Real Presence

A few years ago, we hiked the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon.

Oh, the Grand Canyon! The last 100 miles or so of the trip there, you’re driving through the Kaibab National Forest, which is this immense pine forest — mile after mile of evergreen — and finally, we arrived to the Canyon a couple hours before sunset. We walked down to the edge of the canyon and just stared. You don’t really see it coming: it’s pine trees and pine trees and pine trees and then, bam, something you’ve never encountered before. A panoply of striated color and extreme topography and the blue blue sky with puffy white Georgia O’Keefe clouds and you just stare.

While staring, I remembered that Charles Darwin had journaled in great detail throughout all of his explorations. Each day of his travels, he’d scribble down a ton of words to describe whatever he’d seen. But one day, wherever he was in South America or the Galapagos, he came upon some unexpected panorama so staggeringly beautiful that all he managed to write in his journal for that day was “Hosanna!”

That’s what seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was like. Hosanna!

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So we’re walking back to the car, and radiating out from the visitor center there’s this network of sidewalks all through the park. And just off the sidewalk we were on, like right off the sidewalk, there’s an elk in this little grove of pine trees. Five feet from us. And we’re staring again. And while we’re staring, she leans her head down to the ground, bites off a mouthful of grass, looks up at us and just stares right back into our eyes and calmly chews her food. Hosanna!

Up the sidewalk only about 15 feet away, but on the other side of this little grove of trees where the elk was, was another couple. Imagine the scene: We’re on the sidewalk looking at the elk. Then there’s the grove of trees. Then the other couple. We can see both the elk and the couple. But because of the trees they can’t see the elk. And the guy is standing there and he’s noticed some hoof prints in the dirt.

He points out to his girlfriend: “Look, I think these are elk prints.”

“Wow,” she says. “So cool.”

“They actually look pretty fresh.”

“So cool,” she says.

“And — Oh my God! — Look, you can see where the elk has eaten off this bush here.”

“Oh, that’s so cool,” she says.

The elk is right there behind the trees and they’re thrilled with the hoofprints.

So they walked away, in the other direction, back to the parking lot, and after I came out of my elk trance and realized they were leaving, I couldn’t bear to let them go. I dashed after them and finally reached them, breathless and chest heaving from my first day at high altitude. I felt like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

Me, pointing wildly: “Elk!”

“I’m sorry, what?!”

“Did you see the elk?!”

“What? No? Where?”

I’d caught my breath enough to speak. “Yeah, just back there. I saw y’all investigating the hoof prints and if you’d walked just another few feet down the sidewalk you would have actually seen the thing that made the prints. The elk itself is right there.”

And they ran back, calling their friends from farther up the sidewalk. They all ran down and came into contact, into the real presence of the thing they’d been talking about, which was right there all along, only they hadn’t seen it. But when they did: Hosanna!

Sometimes we forget that spirituality is like that. Spirituality is about so much more than inspecting texts about God, or investigating the tracks of where God has been or predicting where God will be. Authentic spirituality invites us into that little grove of pine trees, into the real, actual presence of the God who is with us — right here, right now — only we hadn’t noticed.

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