When the Wheaton Van Lines driver phoned early on that Sunday morning to say that he couldn’t find anyone to help offload my 5000 pounds of household goods (mostly books), I suddenly had a whole day ahead of me, with nothing I could be doing to settle into my newest apartment. Of course, I could have gone to the lay- led service being held at my new interim church in Flagstaff, AZ.
But there is church, and then there’s Church.
Like my Unitarian Transcendentalist forebears, my inner life is grounded in the natural world, and so I packed up snacks and bottles of water and headed out of town, for a mere seventy miles away was the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
I had been there before, several years earlier, and had even visited the North Rim a few years previously. After all, this is THE place of pilgrimage that most Americans feel compelled to visit at least once in their lifetimes.
But I was totally unprepared for what would come to pass this time. This time, when I got out of the car and walked up to the Rim at Mather Point, the sight of the Canyon made me gasp. I felt I was being held by the throat and was choking.
Breathe, I told myself, just try to breathe. I walked along the paved path leading away from the main viewing area, seeking a place for solitary reflection. The August sun was hot so I sought out a spot shaded by a twisted juniper tree.
As I sat staring out across that great gash in our Earth, I sensed I was at an intersection of deep time and sacred space, and suddenly I began sobbing uncontrollably.
Was I ‘losing it?’ I looked around at my fellow tourists for clues: was anyone else experiencing what I was?
What about the middle-aged father talking nonstop and berating his young son for not seeing the castle of stone on the butte “right there next to the big titty!”
Or the grandmother having a meltdown when her family went out to the edge for a better look, until they turned their attention away from the view and put it back where it rightfully belonged: on her.
For truth be told, few people seemed to be really looking into the Canyon very much at all. Rather, after being surprised by the squirrels and amazed by the ravens, folks were dashing into the curio shops to buy some memento of their visit.
I would later learn that the average visitor’s stay at the Canyon’s rim is less than eleven minutes per person.
I too could/should just get back into my car and retreat to the safety of my still empty apartment in Flagstaff.
Instead, I spent the rest of the day driving along the east rim, stopping and staring, and sobbing at each pull off.
All across the great chasm, the changing afternoon light played like child gone wild with a box of crayons, turning the beige layer of Coconino Sandstone luminous, washing the Redwall into an innocent pink given depth and texture by shadows of brooding blue, then smearing a suggestion of green sage across the slope before dropping off into blackness as the inner canyon descended to the blue-green ribbon of river that could barely be glimpsed from the Rim at certain points.
Breathe. Just keep breathing! From Grandview Point to Moran Point to Lipan Point to Navajo Point, I became so increasingly intoxicated that by the time I reached the final pull off at Desert View, I was a drunken, blithering idiot!
When I could pull myself together long enough, I found a pay phone and called each of my daughters on my phone card.
“Yes, yes, I made it to Arizona. No, I’m not in Flagstaff. Actually, you won’t believe this, but the Grand Canyon is practically in my new neighborhood…,” I blathered into lines stretching westward to Washington, eastward to Tennessee.
My daughters were polite, if under impressed. Clearly one had to be here to appreciate this world-class wonder, to be having this first-hand experience that I simply couldn’t get enough of!
So I circled back to where I’d started out so many hours earlier. Watching the sun drop down into and the full moon rise up out of the Canyon simultaneously, I intuitively knew that everything in my life was being turned upside down.
While watching the sun crest the Rim, it hit me in a whole new way what the science of our day has been telling us….that we are, in the words of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme:
“….. the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole.”
And thus “ Our future as a species will be forged within this new story of the world.”
This was a new story, indeed…….. one to rival the one I grew up with that began with “Let there be light!”
“To speak of the universe’s origin is to bring to mind the great silent fire at the beginning of time. We can see the dawn of the universe because the light from its edges reaches us only now, after traveling twenty billion years to get here. We can now see the beginnings of time. We are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe.”
I had long been trying to translate this new knowing into what it meant for how we people might live our lives. Did the Canyon hold clues, with its exposed record of the planet balanced between the sun and our moon, to a new world view? Was that why I felt I was under its spell?
Blessedly, darkness finally descended, erasing the Canyon, and releasing me to make my way home to my empty apartment, and my newest interim ministry position.