About three years after our marriage Arlyne and I spent several minutes on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, waiting for the sunrise. It’s an old ceremony, presumably a Hopi tradition, and now a rite for tourists. Not far from the northern end of Route 180, the major tourist artery, you have the choice of several vistas. Ours was at Navajo Point, the highest promontory on the southern rim, with some of the brightest limestone just to the west, poised for the October sun.
Before dawn, the winds can rip unabated across the mesas, enough to keep some sightseers in their cars. With our one-year-old son Bradford bundled up, we hovered behind the scrub pines and dry underbrush to catch a glimpse of daybreak. In the pre-dawn chill the canyon was murky, with only vague profiles. A few patches of fog cascaded over the alluvial slopes. Only a thin moon remained above the horizon. None of the buttes or sandstone tiers in the immediate foreground could be distinguished from the shadows. We felt, more than we saw, the great chasm—the cold air rising out of the gorge and the great river more than a mile below.
The first light did little to warm us up. Sunrise, as usual, started with the silhouette of the distant ridges, leaving the lower depths still shrouded. But soon the light exploded over the hills. As it dispersed through the sky, we could see the long history of quakes and erosion: smoky blues, and then layers of ochre, burgundy, bronze and ashen white. There were scraps of green here and there, mostly sagebrush, juniper or piñon. A thin dusting of early season snow stuck to the highest ledges, the oxide-rich lime and sandstone, once a vast dune blown down from the north. Within the hour, the daylight spread down the colored strata to the Bright Angel Shale, the thick band of silt left by a retreating sea.
“There goes God,” Carl Sandburg once wrote, “with an army of banners.”
It was certainly easy to linger at Navajo Point that dawn and feel that we were nearer to God. The Canyon is one of the earth’s great sanctuaries. Several buttes, formally named “temples,” would dwarf the gothic marvel at Cologne. This ruddy grandeur, though, also confronts us with our own inconsequence. Against the backdrop of many millennia, the daily riddles of our lives can seem irrelevant. Metaphor is essential for metaphysics, but at sights like these even our metaphors get tested. On our own, we perceive mountains as symbols of permanence, but the Creator has witnessed these highlands move, granule by granule, for millions of years.
Some fearfulness, I suppose, is essential for faith. In many ways, to seek God at the edge of the Canyon is to rediscover how foolish we can be when we presume too quickly to speak as his interpreters. It drives us back to a faith that continually seeks understanding. At such moments, when the natural world provokes me to take the long view, I am also inclined to think of the prayers and poetry of distant believers and seekers. Since that October morning at the edge of the Canyon, I will occasionally recall that lookout at Navajo Point when a liturgy or familiar prayer provides words for my own spiritual longing or wonder. The morning vista reminds me what prayer often is—an appeal for divine light within the landscape of religious tradition and practice.
Admittedly, the long register of religious yearning is a pale rival for geologic eons, but at least to our eyes it does have its own strata. So often, the prayers that have moved me have been words drawn from some layer of past Christian experience. At times, a liturgy or a scriptural text appears richly compacted, the words bearing deposits of many writers, events or eras. There are plenty of times when my mind can be doubtful, bare; I need the language of others. Now and then, I have entered a church with an inarticulate anxiety and found reassurance in prayers recited by believers during times of spiritual discovery and striving. For all of our own private epiphanies, the Christian faith is not simply the ecstasy of the moment, but the vast panorama of witness and aspiration.
This is a story about when one of those prayers moved me. It just happens to be the most revered prayer, the one that is closest to a liturgy honored in all Christian traditions.
About five days after we buried my mother on a wet January morning at Rose Hills Cemetery in Southern California, Arlyne and I came to Washington, D.C. for a few days of professional meetings, as well as time with Bradford, who was spending a college semester in the capital. My grief, I must admit, had taken cover in the formalities of bereavement—cross-country flights for the family, the assemblage of photos, the post-service luncheon, all of the hasty and banal duties that fill the austere silence after death. My mother’s death had come suddenly—the large aneurysm near her heart, as we had long suspected, finally bursting—and I know that for a few days I simply shelved my own regret that I had never been able to say goodbye. For the final years of mother’s life, we lived on different sides of the continent, which almost invariably leaves many things unsaid, even a few unsettled. With help from our own families, my brothers and I conducted the memorial service and graveside remembrance. Our children gave testimonials or recited from Proverbs, and, because I was choked up, Arlyne prayed on the hillside and read my brief account of our mother’s life in church. As we left the cemetery I was grateful for the light mist and the herd of deer that had emerged from the hillside chaparral, eager as always to feast on the graveyard bouquets, but, at least for me, a surprise and consolation.
Washington was gray and savagely cold, and the sorrow struck. During a walk to the Jefferson Memorial, I was almost thankful for the sub-zero wind chill that burned our faces and numbed my thoughts. On Sunday morning we took a taxi to the National Cathedral for the Eucharistic service. After so many days of motion and responsibility, it was calming to arrive early and simply to wait on the wooden chairs set out in the cold sanctuary, as the small ensemble rehearsed its Latin anthem. My parents, both teachers, awakened my interest in American history, and something of my mother was with me, I imagine, when I re-encountered the pious patriotism of the cathedral. Although she never saw this sanctuary, I am sure that she would have appreciated the state seals pressed in the narthex floor, or the stained-glass windows of Lewis and Clark and Stonewall Jackson, perhaps every bit as much as the neo-gothic spires. She would have loved the crisp morning view over the Potomac from the cathedral close. By the time I settled down into my seat my emotions were drained; I was lifted by the choral refrains, the canon’s readings, and the gothic designs. When the congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer I fought back tears.
Those emotions came with some irony. Neither of my parents was drawn to liturgical worship, which they had been taught to fear as cold ceremony. For both of them, the heart of the church was not even its sanctuary or sermon but its Sunday School, where children and adults absorbed the Scriptures on their own, not unlike New England’s low-church Puritans who would have recoiled at the thought of a national cathedral. On Saturday evenings Mom would also sit us down, with good-natured firmness, to insure that our Bible workbooks were ready for the next morning, often while Dad was in the garage devising some contraption—a time machine or new flannel graph board—to keep children from boredom. But even those tasks can become rituals in their own right. My mother was reticent to speak about her own turn toward faith, which came after losing her father in the Depression and sustained her after losing her own mother in the wake of World War II. I will never truly know just what the recitation of “Our Father” might mean for those in her generation who lost their own parents in the Depression or the war.
Until that morning in the Washington Cathedral, I had never thought of the Lord’s Prayer as a solace. Except for those times when it has been simply a dry formality for me, the Prayer has always seemed a way to look ahead with hopefulness—to today’s bread and a kingdom beyond our comprehension. I am sure that was part of the emotional jilt: in the times of loss the future dims. On that Sunday, hundreds of people in the sanctuary reciting the familiar lines, as they have done for decades, signaled that the world moves on, even if that congregation of strangers remained unaware of the new silence in my life. Most likely, that’s why the Prayer’s final doxology—“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever”—seized me that morning. I thought of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, with its own final refrain, the arrival of a new priest to fill the place of his slain predecessor, as the tradition of faith extends beyond the loss of any single life. For me, in the solemnity of a cathedral, the final words of the Lord’s Prayer provided a benediction that I had never truly heard in our own self-planned memorial the week before. When the congregation and the minister recited those words, it gave me closure. It was what a benediction should be—a “good word spoken,” in this case one that allowed me to leave the week of remembrance and sorrows about my mother’s final years to God.
Only a few translations of the Scripture still leave the doxology in Matthew’s Gospel; many simply provide a footnote claiming that the familiar final line of the Lord’s Prayer did not appear in the most authoritative manuscripts of the Gospel. Luke ends the Prayer simply with a plea to be spared from temptation. Quite likely, the doxology was drawn from the rituals and worship of the early church, and eventually made its way into later manuscripts. Both Luke and Matthew, some scholars claim, also invoke the Didache—the early Christian treatise, written in Greek, though probably derived from Jewish oral tradition—when they introduce the Lord’s Prayer in their Gospels. Attributed to the apostles, the Didache advises the first generation of Christian believers to recite the Prayer three times daily and at least once at the Eucharist. I don’t need resolution of the textual controversies to understand that when we recite the Lord’s Prayer we are echoing many voices—not only the original counsel of Jesus, but also the way that his teachings resonated among his followers in the first generation after his death. Those are deep layers, most likely words repeated by some who walked and prayed with Jesus along Galilee.
A week or so after our return home, when I mentioned that the service had been a time of solace, a colleague reminded me of the long debate about whether the Lord’s Prayer was an echo of a Jewish rite of bereavement. Some scholars still contend that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he drew on the language of the Kaddish, the exaltation of God’s name, by custom a part of Jewish funerals and remembrances. “Saying Kaddish” generally alludes to the rites of mourning; devout Jews traditionally declaimed the “Mourner’s Kaddish” for eleven months after a parent’s death. It is also—appropriately for my mother, in a way—a teacher’s prayer, a common doxology recited by rabbis after their discourses or homilies on the Talmud or Midrash. “May His great name be exalted,” the Kaddish begins, “and sanctified is His name. . . . May He establish His kingdom/and may His salvation blossom and His anointed be near.” There are, to be fair, some compelling reasons to question this direct link between Jesus and the Kaddish, most notably because the Jewish prayer of exaltation did not become a regular part of the synagogue liturgy until the fifth century. Still, it is not altogether unlikely that the Kaddish itself has roots in Jewish rituals and prayers that Jesus would also have known. Again, the lingering uncertainty about the linguistic bonds between the prayers does not diminish the fact that Christian and Jewish believers over the centuries have taken similar counsel—that, in times of sorrow and death, we can find solace in exalting the name of God.
Each time the Lord’s Prayer is heard, I suppose, it does take on new layers of meanings in the lives of believers. At Easter as many as a billion people will recite the Prayer, some certainly out of mere habit or compliance, but many with a genuine desire to exalt the name of God, even at times of considerable confusion and loss. That exaltation has occurred so often at the bravest hours: Martyrs have recited the Prayer on the gallows; chaplains, at a loss for words, have turned to it to fill the emptiness of the battlefield after great carnage. The emotional weight of the Prayer on me during that cold day in Washington brought to my mind another January morning, about a decade earlier, when I heard the Prayer during a university service near the Athai River, about an hour south of Nairobi, Kenya. This January was a humid one: the open-air chapel allowed glimpses over a large sloping savannah, and heat waves obscured the sight of the industrial town in the distance. One day earlier—literally hours before we arrived—a coup in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo had taken the life of President Laurent Kabila, although news from the nation was scarce, leaving the college community unsettled. The dread of civil war in the Congo was palpable among some of those in the chapel. Rumors of the assassination had not yet been confirmed. Neither were assurances that Kabila’s son had stepped into the presidency nor reports that Rwandan and Ugandan rebels had infiltrated the Congolese capitol of Kinshasa.
With communication gone slack, there was no way for the Congolese students at the university to know whether their families were safe or whether the one-day revolt had already become a bloodbath. In the heart of the service, six Congolese students were called to the platform. A few wept in the audience, uncertain of the security of their families. The large congregation of students prayed, turning eventually to the Prayer in Matthew, virtually singing as they did, part lamentation, part petition, a lilting chant that was comforting and restorative. It reminded me that the Lord’s Prayer is really the disciples’ prayer—the words that Jesus left his disciples to make their own. Hearing the familiar words that morning gave me some capacity to share the petition of the African people in a time of violence and alarm. But the rhythms of the words were unmistakably African, no doubt with strong echoes of local anthems, and I heard how the words of Jesus, first recited in Hebrew or Aramaic, and then recorded in Greek, were now layered with the cadences of their own idioms. The Prayer had become a plea for reassurance in the midst of a situation more fearful than I have ever known, and the peace that it offered that hour, in so many ways, passed my understanding.
Assuredly, I will keep searching the landscapes for slants of light, for a glimpse of the mercy that is new every morning. Like Wesley, I have known moments when my heart was strangely warmed by a sense of God’s presence: the calm on the surgery table, as well as the still, small voice after great shame or sorrow. But I also know that mercy can come in dark hours, when some new light spills out from old words, like the solar rays slipping over the ancient hills.
The Grand Canyon—like the Athai River Valley—is actually high country, not the subterranean cavern it might appear to be on postcards and websites. The lookout at Navajo Point reaches more than 7400 feet above sea level. The many strata exposed by the deep chasm were once part of an ocean floor or lakebeds lifted by the Laramide orogeny, the molten swell ignited by the collision of the Pacific and North American continental plates. That uprising hoisted the southwestern plateaus and created the Rocky Mountains. Once the land had risen and the great waters receded, only the Colorado River—and perhaps a few other ancestors, now long extinct—was left to carve the soft limestone and shale, with their dense pack of aquatic fossils. Thousands of feet below, the muddy river, now dramatically thinned by so many hydraulic dams upstream, winds through the lowest strata of Precambrian granite and schist, though it still must fall another half a mile to reach the delta near the sea.
From the edge of the Canyon, you can easily forget that you are staring over highlands. At this altitude, you can look down upon the hawks and sparrows, as they glide over the clefts and hollows. When we returned to the Canyon several years after that first October dawn, Bradford and I caught sight of an eagle as it drifted above the northern rim, then dove toward the conifers on a ledge far below. On so many medieval frescos and modern pulpits, the eagle represents St. John. It is his Gospel, we are often told, which strives toward the theological heights. As in so many Episcopal churches, there are eagles in the National Cathedral: in the window celebrating the voyage of Lewis and Clark, and in the small carving on the pillars and pulpits. The main pulpit, full of images of historic English Bibles, is surrounded by layers of stones—columns of Indiana limestone, chancel steps from Solomon’s Quarry in Jerusalem, and even a moon rock embedded above in a dark mosaic of purple glass. From time to time, at a cathedral service, I will see an acolyte bearing an eagle on the candlestick that accompanies the Scripture when it is carried down the stone steps into the aisle, all part of the procession that brings the Gospel lesson to be read in the midst of the congregation. It is, after all, what we so often pray for—that the Word will soar and descend to dwell among us.
*Original version presented at Appleton Chapel, Harvard University, in December 2000, and then later adapted in 2008.