Jonah’s Vision Quest ©

EcoChaplain Roger Wharton
February 1992

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little in their exploration of the vision quest process have identified four stages of the quest that has become a widely accepted model for the psychological and spiritual process of the quester. These stages as adapted are outlined briefly below.

The first is the desire of the quester to seek. This desire may arise out of many circumstances that are personal, cultural, or global in nature. The desire is rooted in the need for personal understanding of the situation in which the person finds themselves and the hope of finding meaning for their life. The quest is undertaken then for the renewal of the individual and the benefit of community to which the person will return.

Severance or separation is the second phrase. Everything is left behind and the quester is cut off from the familiar past. The severance process usually takes time as the person isn’t just able to simply “walk away from it all.” Preparation is necessary for the anticipated change in their life. As the time to make the change approaches, the commitment to renewal is countered by fear of the unknown and the desire not to change. A self-examination occurs where the quester often is faced with their shadow side until the decision is made to continue or turn back.

If the quester forges ahead the next stage is known as the threshold. It comprises the adventure or ordeal of the seeker within a sacred or consecrated natural place. Here the threshing takes place and the seed grain is separated from the chaff. What is no longer important will fall away as the quester loses some of selfhood. In the passage a toll is paid by the ego. The threshold begins with a death, a severance, a dislocation. Then there is a passing through the sacred threshing-hold towards birth, and human transformation takes place.

The final stage is incorporation that sets the stage for the process to begin anew. Before the quester goes off again there is a period that may vary greatly in length where the seeker incorporates the wisdom of the quest into the community in a new life status. The person emerges into the social order to become one with the people. (The Roaring of the Sacred River. Pp. 20-24)

The biblical story of Jonah is a tale that could be used to discuss the vision quest from a Christian perspective. Not only does Jonah experience the various phases of the quest but the myth speaks of some wonderful Jewish and then Christian theology. It also serves as the model for the vision quest experience of Jesus not only in the forty days in the wilderness but also in the Passion, three days in the tomb, and Resurrection. Jonah’s tale is the story of every quester.

The call comes to Jonah from the Creator because of the condition of the people in the great city of Ninevah. Jonah, however, is not ready to cut his strings to undergo the risky travel and dangers of calling the people of Ninevah to repentance. Jonah, therefore, flees only to be pursued by God in a way that is more than a nagging in his stomach. On the realization that the safety of the sailors and passengers on his boat are in danger he is now ready to make the sacrifice for the welfare of his neighbors and willingly is tossed into the sea.

Severance is now complete as he is swallowed by the fish and the ordeal begins. There he spends three days and nights in the belly of the fish. All that was familiar to him is gone and he is left in the darkness with only himself. Jonah steps over the threshold and realizes his utter dependence on God and prays. Rebirth happens as the fish spews Jonah out upon the dry land.

The third stage of incorporation now begins and Jonah picks himself up and heads down the beach to Ninevah where he brings the word of life from the Creator to the inhabitants. He is received as a person who speaks with authority and the people immediately begin to repent and choose life over death.

The model of the vision quest is again repeated by the directions of the king to his subjects. A food and water fast is declared so that individuals might personally learn the way of life. What worked for Jonah now works for the whole great city. The people see the way of life and God changes his mind and decides to let the people live.

This, however, is not the vision that Jonah had for the city and he is distressed. He is discouraged and disappointed. This state is common for many questers after their return to their communities and events are not what they expected. God is an every changing God who works with the events as they unfold and people need to be aware of the blowing of the Spirit.

The let down drives Jonah to quest again. He goes up on a hill to the East of the city and sits. In this holy place God speaks to Jonah through the qiqayon (castor bean?) and the worm, not unlike the plants and animals that speak to Native American questers. The lesson that is learned is that the Creator loves all of Creation – people and animals and will do whatever is necessary to give them life. The cycle of the quest continues as we wonder what happens to Jonah as he returns once again to the people.

Some of the teachings that I find in this story that might be used in questing or as Christians call it “retreat” situations include:

a. The quest motif serves as a very valid means of discerning the will of God in our lives.

b. The wilderness or outdoor quest is a means of giving humans a connection with the earth and compassion for the creatures of Creation.

c. The Rainbow Covenant that God makes with all of Creation in Genesis is upheld with God’s concern in Jonah for the animals as well as the people. It is also interesting that animals are also called to fast, put on on sack cloth and cry to God. The Christian concept of neighbor takes on a meaning (all my neighbors) which is similar to the Lakota concept of “all my relations.”

d. Jonah’s three days in the fish is understood by Christians as a prefigurement of Christ’s three days in the tomb. As such I think it serves as a model for the Christian’s way to repentance, metanoia, and new life.

e. All the people in Nineveh are called to their own quest so that they might know the love of God directly and not just only through the mediation of Jonah. Their experiences lead them all to repentance, metanoia, and new life.