When I lived in Kansas I often visited Northern New Mexico. There in the Chama River Canyon, which cuts deep into the high mountains northwest of Santa Fe, is a rugged and beautiful landscape. Cliffs rise abruptly from the canyon floor until they shine in the sun, their sheer sides lined with striations of pink, rose, brown and tan, revealing the ages of the earth and its upheavals. Scattered in these cliffs are crevices and caves, and sometimes if you climb up to the top of one then descend down its face, you can find a cave that’s reasonably accessible to explore. My friend, on a day of hiking, found such a cave and spent the long afternoon there listening to the sounds echoing up from the canyon below: the wild horses running, coyotes calling across the canyon, the voices of monks at prayer singing chants in the chapel below, singing birds and whispering trees, and water running fast in the river far below. A symphony of great beauty.
When he came back he told me about it and tried to show me where it was, so I could go there. He was alight with the joy of his day, filled with the wonder of it, and he wanted to share it with me. We both stared at the face of the cliff wall as he tried to direct my eyes to the place where the cave lies hidden in plain sight. He kept describing it and pointing to it, saying things like, “There, see, just under where that scrub pine is growing, not far from where that footpath ends above it – can you see it?” and I’d say, no, I couldn’t; and he’d try again. “There,” he’d say, “you can barely make it out, it’s just a line in the rocks, very faint; can you see it now?” And, of course, I still couldn’t see what he so much wanted me to see and appreciate. We went on like that for a while, him wanting to share this special place with me, and I completely unable to make it out amid the shadows and lines etched on the rough cliff wall.
Finally I realized there was absolutely no hope of my being able to make out the spot from where I stood (though he could see it quite clearly, because he’d been there). So I settled upon a shadow I could just make out somewhere near where I thought he pointed and I began to nod and say, “Yes, yes I see it now” — when, really, I wasn’t certain I’d seen it at all. But it was so embarrassing to have him keep trying to show me this treasured place he’d found, and I thought it really didn’t matter so much whether I saw the actual place or not.
Something of the experience has stayed with me. Honestly, it wasn’t important to me that I see truly what he was pointing to that day, but only because I didn’t intend to go there myself and wouldn’t be called on to show someone else the place. It would be different if I had to be able actually to go there myself or to point the way for another. Then it would matter very much whether, when he asked if I saw the place, I could say yes, I saw it. What mattered that day was only appreciating that it was there for my friend and what joy he had in it.
But there’s a lesson in it that tugs at me. More than one lesson, actually, but for the moment, this one seems clearest: If I could see clearly where I want to go, I might have a good chance of knowing in a vague way how to get there. I might not know the exact path, but I could find my way there if the end were clearly in mind. On the other hand, when I set out on a long or confusing trip, if I mark my destination in the wrong place on the map, even if it puts me only a few degrees off the mark I’ll likely end up very far indeed from where I wanted to go. So I need to actually see something of the goal, however indistinctly — not just pretend to myself that I saw. I need to keep seeking to see clearly and praying for the stamina and courage to take the journey.
Blessing to you on today’s leg of your journey, even if it is (for the moment) just standing still and gazing long and lovingly.