I visited: Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. There’s evidence of human exploration in the cave dating back thousands of years (!). More recently, according to the NPS website, the land within the National Park is associated with seven modern Indigenous nations. This was my 13th National Park.
On the way back from a road trip to visit our families in Missouri and Texas, Steve and I crashed with my friend Becca and spent a half-day at Mammoth Cave. Becca regularly spends time hiking the wooded trails and made an excellent guide for our introduction to the surface. (New National Parks life goal: Visit each park with a friend who knows it personally.)
As we walked between mossy trees and rock faces, we stumbled upon frequent reminders that we were hiking directly above the world’s longest cave system, provoking a feeling between curiosity and mild dread. Some were easy to miss—thin shadows between boulders that hid deep cracks—while others were impossible to ignore, like massive sinkholes slowly sucking down tree trunks or the River Styx Spring, a watery portal to the world below. These glimpses into the cave unsettled me, like a boundary had been ruptured. Eventually this foreshadowing led up to a dramatic conclusion (thanks to Becca’s expert planning): a rush of cool air at the enormous, gaping mouth of the historic cave entrance.
I met with a therapist in Chicago for a few years, and once in a conversation about faith and theology he told me, “You can’t turn over a stone and uncover something that will devour God.” As a person of faith, what he meant was that no line of inquiry or exploration would lead to a discovery that was so big or strange or new that it was outside the domain of God. I’m not sure where he got the line, but it may be a play on something Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: “Lift up a stone, and you will find me there.” There’s an essay by James Alison in Faith Beyond Resentment that describes the double-lives many closeted priests lead. In a striking turn likely inspired by Psalm 139:12 (“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,”), Alison describes how Jesus doesn’t perceive the world through our categories of goodness/badness or public/private: “Jesus is not scandalized either by the gay world or the priestly world…For him, there is no underground: everything is in the light of day.”
In the afternoon, Steve and I managed to get tickets for a cave tour and spent a couple hours underground. The size of the cavern absolutely astounded me, especially after having ventured into the narrow, cramped quarters of Wind Cave a few weeks earlier. Walking up a metal staircase in the massive Mammoth Dome made me wonder if we had been transported to Moria or the Goron Mines. Midway through the tour, the ranger lit a candle and cut the electric floodlights to demonstrate the eerie conditions for cave explorers in the 1800s, like Stephen Bishop. And then with little warning, she snuffed out the candle, too, leaving us in total darkness. Becca and I experienced the same sensation at Wind Cave, but here the darkness caught me off guard. A phrase leapt to mind: “Even in the darkness, you are there.” Later I searched for the phrase in Psalm 139, but it isn’t there verbatim. It was an amalgamation of part of v. 8, “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there,” and the final phrase of v. 12, “Darkness is as light to you.” Depending on my mood and the time of day, Psalm 139 can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic. But in the moment, the spontaneous and unconscious prayer was deeply hopeful: “Even this far below the trees and moss, so dark I cannot see my hand in front of my face, you are present. There is no need to fear. There is nowhere on the earth that you are absent.”
For Jesus there may be no underground, but for us the rapid transition back to light, heat, and humidity at the end of the tour was abrupt and stifling, especially in our masks. My dread was gone, though, because I’d walked in and out of the cave, and now the cracks on the surface no longer resembled wounds. They were more like windows.