All Who Have Ears To Listen

Grand Canyon trip becomes a celebration of spiritual geography

This article appeared in the August 2000 issue of Celebration, an ecumenical worship Ann Naffziger

"Geography is simply a visible form of theology," said Jon Levenson, and after a week of backpacking in the Grand Canyon recently, I know the truth of his statement.

On the morning that a group of six of us from my theological graduate school began the hike into that immense hole in the earth's crust that we call the Grand Canyon, the mercury had dipped to a frosty 25 degrees at the south rim's 7,000 foot altitude. Bundled under four layers of clothing, we hoisted on our backpacks and started down the steep trail cut into the canyon walls under the auspices of a "vacation" the week before our spring semester was to begin. Little did we suspect that this "vacation" would quickly evolve into an intense, retreat-like experience of God for each of us.

At the outset, the sheer cliffs and thousand foot drop-offs dizzied me, and I was amazed that a trail even existed along the rock walls surrounding us. Yet step by step the trail appeared in front of us and we followed it mile after dusty mile, the temperature steadily rising as we descended into the untamed desert. Besides being stupefied by the forbidding landscape which lay between us and our destination (and my sudden feeling of smallness in relation to the enormity of this creation,) I was most struck on that first day by the desert's utter dryness. Dust covered everything we touched, clung to our boots in a thin film of red earth, cracked the skin at our cuticles, and filled our mouths and nostrils.

Several times on the downward hike we had peeks at the silent Colorado River a vertical mile below us, but otherwise the absence of any moisture in our surroundings was a shock, especially after living in wet and fecund Oregon for several years as I have.

After trekking for six hours in the and landscape, our group had descended 5,000 feet from the canyon's rim to the gracefully green river we had glimpsed from above. On the river's banks, the temperature peaked at a balmy 73 degrees. Our group was tired, yes, but more than that we were parched.

Living water

We turned from the river and followed Bright Angel Creek for the last quarter mile to our campground, and as we walked along next to that tumbling stream the term "living water" jumped to mind. I thought about the woman at the well and I could understand then how someone like her, raised in a desert her whole life, would yearn for "living water" because after only six hours in the desert I looked thirstily at the water of Bright Angel Creek and imagined drinking deeply and cooling and bathing my dusty limbs.

Indeed, the image of living water must have been a powerful one to those who had accompanied Jesus on his desert sojourns or had grown up in the arid countryside of Palestine and heard stories about him. Even the ancient ritual of washing a guest's feet after a desert journey carried more meaning for me now in my happiness to wash my feet in the cold stream at the bottom of the canyon.

Just as the phrase "living water" kept returning to my consciousness during our week in the canyon's austere landscape, more biblical images came alive for me as well. Everywhere we looked there was jagged red rock or smooth, worn stone so that soon I couldn't close my eyes without seeing rocks to be scaled, boulder fields to be crossed or stone walls to be ascended.

I realized that it must have been the similar middle-eastern geography that had spawned the plethora of rock and stone imagery in the gospel stories. "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matt 16:18). "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock..." (Matt 7:24). "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Matt 7:9). "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (Matt 21:42). "Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Matt 24:2). "When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back" (Mark 16:4).

Now I understood why Jesus and the evangelists told stories and employed images and metaphors of rock; they couldn't help it, they were embedded in their consciousness by virtue of their geographical landscape. I suddenly realized the truth of what Ortega y Gasset once said: "Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are."

From vacation to retreat

By our second full day in the canyon I had ceased experiencing our trip as a vacation and earnestly began experiencing it as a wilderness retreat, surrounded as I was by a group of pray-ers and moved to pray constantly myself. Everything in our days engendered a desire to pray: from prayers of thanksgiving for the deepening colors of the sunrise (which I am very rarely awake for during my semesters of study!) to the first evening glimpse of the desert's brilliant, undiluted starscape, to prayers of supplication, to unabashed awe and praise for the wonder of God's creation.

I found that the Eucharist, especially, took on new meaning for me as we hiked each day. Every day for breakfast my companions and I ate oatmeal, and everyday for lunch on the trail we ate tuna and cheese sandwiches made with pita bread. The intense physical exertion of hiking for hours with 40 pounds on my back left me forever hungry, and despite the monotony of our diets, I felt I could hardly get enough to eat. It became very clear to me that our strength and energy, and even our survival, depended on that pita bread, and yet lunch was not the only time that we ate it. We celebrated Mass at a different campsite each day, and the bread we had brought along for our lunches became our eucharistic bread too. Just as I hungered for the calories in that unleavened bread, I grew in hunger for a meal in which the pita was to become the Bread of Life broken and shared with us. This strong desire to partake of this bread each day reminded me that in celebrating Mass we were acknowledging that "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4).

Later during our retreat, I was reminded again of my need to not only consume the Eucharist but to hear the Word of God. At mid-week we were stranded for 36 hours in a cold rain, miles from the nearest person, and confined to our tents, which were beginning to seep rainwater.

I was chilled, feverish, hungry, and tired, and the thought of hiking the 15 miles out of the canyon seemed an impossible task. Unfortunately for me, even in times of relative security my pessimistic mind tends toward predictions of disaster and doom so that with this added stress my mind turned to a disquieting quote by Edward Abbey which I had read just before our trip. "The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying, or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert." At about the same time that I began dwelling on Abbey's statement, I remembered the final, blunt warning on the videotape produced by the Grand Canyon National Park Service that our group had watched before venturing into this wilderness. "Come prepared. Every year people die in the canyon."

Such pessimistic thoughts were fueling my anxiety more and more until finally I turned to another, more sacred text as an antidote. I picked up a friend's breviary and flipped to one of my favorite "comfort" passages. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine ... ?" (Rom. 8:35). I mentally inserted rain, cold, fever and fatigue, and was comforted to trust that none of these discomforts, "nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation" could separate me or our small, solitary group in the middle of the Grand Canyon from God.

Because I am writing this now, you will know that eventually the rain did stop, my five companions and I dried out again, we warmed up and ate more pita bread, and we hiked those 15 miles out of the canyon. In fact, we all agreed that the 36 hours of rain had the effect of creating a "retreat within a retreat." Instead of hiking our usual eight miles, the rain offered us an unexpected day of rest so that rather than exert ourselves further, we spent even more time in prayer.

The day after the rain ended, we hiked back to our original campsite from where we would begin the hike out of the canyon. From there, on our second to last day, I stood at the bottom of the canyon gazing at the rim 5,000 feet above us and wondered how in the world we would ever make it to the top-- just as I had looked down into the canyon a week earlier disbelieving that we could ever make it to the bottom. Yet step by step, mile by mile, the trail appeared in front of us and we followed it again, this time climbing into thinner air and colder temperatures. As we ascended, so did my spirits, so that when we finally emerged from the canyon six days after descending into the harsh wilderness, I was filled with an incredible joy and peacefulness that didn't wear off when the adrenaline rush did.

Ears to hear

During the 900-mile drive back to school where our theology classes would be starting the next day, I opened up The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane's book on desert and mountain spirituality that I had been reading in preparation for my inaugural trip to the desert. It was in this book that I had read the quote by Abbey that had filled me with such anxiety a few days earlier. On this first day out of the desert, however, the first quote I read was by John Scotus Erigena. "It is in the very desert of divine height that the Word, through whom 'all things were made,' cries out."

Yes, I decided, the Grand Canyon, the desert, the Word, had been crying out to all who had ears to listen this week, and I was able to hear some of what it was shouting to me.

Ann Naffziger is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Americamagazine, Portland magazine, the Oregonian and the Catholic Sentinel (the Archdiocesan newspaper for Portland, Ore.) She is currently an M.Div student at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.