Bryson and Supernatural on Sunday Morning

Devil's Tower

Before he hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson drove all over the continental U.S. in a Chevy Chevette. He left us a record of his travels, The Lost Continent.

I just finished reading it, having nursed it like a finger of single-malt scotch–taking little sips over the course of a few months. Now that it’s over, I want him to start driving all over again.

Bryson had one traveling ritual that struck me as particularly dramatic. He would check into a motel for the night, take his little pair of scissors out of his kit bag, proceed to the bathroom, and ceremonially snip the Sanitized for Your Protection banner on the commode, exclaiming “I declare this toilet open!”

But his travel narrative includes poetry, too. One Sunday morning he was driving east through Wyoming…

I drove through the drizzle to Devil’s Tower, the mountain used by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the one on which the aliens landed. It is so singular and extraordinary that you cannot imagine what Spielberg would have used as an alternative if it hadn’t been available. You can see it long before you get to it, but as you draw nearer the scale of it becomes really quite awesome. It is a flat-topped cone of rock 865 feet high, soaring out of an otherwise flat and featureless plain. The scientific explanation is that it was a volcanic fluke–an outsized lump of warm rock that shot out of the earth and then cooled into its present arresting shape. In the moonlight it is said to glow, though even now on a wet Sunday morning with smoky clouds brushing across its summit, it looked decidedly supernatural, as if it were placed there eons ago for the eventual use of aliens.

Bryson drove for two months, thirty years ago–which is about when I got my driver’s license and dreamed of such adventures. I actually did do it myself, seven years ago, albeit for just two weeks. And I have an observation to make about the two ways you can drive across America, caressing God’s earth on our splendid, lonely highways. But first, Bryson’s experience of the Grand Canyon, and mine.


Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.

Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. It was such an unexpected sight–no one had told me that it would be on display–and it just took my breath away. There he was all still and silent, dusted with powder and dressed in a suit. I particularly remember that he had his glasses on (what did they think he was going to do with those where he ws going?) and that they were crooked. I think my grandmother had knocked them askew during her last blubbery embrace and then everyone else had been squeamish to push them back into place. It was a shock to me to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over “I Love Lucy” or repair his car or talk with his mouth full. It was awesome. But not really as awesome as the Grand Canyon.

bill bryson lost continentYour humble scribe, on the same subject, in a journal I kept:

God, of course, is free to do as He wills.  It is pointless to ask why.  Why would He hollow out an enormous scoop of His earth, delving a mile deep into a plateau in the shape of a 200-mile capital J?  Why would He make most of the world in one way, and this part in another?

You can stand on Bright Angel promontory and look out over a red, yellow, and brown expanse beneath you that is so great that everything you ever knew of the earth before could fit inside it.  And it would look small.  My beloved St. Peter’s Basilica, a climate unto itself:  small.  Old Rag Mountain, my favorite long hike of youth:  small.  Empire State Building, Sears Tower:  little sticks.

Forget it.  Manhattan Island could fit into one of the tributary canyons here.  These comparisons are not a reasonable exercise.  The Grand Canyon is simply a different realm of creation.  It is the place where creation occurred, according to the natives, which would put the canyon itself outside the confines of the created, on the divine side of the unbridgeable divide.  You can see why they would say this.

I had driven a great distance; it had taken me a week.  I had seen thousands of miles of the country, our greatest rivers, and some of our splendid cities.  But it was all nothing, reduced to absurd tiny-ness.

I had lived two score years.  Nothing.  I had seen many days in my life, many sweet evenings.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Tiny.  Ridiculously small. Who can even countenance such pettiness, trifles like the George Washington Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls?  Leave it all alone; these are just miniscule particles of dust.

It really is true:  Looking at the Grand Canyon is a cruel blow to oneself. Every earthly thing is reduced to the size of plankton.  It is no wonder that people routinely ignore all warnings and railings and wind up falling to their deaths trying to get just the right photograph.  To see the canyon is a kind of death.  ‘If this thing is real, then everything else I have ever seen or done is a tiddly wink being flipped into a little plastic cup.  What have I been bothering about all this time?’

So I think Bryson and I had some similar experiences. But there are two ways of driving across America. Allow me to illustrate this with another citation, from a current periodical publication.

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960’s and 70’s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Thus concludes Peter Beinart’s brief analysis in The Atlantic of how the decline in white American churchgoing has affected politics. He quotes a Notre Dame sociologist: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Beinart goes on to observe:

The most-committed members of a church are more likely than those casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

I think we unworthy “more-committed members” might offer an explanation for this, an explanation that a sociologist would consider outside his ken. Namely: When we receive the sacraments of the Church regularly, God’s grace fills our hearts. In other words, if we sinners who frequent church have any real love in us, there’s a genuinely supernatural explanation. Not having to do with aliens. But having to do with Christ. He reigns above, and He pours the love of His Heart into ours, through the rites of the Church.

On my cross-country drive, when I crossed the Mississippi River in my little 2006 Toyota, I made landfall at the enormous arch that marks the gateway to the West. I stopped in the original cathedral of Saint Louis, which stands on the riverbank, hard-by the Arch. I made a little visit to the Blessed Sacrament and said some prayers.

In his drive, Bryson found communion with his own childhood, and with his fellowman, in souvenir shops and diners. But his elegy of the American road, funny as it manages to be sometimes, winds up sounding a note of melancholy and loneliness.

The other way to drive across America is from tabernacle to tabernacle, from humble parish Mass to humble parish Mass, giving God the glory for making you, not a solitary wayfarer on the great ocean of existence, but  a member of the Body of Christ.

Henry Tanner Annunciation, A Couple Books, y Homilia en Español


A kind parishioner gave me a large print to hang in my office, as a Christmas present. A Realist rendition of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit, with our Lady looking appropriately Semitic. Years ago I laid eyes on the original, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Quite a coincidence to receive this gift today, since I was just reading Bill Bryson about his visit to the museum, which he recounts in The Lost Continent:

My friend Hal pointed out to me, in the middle of Fairmount Park, the palatial Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had become the city’s top tourist attraction, not because of its collection of 500,000 paintings, but because its front steps were the ones Sylvester Stallone sprinted up in Rocky. People were actually coming to the museum in buses, looking at the steps and leaving without ever going inside to see the pictures.

…Ever read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton? Talk about a magnificent Realist-school work of art. As exquisitely precise as Jane Austen’s finest, with the polar-opposite emotional effect.

…Between December 21 and 24, we read at Holy Mass from the near-beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the accounts of the Visitation and the birth of St. John the Baptist. These Mass readings include the great Gospel canticles, which the Church sings daily in the Divine Offices for morning and evening, the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Tomorrow morning, the Advent Mass readings conclude with Zechariah’s song. Here’s a homily on it, in Spanish. (You can read the English by clicking here.)

…Cada mañana, la Iglesia saluda a la madrugada con la oración. Una de las oraciones diarias de la mañana de la Iglesia es el cántico que Zacarías cantó cuando se enteró de que el Cristo había venido.   Los monjes, monjas, sacerdotes y muchos laicos, también: todos cantan o recitan esta misma canción como parte de nuestras oraciones cada mañana.

“Bendito sea el Señor, que ha llegado a su pueblo y levantó un Salvador poderoso, cumpliendo sus promesas a los profetas.”

La canción de Zacarías expresa el contenido de la promesa de Dios con una manera particularmente elocuente.  El Señor prometió que Su pueblo serían liberados de las manos de los enemigos, de modo que sea capaz de “culto sin temor, santo y justo a los ojos de Dios.”   El Salvador recién-nacido hace que esto sea posible para nosotros:  Adorar a Dios sin miedo, de pie delante de Él en la santidad.

philadelphia-museum-of-artEsta es la paz de la humanidad, este culto sin cargas.  Los ángeles cantaron, y nosotros tambien cantamos : “Gloria a Dios y paz a los hombres de buena voluntad.”  Esta es la salvación: adorar a nuestro Creador con un corazón en reposo, con la conciencia tranquila.

El antiguo Israel tenía muchos enemigos, pero el enemigo verdadero es el pecado, la falsedad –vacío interior que sólo conduce a la muerte.  El pecado hace que sea imposible adorar a nuestro Creador y Señor sin temor. Porque la verdad es la verdad, y los ojos de Dios ven todo. Si no estamos en un estado de verdadera honestidad con nosotros mismos, nunca vamos a estar en un estado de paz real.

Cristo ha venido precisamente para liberarnos de las garras de este, nuestro mayor enemigo: nuestra falta de honradez con nosotros mismos.  Nuestro orgullo grandioso tonto.  Los sabios de entre nosotros siempre han declarado: “Tu primer deber es conocerte a ti mismo!”  Y no hay objetivo que ha sido más imposible que logremos.

Cristo no vino a la tierra para decirnos que somos maravillosos, que somos hot-shots, que tenemos todo junto.  Porque no somos, y no lo tenemos. Lo que vino Él a hacer es morir por nosotros, por amor a todos nosotros los pecadores incorregibles.

Así que podemos estar sin temor ante Dios Todopoderoso y admitir la verdad: que no somos perfectos. No somos divines.  Somos Don Nadie.  Estamos indefensos y perdidos sin la ayuda de Dios.  Cristo nos ha liberado de nuestros pretextos ridículos por su hermosa demostración del hecho de que Él ama a todos los Don Nadies.  Él ama a perdedores desventurados.

Es realmente sólo interesado en perdedores. Las personas hermosas, perfectas Él deja a su libre albedrío, para disfrutar de su supuesta genialidad en su propio ámbito de autonomía–que en realidad es un reino de espejos rotos y la decepción que nunca termina.

Pero, para nosotros los ineptos irresponsables, el amor de Jesús puede darnos la fuerza para conocernos a nosotros mismos en la verdad.  Él derramó su sangre por nuestros pecados, para que todo lo que tenemos que hacer para ser libre de ellos es confesar– en el gran acto de honestidad cristiana que cumple con todas las antiguas profecías.   ‘Señor, ten piedad de mí, pecador.’  ‘Hijo, tu fe te ha salvado! Tus pecados son perdonados. Sigue tu camino.’

Entonces podemos adorar a Dios sin miedo!  Podemos conocer la paz emocionante de un día vivido completamente en la verdad. Y podemos ver con alegría como la aurora de lo alto amanece sobre nosotros en toda su gloria.

Bendito y alabado sea el Señor Jesucristo, ahora y siempre y siempre y siempre.

Holy-Cross-Day Miscellany

In these parts, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived today with a chilly, chilly morning.

Fittingly so: For the contemplative sons and daughters of the Church, the year has two poles, like the globe. Easter means the beginning of the bright days when we touch the mysteries of heaven. September 14 means the beginning of pre-Lent, when we shoulder our crosses and march with Christian confidence towards the dark door of death, through which our Captain passed on Good Friday…

A sandhill crane
A sandhill crane

…President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington on February 23, 1861. (In those days, we inaugurated our presidents on March 4.) Congressman Sherrard Clemens, of Virginia, laid eyes on Lincoln and wrote to a friend, “Abe looks like a cross between a sandhill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”

Andalusian donkey
Andalusian donkey

For the better part of my life, whenever I have caught a glimpse of myself before my morning shave, I have wondered, What epithet would most lyrically describe this specimen of humanity that I see before me? That mystery has now been solved.

…I am sorry that I have not had the leisure to write about some recent adventures I have had on the Appalachian Trail. One of them involved a bona fide, long-house-dwelling, tomahawk-toting Mohawk–a latter-day St. John the Baptist who lives solely on the meanest of trail rations, water filtered through a sock, and preternatural zeal for the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps time will permit me to discourse more about him at some later opportunity.

For now, I would simply like to communicate an Annie-Dillard-esque experience I had while descending Fullhart Knob this afternoon.

First, consider all the creatures that lie within striking distance of a hiker at any given moment. Then retain for consideration only those that might like to take a bite of human flesh.

It occurred to me that, if all those creatures acted together in a concerted attack, I would never make it to the bottom of the hill. The worms and insects immediately beneath me in the dirt would spring upon my legs; the squirrels would maul me about the arms and shoulders; the hawks and vultures, and all other assorted nearby fowl, would peck me about the head. If I were beset in this manner, I would be done for, even before the nearest black bear arrived to gore me.

But this did not happen. All these creatures could have had all they wanted to eat for at least a fortnight; they could have had two weeks off from their usual chickenscratch efforts at survival. But they did not take the opportunity, and I made it home fine.

Now, what did this potential army of the forest lack? Not the physical wherewithal for victory, to be sure. I would have been more or less defenseless against them. I could have flailed and batted and run, but, in the end, they would have had the better of me.

No, what they lacked was: the creative intellectual capacity to conceive of the attack (which I, alone among them, could imagine), the deliberative capacity to enact a decision, and the capacity to communicate the idea among themselves.

Intellect, will, communication skills.

I bring this up solely to illustrate the following. If someone asks, Why is there something, rather than nothing? (And who doesn’t ask that?) If someone asks this question, answers like The Great Turtle or The Big Bang simply will not do. The only real answer is: The Person. The impenetrably grand Person, of whom we human persons–with our intellects, and our wills, and our communication skills–offer only a pale reflection.

We Christians cannot, of course, prove that this Person has an equally impenetrably grand Father and Spirit, which He revealed by speaking through prophets and then becoming man Himself. But we can say: the only reasonable answer to Why is there something rather than nothing? is: God.



1. The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton. One of the most wonderful books I have ever read.

2. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Read the book instead of seeing the movie! The movie stinks. The book has occasional bad words, but they hardly distract you from one of the most delightful tales ever told about through-hikers who never quite made it.