One of the reasons I have visited Arizona and other Western states once or twice a year for the last 25 years is, apparently, for solitude --- to be in a place where I can listen to and see things I have difficulty experiencing in the Eastern urban area where I live. Even in a park near my home, the sounds of traffic, airplanes, and people’s voices are ever-present --- the horns and motors, the drone of planes, the bits of “he said, and I said, and can you believe” kind of conversations that I weave in and out of, a constant soundtrack that obscures a more subtle layer of things to see and hear.
Last Wednesday I stood beneath this enormous concrete cross about 25 miles east of Nogales, Arizona, just past the wispy community of Lochiel, constructed as some sort of memorial to one of Coronado's fellow conquistadors by the side of the dirt and gravel road we traveled on through the fields of the San Raphael Valley, making our way to the old mining town of Bisbee. There was no one around. Not a car. Not a house. Not even livestock. We passed two vehicles on our journey --- a Border Patrol agent and a mailman in a dusty pickup truck, both doing their lonely work along a not so well-traveled road.
Given the lack of man-made sounds and structures, I was entranced by the few things I did see and hear when we stopped our car. There was the cross juxtaposed with the clear, empty blue sky --- a testimony, a claim, a reminder that we are not alone. There was a windmill flagged by the biblical name of Samson. Surveying the landscape, there was a single shade tree, perhaps an Arizona sycamore or scrub oak, golden fields of grass, called llanos, as far as I could see, and mountains and hills on three sides --- behind us, the Patagonia Mountains, north of us, the Canelo Hills, and east, the Huachuca Mountains --- their colors changing as the sun moved lower in the sky, shadows growing longer with day’s end.
Listening carefully, at first I heard nothing, just silence. But then I began to notice the soft rise and fall of the wind, the gentle rustling of the grasses, the occasional squeak of the windmill as the blades turned. I heard and saw a few cactus wrens, alighting for a time on the telephone lines stretched overhead, and I looked up and noticed how the wires form a musical staff, the wind’s whistling sound like a song stretched over them.
I looked at my watch and realized that seconds and minutes and hours don’t mean much here where time might be measured by the position of the sun, where most days are the same except for the variables of weather. Let’s just call this ordinary time, where no clocks are ticking, no appointments waiting, where there is no “breaking news,” where what happened today on the stock market is of little interest, where the machinations of the politicians in Washington have little impact, where no one cares who did what to who in Hollywood or what happened on The Office last night.
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, majors in a celebration of silence, of learning to reflect on and contemplate our lives. That’s difficult if we are always in an urban environment. Buechner says: “Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase, ‘religious observances,’ means, among other things, just what it says. Observe religiously. Observe deeply. Don't just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything. “
I think of Elijah, asleep under a broom tree in the desert outside Beersheba in Judah, waiting for God to do something, anything, or sleeping in a cave in Horeb, waiting for the gentle whisper of God’s voice in the wind, a voice saying to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
If I lay down here and slept, awakening on a new day, it would likely be the same. The tree would still be doing its important work of photosynthesis and shade-bearing, the windmill still turning, if there is wind, or not. The cross would still boldly if silently make God’s claim to every square inch of this universe and make restless travelers like me consider a Kingdom where a king comes not to take the riches of the land and make vassals of its peoples but to give not only riches but His life away. Christ, the King of love.
It might rain, or it might not. The wind may blow, gently or with bluster, or not, faintly humming over the telephone lines overhead.
It’s all strangely comforting. If I’d had time, I might have stayed awhile, looked around, and better listened to the sound of ordinary time. Who knows? I might have even heard a voice calling my name, saying to me, “What are you doing here?” and then, “Go back the way you came.”