Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice
Belden C. Lane. Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 288. $24.95 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Rachel McKinley Cheney
Backpacking with the Saints serves as both a hiking memoir and a collection of spiritual reflections by Belden Lane, Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Lane organizes the book into two sections. The first part presents a survey of overarching themes. These themes are more like principles to take on the trail. In arriving at these guiding principles in wilderness spirituality, Lane relies on his own experience in the wilderness coupled with the writings of select spiritual giants in Christian history. In the second part, Lane draws on the voices of a variety of saints and theologians ranging from Therese of Lisieux on disillusionment to Søren Kierkegaard on solitude. Far from a manual on spirituality, Lane reflects and draws powerful insights on the ways in which hiking and backpacking become a spiritual experience.
Through the pages of his book, Lane invites the reader to accompany him while meandering down obscure trails, scaling steep mountains, and standing in awe on the precipice of a canyon. The stories he spins not only describe a journey past clear rivers and towering boulders, but they detail a wild landscape for the reader to immerse herself in. Many of Lane’s discerning thoughts are accompanied by personal narratives. He tells his own story while providing a metanarrative of his reflections. In analyzing his life and wilderness experiences, he skillfully includes the voices of specific saints to illuminate his point. For example, after detailing some of Thomas Traherne’s work on the importance of felicity, Lane applies the theory to his own narrative. He shares about the struggle he has felt as a son who lost his father and the way reading about felicity enabled him to let go of this burden and find joy.
The chapters are interspersed with these short personal narratives. This method of writing does two things that are helpful for the reader. First, it breaks up the theory. Writing on the works of the saints can be tedious, but Lane inserts his own narrative to give abstract theory theology a practical application to real life, illuminating the text by analogy. Secondly, personal narrative invites the reader to include herself in the book. When Lane shares about a struggle of his, it makes the text relatable and accessible. The reader can see herself in the pages and thus identify more readily with the conclusions he draws.
As an outdoor enthusiast, I was especially drawn to this book. It became clear that Lane has a deep respect and love for nature. He superbly weaves an intimate picture of the wilderness that both invites and terrifies. By relying on his own adventures and mishaps in nature, he offers a collection of advice, reflections, and perceptions on going into the wilderness and going into the self. His musings offer new insights into the significance of finding peace and solitude in nature drawn from the writings of those saints who came before him.
Rachel McKinley Cheney, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary