Rock of Ages

Desert ship of ancient lava is a comforting symbol of God
June 30, 2005

For almost 20 years, I have had a spiritual love affair with a rock.

It is no ordinary rock. Millions of years ago it had its genesis as lava, deep in the earth, after the great dinosaurs had disappeared and the first mammals began to dominate the landscape. Through a volcanic opening, the earth spewed magma. Over eons, the volcanic walls surrounding the solidified magma eroded and left a massive plug, the size of a skyscraper, jutting 1,700 feet into the air.

The rock is such a landmark that pilots, passing over the Four Corners in the Southwest, often point it out as they fly toward Monument Valley. It is the cultural compass for a series of well-known mystery novels set on the Navajo reservation; it has a marathon named after it; it has been featured on the face of a postage stamp. It is sacred to the native people, the Diné (Navajo), who live nearby and call it Tsé bit’ A’ í (Rock with Wings). More commonly it is called the Shiprock.

This is not a distant love affair. Since 1986, I have worked as a physician at Northern Navajo Medical Center, a federal hospital of the Indian Health Service in the town of Shiprock in northwest New Mexico.

When I came to live in Shiprock, completely by chance, I was assigned a small house on the hospital’s housing compound with a front window that provides an unobstructed view of the rock. As the raven flies, it is no more than 10 miles, which, in this panoramic desert landscape, seems but a long jog.

I have jogged by it, climbed around its base and meditated in its shadow. Over the years, it has become a dynamic presence for me, a natural formation through which I catch glimpses of the holy.

Shiprock is the first thing I see each morning as I look out my front window. Sometimes it is bathed in the first light of dawn, a new creation emerging from night’s darkness. Because my window faces west, it also is the last thing I see in the evening, silhouetted against the chromatic curtain of New Mexico sunsets.

It appears like a tall clipper ship sailing smoothly over a tranquil sea of sand, powered by frequent desert winds. In a different light, on a different day, at another angle, its shape changes. Sometimes, it looks to me like a rock cathedral, a solid Notre Dame with immense Gothic arches of solid lava, dominating the nearby town and the wider landscape. Like Churchill, who beheld and drew strength from an intact St. Paul’s Cathedral each morning after another night of the Blitz, I wake, and the rock gives me strength and inspiration to face another day.

An intimate side

For all its massiveness and power, this rock has an intimate side. It has crags and crevices, where a swallow may nest. In the shadow and coolness of a rocky recess, one can hide and listen, like Elijah, for that still, small voice of God.

I sometimes go to the rock on a summer evening and repose my small vulnerable body at the base of the fluted columns. From there, I survey the landscape. If the earth shifted, the columns would crash down, and I would perish. Yet, I feel sheltered from sun and wind in this rocky embrace.

A hawk circles on an updraft from the rock, and a breeze whistles through the crevice: I think I hear a small whisper, an intimate plea to be still in body and mind. Although I am overwhelmed by the size of this rock, yet I am not afraid.

There have been times in my life when problems seemed overwhelming, when my human abilities and strengths were not enough. I called to God for help, for some assurance that, even if things could not be changed, there was a power greater than I that at least would acknowledge my difficulties. I needed a power that could give me some distance and perspective to help me beyond my confusion, grief or anger. I needed the view from the top of the rock.

I remember several occasions when I reached out from my soul toward the rock for consolation. Twice I received phone calls of an unexpected death in my family. Both times, I went to the window and looked toward the rock for comfort.

Hearing the news of 9/11 at work, I walked home and watched on television the destruction of the Twin Towers, which bear some similarity in size and shape to the Shiprock. And I gazed out my window at the rock, which stood firm. I found consolation in the constancy of the rock.

I also have gazed at the rock in happier times. Three years ago, just before I married, I looked out of my window toward the rock. I knew that when I returned to my home with my bride, life would be different. But I now would have someone with whom I could share this powerful and intimate symbol.

The morning my twin sons were born at our hospital, I gave thanks and drew strength from its familiar face, receiving once again the powerful message: “Your life has changed irrevocably. It will never be the same again.” Such wisdom from pillars of stone!

A lasting symbol

The Shiprock is, for me, a symbol of God’s stability and permanence. The symbol, however, is never the thing itself. With enough time, wind and erosion, even the Shiprock will be razed to the desert floor. In the years that I have observed it, I have noticed no major breaks from its silhouetted structure. Yet, I have seen evidence of fragmentation from the volcanic dike that radiates from it. If I do not go to the rock for many months, when I return, I see boulders, now strewn across the desert floor, newly eroded off the rock.

My reflections on the rock have largely celebrated its masculine attributes: its power, permanence, stolidity and strength. The landscape surrounding the Shiprock and that of the Hebrew Scriptures are very similar: arid, harsh, barren — qualities that do not easily evoke the feminine.

Yet, there is much discussion these days of regaining the feminine aspects of God, present from the beginning but too little recognized. The rock, like God, is neither male nor female. Its masculine attributes are easily seen, but I like to think that at its source is a molten heart of lava, a feminine manifestation of God’s presence. I would call this its Shechinah, radiating to this arid world a divinely feminine spirit of warmth and compassion.

Most days in our sunny Southwest, the sky is turquoise and clear. But even here, winter storms can keep the skies gray and obscure the rock. I can look westward and see storms coming: thunderstorms and monsoon rains in the summer, snow and ice storms in winter and dust storms in the spring. I can see the clouds, dust, and moisture swirl in and envelop the Shiprock, for minutes, hours, even a day or so.
When this happens, I feel somewhat disoriented that my lava lodestar has vanished. I believe with everything I know and feel that it is there; yet, like God, I cannot see it. Nevertheless, I know, when the clouds disperse, the dust settles, the snow stops falling, I will see it again.

What is the Shiprock to me? It is not a stony and inscrutable sphinx. It does not inspire fear, nor do I worship it. In the presence of this natural wonder, I am filled with admiration and inspiration, and to its creator I offer my obeisance and awe. Daily, I draw a deep, reverent breath when I see the rock. It is a magnificent creation, an icon and a solid window through which we can see something of the face of God.

For almost two decades, I have been blessed beyond measure by this Rock of Ages. I know someday when I leave it, I will mourn the loss but remain forever changed.

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