Heading south from Salt Lake City, you can drive for hours without seeing anything but rocks and scrub. The road is straight and flat, and the darkening April sky closes down on you like the cover of an old hardback.
We were staying in Brian Head, at a resort 9,600 feet above sea level. We’d come for the off-season price, not the skiing, so each morning we wound our way past the snow drifts and abandoned ski lifts, leaving the high-altitude winter for the barren country we’d covered on the way down. We wanted to see Bryce and Zion, and both were within a couple hours’ drive. It was a bizarre commute. You’d swing around a corner and see a panorama of snow-capped mountains before passing through a forest of evergreens. Then the trees would vanish as a new desert of tumbled stones spilled out ahead of you revealing some of the most startling and beautiful geological formations in the world. Bryce Canyon National Park is a collection of mangled spires, arches, and tunnels cut in the high, red stone by ice and snow, by wind and time. The red sandstone canyons and soaring mountains of Zion National Park are no less rugged, though they convey a greater sense of grandeur. I’m forever falling short in my attempts to describe the scale of that place, the wonder of it.
We camped on a white cliff in Zion, near signs that warned of mountain lions. We huddled in a tent while the frigid wind shredded the canyon. We carried our packs over high meadows and picked our way through stony passes. It wasn’t quite spring. The air was full of—something—uncertainty or anticipation, a sense of almost. The ends of the tree branches were plump, bulging with buds too shy to blossom. Here and there we glimpsed a haze of new green on a shrub. On our second morning we ate breakfast at an overlook and watched the sun touch the edges of the peaks and slide down into the canyon. There were times when we lost the path. We scouted the mountainside for cairns to show us the way. Once, I turned to look over my shoulder at the distance we had covered. I was amazed, pierced by the beauty of the place and the thrill of the journey.
Then we were back in the car, weary and exhilarated, driving through barren Utah and forested Utah and into the snowy passes of Brian Head. That was where I heard it.
“This is your heart.”
Such a strange statement, that Spirit-whisper.
The mapping of a heart is the work of eternity. Helena Sorensen
I’d been wrestling with myself, in the days and weeks leading up to the trip, frustrated at my inability to manage my feelings. I was Jacob wrestling with Jacob, looking to be wounded in both thighs. I held two conflicting ideas about my internal world. The first related to an Old Testament passage: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” In that final question, I had always heard a horrified resignation. “No one can navigate those waters!” the Scripture seemed to say, or maybe, more accurately, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” And yet, I clung to the idea that my heart could be organized like a preschool classroom. In one long weekend, I should be perfectly capable of arranging my thoughts, feelings, memories, fears, and hopes into pre-labeled, color-coded bins.
I was confused, mired, drowning when the words came. “This is your heart.” It is vast, diverse. You can drive for ages along the road of a particular feeling or hope, and everything seems simple and uniform. But there is always more to see. There are mountains so high you can scarcely catch your breath. There are canyons of copper stone and smooth-topped pulpits of red stone, pockets of beauty so lovely and surprising that only sorrow and time and the gentle, overpowering work of the Spirit could have carved them. There are fallow fields, trees almost in flower, a wonderful, waiting hope of coming beauty and harvest. There is room here. It will take a lifetime and more to explore it, to understand it. The mapping of a heart is the work of eternity.
Madeleine L’Engle, in A Wind in the Door, addresses this confusion about size and perspective. Again and again, she reminds the reader that size is both “relative and irrelevant.” While we are awed by the immensity and complexity of the macrocosm, the expanding external universe, we fail to see that the microcosm is equally immense and complex.
“How long does it take the Milky Way to rotate once around?” As no one else spoke, Meg answered, “Two hundred billion years, clockwise.” “So that gives us a general idea of the size of your galaxy, doesn’t it?” “Very general,” Calvin said. “Our minds can’t comprehend anything that huge, that macrocosmic.” “Don’t try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition. Think of the size of your galaxy. Now, think of your sun. It’s a star, and it is a great deal smaller than the entire galaxy, isn’t it?” “Of course.” “Think of yourselves, now, in comparison with the size of your sun. Think how much smaller you are. Now think of a mitochondrion, which live in the cells of all living things, and how much smaller a mitochondrion is than you.” “This time,” Calvin said, “the problem is that our minds can’t comprehend anything that microcosmic.”
Later in the story, Meg witnesses the birth of a star, but this glorious event happens in such a way that the young star is no larger than the palm of her hand. She is confounded by the shift in perspectives. “How big am I?” she asks. Her teacher is quick to remind her that she must stop thinking about size.
We set our goals, and dream our dreams, and pin our hopes on the grand idea of the macrocosmic, and all the while the infinite and microcosmic world of the interior goes woefully untended. This sacred place, and the sacred journey that takes us over each patch of ground, is perhaps the great work of our lives. Helena Sorensen
The journey into the interior world of the human heart is not a weekend organization project. But neither is it something to be feared, avoided, or dismissed as insignificant. It is unmanageable, yes, in the same way that the changing terrains of Utah cannot be shoehorned into a single, uniform landscape. This is the dwelling place of the Most High God. He is pleased to dwell here. He knows the subtle textures of the rock formations and the very hour in which each bud will burst open. He is acquainted with the barren places and the frozen ones. His love is written in every drift of snow.
We set our goals, and dream our dreams, and pin our hopes on the grand idea of the macrocosmic, and all the while the infinite and microcosmic world of the interior goes woefully untended. This sacred place, and the sacred journey that takes us over each patch of ground, is perhaps the great work of our lives. “Maybe nothing is more important,” says Buechner, “than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way, because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity . . . that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
Author Dan Stone puts it even more simply: “Mind the journey inward.”
There is room, and there is time. You do not have to wait for God to meet you there. His dwelling place is within you. Take His hand and grieve the ravaged ground. Marvel at the unexpected beauty. Tend the gardens and break up the fallow fields. When the sun drips over the edge of the canyon and you see the fingerprint of God etched into the rock of your soul, pause and take off your shoes. You are holy ground.