Fire is often used to portray anger. Anger burns and blazes. It inflames the human heart. But it can also be a subtle presence. It can turn totally inward and become depression. It can also hide under several guises. However, unlike resentment, which points to death, anger points to life. For oppressed people, or for oppressed dimensions within the individual life, the awakening and release of anger can be powerfully liberating. Anger is powerful because it has an immediacy, innocence and action in it. The reason that so much evil and corruption are allowed to destroy so many lives is that people’s anger is cleverly managed and quelled into indifference and powerlessness. One of the first targets of prophecy is to locate and kindle this forgotten and neglected anger. Part of the wisdom of living a creative and healing life is to learn the art of using this inner fire well.
John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature
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.
Connie Palmen, whose work I discovered only recently, is perhaps as much a philosopher as she is an author of fiction. Which should come as no surprise, as she studied both philosophy and Dutch literature.
Here are some quotes from Die Freundschaft:
In Worte zu fassen, was nicht unbedingt auf der Hand liegt, darin liegen für mich Glück und Befreiung.
(To put into words what is not necessarily obvious – in that for me lie happiness and liberation.)
Man wird ein bißchen irre, wenn man Tag für Tag immerzu leben muß …
(You get a little crazy, when you always have to live, day after day …)
Nicht der Haß ist das Gegenteil von Liebe, denn Haß muß man sich immer erst noch verdienen, sondern es ist diese Gleichgültigkeit.
(Not hatred is the opposite of love, for hatred you always still have to earn first – it is rather this indifference.)
Jemand, der maßlos nachdenkt, hat wahrscheinlich größere Angst vor dem Leben als andere.
(Somebody who reflects exorbitantly probably has a greater fear of life than others.)
Alle Süchte sind Versuche, die Sehnsucht nach Freundschaft aus eigener Kraft zu stillen, das heißt ohne dabei von jemand anders abhängig zu sein.
(All addictions are attempts to allay the longing for friendship out of one’s own strength, which is to say, without being dependent upon somebody else.)