On my travels around the United States and Europe, churches often wind up on my itinerary.
Cathedrals, missions and shrines draw me in with their beauty, their history and their roles in shaping the soul of a place Ė and the souls of the people who live there.
The flying buttresses at Londonís Westminster Abbey, which I visited last June, seem to defy gravity. Seeing the last resting place of the great English poets there left me without words for a change.
The beautifully simple Zen Buddhist shrines I saw in Kamakura, Japan, last July felt like sacred vessels containing centuries of prayers.† And when I saw the massive adobe walls of the St. Francis of Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, N.M., I understood why Georgia OíKeeffe and other artists painted it again and again.
Closer to home, the simple country churches scattered around Somervell County contain a spiritual presence that is as strong, if not stronger, than the worldís most magnificent cathedrals. Perhaps itís because they are so intimate and the emphasis is on the arc of love and forgiveness and not the architecture.
But none of these structures touch me the way canyons do. They are natureís churches.
Soaring walls draw the eyes heavenward. A canyonís rock formations can resemble pulpits and altars. Sound echoes in the vast space inside canyons the way it does inside cathedrals. Water is a cleansing, life-sustaining element in both a canyon and a church. Except for birds twittering or water flowing, a canyon is a silent, reverent place. Time feels irrelevant.
I realized that canyons had become my ultimate churches while hiking in Big Bend National Park for the first time almost 20 yeas ago. If there was a heavenís gate, it was the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon. It opened like a mouth into a world on a far grander than I had ever experienced.
One of my most moving spiritual experiences came in the Grand Canyon on a backpacking trip one snowy January. Without the summer crowds, the canyon was deserted except for a few crazy people like me and herds of pronghorns and mule deer. A running dialogue with the Creator came naturally while walking in such beauty.
Over the years Iíve added many canyons to my network of outdoor churches: Canyon de Chelly in the Four Corners region, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo. Itís very name sounds like a poem.
Smaller and more intimate canyons, such as Caprock Canyon near Quitaque, feel more like a country church where each personís presence makes a big impact.
Iíve never felt as secure and protected as I do tucked inside these canyon walls, sleeping in a little tent in the midst of wildness under the starry heavens.
In my mind, at least, itís the ultimate sanctuary.