by Jennie Cesario
Rocks of significant size are relatively scarce where I grew up, on the southeastern shore of Long Island. Formed by the meltwater outwash of a receding glacier, the land there is mostly sandy, flat, and – geologically speaking – rather new. As a kid playing on its beaches, I understood I’d strike water, not bedrock, long before I could burrow my way to Asia. And though I occasionally entertained hopes of unearthing indigenous arrowheads, I knew by the third grade I’d never stumble upon an ancient dinosaur fossil in the neighborhood.
Perhaps because I grew up in this way, so close to the sea, so far from the solid, I intuitively grasped grade school science lessons on Earth’s water cycle, but in adulthood recollected little of similar lessons on our planet’s rock cycle. Mistaking mountains for immutable things, I sought them for their presumed stability, and family vacations to the Adirondacks and Appalachians became, for me, as much pilgrimage as change of scenery. Standing someplace high and sturdy, sweeping vistas of solid terrain rolling and peaking beneath me like a still shot of some stormy green sea, I stretched out my arms and inhaled the sublimity.
It wasn’t until age 48 that I crossed the Atlantic Ocean I grew up alongside, left the continent I called home. Standing on a stone outcropping in the Scottish Highlands, wet and windswept and struck speechless by that land’s lush greens upthrust in remote and rugged beauty, I sensed, perhaps for the first time in my life, Earth’s antiquity. I’m not sure why I’d never been affected in just this way by the Adirondacks or the Appalachians, but there was something truly special about Scotland. The slow, sculpting workmanship of our planet’s Maker seemed unmistakably evident to me there and stood out somehow in stark contrast to the ceaselessly shifting setting of my childhood. And I couldn’t help wondering: What is the correspondence between our exterior and interior landscapes? Especially our formative ones? Made from the same dust and minerals as mountains and rocks, sloshing with the same H20 running in rivers and tugged upon by the moon, how are we uniquely shaped by the particular landscapes and seascapes we’ve called home?
Coming of age as I did near Long Island’s ever changeful south shore, where boulders are rare, and fossils rarer, did I, especially in my youth, default more readily to the ephemeral and the new? Maybe. But as I grew older, I craved more solidity – not merely in my vacation destinations, but also in my faith: the bedrock of Scripture before the latest spiritual bestseller; the Our Father over the latest iteration of quick fix prayer; and the reliable ordinance of Communion over the fleeting ecstasy of the latest worship song. Ancient practices of faith given and sustained by the Ancient of Days.
And yet, like the landscapes of the Earth, our soul-scapes are always seeking renewal. Even as I privilege practices rooted in our faith’s foundations, I am reminded that God’s action in the world is both ancient and ever new. The God of the Scottish Highlands is also the God of Long Island’s south shore, and his mercies refresh us each morning, the same way a barrier breach lets in the cleansing ocean and refreshes a stagnant bay. God’s power is present in the present, transforming even the most hardened of things – whether through modern day worship songs or ancient prayers and creeds.
My visit to Scotland spurred my curiosity and prompted some post-trip geological reading. And I learned that even those Highlands, as immemorial as they are, and as inscrutable as they seem, tell a tale of dynamic change: shuttered volcanoes ground down by glaciation, hardened lava flows textured by tides and long erosion, the dramatic aftermaths of continental breakage and collision. My beloved Appalachians and parts of Scotland may be distant cousins. And all over the world, mountains I once mistook for immutable rise and sink like sand dunes, only at a much slower speed – even while their foundations ride the tectonic plates and skate over Earth’s fiery mantle.
“My Father is always at his work to this very day,” Jesus tells us in John 5:17, and the more I ponder those ancient words, the more I’m struck dumb by God’s masterful handiwork – both in the world and in our souls.
The rugged north shore of Long Island contrasts sharply with the south shore where I grew up. There, your bare feet don’t sink into soft quartz sand, but hobble over glacial debris – a mosaic of colorful rocks to tantalize collectors. Sometimes our family visits the north shore on summer evenings when we prefer the gentle lap of the Long Island Sound to the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean. And lately I’ve been thinking about those very rocks, the ones I pick up and lob into tidal ripples streaked silver-gold by the sunset.
Like mountains, rocks can seem deceptively static and stable. But, as part of Earth’s rock cycle – the geological phenomenon I forgot about after high school – only God himself knows how many times a stone’s composite minerals have undergone change. Caught up in a dynamic system of melting and cooling, compacting and dissolving, traveling both on the earth and below it, the rock in my hand is never what it once was, nor what it may yet be. And lately, this basic geological concept has been bringing me comfort.
Ever since visiting the Scottish Highlands, I’ve become more aware of the entire world – not just my small corner of it – as a vigorous and whirling place, continuously created and recreated, continuously given to us, refreshed and renewed. And I’ve felt more awe than ever over the God who still moves mountains and rolls away stones. If he can transform a rock, I remind myself, then he can transform me, and both his word and his world assure me that he’s always working.
Jennie Cesario enjoys exploring connections in life and literature and illumining both in the searchlight of faith. Follow her writing at dappledthoughts.com.