I saw God today. And not being a believer in any traditional God, that says a lot. But I did see God today.
I had joined a colleague on long, seemingly endless and barren desert highways in Arizona. We were on a mission — to save the life of a lone doomed mule who was currently working for the government as a pack animal in a national park outside Tucson.
Merle Haggard played on the radio. Marlboro cigarette smoke filled the cab. And cactus, tumbleweeds and sage grass could be seen as far as one could see.
But like all missions, we were sidetracked — in this case, by the romantic idea of visiting one of the seven wonders of the natural world: the Grand Canyon.
The sun was nearly gone that late afternoon; we were tired, exhausted, and the drive had been so monotonous and long, we joked about it being just our luck to arrive at the canyon in pitch blackness.
I mocked our soon-to-come conversation. “We’ll be standing on the edge — seeing absolutely nothing because nighttime — that stark devouring black — will have swallowed the canyon, and I’ll say, ‘Do you suppose they’re right, I mean, about it being huge and all?’”
My companion was too tired from hours and hours of driving, pulling a stock trailer at a required reduced speed, to find my comment anything but amusing. Besides, he had grown reluctantly fond of my sarcasm. It broke the boredom. “Calm yourself,” he said.
Twenty dollars got us into the park just before the sun disappeared. In a bend in the nearly deserted roadway, I caught a glimpse of the canyon’s rim through the trees. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was seeing the far side of the chasm, some eight miles away — and just the tip top of it. Maybe it was a sixth sense I had of its impending affect on my life. Maybe it was just the fact that I was that close to something as grand as I had imagined it was. Or maybe it was simply God. Real God. The kind Dante wrote about: “Nature is the art of God.” Or Millay: “God, I can push the grass apart / and lay my finger on thy heart!” No. More like Nietzsche: “Nature is God.”
It must have been, don’t you see? Because, even before I laid eyes on its colossal void, I had been taken by the Grand Canyon — my soul, I mean. I was already moved to tears as I scrambled out of the truck and headed for the rim, but I was not prepared for what I was about to see.
The Canyon opened unexpectedly before me, as if a gigantic quake had blown past the Richter scale and ripped the earth apart — as if it had emptied the oceans right there beneath me. I was emotionally stunned. And speechless. I was minimized.
The Grand Canyon is a gargantuan abyss. More than one mile deep, 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. There is absolutely nothing else on earth like it.
It is not something that can be seen in photographs or on videotape. It is something that can only be felt by standing on its rim overlooking its sheer cliffs of multi-colored rock that have formed over millions and millions of years. It is something that can only be understood in its almighty presence.
The Grand Canyon is a teacher. It reminds us that we are alone on this planet — and that we are not. It strips us of our importance — and yet begs us for stewardship. It opens the soul. And the mind. And, in so doing, it undermines our arrogance. “I have survived without you. I shall survive without you.”
“Humbling,” my friend whispered as he stood beside me in the setting sun, on the edge of a four-million-year-old cliff, hearing the voice I had just heard come up from the grandest of the grand. The voice of God.
Is this work for naught? She’ll go on without us, this earth. The dinosaurs faded away. So will we — at this rate, the rate we’re killing ourselves and each other. But she’ll survive. Some other fantastic creature will emerge from the rubble. Maybe one smart enough to last longer. But we are mere nothings in the grand scheme of things.
We nicknamed the mule “Mo” after me — but not before the animal dragged my partner several times into the desert while we tried to load him in the trailer. Mo couldn’t know he was on his way to slaughter had we not arrived on the scene. Mo couldn’t know he was now on his way to horse heaven where he would live out the remainder of his life among his own, without human interference. In the end, intelligence over muscle won the day and Mo was loaded.
Merle Haggard and Marlboro cigarettes. And vast open prairies of desert cactus. One life saved, pulled back from the edge. And for what, I could only wonder?
We stopped in the middle of the night to fill a bucket with water for the mule. I offered him apple pie through the trailer slats, but he didn’t bite. He seemed timid. Restless. Tired of us humans. I climbed on the side of the trailer and peered at him through a higher slot. He lifted his head and met my gaze. “Calm yourself,” I whispered. “You are going home.”
I can’t assimilate the whys. I don’t know why I’m compelled to save one life, to pull one lone living being back from the edge, to do what I feel I must do, that I have no choice in doing.
No, no, wait a minute. I do know why. Of course! Why hadn’t it been clear before? The Hebrew proverb: “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” We are all connected. I understood that again when the light shone in the mule’s eyes — and in them I could see the depths of the Grand Canyon.
I could see God.