Backpacking with the Saints
By Belden C. Lane
Book Report by: Abby Stroven
In this book, Belden takes us through 4 stages of a spiritual journey within the context of a wilderness setting. This is a journey that many people throughout the ages have taken and one in which we can learn from if we are willing to risk stepping out on our own to do it.
The first stage is venturing out. During this stage we learn the importance of going out away from the noise and distractions of our modern life as well as stripping away all of the trappings and comforts of our familiar surroundings in order that we might hear and experience God more clearly.
“God is the beginning, the middle and the end of the created universe. God is that from which all things originate, that in which all things participate, and that to which all things eventually return.”- St. John Scotus Eriugena
But this stage of venturing out eventually leads to disillusionment with what we thought this experience in nature would be like. So, we are forced to ask the question what is it that we really want most.
“A thirst for grandiosity- an expectation of success (usually with minimal effort)- is the baggage that some of us carry for years. We long to prove ourselves, searching for more than a Walter Mitty world of imagined triumphs. Our need to excel masks a deep, underlying insecurity. We feel we have to shine even though we know there’s no gold within us.” (Pg 50)
Belden makes it clear that if we go out desiring a grand experience we will be disappointed. We must come to a place of quieting ourselves before God and listen to our hearts deepest desire, which is to be loved and connected with God.
The second stage is Assuming a discipline of being alone, traveling light and practicing mindfulness.
“They went to the desert to learn to delight in spending time alone, to see how lightly they could travel, to ask how available they could be to the present moment. These three elements were central to the spiritual practice they adopted. Having set out on the trail, they were obliged to follow the rules of wilderness. They knew, as wilderness travelers learn, that “If we don’t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us.”(pg70)
Belden talks about the gifts of solitude and points to some underlying truths about why this discipline is important for Christians. He says that “Paradoxically, genuine community is a sharing of solitudes. The only true self we have to give is one that is grounded in a solitary life.” (pg77)
“It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say. Only by being alone do we recognize the ties that bind us to everything else. Wilderness can teach this as readily as a monastery.” –Thomas Merton. (pg 170)
The third stage is accepting the decent into fear, failure, and even death. This stage is characterized by our understanding that we need to overcome our fear of failure in order to move forward and that the prospect of dying to ourselves is something to embrace.
“The only way to make progress is by making mistakes…over and over again. The seemingly perfect man isn’t perfect at all. He’s just better than others at hiding his shadow” (pg 137)
“Failure points us back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only in what we are.” (pg138)
“A Desert Father once confronted his confrere, Abba Poemen, who had taken personal offense at the words of another brother. “Poemen, are you still alive?” the monk asked him. “I thought you were already dead. Go, sit in your cell, and remind your heart that you have been in the grave for a year.” These old desert codgers had lived long enough in a bleak, empty landscape to have sufficient practice in dying to the easily disturbed, anxious self. They know its death to be the route to freedom…and to the unaccountable wonder of being loved.” (pg 143)
The fourth stage is returning home finally, with the unexpected gifts of insight, community, a fearless commitment to justice, and a laughable awareness that what we’d sought all along had been closer than we ever dreamed. These are the gold the adventurer brings back from the wild places.
“You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they insist. You are the dwelling place of the most High God. You are loved beyond measure by what you can’t even begin to understand. The wilderness you’ve sought throughout your journey has been within you from the start.” (pg 205)
Departure, Discipline, Descent, and Delight.