The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul

By Belden C. Lane. Oxford University Press, 2019. 344 pages. $29.95/hardcover; $19.99/eBook.

We’re surrounded by a world that talks, but we don’t listen. We’re part of a community engaged in a vast conversation, but we deny our role in it. —Belden C. Lane

A number of years ago, while sitting in my garden leisurely weeding the flower bed, my attention was drawn to a bee flying into the center of a flower. When the bee touched some place deep inside the mystery of the flower, the flower’s stamen reached up and touched the butt of the bee! The bee withdrew and flew into another flower where the same interaction occurred. It was one of those blessed moments when I understood the interconnection of all life and how that bee and that flower co-evolved. In that moment I experienced a sacred conversation. And this is what Belden C. Lane writes about in this book.

Lane weaves together the wheel of life with a series of personal examples and connects them with the writings of saints and sages. He begins by describing his multi-decade relationship with a cottonwood tree, and how, over the years, he has come to understand how one might converse with an other-than-human being. I was totally taken with the book, Lane’s deep reverence for life, his stories, and his knowledge.

The format is based on a wheel he calls “The Path of Transformation: Nature Teachers and the Mystical Journey.” Depicted are quadrants with the names of the four directions, and within each quadrant are three symbols. These symbols, such as Birds, Stars, Canyons, and Wolves, are the topics for the chapters.

Lane grabbed me early on when he shared, “The planet longs for a body of wild souls who will love it intensely, acting boldly on its behalf.” Wow, I was with him 100 percent and that was just page 4. Lane is professor emeritus of theological studies, American religion, and history of spirituality at Saint Louis University in Missouri. So he has a broad knowledge of the saints and sages he brings to life in each chapter. He always begins with an experience that is related to the chapter’s topic, followed by the description of someone who informed and deepened his understanding of his place in life and of the conversation he was yearning for.

I learned about Hildegard of Bingen’s five spiritual themes, and “The Radiant Goodness of All Beings” theme spoke to me deeply as a Quaker. As I learned about Farid ud-Din Attar and his poem, The Conference of the Birds; Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of desire; Teresa of Ávila’s deep reverence for water; and all the rest, I began to see how they form a guiding cloud of beautiful souls.

I recommend this book because Lane instructs us on how to begin to listen to the great conversation. There’s a section called “Learning to Listen Again,” where he suggests we find a place or a non-human being that we can go to daily and learn the language of Spirit in nature. Lane’s cottonwood tree lives in a public park across the street from where Lane lives. It has a large injured area where Lane can step inside and lean into his friend. The only personal photo in the book is of Lane and his young grandchild in the cavity of that tree.

I’ll leave you with Lane’s words, since he speaks with such eloquence:

Soul work, I’m discovering, requires a forgetfulness that allows access to a deeper memory, the memory of the land itself. This is where the Beloved hides, say Rumi and Hafiz, waiting to be found, softly whispering in the languages of trees. When I stand in the heart of a tall cottonwood, I hear the heartbeat of the Holy One, blessed be his (or her) many names. I rediscover the Jesus I’d lost.

Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Middlebury (Vt.) Meeting. She and her husband are homesteaders, living on unceded land of the Abenaki. They grow much of what they eat and yearn for the deep relationship the land offers.

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