Lane, Belden C. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Belden Lane is a Presbyterian theologian at a Catholic university who likes to quote Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist sources and enjoys the writings of secular wilderness writers. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is not a systematic treatise or a history of thought so much as an exploration, as the subtitle suggests. It is enhanced by Lane's own wilderness experiences in deserts and mountains, and further framed by the moving story of his mother's death from cancer, her ultimate "desert" experience. Lane's narrative is brimming with insight and observations, thick with ideas, names, references, anecdotes, and suggested themes to pursue. In part, the goal is that of providing the individual confronting the fierceness of reality with tools for the encounter.

The book's title comes from the myriad observers of wilderness but also from the author's heartfelt experiences in retreat centers, like Ghost Ranch and Christ in the Desert Abbey, in a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness of Urraca Mesa in Utah and Upper Moss Creek in southern Missouri among other places -- and in his mother's nursing home room. This combination makes the work informative but also personable. The author's voice is never far from the intellectual narrative, and topics are followed by sections of personal experiences labeled "Mythic Landscape."

Lane's overall structure follows the three-fold pattern of Christian spiritual growth: purgation, illumination, and union, which are represented in nature by the experience of desert, mountain, and cloud.

Lane finds the apophatic vocabulary and the the mystic's via negativa to be revealed and confirmed in personal experiences of nature and wilderness. All of these themes, like a rainbow of brush strokes overlapping and intersecting, are explored. In Lane's own words:

The book asks how the experience of place affects (and is affected by) the images of God found in the history of Christian spirituality. It examines, with the eye of a naturalist, the geographical and psychological matrix out of which desert and mountain spiritualities emerge.

This combination of spirituality and nature has been approached by other writers, but Lane brings a non-sectarian and well-informed mind and receptive heart to the task.

Finding exemplars of desert spirituality is not difficult, beginning with the sayings of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity. Their appeal lies in their attentiveness to both habitat and habitus, the latter referring to the transmission of a universally successful ethos versus the rote transmission of institutions and culture. In contrast, modern thought has exhausted its own disciplines and practices, characteristically abstract and based on unearned authority. Life in the desert combined with wisdom experienced and shared is the genius of the desert hermits.

After describing the harshness of the desert, a description confirmed by religious solitaries, travelers, and secular wilderness enthusiasts, Lane notes:

Why do people choose to live in such a landscape, poised, as it is, on the edge of nothingness? "Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity," says Ed Abbey. It touches our extremities. The desert fathers and mothers chose their barren locale because its values matched their own. They, too, opted to thrive on the boundary where life and death meet, living as simply as possible, with as few words as necessary, separated from the fragile anxieties of the world they had left behind.

But where deserts are a "horizon of emptiness" and "endless expanses of nothingness" impressing us with the emptying out of self and the puniness of ego, mountains are vertical, ascending, a "decisively vertical edge." Mountain landscapes epitomized illumination, and clouds are transcendent union. Lane's focus is on the former two because they are closer to our own potentialities. The solitary in search of meaning finds sustenance in what are typically viewed as dangerous and hostile environments. Few people live in such wild places.

And the ones who do tend to be caricatured as renegades and fools, crazy people not accustomed to polite society. They do not fit in easily. ... In wilderness extremity, people find themselves running out of language, driven to silence. Ordinary speech seems inappropriate. Mountain and desert people do not talk much. Their words are measured by the leanness of the land. In short, the liminality of desert and mountain terrain redefines every boundary giving shape to one's life.

Basically, then, Lane's book is the pursuit of this redefining of self that is accomplished by desert and mountain. The self is challenged, pushed to edges of identity, tossed into a flow experience and ultimately into what the desert hermits would call apatheia. The author's initial survey of Christian history turns up every name from Anthony the Great and Evagrius, to Romuald and William of Saint-Thierry, to Meister Eckhard and John of the Cross, to Karl Barth and Thomas Merton.

But Lane comes eventually to settle upon the apophatic and mystical for his ultimate framework of desert and mountain spirituality.

... the apophatic tradition, despite its distrust of all images of God, makes an exception in using the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss for words. If we cannot know God's essence, we can stand in God's place --- on the high mountain, in the lonely desert, at the point where terror gives way to wonder. Only here do we enter the abandonment, the agnosia, that is finally necessary for meeting God.

So it goes over nearly two hundred pages, a rich panoply of reflection, digression, and exploration. The chapter titles offer a sense of Lane's vigorous pursuit:

Pt. I. Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment
1. Connecting Spirituality and the Environment
2. Places on the Edge: Wild Terrain and the Spiritual Life
3. Prayer Without Language in the Mystical Tradition:
    Knowing God as "Inaccessible Mountain; Marvelous Desert"

Pt. II. Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language
4. The Sinai Image in the History of Western Monotheism
5. Sinai and Tabor: Mountain Symbolism in the Christian Tradition

Pt. II. Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference
6. Desert Catechesis: The Landscape and Theology of Early Christian Monasticism
7. Attentiveness, Indifference, and Love:
    The Counter-cultural Spirituality of the Desert Christians

Conclusion: Rediscovering Christ in the Desert


Lane's Solace of Fierce Landscapes is decidedly Christian in its vocabulary and premises but open enough to concepts of God that it will be relevant to anyone interested in the solitary search for meaning. Wilderness becomes more universal and more representative to the solitary than any narrow conception of God. Lane's discussion of the apophatic and via negativa makes imminent good sense in analyzing wilderness. As an introduction to many themes of interest, this book is a fine conversation with an intelligent guide who can point the paths outward towards our own desert and mountain experience.