In my last blog, I mentioned some books and resources that I had found helpful writing on desert spirituality. I have been trying to find some wise authors who have been ministering to my itch to discover God as He leads me deeper through a desert place.
I left out one book, which is a longer and more profound treatment of the desert in Christian understanding. Belden Lane wrote ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes – exploring desert and mountain spirituality’ in 1998. What makes it profound for me is that he interfaces his academic writing as a theologian with both the experience of accompanying his mother through cancer, Alzheimers and death, and his consequent journey as a Christian to encounter God through loss, crisis and recovery. That is not an easy thing to do! Lane lays bare his personal adventure of faith as many things in his life are stripped away. Then he draws the reader closer to God through the wisdom of Christian writers over the centuries.
Lane splits his book into the trio of images of encountering God in the desert, the mountain and the cloud. These three are part of the classic pattern of understanding the Christian life as purgation, illumination and union. He explores the relinquishment which the desert demands, its insistence on emptiness and indifference to our soul’s needs, even as that stripping away prepares us to know God better. He then follows the stage of growth embodied by the mountain, as we encounter God as Moses did on the heights. Lastly he focuses on the experience of the cloud of union with God. There one abandons one’s separate identity as they are enveloped in the all encompassing love of God.
Lane also explores what is called the ‘apophatic’ tradition of prayer, in which silence is a way of being with God, where language is inadequate. Also called the ‘via negative’, this is a mystical Christian tradition that suggests all analogies of God are ultimately inadequate, and that God is beyond all our experiences of Him. Rather, God’s desire is to draw us deeper into mystical union with Him, into transfiguration, into wonderment.
This book takes some time to read and reflect on. What have I gained from reading this?
- The book provides a challenge to my own Christian tradition. I am not familiar with the writings of St John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart, or others from the mystical tradition of Christian prayer. The call to silence, to prayer and being beyond words, is an interesting counterpoint to the very wordy Charismatic spirituality I am used to, what can be sometimes looked down on as ‘pop spirituality’. Yet I also have to maintain a critical distance, enjoying the treasures of the biblical word and ecstatic baptisms of the Spirit found by by the Protestant traditions, even as I dive into ‘silence beyond language’. It certainly provides some interesting possibilities for dialogue between traditions!
- The writer deals with the gritty reality of living with pain, sickness and loss and in doing so, encountering God. He speaks of ‘discovering grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints’ of watching his mother like a ‘desert monk wholly absorbed in ascesis, the intimate exercise of holy living and holy dying’. In doing so Lane experienced the erratic spiritual growth, stumbling slowly with a dying parent along the desert’s purgative way’. These insights are very helpful for may Christians today, providing a way of embracing confusion, tragedy and loss, rather than denying them in a way that cripples our faith in God.
- Lane also gives and example of how one can make some desert space in one’s life even if you are far removed from any physical wilderness. He shares about making a ‘habit of being’, or ordering his life around desert spiritual disciplines. These include for him: a nightly practise of silent prayer, routine participation in the worship life of a community of faith, periodic backpacking trips into wilderness places, meeting with a spiritual director and reading from the classical traditions of Christian prayer.
- The writer gives me fresh personal incentive to take a retreat/ pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. I have been toying with this for a while, and have made some tentative plans to join a Christian pilgrimage to the Sinai region. For the desert tradition, Mount Sinai figures as a mountain of the imagination, ‘a landscape of terror and theophany…evoking the deepest desire of the human heart for untamed mystery and beauty’. For me such a pilgrimage is an intriguing way of stepping in the shoes of Moses and Elijah, of pursing encounter and fresh spiritual insight, and journeying deeper with God.
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ would be a long and thoughtful read for anyone like me who is looking for helpful navigation markers on a wilderness journey of prayer.
Thanks for reading.