I’m sure you have a good image in your mind of Machu Picchu, but this is what it is like for me: Waking up at 4 a.m. to start trekking alongside a gurgling river, with nothing but a few slivers of sunrise to light the way. Trudging up a winding path and gradually rising higher than the early morning mist-laden clouds. Seeing the white oversized cotton balls slithering between and above and below the peaks and valleys of the mountains. Seemingly tip-toeing through the early morning air, catching mere glimpses of the ruins still hidden within the low-hanging cloud cover. Climbing nearby Huayna Picchu and sitting on the peak of a mountain, gazing down at everything, lost amid the white of the clouds, and then, finally, walking amidst the ruins of Machu Picchu itself.
Cool, right? So, what do I do? Take a picture? Of course, and I did. Hundreds of them. Clouds snaking out from between giant ridges in the surrounding valley — snap. That super narrow passageway that everyone is shimmying through — snap. And how many angles can I get of those world-famous ruins? Snap, snap, snap, snap.
There was a great pressure to capture the moment. I was surrounded by beauty, by wonder, by the very face of God, and I needed to react by doing something. There had to be some action I could take on my part, right? Some necessary and worthy response?
I felt that way when we hiked the mountains surrounding Samaipata, Bolivia, when we crossed a plateau that made me long for a battle-axe, elven friends, and a pesky piece of jewelry to be cast into a volcano. When we stood higher than hawks flew and stared down on yet more ruins tucked away in quiet, wild green.
I felt that way when we trudged across the Salar de Uyuni (also in Bolivia), a great white expanse of salt flats and sky and nothing more. How many photos do you need to take to properly capture that moment of awe that finds you dwarfed by a landscape that seems impossibly foreign, empty and wonderful?
I wonder if others have felt that way — I imagine they have. I imagine even the best photographer, journalist, filmmaker, adventurer, hiker, average person out for a Sunday stroll feels that way when faced with the awesomeness of the natural world. There’s that feeling of wow, a feeling of dwarfing humility and then, perhaps, that reaction against it, that sense of, “No, I can act here, I can control some tiny sliver of this moment.”
And why wouldn’t you want to? The world is a beautiful place. How many of us find peace, find purpose, find God hidden in the forest, hidden on a hike, hidden in the water beneath a kayak? We want to maintain a piece of that.
The Catholic priest and sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote in The Catholic Imagination of the “religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” It’s the sense that grace is out there and everywhere, waiting to be found, urging us forward to an encounter with the Divine. God is in the beauty, no?
But we can’t control God; we can’t contain the beauty. Maybe those impulses to snap, snap, snap away with a camera come from a place of goodness, but what if we sought out what those deep desires really point to?
“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” Peter says, standing upon a mountaintop, trying to make sense of Jesus changing right before his eyes, the transfigured Christ in front of him. His friend, his companion, someone he’d known suddenly became something more, something different, something wonderful. And what else could he say? He was experiencing beauty, wonder, something so majestically foreign to his senses that he needed to act, to capture just a piece of it. He was seeing the extraordinary within the ordinary, and Peter wanted to hold on to that moment.
But Jesus says no. Actually, he doesn’t say anything at all. The moment simply ends, and Peter is left with nothing but the memory. He must walk back down that mountain reflecting on what he experienced — and he must take that back to his daily life. The transfiguration — that glimpse of heaven — is just that: a glimpse.
There’s nothing for him to do. He is simply called to be, as God speaks through the world around him.
I wonder if that’s a lesson to us as we watch the leaves begin to change color, the winds begin to grow colder, the days begin to shorten. It’s the beauty of fall.
Before we reach for our cameras, our pens, our canvasses — before we try to build a tent for the God who dwells in all things — maybe we need to just be, to let God speak to us, to act on God’s word rather than react on our instinct.
You know what you hardly ever see on the beach or in the mountains or deep in the forest? One of those “No Photos Allowed” signs you so often find in museums or historic churches. Maybe those signs are more sacramental than we thought.
Maybe they’re invitations from God to a private conversation.