Backpacking with the Saints

Belden C. Lane “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice” [Oxford University Press, 2014]
“Carrying only basic camping equipment and a collection of the world’s great spiritual writings, Belden C. Lane embarks on solitary spiritual treks through the Ozarks and across the American Southwest. For companions, he has only such teachers as Rumi, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Thomas Merton, and as he walks, he engages their writings with the natural wonders he encounters–Bell Mountain Wilderness with Søren Kierkegaard, Moonshine Hollow with Thich Nhat Hanh–demonstrating how being alone in the wild opens a rare view onto one’s interior landscape, and how the saints’ writings reveal the divine in nature.

The discipline of backpacking, Lane shows, is a metaphor for a spiritual journey. Just as the wilderness offered revelations to the early Desert Christians, backpacking hones crucial spiritual skills: paying attention, traveling light, practicing silence, and exercising wonder. Lane engages the practice not only with a wide range of spiritual writings–Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi Muslim–but with the fascination of other lovers of the backcountry, from John Muir and Ed Abbey to Bill Plotkin and Cheryl Strayed. In this intimate and down-to-earth narrative, backpacking is shown to be a spiritual practice that allows the discovery of God amidst the beauty and unexpected terrors of nature. Adoration, Lane suggests, is the most appropriate human response to what we cannot explain, but have nonetheless learned to love.

An enchanting narrative for Christians of all denominations, “Backpacking with the Saints” is an inspiring exploration of how solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness are illuminated and encouraged by the discipline of backcountry wandering, and of how the wilderness itself becomes a way of knowing-an ecology of the soul.”

See: Simon Worrall “How Backpacking Can Put You in Touch With Your Inner Saint” in “National Geographic”:
“What is it about backpacking that makes it a “spiritual practice”?
There’s a sense of being taken to the edge. I have to draw on resources I didn’t know I had. Maybe most importantly, my ego gets challenged. It makes me hungry for a beauty I cannot control. It teaches me to travel light. There’s something wonderful about the idea that all you really need is what you can carry on your back like a turtle, both in terms of actual essentials and in terms of letting go of things in your life that you need to release.
The trail also teaches me a sense of mindfulness, as the Buddhists would call it. You’ve got to pay attention to the weather, you’ve got to pay attention to blisters and places where you may be hiking or camping for the night. But the most important thing for me is silence and solitude.
One of your sources of inspiration is the “wilderness spirituality” of the early Desert Christians. Who were these people?
They were a fascinating group of men and women. They lived in the fourth century A.D., when Constantine had made Christianity not only legal but also the most powerful religion in the Roman Empire. A lot of Christians started to do well and become very wealthy. As a result, they lost their original vitality. So the Desert Christians went into the desert of Egypt, southern Palestine, and Syria to live a simpler life and practice the teachings of Jesus with a greater authenticity. I use the wilderness spirituality of the Desert Fathers as a pattern for the various narratives that I weave in the book.”

Belden Lane is also the author of:

“The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (2007)
“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference.
Interweaving a memoir of his mother’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer, meditations on his own wilderness experience, and illuminating commentary on the Christian via negativa–a mystical tradition that seeks God in the silence beyond language–Lane rejects the easy affirmations of pop spirituality for the harsher but more profound truths that wilderness can teach us. “There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within.” It is this apparent paradox that lies at the heart of this remarkable book: that inhuman landscapes should be the source of spiritual comfort. Lane shows that the very indifference of the wilderness can release us from the demands of the endlessly anxious ego, teach us to ignore the inessential in our own lives, and enable us to transcend the “false self” that is ever-obsessed with managing impressions. Drawing upon the wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abbey, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might “make some desert” in our lives.
Written with vivid intelligence, narrative ease, and a gracefulness that is itself a comfort, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” gives us not only a description but a “performance” of an ancient and increasingly relevant spiritual tradition.

“Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality” (2001)
“This substantially expanded edition of Belden C. Lane’s “Landscapes of the Sacred” includes a new introductory chapter that offers three new interpretive models for understanding American sacred space. Lane maintains his approach of interspersing shorter and more personal pieces among full-length essays that explore how Native American, early French and Spanish, Puritan New England, and Catholic Worker traditions has each expressed the connection between spirituality and place. A new section at the end of the book includes three chapters that address methodological issues in the study of spirituality, the symbol-making process of religious experience, and the tension between place and placelessness in Christian spirituality.”

Belden C. Lane is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches on a Jesuit faculty at Saint Louis University. His interests include the relationship between geography and faith, wilderness backpacking in the Ozarks, the magic of storytelling, desert spirituality, exposing students to urban poverty through the Catholic Worker community, and the poetry of Rumi. He also works with men, helping to lead initiation rites through Richard Rohr’s program for Men as Learners and Elders in Albuquerque. Some time ago he found himself delightfully introduced as a Presbyterian minister teaching at a Roman Catholic university telling Jewish stories at the Vedanta Society.

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