Friday Open Thread: "What are you reading?" edition. ~ Belden C. Lane
"We are surrounded by a world that talks, but we don't listen.""We are part of a community engaged in a vast conversation, but we deny our role in it."
In the face of climate change, species loss, and vast environmental destruction, the ability to stand in the flow of the great conversation of all creatures and the earth can feel utterly lost to the human race. But Belden C. Lane suggests that it can and must be recovered, not only for the sake of endangered species and the well-being of at-risk communities, but for the survival of the world itself.
The Great Conversation is Lane's multi-faceted treatise on a spiritually centered environmentalism. At the core is a belief in the power of the natural world to act as teacher. In a series of personal anecdotes, Lane pairs his own experiences in the wild with the writings of saints and sages from a wide range of religious traditions. A night in a Missourian cave brings to mind the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola; the canyons of southern Utah elicit a response from the Chinese philosopher Laozi; 500,000 migrating sandhill cranes rest in Nebraska and evoke the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. With each chapter, the humility of spiritual masters through the ages melds with the author's encounters with natural teachers to offer guidance for entering once more into a conversation with the world.
"We need that wild country…even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be…a part of the geography of hope."
-- Wallace Stegner on sacred places
More below the fold ...
"We're surrounded by a world that talks,
but we don't listen.
We're part of a community engaged in a vast conversation,
but we deny our role in it.
We haven't the courage to acknowledge our desperate need for what we can't explain.
The soul feeds on what takes us to the edge, but we don't go there willingly."
Belden C. Lane is Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies, American Religion, and History of Spirituality at Saint Louis University. We were immensely impressed with The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, a compelling account of desert and mountain imagery in the Christian apophatic tradition; it was S&P Book Award winner in 1998.
In this extraordinary book, Lane explores our human need for deep and meaningful connections with nature. He explains four essential ways to do this: (1) moving beyond exploitation, (2) yielding to fascination, (3) embracing awe and praise, and (4) seeking union. As an example of these approaches, he recounts his experiences communing and talking with "Grandfather," a 100-year-old cottonwood tree who is his spiritual guide.
In a series of poetic, anecdotal, and inspiring essays, Lane expands his perspective to encompass representatives of the elements: (1) air: birds, wind, trees; (2) fire: wildfire, stars, deserts; (3) water: rivers, canyons, islands; and (4) earth: mountains, caves, and wolves. These twelve teachers are enabling us "to value wild places — now that we're losing them" through climate change, species loss, and environmental destruction.
Lane brilliantly keeps expanding the circle with added adventures. Next, he matches twelve saints or sages to the nature teachers. They include a Sufi mystic, a Jewish rabbi, a Taoist philosopher, five Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, three Eastern Orthodox writers, and a Greek novelist who was declared a heretic (see the excerpt for a teaching story from him).
In what he calls "a shimmering landscape," Lane watches the mystery unfold:
"I'm haunted by the roguish language of the wild, by an evolutionary God who delights in endless transformations, a God of restless love revealed in predator and prey alike. Saying that everything belongs.
"I shoulder my pack and hit the trail, realizing I'm being called to a memory deeper than my own, to a language that my body has known all along. The desert speaks — out of lifetimes of patience and pain — with subtle but insistent voice. My role in the Great Conversation isn’t finally to understand, only to listen and love." This is a precious book for all nature lovers and also for those who after reading it, will be.
A Book Excerpt on Transformation: a teaching story from the Greek writer about the miracle of transformation
"Nikos Kazantzakis [in The Greek Passion] tells the story of an English monk who all of his life had dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There he would walk around the Holy Sepulchre three times, kneel, and come back a new man. Through the years he'd dreamed of leaving his monastery with its old yew tree in the cloister yard — making his way on foot from Canterbury to Rome along the ancient pilgrimage route, the Via Francigena. He'd cross the rocky terrain of Greece to follow the Templar Trail through the dry expanse of Cappadocia. He'd visit cathedrals and the tombs of saints, coming at last to the old city of Jerusalem.
"Through the years the monk had prepared for the trip, putting away money that he received as alms. Near the end of his life he'd finally saved enough to begin his journey. Taking his staff in hand, he opened the monastery gates and set out for the Holy City.
"But no sooner had he left the cloister, than he encountered a man in rags, bent to the ground, picking herbs on the side of the path. 'Where are you going, Father?' the man asked. 'To the Holy Sepulchre, brother. By God's grace, I'll walk around it three times, kneel, and return home a different man.' 'Ah, that's wonderful! I hope you have enough money to provide for you on your way.' 'Yes, God be praised,' said the monk. 'I've been able to save thirty pounds for the trip.'
"The man then hesitantly responded, 'Can I ask you something crazy, Father? I have a wife and hungry children at home. I'm searching everywhere for food to keep them from starving. Would you consider giving me your thirty pounds, walking three times around me, then kneel and go back into your monastery?' The monk thought for a long moment, scratching the ground with his staff. Then (with a divine absurdity) he took the money from his sack, gave the whole of it to the man, walked three times around him, knelt, and returned back through the gates of his monastery. "He came home a new man, of course, having recognized the beggar as Christ himself — not far away at the Holy Sepulchre, but just outside his monastery door, in a place he'd never have thought sacred. He'd discovered a great desert truth — that the holy is where you least expect it, that the desire for the trip is its own fulfillment, that he'd been drawn all along to transformation, not tourism. He greeted the old yew tree in the cloister yard, took a deep breath, and returned to his work."
Backpacking with the Saints serves as both a hiking memoir and a collection of spiritual reflections by Belden Lane, Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Lane organizes the book into two sections. The first part presents a survey of overarching themes. These themes are more like principles to take on the trail. In arriving at these guiding principles in wilderness spirituality, Lane relies on his own experience in the wilderness coupled with the writings of select spiritual giants in Christian history. In the second part, Lane draws on the voices of a variety of saints and theologians ranging from Therese of Lisieux on disillusionment to Søren Kierkegaard on solitude. Far from a manual on spirituality, Lane reflects and draws powerful insights on the ways in which hiking and backpacking become a spiritual experience.
Through the pages of his book, Lane invites the reader to accompany him while meandering down obscure trails, scaling steep mountains, and standing in awe on the precipice of a canyon. The stories he spins not only describe a journey past clear rivers and towering boulders, but they detail a wild landscape for the reader to immerse herself in. Many of Lane’s discerning thoughts are accompanied by personal narratives. He tells his own story while providing a metanarrative of his reflections. In analyzing his life and wilderness experiences, he skillfully includes the voices of specific saints to illuminate his point. For example, after detailing some of Thomas Traherne’s work on the importance of felicity, Lane applies the theory to his own narrative. He shares about the struggle he has felt as a son who lost his father and the way reading about felicity enabled him to let go of this burden and find joy.
The chapters are interspersed with these short personal narratives. This method of writing does two things that are helpful for the reader. First, it breaks up the theory. Writing on the works of the saints can be tedious, but Lane inserts his own narrative to give abstract theory theology a practical application to real life, illuminating the text by analogy. Secondly, personal narrative invites the reader to include herself in the book. When Lane shares about a struggle of his, it makes the text relatable and accessible. The reader can see herself in the pages and thus identify more readily with the conclusions he draws.
-- Belden C. Lane. Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 288. $24.95 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Rachel McKinley Cheney
“Attentiveness is hard to sustain, however. That’s why backpacking remains an essential practice for me. It requires a consistent mindfulness and self-presence. It demands my keeping an eye on the trail, attending to variations in the terrain and weather patterns, noticing changes in my body as weariness rises or blisters start to form. It necessitates a reading of the entire landscape, learning to dance and flow with the interconnectedness of its details.”
“Exposure to the harsh realities and fierce beauties of a world not aimed at my comfort has a way of cutting through the self-absorption of my life. The uncontrolled mystery of nature puts the ego in check and invites the soul back (in more than one way) to the ground of its being. It elicits the soul’s deepest desire, enforces a rigorous discipline, and demands a life marked by activism and resistance. It reminds me, in short, that spiritual practice—far from being anything ethereal—is a highly tactile, embodied, and visceral affair.”
“The spiritual life involves risk. There’s no way around it. The paradox of biblical religion is that God cannot be understood, much less managed. Coming to terms with ultimate mystery is always dangerous. But to our amazement, encountering the Holy can also mean being strangely and unaccountably loved.”
More from Belden C. Lane ...
Two recent films, based on real life adventures, point to our continued fascination with solo wilderness experience. Reese Witherspoon, in the movie Wild, plays the role of Cheryl Strayed, an inexperienced hiker who backpacks a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Mia Wasikowska, in Tracks, is Robyn Davidson, a woman in her twenties who walks 1700 miles across Australia’s central desert, from Alice Springs to the west coast. For Davidson, it was the disappearing nomadic culture of the Aborigines that intrigued her. She views the fate of the planet as dependent, in part, on the perspective of those who wander the earth with an eye to valuing every place as sacred. In Strayed’s case, it was a recent divorce and the death of her mother that drove her into wilderness. She required its harsh indifference to everything she was being forced to walk away from in her life. “I couldn't do that while tagging along with someone else,” she admitted.
My forays into wilderness are modest by comparison to these women….two-to-three day trips into the Ozarks of southern Missouri, sometimes a longer stretch in the desert southwest. But I share the same need to go alone, and the same love of the wild. Wilderness backpacking has become a spiritual practice for me. I need its invitation to wonder and its challenge to my ego. It makes me hungry for a beauty I cannot control. Wild terrain itself teaches the importance of traveling light, the joy of mindfulness, the value of silence and solitude, and the reality of a larger earth-wide community. It provides opportunity for making the necessary mistakes that allow me to get to where I most need to go.
The high desert country around Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico is one of those places. I’ve been trapped there in a severe thunderstorm at the end of the Box Canyon trail. While hiking the Chama River nearby, I’ve been unnerved by the fierce crying of wind in the night. I’ve been a part of men’s rites of passage in that dark red-rock country, dealing with the wound of a father’s suicide. Georgia O’Keeffe marveled at how a land “so poisonous” as New Mexico could also be “so beautiful,” so conducive to wholeness. Strangely, we find deep healing in places that connect us to the shadows we suppress in our consciousness. The exterior wilderness echoes an unexplored wilderness within. Desert terrain can kill you. But it can also bring an unexpected solace.
Bill Plotkin says that wilderness wandering may be one of the most important soulcraft practices we could have in a society like ours. Something in us requires the risk of moving beyond all that feels “safe.” The soul feeds on what takes us to the edge of ourselves. We need wild country, said Wallace Stegner, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” It offers us a “geography of hope.” Conversely, the wild earth may need us as well right now, given the immense threat of climate change. The planet longs for a body of wild souls who will love it intensely and act boldly on its behalf. We’ve recently begun to value wild places only as a result of realizing we’re about to lose them forever. Our increased attraction to wilderness is the wilderness’s own intense desire for life.
Cheryl Strayed hit the trail with reckless abandon, ill-equipped in terms of gear or experience. She learned by making mistakes. For my part, I’ve recognized increasingly through the years the need for a guide…a spiritual mentor, a Zen master who could slap me upside the head as might be required. So I often throw a small book or a few pages of poetry into my knapsack. Some Rumi or Hafiz. Maybe Dag Hammarskjöld or John of the Cross. Spiritual classics like these are dangerous books; they threaten to change your life. Yet they gain a still sharper edge when read by firelight on a moonless night six miles in from the trailhead.
We can learn a lot from those who have embraced a life in wilderness and submitted to its teaching. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of fourth-century Egypt are some of my best instructors. But I also love St. Cuthbert, reading his psalms each morning standing waist deep in the surf on Northumberland’s rocky coast; Hildegard of Bingen, delighting in the trees and vines along the Rhine River, crazy about everything green; and John Muir riding out a storm in the top of a Douglas Fir in Yosemite. They all remind me, as Ed Abbey affirmed, that “wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” The discipline of backpacking with the saints thrusts me into that larger work of the soul.