So Brilliant You Couldn't Focus
Two readers (from different parts of the country) wrote me after last week’s column about that old tree on the Camino, and each of them spoke of walking the Grand Canyon. My column had touched old memories with them, and they in turn touched one with me.
When our children were young we took long driving vacations, on one of which we stayed a couple of nights at a simple hotel on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. This was 30 or 35 years ago, in those blessed pre-cell-phone days when taking a vacation meant taking a vacation, i.e., having in place of one’s ordinary work an emptiness, even a “vacuum” (same root as vacation). At this magnificent canyon, we were even more removed from our ordinary life.
Awesome doesn’t begin to describe it. You’ve seen pictures. Today’s Canyon is the result of the work of water eroding over not a time like that ancient tree’s 800 years but a huge multiple, more like 800 times 800 years and then another five or ten times that. You stand at the rim at a high altitude, amazed at what is before you and feeling a bit chill. Vertigo is a possibility, not to mention death from falling.
I learned that there are trails that go down from the rim to the river far below, and that the trails are about 15 miles long. That, by the way, would be a slightly long day on the Camino for most people. But in the Canyon, those 15 miles would be downward hatch-backs, requiring strong knees and taking the hiker into hot temperatures. At the bottom, at least back then, one could have reserved a bunk bed for the night. The next day, yes, you would walk back up, requiring the leg muscles that are opposite of those you used in the descent.
I learned all this but never (yet, anyway) have walked it. It is bound to be an overwhelming experience, and not only because of the physical challenge and what one can learn when challenged. It is simply that so much more comes into one’s eyes than one’s brain is accustomed to.
And that, dear reader, you can experience even at the brim itself. I stood looking north and saw a view of colors and changing depths that I was unable to focus. It was brilliant and it was beyond my grasp, not just intellectually, but as a matter of vision. Here is the difference between pictures and reality. Pictures put the far side of the canyon into focus, but in reality it is too close for that. I could not focus on, I could not grasp with my eyes, that which loomed in front of them. It kept waving or glimmering, as if it weren’t real, as if it couldn’t be there—although I reckoned that C. S. Lewis would say it was more real than ordinary reality, or a sign that what I take as ordinary reality is rather tame and dim.
What does it mean that the world is created? It means that God is holding it in existence every moment. Sometimes one can almost see (even though we can never truly see) those existence-granting hands. This is one of the reasons it is important for us to get out: outside, yes, but also out of our usual routines, out of what is ordinary for us. We need to see these intimations of the brilliant reality of God ever just beyond our focus.
Out & About. Yours truly is to be the preacher at St. David of Wales in Denton, Texas, on June 26.
Looking ahead. The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar is set for Sunday, September 18, at Incarnation in Dallas, on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And my lecture on the theology of walking (with Camino reflections) is set for Sunday, October 9.