At Sunday vespers during ordinary time the Church sings a beautiful antiphon: The whole creation proclaims the greatness of your glory. Ordinary time includes the summer holiday months, the time when vacations are opportunities to experience what the liturgy sings.
St. Paul taught the Romans that everyone should know about God, whether Jew or Greek, because “ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). St. Paul was talking about the whole of the natural order, but he might well have been talking about Victoria Falls, one of the more awesome of the “things that have been made.”
Victoria Falls, on the Zambesi River bordering Zambia and Zimbabwe, is the largest expanse of falling water in the world, making most waterfalls seem like leaky faucets. During the peak months, the Zambesi flows over the falls at a rate of 132 million gallons per minute, forming a curtain of water over a mile wide and about 335 feet high. I was fortunate not to visit the falls in peak season—March to April—because then the mist generated by the crashing waters is so dense that the falls themselves are hidden. In July it is possible to see their splendor—and also to feel it, as the “mist” from the falls was sufficient to soak me from head-to-toe in an instant, as if I had been caught in a torrential downpour.
From my father, who used to take us hiking in the Rockies, I learned to turn visits to the wonders of nature into pilgrimages. He once told me, as we looked out from our hike over the expanse of the Bow River Valley in southern Alberta, that he did not understand how anyone could behold such a sight and not believe in God. His words came back to me at Victoria Falls.
The falls have prompted similar observations since man first saw them. The Tonga, the native people of the region, seeing the rainbows that play upon the mist, named them motsé oa barimo—“the pestle of the gods”—believing that the falls were the dwelling place of the divinity, and the rainbow one of his tools. The Tonga would make offerings to the gods at the falls, throwing bead necklaces or bracelets into the waters.
The first European claim of seeing the falls was made in 1855 by Dr. David Livingstone, the great Scottish explorer and missionary who named the falls after Queen Victoria. He was first told about the falls by the local people as the place mo ku sa tunya musi—“where there is always smoke rising”—a reference to the spray that can been seen from a distance of several miles. In a felicitous misinterpretation of the word tunya, Livingstone gave the local name of the falls as “thundering smoke,” because the rumble of the waters can be heard far off.
“No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England,” wrote Livingstone. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
That applies to all of creation, whether at Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon or any one of the hundreds of natural wonders that become the destinations of summer travels. The grandeur of the natural world—so far beyond human artifice—calls forth a response. That response can take different forms. It can be one of fear, like the fear of the local tribesmen who offered sacrifice at the falls. It can be one of petty pride, like the pride of Livingstone who harassed other explorers because he wanted the glory of “discovering” the falls first. Or the response can be ideologically driven, like the blindness of so many contemporary observers who, having committed themselves to a crude “scientific” materialism, insist on seeing only randomness and chance where beauty and order abound.
A response is unavoidable. The Christian response has to be one of gratitude and humility—and responsibility, knowing that all this has been given to the stewardship of man. A fellow seminarian, who traveled to the falls with me, remarked that he felt invited to prayer: “Not to pray at such places is to miss a great opportunity.”
Yes, gratitude, humility and responsibility give way to prayer as the most fitting response to the glories of creation that we visit in the summer holidays. We remain pilgrims in this world, not only in the great temples built by man, but especially in those temples fashioned by God himself: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these (Matthew 6:28-29).
Neither Solomon nor his father David saw Victoria Falls—mosi oa tunya—but David's psalm provides the most suitable prayer:
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord upon many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is full of majesty
Raymond de Souza, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, filed this column from Africa.