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March 23, 2005

The Culture and Carlsbad Caverns

March 23, 2005 | By |

No matter how high you fly — or how deep underground — the tectonic clash in our culture appears in the strangest places. . .

One of our favorite stops on this grand Western tour has been Carlsbad Caverns. Words fail to describe the enormity and grandeur. The dropoffs are terrifying — the Penta-Posse discovered with terrific glee that their mother has a bit of vertigo as I kept calling them back from the edge.

With Boo on Jack’s back, we walked for three solid hours through the murky underground with its strange and wonderful rock formations. Toward the end of the tour, we rounded a corner and faced one of the most fascinating: huge, imposing and covered in intricate, limestone accretions, we had come to “the Rock of Ages.” According to the tour material, we learned that the tours used to stop at that spot and sing together the old hymn that is so dear and familiar to many.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure;

Save from wrath and make me pure.

However, the tour noted, this practice was discontinued due to logistical concerns. I didn’t believe it. Sure enough, the truth involves politics. The first Superintendent of the Caverns, Thomas Boles, began The Rock of Ages ceremony in 1927. Here’s what happened, according to a history of the Caverns from the National Park Service: “His Rock of Ages ceremony gain[ed] fervent visitor support and [was] presented for 17 years in the Big Room at the cavern until national level forces deem it not suitable for a park program.”

At one time, this hymn was part of a shared culture, providing a sense of community, and comfort in times of trial. In 1886, a ship was sinking, and those in the lifeboats heard the passengers left behind on the London singing Rock of Ages as it went down. (see W.T. Stead)

While I draw this fleeting breath,

When mine eyes shall close in death,

When I soar to worlds unknown,

See Thee on Thy judgment throne,

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.

Imagine trying to have a Rock of Ages ceremony in Carlsbad Caverns today. That shared cultural heritage has nearly disappeared. And that is a real loss. We are the poorer for it.

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