across the span of two closely-spaced trees. The web shimmered as a white spider sprawled across the center point, ruling over its silky kingdom. A rainbow of colors radiated outward offering peace, unity, and oneness with all of creation. Then, the light shifted, and the image disappeared.

“Wow!” I said to her when the closing ceremony finally ended. “You had a vision on your vision quest!”

“No I didn’t.” she replied. “I just saw a really cool spider web.”

I pushed a second time. “Really? You don’t think you had a vision?”

“No, I don’t think so.” she said unperturbed.

I dropped it, but later, I couldn’t resist asking her if she felt like Mother Earth or God or The Divine had been trying to tell her something during her quest. “Not really,” she said, “I feel like you would have been a better listener than I am to really hear that voice.” Perhaps.

I am quite certain she had a vision; she is equally sure she did not. While I find that discrepancy somewhat interesting, I’m not sure it really matters. What matters, of course, is the experience itself. Religious institutions would do well to keep that in mind. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of stories and events that happened long ago and that are described in languages – or versions of languages – no longer spoken. I actually enjoy a good theological argument, but it loses its luster when it erects walls between people and between us and all that is holy.

All sacred texts are in the business of describing that which cannot be described. They’ve done this in different ways, at different points in history, using different literary approaches. In all cases, however, they are trying to articulate a vision of how humans can find the love and compassion that binds us all to the earth and everything that is blessed upon it. “I AM WHO I AM,” God declared to Moses (Exodus 3:14). And that holds whether God is seen between two closely-spaced trees, felt on a mountaintop, heard in the middle of a desert, revealed in a cave, or discovered while in the lotus position.

Many thanks to Lena Eastes, founder of Earth Path Education, for providing such a wonderful experience for these girls. I pick up my daughter from this year’s camp on Friday. 

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