The National Catholic Review
'When you go down into the depths of the canyon at dawn, you can meet the creator at work.'
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The plane touched down in Las Vegas. Neither my friend nor I had much of a clue about camping; so along with the tent, the sleeping bags and the backpacks, we had with us all kinds of things that might come in useful. We could hardly move beyond the carousel. In fact that Hercules transporter you may have noticed laboring across the skies might well have been us!

Along with a mountain of things both needful and needless, however, we were carrying something that was weightless and invisible: an enormous enthusiasm about our trek into the deserts of Arizona and Utah and a belief that this was going to be a spiritual, as well as a physical, journey, in which the silence of the desert would speak to our hearts. And as we struggled to get ourselves and our bags to the car rental center, the first message was already coming through loud and clear: look at the lilies; they dont carry all this stuff around for a rainy day, and they manage to bloom very effectively. How about slimming down a bit?

The story came to mind of the large lady who assured her best friend that inside this overweight individual there is a slim person trying to get out! Just the one? queried the friend in a triumph of honesty over diplomacy. I wondered what slim sliver of wisdom might be buried in the obesity of our baggage, both outer and inner, as we hit the road for canyon country and ate up the miles along Route 66. In the deeper layers of my mind, I think, a question was taking shape: What does the core of my being look like when all the flab is removed? Not that I entered upon this adventure with any such issue in mind. My sole conscious intention was to enjoy the journey and explore some magnificent landscape. Only now can I begin to hear the resonances of what the desert sands were whispering in my heart.

In peak summer temperatures, a descent into the Grand Canyon is not to be contemplated, unless you have hooves. At 110 degrees and rising, walking is not an option for most mortals. But Bryce National Park is another matter. There, in the magical pre-dawn hours, it was entirely possible to walk down deep into the canyon and watch the rising sun set the hoodoos alight, as if with an inner fire.

Perhaps it was that inner fire that dropped the first hints of who we really are, in the core of our being. The hoodoos are so amazingly beautiful not because they have acquired layers of grandeur through the passage of time, but because they have lost so much. Their beauty is revealed because they have suffered eons of erosion, as the biting winds and the flash floods have stripped them down to their essential core, revealing every nuance of color and grain. When you go down into the depths of the canyon at dawn, you can meet the creator at work and tune in to the great paradox that creation and destruction are the yin and yang of the mighty power of unfolding life.

Might our personal diminishments also have the potential to reveal a deeper beauty that we never guessed was there? I reflected on some people I know, whose lives seem to suggest that this is so. At the nadir of their experience, perhaps in terminal illness or in the throes of some tragic event or extreme pain, they shine with an inner, transfiguring light. Communities and nations, too, often reveal the heart of their humanity only when they face impossible odds together.

A story is told of a young girl who had a good singing voice. Wondering whether she should embark on professional voice training, her parents asked a musician friend to give her an informal audition. When she had sung for him, he considered his verdict. She sings beautifully, he said at last. When her heart has been broken, she will sing sublimely.

The hoodoos tell the same story. These pinnacles and arches are beautiful. When they have suffered the lashings of wind and water for countless millennia, they become sublime. In every rock a work of breathtaking wonder is locked up. Only hardship and erosion, or the sculptors cruel chisel, can release it. What is locked up inside me, inside you, inside the other we perhaps ignore or even despise? And do we desire to sing our hearts pure song more deeply than we fear the heartbreak that sets it free?

It seems to be that the more that Gods dream always holds out to us, is only discovered when the suffocating layers of the less are stripped awaythe comforts and conveniences at the surface levels of life. We would usually do anything to avoid this stripping, and yet the result will be the gradual emergence of the unique and eternal beauty of who we truly are.

So why do our diminishments and sufferings never feel life-giving? Maybe it is a matter of time. I once heard it said that miracles are merely a question of time. We do not regard it as a miracle when the rain waters the vine and the vine produces the grape and the grape yields the wine. We only see the miracle when it is speeded up, at Cana for example. The desert teaches you that the miracle of your own becoming cannot be rushed.

We shed a lot of ballast on our trip to the Southwest. When we got back to Vegas, our bags had slimmed down, but our hearts had expanded. The desert, like God, refuses to let us be less than we are, and will wait for as long as it takes. In divine mathematics, addition happens through subtraction, and less is always more.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and the Catholic Press Association award-winning The Gift of Prayer.

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