“I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
If I could make a treasure map of places where my heart has been changed, places where I would “bury something precious” in order to return again and again, Arizona would be on the list.
This March I helped to chaperone a Route 66 road trip to Arizona and Nevada for a group of students. Our entire trip was wonderful—full of laughter and lots of great diner food along Route 66, but there was one stop in particular I had been looking forward to ever since our first planning meeting: The Grand Canyon.
I had visited the Grand Canyon before on a family road trip when I was in middle school. We did a helicopter tour, walked along the edge of the canyon, and settled in for the sunset. When I saw the sun set at the Grand Canyon for the first time as a child, I remember feeling—perhaps for the first time in my life—that I needed quiet and solitude to soak in the beauty I was seeing. I remember sitting there on a rock, thinking “I don’t want anyone to talk to me. I’m trying to remember what every cloud in the sky looks like.” I’ve never forgotten that feeling; it was one of the first times I ever felt truly awake to the beauty of nature.
So with that in mind, I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel going back to the Grand Canyon as an adult, mainly because I know those deep longings for beauty have only grown in my heart over the last twenty-something years. I had been mentally preparing myself that I might be disappointed—maybe I wasn’t remembering it accurately, or maybe the experience would be different as an adult.
Driving into the park I felt strangely anxious. The landscape of the park entrance is mostly forests and bushes—no hint of what’s to come. We talked in the van about what it must have been like for the early explorers to be walking through a seemingly endless forest and then stumble onto something so vast. After we parked the vans we spent some time reminding the kids how dangerous it was to hike alongside the edge of a canyon, we made selfie-taking illegal, and we prayed together. Then we set off on the path towards the visitor’s center. Maybe the kids didn’t feel it, but I certainly felt the anticipation growing in my heart as we topped the hill and came within sight of the canyon.
What I was not prepared for was my immediate emotional response. I was in tears before I knew what was happening. The one thought that kept running through my mind was “If God can take care of all of this, He will take care of me.” Because as vast and seemingly unknowable as that canyon is, He knows every ravine and rapid. He keeps track of every leaf that falls, every animal that makes its home there. He holds it all together and orchestrates the colors of each sunset. He is the God of fathomless majesty, and yet he also knows the canyons of our hearts. He cares for us tenderly and keeps us standing even when we are waiting or unsure.
Eventually we left the main observation point and walked along the rim of the canyon. The rest of the afternoon was full of laughter and inside jokes, sweet conversations with precious students, and a lovely (albeit cloudy and freezing cold) sunset. It was a beautiful day from start to finish. So beautiful, in fact, that it made it difficult to walk away from the canyon and get in the van. It felt wrong to turn my back on something so immense and leave the “mountain-top” to go back to the real world.
I wrote in my journal the next day: It’s enough to make me want to go back again and again—there’s something so sad about leaving a place and knowing it will possibly be years before you get to go back and see God in the same way.
Well, it’s been three months, and I can’t stop thinking about that day. Everything I saw and felt has been rolling around in my mind and making me think again about the power of place in our walk of faith. I’ve written about this idea before—specifically about how the Isle of Skye and Loch Lomond are some of the places that my heart goes back to again and again, when, as William Wordsworth writes, “the fretful stir…and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart.” We all have them—touchstone places that feel endowed with special meaning because of who we were when we visited or what we learned while we were there.
In fact, one pilgrim wrote “A place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.” I think that we could all point to moments standing in the beauty of creation that have left an indelible mark on our hearts. We could claim that it’s just the beauty of the scenery or “an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,” but there is a spiritual reality at work in those moments: God speaks to us through his creation.
C.S. Lewis writes that the creation we have on this earth is the creation God meant to make: “He might have created others, He may have created others, but granted this Nature, then doubtless no smallest part of her is there except because it expresses the character He chose to give her.” In other words, He didn’t have to make the Grand Canyon. He didn’t have to create coral reefs or roses or thunderstorms or the cycle of the moon. But because he did make those things in those ways, we can be sure he meant for us to see and understand them as meaningful. He is a poet, and nature is “the very idiom” through which He speaks.
In a similar vein, Malcom Guite writes that if we see the world as nothing but a set of defense mechanisms and evolutionary traits designed to protect the fittest, then we should never expect to see parallels between nature and our inner lives. But “if the Christian assertion is true that all things were created in the Logos: in mind, order, and meaning…then such rich and fruitful parallels between the inner life of the mind and the outer life of nature are precisely what we should expect to find!”
So we should think of our spiritual lives when we stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon. And the tree planted by streams of water in Psalm One should send jolts of recognition through us, because the natural world we have been given, while it is corrupted and broken, is meant to work as a language through which we can understand God and ourselves. Lewis says, “the theologians tell us that [nature], like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilized. We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, playfellow, and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.”
I believe the landscape of the New Heaven and the New Earth will be wilder and more fiercely beautiful than anything we can imagine, but I don’t think it will be altogether foreign to us. There will be a sense of wondrous recognition as we see what God has done with the broken pieces of this old world. And what a “merry meeting” it will be to see the people and the places we have loved redeemed and made whole in the light of the Son. Maybe there will be an even Grander Canyon for us to marvel at just on the other side of the veil. And perhaps we will walk along it together like we did on that day in March, and still marvel at how good God is.
But until that day of redemption and recognition, we must, as Russ Ramsey writes, “save our vacation days, plan our itineraries, and make our way across oceans, over mountains, through cities, and down long stretches of highway that span the countryside to take our place in line to catch a glimpse of the deeper glory we know we were made for.” I, for one, will be planning my next trip to Arizona—who wants to go with me?
Books to Check Out: