by Fr. Matthias
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. Jn. 12:32
I rub my right hand on the sandpaper surface of the rock, then tap twice on a ledge that protrudes from the center. I turn to James, my guide, “I think we found our altar.”
I unclip the buckles on my pack and pull out a white cloth and spread it over the boulder. The cry of a hawk catches my attention as it swirls above, and my eye is drawn to the jagged cliff faces that stretch upward like gothic spires as they gleam in the morning light. I place a small crucifix in the upper center of the cloth and swing the travel chasuble over my head and onto my shoulders and whisper the prayer: Lord, you have said: “My yoke is sweet and my burden light.” Grant that I may carry your yoke well so as to obtain your grace. I make the sign of the cross and we begin Mass.
During the offertory, a red chopper carrying camp supplies emerges from around the river bend between the canyon walls and arcs toward the campsite called “Bright Angel” that James and I have just left. Its rumble rattles off of the rock walls and sends a breeze through the branches of a nearby mesquite. I extend my hands over the bread and wine: Make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them…
I take the bread into my hands and bend over the makeshift altar. For billions of years this rock has existed, and yet the Father knew—and ordained—that here and now, his Son would be offered back to Him from here. Everything around us becomes still, as my hands and voice become those of the Savior: Take this, all of you and eat of it: This is my body…which will be given up for you.
In my post-communion meditation, I am both in awe and deeply challenged by this mingling of heaven and earth and the humility of the All-Holy God. In awe that, just as angels ascended and descended on the rock anointed by Jacob in Genesis, even greater things have occurred as they did so upon the Son of Man—here—a few moments ago. And yet, a creeping sense of dread migrates into my prayer: this reality, celebrated here, is also meant to be lived by me as priest and victim. I am called to carry the yoke with Christ, I am called to say with my life: this is my body given up for you. I am called to be crucified with Christ. And yet, I feel so far from such self-gift.
I stand and dismiss James with the words: Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life. In my heart, those words are also my prayer: Lord, show me how.
I put the Mass kit back in my pack and swing the heavy load on to my shoulders and we begin the arduous climb out of the canyon.
After four hours and nine miles, we arrive at one of the two watering holes on the trail, a respite before the brutal, final ascent of three miles of switchbacks. I remove my hat and position my head beneath the water spicket and let the cool water run through my hair.
“Son.” A voice floats within the water stream across my ears.
“Excuse me, son.” I shake my head look up.
Before me is an old man, perhaps in his early eighties, water bottle in hand. “Sorry to interrupt you, but there are other people here waiting.”
“Oh, sorry sir.”
When he finishes filling his canteen, I cannot help but continue the conversation. “Are you coming up or on your way down?”
He moves a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and smiles.
“Started at Bright Angel this morning. You?”
He can tell that I am surprised.
“You are wondering why an old guy like me is out here, aren’t ya?” His thick Brooklyn accent punches the air like a prize fighter. “It’s a long story kid. One you prolly wouldn’t be interested in anyway. What’s your name?”
“I’m Father Matthias.”
“Father…like a Catholic priest?”
Immediately, the look on his face changes and he stares me directly in the eye. He is clearly fighting emotion. “Father. His name was Marty.”
“He is the reason I am out here. Marty was my colleague, no, my friend, for almost 20 years.” He looks down. “About ten years ago, we were on a mission doing search and rescue in the Catskills when he felt pain in his chest. He slumped over and died, right there, in my arms. I always said we would come here, out west, and hike the Grand Canyon, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it until now.”
I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I shouldn’t be out here. But my friend, he…its in his honor. All this pain, its for him. Pray that he has rest, Father.”
I look at the old man and think again of the rock where we had Mass. “Believe me”, I say, “our Heavenly Father is paying attention to your prayers and sacrifice. The prayers of His beloved son.”
I gaze up at the rim.
“As for me, I will be carrying you.”
06 / 11 / 2021