Welcome to the homepage of
Belden C. Lane
Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies
Saint Louis University
Phone: (314) 497-9938
"We need that wild country…even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be…a part of the geography of hope."
-- Wallace Stegner on sacred places
As a Protestant member of a Roman Catholic faculty for thirty-five years, I've taught in the areas of American religion, the history of spirituality, and the connections between geography and faith. The relationship of Christian spirituality to the wonder and beauty of the natural world has always been close to my heart, whether seen in the earth-sensitive practices of Celtic spirituality or Calvin and Edwards' perception of the world as a theater of God's glory in the Reformed tradition.
I live with my wife Patricia, a spiritual director and retired school teacher, in Saint Louis. My interests include wilderness backpacking in the Ozarks, the magic of storytelling, the history of Desert Spirituality, exposing students to urban poverty through Karen House (the Catholic Worker), and the poetry of Rumi and Wendell Berry. Fascinated with ritual and the process of spiritual transformation, I work with men, helping lead retreats and initiation rites through Richard Rohr's program for Men as Learners and Elders, now under the direction of Illuman.org.
Drawn to sacred places around the world, my travels have involved camping in Egypt, Ireland and the Virgin Islands, hiking in Greece, Hawaii, and Australia, and study in England, Israel and Mexico. For six years I served in the pastorate, from a village parish in western New York State to the historic First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Some time ago I delightfully found myself introduced as a Presbyterian minister teaching at a Roman Catholic university telling Jewish stories at the Vedanta Society.
Wilderness Backpacking and the Work of the Soul
Announcing the Publication of Belden Lane's
Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2014)
My forays into wilderness are modest by comparison to these women….two-to-three day trips into the Ozarks of southern Missouri, sometimes a longer stretch in the desert southwest. But I share the same need to go alone, and the same love of the wild. Wilderness backpacking has become a spiritual practice for me. I need its invitation to wonder and its challenge to my ego. It makes me hungry for a beauty I cannot control. Wild terrain itself teaches the importance of traveling light, the joy of mindfulness, the value of silence and solitude, and the reality of a larger earth-wide community. It provides opportunity for making the necessary mistakes that allow me to get to where I most need to go.
The high desert country around Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico is one of those places. I’ve been trapped there in a severe thunderstorm at the end of the Box Canyon trail. While hiking the Chama River nearby, I’ve been unnerved by the fierce crying of wind in the night. I’ve been a part of men’s rites of passage in that dark red-rock country, dealing with the wound of a father’s suicide. Georgia O’Keeffe marveled at how a land “so poisonous” as New Mexico could also be “so beautiful,” so conducive to wholeness. Strangely, we find deep healing in places that connect us to the shadows we suppress in our consciousness. The exterior wilderness echoes an unexplored wilderness within. Desert terrain can kill you. But it can also bring an unexpected solace.
Bill Plotkin says that wilderness wandering may be one of the most important soulcraft practices we could have in a society like ours. Something in us requires the risk of moving beyond all that feels “safe.” The soul feeds on what takes us to the edge of ourselves. We need wild country, said Wallace Stegner, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” It offers us a “geography of hope.” Conversely, the wild earth may need us as well right now, given the immense threat of climate change. The planet longs for a body of wild souls who will love it intensely and act boldly on its behalf. We’ve recently begun to value wild places only as a result of realizing we’re about to lose them forever. Our increased attraction to wilderness is the wilderness’s own intense desire for life.
Cheryl Strayed hit the trail with reckless abandon, ill-equipped in terms of gear or experience. She learned by making mistakes. For my part, I’ve recognized increasingly through the years the need for a guide…a spiritual mentor, a Zen master who could slap me upside the head as might be required. So I often throw a small book or a few pages of poetry into my knapsack. Some Rumi or Hafiz. Maybe Dag Hammarskjöld or John of the Cross. Spiritual classics like these are dangerous books; they threaten to change your life. Yet they gain a still sharper edge when read by firelight on a moonless night six miles in from the trailhead.
learn a lot from those who have embraced a life in wilderness and submitted to
its teaching. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of fourth-century Egypt are some
of my best instructors. But I also love St. Cuthbert, reading his psalms each
morning standing waist deep in the surf on Northumberland’s rocky coast;
Hildegard of Bingen, delighting in the trees and vines along the Rhine River,
crazy about everything green; and John Muir riding out a storm in the top of a
Douglas Fir in Yosemite. They all remind me, as Ed Abbey affirmed, that “wilderness
is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” The discipline of backpacking
with the saints thrusts me into that larger work of the soul.
Backpacking with the Saints
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
Belden C. Lane
A captivating account of solo wilderness backpacking as a spiritual practice
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 saints 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 trail 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.
Backpacking with the Saints is an enchanting 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.
“Belden C. Lane has written a lovely book that seamlessly brings together two rich genres: travel narrative and spiritual memoir. The notion of a spiritual journey, of course, is central to almost every religious tradition, but the author enlivens that tradition as he shares personal and heartfelt stories about his own peregrinations and muses on topics as varied as solitude, ecology, backpacking, beauty, and prayer; and on people as varied as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Dag Hammarskjöld, John Muir, and Bruce Springsteen. A thoroughly delightful book.”
—James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage
“If the earlier centuries of Christianity had been as honest, emotionally descriptive, and spiritually helpful as Belden Lane is here, we would have a very different notion of religion today. Such wisdom as this will literally ‘save the soul’ of many a spiritual seeker.”
—Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico
“The only problem with this remarkable book is that it cannot be read rightly from a comfortable chair. As Lane and the rest of the saints in these pages insist, what the soul most needs is not found in safe places but in wild ones, where the dangers are as real as the courage they call forth. So find a high rock, a far hill, or a patch of desert that scares you a little and let this book persuade you that you are exactly where you need to be.”
—Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark