Saturday, September 10, 2005

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, 1998.

I've been reading this book for what seems like a VERY long time--it's been renewed at least three times, and is about a week overdue from HPL, and has been making me feel guilty. W--. from church recommended it to me, and I've greatly enjoyed it, though it's a very slow read indeed. Thank heavens for two long flights, or I'd still not be done. I need a copy of my own of this book.

At any rate. I've been reading the Desert Fathers quite a bit, and so this book fit neatly into that, and helped me to think a bit about the apophatic tradition. Lane is quite good indeed at exploring the subject matter of the book--quite well summarized in its title--and I especially enjoyed the way he wove his personal experiences and ruminations together with a very careful and clear academic treatment of the various sub-topics. The stories of his life and some of its troubles add a great deal of valuable contextual material to the book that form a lens through which I found it easier to make sense of the history and theology being explored.

Lane's basic argument is that "fierce" landscapes encourage an apophatic response, a rejection of imagery of God, and a focus on interaction with God that is, if not more intense, more specific. He argues that the landscapes in which we live form a habitus: that they influence the way we pray and the way in which we experience God. Much of the book shows different ways in which this process occurs, and explores it in detail. The book is certainly centred on the historical Christian church, though there is some limited treatment of mysticism in the Sufi and Jewish traditions.

It's a great read, if slow-going at times. I need a copy.

A few representative bits:

There's a rare snow leopard at the Saint Louis Zoo,
a trapped lion of the tribe of Judah. I seldom stop
to look at the cage; it seems to painful an intrusion.
I sometimes wonder at what price rare animals should
be preserved from extinction. It's enough for me
that a few of these great beasts still stalk the high
country of the Himalayas, like ancient griffins and
dragons roaming free and seldom being seen. The memory,
the story is enough. (85)

For Meister Eckhart, this involved meeting--like Moses--the
One who is without name, who is a denial of all names.
While this may sound like a repudiation of any speech
whatever about God, in none of these writers does the
task of negation dissolve into a simple anti-intellectualism.
Reason is essential to the work of affirming and negating
all that is and is not God, but the vehicle within us by
which we finally meet God is the human will, our naked
intent. Thought may help us locate the mountain, but faith
is what finally makes the ascent. (108)

Garrison Keillor has described himself as a storyteller
"telling lies" about places that don't exist. Yet he
views that very act as an exercise in faith. Artfully
imagining nonexistent realms expresses a yearning for the
Kingdom of God.
The reason you tell lies about a wonderful place is
that you believe thatif you get every detail right--
absolutely right, and every character in that story
has exactly as many hairs on his or her head as he's
supposed to have--that if you get it absolutely perfect...
you will be lifeted up out of this life and you will
be set down in that wonderful place that you've told
lies about. And all your lies become true.
He keeps telling stories with the hope that ultimately he'll
be able to live his way into them. That's why we all love
tales that give form to a world that is not yet here. (143-44)

Having once known the desert in a way as intimate as this,
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry could never again succumb to the
naiveté of desert romanticism. Those of us whom the
desert has never touched find it much easier to imagine only
the beauty and glory of desert spirituality, thumbing our way
through old copies of Arizona Highways and dreaming of
desert retreats. We suppose arid and empty terrain to be
naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation.
But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn't
give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost
infinite. It was precisely this sense of danger and disregard
that fed the spiritual vigor of early desert monasticism.
There is an unsolicitous and ungenteel quality about
the desert Christians that makes them especially attractive
in our current climate of sentimentalized, "feel good"
spirituality. The spiritual life extolled in popular religious
circles today is eminently unexceptionable, generically
inoffensive, and (almost without exception) culturally
correct. We too often substitue amiability for friendship,
agreeableness for dialogue, pleasantry for compassion. The
acrid smell of the desert is lost.
By contrast, one has to consider the surly, discourteous
piety of the desert fathers and mothers. They were "resident
aliens" in a world that fostered gentility and comfort. They
simply did not fit. As Bruce Berger observes, "the desert
notoriously harbors the loner, the misfit, the only child."
It attracts a people who are downwardly mobile, often
cantankerous, ill at ease in polite society. Shun the city
and all of its niceties, growled Jerome from his desert lair.
His Christianity required the harsh solace of open spaces. (187)

Again, it was a superb book, and I was very grateful indeed to W--. for bringing it to my attention. It makes me wonder about a Canadian, a southern Ontario habitus, not à la the trite-ly overused garrison mentality that's so often misused, but something else. I'm not sure what that is, but it's certainly an interesting thought to live with for the next while.