by Fr. Matthias
Down we descend, fifty-pound packs shifting with each step. The canyon landscape is as desolate as it is magnificent: the grey desert escarpment giving way to maroon cliffs carved like red-velvet cake—a welcome serving to my starving soul. And good distraction to thoughts of tomorrow’s climb out of this gaping wound in the surface of the earth.
My pack will be lighter then.
James, my trail guide, leans against a boulder on the side of the trail. “One mile to the rest stop. We can eat there. It’s halfway.”
We had been descending for two hours.
He holds in His hands the depths of the earth.
Our footfall creates a cloud of dust, the steady pounding of our steps like a ticking clock mark the layers of time on the canyon walls. The weight of the pack presses on my back. To soften the blows, I stab my walking stick into the ground and steady myself against flex of its bow.
When we rest the hut at mid-descent, a young man with a load twice as big as ours is massaging his calloused feet.
James takes a bite of his peanut butter sandwich. “You hiking the A-Z trail?” That’s hiker lingo for the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek from the border of Mexico to Utah.
The youth nods and scratches his scraggly beard. “I got soft last 100 miles. They were flat. Name’s Dan.” He reaches out his hand.
A ground squirrel hops onto the wooden and eyes my backpack.
“What made you want to do it?” I ask.
“Factory job was crushing my soul. And my parents just split.” He clears his throat. “I needed to take a walk.”
I follow his saddened gaze to the river below. The stone walls echo his pain and I’m no longer hungry.
What does it mean that He who ascended
had first descended into the lower parts of the earth?
I share my sandwich with the squirrel. Grunting, I sling my pack back over my shoulders. “Want to go down together?”
When we arrive at the bottom, we pass through an ancient tunnel bored through the rock. Then we head to a bridge that overlooks the river. The steam, a bright turquoise blue, rushes deep and powerful. The vegetation along its banks an explosion of green against the backdrop of black cliffs.
James studies the sky, then consults his map.
I stand a few feet behind Dan and my eyes rest on his back. He seems out of breath. Above the red canvas of his pack, his shoulders press against a white cotton shirt. He stares at the water, his head is bowed at an angle that resembles an image of Christ on the cross.
His hand brushes his face and I presume it is to wipe away a tear.
He straightens up. “I’m heading on,” he says without glancing back. “Get a good night’s rest.”
He who descended is the same one who ascended,
far above all the heavens,
so that He might fill all things.
James and I make camp. After I roll out my sleeping pad, I withdraw to pray Vespers. My words are little more than slight whispers that bounce against the solid rock. In the distance, the sound of the water reminds me of tears and I could not get Dan off my mind.
At supper, I ask James what sort of people tended to descend into the canyon. He shrugs, then smiles. “Seekers,” he says. “Most of them seem to be searching for something.”
“Do they find what their looking for?”
He shrugs again. “Who knows?”
That night, I have trouble falling asleep. The stars are magnificent and alluring. The canyon floor cannot retrain my soaring spirit. I feel as though I am ascending to the glory of the heavens.
“Come along, Dan,” I whisper, as though he were actually there. “Let’s join up. Follow me. As I follow Him.”