Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
This is the best book I’ve read this year. Maybe in the last five years…ten even. Maybe ever! Who knows? It’s hard to tell. Science can only explain so much. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but I hope that gives a sense of how much I liked this book, and act as a sort of premeditated apology for when I end many of my upcoming conversations and emails with “Oh, also there’s this book I think you really should read…”
Here is a book that does the rare achievement of synthesizing academic study, compelling story-telling, and genuine, unpretentious wisdom. It has my vote for one of the works I hope endures as part of the canon of Christian spiritual writings.
I think it might be best to describe this book in terms of layers. As the title indicates, it is first a book about desert and mountain spirituality. Spiritual writers through the centuries have lived in and been inspired by these two sparse landscapes, and the kind of wisdom they produce takes on unique characteristics that Lane hopes to help navigate the reader through. Lane’s assumption here is that geography matters—the character of our spaces inform how we see the world, the kinds of experiences we have and how we interpret those experiences. And by extension, how we care for our environment matters. Lane helps the reader to see how people who have either lived in or been entranced by actual geographical spaces of desert and mountain begin to learn different lessons about life and faith. Here is a book that helps makes those connections clear.
The second layer of this book is that Lane uses the last three years he spent with his mother as she was dying of cancer as a story that helps him (and us) grasp the nature of desert and mountain spirituality. Chapters that discuss in historical and theological perspective the spiritual writings of the past are interspersed with autobiographical reflections on his frequent trips into the desert and the mountains as well as the ‘desert’ of his time with his mother as he nurtured her through her moments of holy dying. What could have been a droll but informative book is made captivating by Lane’s exceptional story and story-telling ability. Here is where this book can meet both experts and laypeople.
The third layer is a motif that runs through the book, which pushes back against the kind of superficial and pop-spirituality that seems to satisfy people more like a drug and less like a salve. It dulls the edges of our spiritual lives, makes us numb and yet ever-craving more like some kind of mystical fix. My words, not his, but I suspect he’d agree. The essence of desert and mountain spirituality, suggests Lane, lies in its indifference which borders on cruelty. It can soothe and scald, it does not supply easy or quick answers, it is not interested in selling anything, appealing to consumers, or becoming amenable to those who are potentially interested. In a way this book itself takes on that personality—having garnered some critical attention, but then flying way below the radar. I wrote a thesis on integrating ascetic spirituality/ethics in non-monastic contexts in 2010—this book was published in 1998, and I had never heard of it until last year.
To repeat myself a bit, the admittedly shallow thing that first comes to mind upon reflection is the critique of contemporary pop-spirituality that surfaces regularly in the book. I know a lot people have received a lot of good and helpful and healing insights from your Oprahs and Deepak Choprahs and Sarah Youngs and I’m not trying to take away from that. But inevitably the cracks begin to come to the surface with stuff like that and reality or conscience demands more. Think of this book as the next step in the spiritual journey, or as something that moves in the stream of spiritual maturity, itself not flawless or the pinnacle, but something more meaningful and realistic and substantial.
The other thing that stuck was the way that the author grappled caringly with the death of his mother—how this time of processing became a kind of lens or perhaps journey through which he sorted through his own baggage with the help of desert and mountain spirituality. This aspect of the book allowed the wisdom of the desert and mountains to go from abstract and potential to something more realistic and believable.
“My fear is that much of what we call “spirituality” today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. . . . It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its reader from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.” (20)
“Mountain and desert territory connects people symbolically, if not literally, to places of ascent (or places of threatening expanse). They remind them of things they would rather forget, taking them to the edges from which the human psyche normally recoils. Such places have nothing to do with comfort. . . . Another way of saying this is that desert and mountain terrain provokes the identification and reordering of boundaries. It confronts people with their edges.” (37)
“But when the drama fails, when we grow weary of the intense pressure of life on the edge, we’re forced to reconsider the myths by which we live. War is not the principle metaphor of human existence. Death is not always an enemy. Life is more than a matter of breathless contention, triumphing over obstacles, denying the monsters of our own feelings. The dragons of the ordinary invite us back to simplicity and a quiet acceptance of life’s rhythms.” (97)
“That’s why the life of the monk seems so utterly foreign, even frightening. Our conditioning as members of a consumer society prevents us from abandoning hope that, with sufficient planning, we might yet be able to see and do everything. To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive, even un-American.” (189)
“Ultimately, failure was the most valuable truth the desert monastery had to teach me. Disillusionment marks every new beginning in the spiritual life. I went there with the intent of imitating monastic practices of asceticism and prayer, of achieving (within the span of eight short days, no less) a grandly self-authenticating desert experience. It’s the perennial temptation of the acquisitive self, trying to “cultivate pseudo-experiences” that will fill an inner void so as to make even emptiness itself an “object of experience.” We never tire of the effort to manipulate and possess idealized states of consciousness. Many people would rather have an “experience” of God than God himself.” (219)
There’s a lot that should be learned about spirituality from this book at a purely intellectual level, but Lane takes it to the next level and makes a contribution to the great conversation of Christian spirituality itself.
Read this book.