e-mail us


When grief drove him to the desert, Lane heard the sound of silence

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
St. Louis

A deeply human theologian, fascinated by sacred space and story, Belden Lane, has searched every tradition for divine truth. After a revival-camp youth and years at the evangelical Moody Bible Institute, he moved to doctoral studies in historical theology at Princeton, became a Presbyterian minister and wove Jewish stories, African fables and Zen koans into 21 years of teaching at Jesuit St. Louis University.

Then, a few years ago, he found himself struggling to understand his mother’s agonizingly slow death and to somehow make peace with his father’s mysterious death four decades earlier. (Had it been murder or suicide? Had the boy not loved him well enough?)

Traditional theology was too abstract for such intimate despair. None of the world’s stories, prayers or aphorisms could pierce it. So Lane went to the hot emptiness of the desert alone.

In the tradition of Catholic mysticism, he journeyed mainly by staying put, relieving his daily academic and family routines with occasional trips into the wilderness to feed his soul.

“If in certain respects, this is a fool’s errand,” he would write of his search to find meaning in pain, “it’s one anchored in deep longing,” a quest leading into a “place of brokenness where divine mercy must suffice.” Other present sorrows folded into the loss of his parents. For a dark time, half a year, he could not write at all.

Then the words came, a freshet of language flowing around obstacles, carrying him to the edge of the inexpressible. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality is an extraordinary book fusing memory, sadness and hope with history, geography, formal theology, poetic evocations and deft social commentary. When he finished, the often reticent Lane surprised himself by sending his manuscript to Oxford University Press, the best publisher he knew.

“I felt like I’d just given birth and I wanted to send her to the king’s court,” he said, his shrug as awkward as a boy’s.

She was admitted and released nationwide, with a cover in burnt sienna. Provisional, as all theology must be, the work draws on the teaching authority of those on the margins, Lane said -- “persons who are dying, residents of nursing homes, the poor, people at the edges of sanity and despair.”

The test of hospital gowns

All theologizing, “if it is worth its salt,” he writes, “must submit to the test of hospital gowns, droning television sets, food spilled in the clumsy effort to eat. What can be said of God that may be spoken without shame in the presence of those who are dying?”

The book, he said, left him with the sense “that I had done something I had been born to do.”

Unaccustomed to such drama in his own life, he swiftly distanced ego from euphoria. “I’m not in that same desperate place anymore,” he said. “I was writing to people burned out on shallow religion, longing for something to hope in.” He does not see it as the last word. “A reader coming at it from that point of emptiness can answer these questions maybe even better than I can now.”

In his years of teaching in a Catholic institution, Lane has marked the tradition’s beauty and let it influence him. His book, he said, is a “very Catholic” one. Yet his way of exploring the mystical stages of purgation, illumination and union and connecting them with desert, mountain and cloud, succeeds in transcending theological lines.

“I don’t know what to call myself anymore,” he said. “I am Presbyterian and Catholic, not totally at home in either house but loving both.” Lane’s next book, on John Calvin’s notion of the natural world as a theater of God’s glory, is taking him back to his Reformed Protestant roots.

“Calvin spoke of the earth as a very fragile thing ... [a] cast of thousands, that gives glory to God.” How? “By their very being,” he said. “The dog’s dogness gives honor, as does ... the way the water flows.”

What about the desert -- does it give praise? “Surely it does,” he said. But cautiously. “I don’t want to presume to speak too much for the desert because it takes back everything you say about it.” There is, he said, “a sense that the desert forces you to a cessation of all speech.”

When Lane wrote The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, it was as a performance of apophatic spirituality, a spirituality that emphasizes our inability to know or define God.

“You go to that place where you can’t talk about it anymore and you play with metaphors,” Lane said. “God’s love is like making love, or being at a mother’s breast, but no, it’s not like that at all. ... In this constructing and deconstructing, you dance around the center of something that’s hidden.” For the lucky ones, he said, “something happens, something in the center reveals itself, and you find yourself loved when you never thought you could be.”

Watching the trees

“God knows I’m not a pray-er,” he said. But through desperation, he went nightly to his back yard, first following the Jesuit tradition, examining the day, then listing the people he prays for, and finally “just lying there watching the trees or stars, letting go of all thoughts and images, without putting any meaning into what I might be experiencing.”

Lane stays silent a few seconds. Then he grins. “Sometimes it means ending up falling asleep. And sometimes it means suddenly noticing that 40 minutes have gone by, and I didn’t know where I was.”

More questions about contemplation only make him nervous. “The danger is that someone will take a book like this as a handbook. There’s also a danger in thinking that the desert experience is a very individualistic one, that you just do your own thing and enter into bliss. My reading of the desert mothers and fathers and this whole desert tradition is that it’s incredibly communal. It is a life together that the desert invites us to and demands of us.

“All of that stuff we tend to think of as so messed up in organized religion ... all of that is desert, too. What matters is simply to “stay in one place and be still,” he adds. “It’s very much like a Zen master. They don’t give you any of the things you want to hear. What do I do? You don’t do anything. You go about your daily work, weave palm fronds or teach classes or write books, and while you are doing that you pray and pray without ceasing. Staying in community, staying in your place.”

Ah, but in America at the end of the second millennium that’s awfully hard to do. Lane nods, conceding the point partially. “It seems kind of obvious to say that this is utterly countercultural. The desert Christians were renegades, they rejected a Greco-Roman culture that was given to militarism and consumerism and they took on another practice that was radically different. That much hasn’t changed. Today, there are so many people longing for authenticity, for an ability to pay attention, to be present to God, to find community that is meaningful. The same desires are there. We just don’t know how to do it anymore. We want to get out in the wilds and we take our 24-foot motor home.”

The desert does not, Lane hastens to add, seek the destruction of the self. Nor does it preach a contemptus mundi, a scorn for the world. “I teach American culture. I’m fascinated with it,” he remarks. “It’s not a dropping out that I’m after, but the adoption of a discipline, within the midst of everything else, that allows us to be who we want to be.”

In the midst of materialism

Many find that desert freedom smack in the middle of materialism. Lane mentions the “desert mothers and fathers” he’s watched at Karen Catholic Worker House in St. Louis; and the people in AIDS hospices and addiction programs. “This whole apophatic tradition leads to justice,” he observes. “The danger in reaching out for social justice, though, is that we get so caught up in our ego, thinking of ourselves as a person who cares. The apophatic tradition insists on a kind of nakedness of intent.”

You can’t start the journey with your eye on the prize. You must be content with nothingness, free to act without expecting anything at all in return.

And, in return? “There is a meeting and being met,” Lane said quietly. “You can’t talk about some great spiritual experience, even though you have a sense that you have been met and loved.”

He talks a moment about the purity of a love that lets you sit with someone -- his wife of 31 years, for example -- in long periods of silence, expecting nothing. But there’s self-love, too, in keeping still. Belden Lane has been, for years, a man so eager to help and please, even if it meant serving on 300 dry university committees and advising 3,000 students in extremis, that he finally put up a framed sign to himself: Say no. One of the quotes he chose for this book came from social analyst Ivan Illich: “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: The joyful acceptance of our uselessness.”

Joyful sounds, at first, like a word superimposed on dreary maturity to gloss it up a bit. Yet when Belden Lane says he’s a different person now, he’s referring to his release from despair. Friends say he’s wittier now, more playful, less intense.

“I have a sense of having moved from desolation to consolation,” he confides. “I know I’ll discover loss again. But right now I’m wandering in meadows and delighting in it.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998