“The land is always there; it is you who has to return.”
Sinking low over the cliffs, the sun softly begins to melt onto their darkling edge. The sharp ridges and splayed fingers of the canyon below have gone through their panorama of changing hues as the light moves reluctantly over them on its way home for the evening. A bird circles far overhead, slowly wheeling back and forth, as if blending the tangerine sky into its nighttime tincture of darker blues.
I am sitting on a natural bench of stone, looking out over a vista that has lured me more than two thousand miles from home to see. There are perhaps 40 of us gathered there: middle-aged parents nervously counting their children’s heads every few minutes, leathery-skinned hikers with do-rags and piercing eyes, a group of softly chattering young Indian guys who seem to be competing for the selfie most likely to end in a 5,000-foot fall from the edge, a French couple calmly sitting and watching the sunset, a Hell’s Angel with his arm resting on his motorcycle helmet.
But although the setting is quiet and fascinating, I am feeling a strange unrest. I shift my position and look down over the cliff; it is still light enough to make out the spidery dirt trail that wanders down through the canyon to the mighty Colorado. It looks completely different than it did a few minutes ago. I have been here for two days, drinking in the awe-inspiring views and feeling their vastness wash over me. Still, I keep sensing the same vague disappointment as I try to take it all in.
Ever the romantic, I know that in some measure I have been anticipating this sight most of my life, since I first knew that there was a Grand Canyon. I’ve tried to conceive of what 1.2 million acres of hole-in-the-ground looks like, a 10-mile wide vee carved out of some of the stunning rock formations in the Southwest. I’ve looked at photos and paintings, building up in my mind’s eye an image of the greatest riverbed in the world. And yet it is so different now.
Because this experience cannot be distilled to a glossy 4×6, or captured in a digital burst, or even recreated in a video. My eye settles on a pillar of rock jutting up out of the ground far away, and all the rest of the panorama is suddenly somehow warped around it in my peripheral vision, to catapult it into the focus of my imagination. It looks like a monument erected to the colossal glory of this valley, standing in quiet acknowledgement. I wonder if a Pueblo dweller may have looked down on this very same landscape hundreds of years ago, feeling the same frustration I do in trying to absorb the majesty of the whole thing at once. And my gaze is drawn to a cave not far from it in the face of the rock cliffs; and then to the curve of the foaming river; and then to the sunset; and then to another rock promontory. It’s no use – I just have to look at it all.
And as I do, something finally occurs to me that I should probably have intuited long before. Maybe you are supposed to feel the weight of the perspective when contemplating an expanse as vast as this one is. I am only a human being: a fragile collection of muscle and skin and bone and synapse barely six feet tall, and an even more fragile collection of hopes and dreams and feelings and consciousness barely forty years old. I will move through this life for perhaps another forty years more, slowly wheeling back and forth from sadness to delight, hope to despair, aloneness to togetherness, love to loss. Will my path, as the bird I watched circling over the sunset, blend the evening of the world into a better hue than it was before? Is there any significance to be found in the face of such a great cloud of witnesses? That is my great hope; but as a person of faith I know that my hope is not in my own strength.
My hope is caught up, instead, in One who was not majestic in the eyes of the world, whose physical and emotional assemblage was just as fragile as mine, whose path in life was shorter even than mine has been, who laid down His power to take up frailty. He did not just move pigments around on the canvas of human experience as the best of us do; Jesus took the faded oranges and blues of the day’s end, and with his perfect sacrifice recast them into the purest white of a Resurrection sunrise. And could there be a more perfect analogy of His strong arms that surround me, than the sweep of these valleys all around?
And as I meditate on that, the irresistible pull of the portrait I have begun to see moves my heart to sudden devotion. Its beauty becomes strangely transparent, as it rises up to declare with its silent grandeur the glories of its Creator. And now I know that it always has, and that I have returned here to a place I have never been before: to stand beside it and worship, awestruck and captivated.
Photo: Sunset over Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon