The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.
The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.
There are chapters on:
- spirituality and the environment,
- wild terrain and the spiritual life,
- prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
- the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
- the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
- the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.
And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:
- abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
- letting go and the emptying of self,
- loving that which cannot be understood,
- the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
- a new harmony with the land,
- learning to pay attention,
- the transformation of desire into love,
- meeting love in the most unlikely places,
- the power of silence to connect and heal,
- liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.
Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.
Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.