Embraced and enveloped are the words that came to me as I drove Highway 24 west from Hanksville into Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The rock formations — squat, rounded, multilayered gray and red — brought a smile to my face. I couldn't seem to get enough of them.
I drank it in and let it flow through me. Throughout the entire trip, I was unable to focus on anything other than the landscape that presented me with a panorama of brilliant color, of towering heights, of staccato points, of undulating waves and of deep canyons.
Standing there surrounded by the work of billions of years, I was humbled by how short my life span is in comparison. I found evolution's artistry provided a perspective for me.
To understand the everyday events within the country I need to see them in relationship to the larger forces at work in the universe and on our Earth home. Change is constant and what seems to be permanent is actually undergoing slight or great changes all the time. What seems catastrophic during one epoch transforms into something beautiful entering the next phase of evolution.
Systems thinkers believe we are at a chaos point where all the structures no longer work. We are at a point of breakdown or breakthrough. Hiking to the Delicate Arch, at Arches National Park, I marveled at how the massive rock formations erode and break down, creating such a beautiful and open archway.
I am reminded of Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," in which he sings about the "crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." I wondered if I could find the crack in what is happening now in our country and begin to see the light that is trying to come through, how that might shift my perspective and energy.
Even while I scanned the landscape and felt this expansive sense, I realized I also had to be very careful as to where I walked. As I descended into Bryce Canyon, my head down, I was keenly aware of the terrain of my path — loose pebbles, soft sand or hard rock — as well as the sides of the trail, which if I got too close could have me tumbling down into the canyon. Every step was important.
I realized that although our life span is short in evolutionary time, it is our time and space to become who we are. We have to be aware of our terrain, our path. We are part of the constantly changing landscape and we need to choose how and where we will hike. Every decision we make as to where to put our next footstep is critical. Our life is very significant.
Hiking poles helped me keep my balance and assisted me in shifting my weight uphill and down. I leaned on them to pause and look up and around, helping me to gain perspective as I considered whether I could make the end of the trail. I wondered what my hiking poles are in my everyday life.
What keeps me balanced and able to ascend and descend as I journey through life? I found myself thinking that one "pole" is hope. It is a hope, as Teilhard de Chardin believed, that there is a directionality to evolution that ends in a Oneness — the Omega point, Christogenesis. It is a hope rooted in faith that allows me to see my life as a significant part of this incredible billion-year history of our planet and universe.
Love is the other "pole." It is the love of those with whom I am making this journey at this time. It is a compassionate love respecting the reality that each person and each sentient and nonsentient being share in Divine love.
It is compassionate love that recognizes that we all hike the trail with our limitations and our blinders and sometimes contribute to the erosion or the destruction of the trail we are walking. Other times we contribute to the creation of the next incredibly beautiful site.
During these days, I didn't look at my calendar or watch any news or respond to e-mails; I took a vacation from it all. Yet I was attuned to the mystery that is our life — the grandeur and the sorrow, the mountains and the canyons. I was present to the moment. I was "taking a long loving look at the real"; I was watching the light come through the crack. It was contemplation.
[Nancy Sylvester founded the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue and has served as its director since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]