A bull elk enjoys a river meadow in
Yellowstone National Park. He’s
one of the 30,000 elk from seven
or eight herds that summer in the
park. Elk have lived there for at
least 1,000 years, according to the
paleontological evidence. Such
magnificent animals reinforce our
sense of wonder at God’s creation.
Photo © iStockphoto/
WHEN A FRIEND ASKED, "Where are
you making your annual retreat this
year?" I grinned like an otter afloat
in a pond. "Yellowstone," I replied.
Her bemused look assured me that I
had her undivided attention.
"Have you ever thought of Ken Burns as a spiritual guru?"
"Not really," she said in a tone that suggested I had better
skip the enigmas and get to the point.
I explained that my personal retreat had been prompted
by seeing Burns's documentary The National Parks: America's
Best Idea. Burns has described the parks as "our common
wealth" and called their existence "pretty good news." His
subtle religious tone led me straight to the Internet with
its promise of reservations at an inn in West Yellowstone,
Late last September, my husband and I set out from Maine
on the 2,700-mile journey to the west gate of Yellowstone
National Park. Our stay was limited to three days, a long
weekend retreat for me and a short recreational adventure
for him. By the time we reached the Big Horn National Forest,
on the final approach to our goal, the subalpine roads
were already icy and the trees snow-laden. (Memo to self in
travel journal: "Next time start in early September. Avoid sliding
down road sideways.")
When the weekend was over, I had to find a way to share
with my friend back home the revelations I had experienced at America's oldest national park (1872). Rather than sermonize
about nature as "God's first, oldest and clearest Bible"
(Richard Rohr, O.F.M.), I gathered my experiences under
four headings to help me hang on to the trip's significance.
From Awe to Zeal
This magnificent 2.2-million-acre park spreads like an empire
into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. No matter where we
found ourselves in Yellowstone, something (or Someone) was
always waiting to turn us into slack-jawed children crooning,
When thunder announced an oncoming storm, a wolf
pack responded with sudden, harmonic, hair-raising howling.
We all ran to their compound and gaped at their song. I remembered that Einstein had once said that anyone who
could "no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is
as good as dead."
The holiness of nature calls us to return to our true selves
and shows us the way. As Meister Eckhart put it, "If
humankind could have known God without the world,
God would never have created the world."
In the simplicity of their being, wind and water, plants and
animals, mountains and canyons invite us to shed our need
to be something more than we are in God's eyes.
I need to transform awe into zeal for encouraging others
to feed their own deep need for creation's beauty. Together,
we must preserve and protect the earth with a zeal to come
alive to God's undeniable presence in Yellowstone and all the splendid national parks provided for the
health of our souls. That they exist and
are ours is indeed "pretty good news."
What grandeur we see in the geysers
that come bubbling, gurgling and
spouting off all over Yellowstone! It
has more geysers, hot springs, mudpots
and fumaroles than any other
place on earth. These strange geothermal
features give the park a mysterious
aura as they vent cleansing steam over
visitors and vegetation alike.
I was reminded of the "thin places"
(as the Irish and others call them) where
our mundane world is barely separated
from a spiritual realm for which our
souls hunger. The Creator was masterfully
present in this volcanic atmosphere
and I paid homage: "Tremble, O
earth, at the presence of the LORD"
(Psalm 114:7; New Revised Standard Version used throughout this article).
I was overwhelmed and stunned into
silence by our generous Creator. At Yellowstone,
the most reliable source of
being wowed is Old Faithful itself. I was
pleased to find out that this renowned
geyser puts on a show 20 times a day, rising
to a height of 180 feet while commanding
Just as a congregation gathers at the
appointed time for liturgy, visitors to
Yellowstone converge at the Upper
Geyser Basin according to Old Faithful's
schedule. We sat in a semicircle on
wooden benches, waiting like worshipers
for the first signs of steam, the
initial rumbling of the geyser's emergence.
When it burst forth, we clapped and
shouted. Some of us gave a standing
ovation to this irrefutable reminder
that God is God and we are not. The Book of Job said it well for me: "Have
you an arm like God, and can you thunder
with a voice like his?" (40:9).
Wildness is a face of God that we
often deny or forget. When I pray primarily
in domesticated places (churches,
homes, urban retreat centers), I now
realize that I lose awareness of the
untamed God, who is beyond my control
At Yellowstone, I was intensely aware
that the God of Job (who controls the
seas, sends forth lightning, guides the
stars and commands the eagle) is the
same God who had called me on this
retreat. I had only to follow.
Wonderfully beautiful creatures dwell
together in Yellowstone: wolves and
grizzlies, elk and pronghorns, fox and
coyotes, eagles and trumpeter swans,
black bears and bobcats, bighorn sheep
and sandhill cranes. The park's iconic
bison roam where they wish, stopping
traffic with their presence. These 2,000-pound beasts are regally unimpressed
with the line of vehicles forming a
cortege behind them. Seeing these
oddly configured animals lumbering
down the road, looking like drum
majors marching to their own beat, I
thanked the Original Designer.
"And God said, ‘Let the earth bring
forth living creatures of every kind'....
And God saw that it was good" (Genesis
I felt kinship with Brother Wolf and
Sister Bear, whose presence at the Discovery
Center in Yellowstone causes
great delight. Seeing a 900-pound grizzly
back up to a tree and wiggle her
backside for a thorough scratching tickled
my funny bone, just as it did to
see her napping on a boulder pillow—like St. Francis asleep on a stone.
When I made sustained eye contact
with a silver-coated wolf whose amber
gaze said, "I see you," I was as thrilled
as Jake Sully in encountering the Na'vi
in Avatar. I understood how Francis felt,
conversing with the wolf of Gubbio.
I was drawn to these magnificent
creatures with a power that shook me
because I am so often forgetful of our
wild kin. "Either we acknowledge that
God is in all things or we have lost the
basis for seeing God in anything," says
Love sprang up in me at the sight of
a bull elk protecting his cows, a young
bison scrambling across the road to
catch up with his elders, and three
wolves standing flank-to-flank with
one's head resting on another's back.
I envied their physical bondedness
and imagined myself entering into it
when the Kingdom comes to its fullness.
"The wolf shall live with the
lamb,...and a little child shall lead
them....They will not hurt or destroy on
all my holy mountain; for the earth
will be full of the knowledge of the
LORD..." (Isaiah 11:6,9).
I now claim unity with creatures
who are not human yet reflect God's
Spirit in their natural perfection.
Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Creatures celebrates our kinship with sun and
stars, water and fire, earth and all that
grows on it.
By this kinship, we are summoned to
good stewardship. If we ignore this call,
we sin against life itself. I was moved to
reflect on Pope John Paul II's words,
"Respect for life...extends to the rest
of creation, which is called to join [us]
in praising God" (Peace With God the
Creator, Peace With All Creation, #16,
January 1, 1990).
A chain of being links all living creatures
in Christ ("...in him all things hold
together," Colossians 1:17). The ties
that bind us to Yellowstone's visitors
from every continent, the animals of
every ilk and the natural wonders that
are everywhere evident are strengthened
by a communal appreciation for
the glories of God's world.
I experienced a great sense of belonging
in the circle of life. There I knew the
meaning of Julian of Norwich's observation,
"Just as a circle embraces all
that is within it, so does the Godhead
My prayer began with ad-libbing the
lyrics of "How Great Thou Art." Hour
by hour, I grew into silent adoration.
Day by day in deep breathing, I inhaled
God's Spirit and exhaled ego-self.
It was said of St. Francis that "he did
not so much pray as become prayer."
That is what happens to the willing
retreatant in a wilderness sanctuary. I
did not so much pray the Psalm verse
as become it: "Be still and know that I
am God!" (46:10).
A wilderness retreat allows for the recreation
of our inner selves, worked by
the Spirit of God fully alive in every
aspect of nature's bounty. At Yellowstone,
I experienced life as communion.
As Father Ed Hays writes: "...the
world was created to be cosmic Communion
between God and every creature
and entity in the world. This communion
flows from life as a seamless unity
of every person, creature, plant, animal
and star." Participating in this communion
re-creates us from the inside out.
I realize that my friend will have to
make her own trip to Yellowstone to
gain this full retreat experience. But all
spiritual growth requires us to journey,
within and without, at some personal
expense and discomfort.
I am already making plans to return
to other parks that we have fleetingly
visited on vacations in the golden West.
The two at the top of my list are located
in southwestern Utah. Imagine the
soul's profit from a retreat made at Zion
National Park, where California condors
soar above sandstone cliffs, or at Bryce
National Park, where visitors can move
among stunning amphitheaters of
brazen red and orange hoodoos (rock
columns in unearthly forms).
Or maybe we could simply go next
door to Maine's Acadia National Park
on Mount Desert Island. We could witness
in silence at the top of Cadillac
Mountain, greeting the sunrise and
gazing down at the brilliant sea.
I have trouble deciding among all
the riches in "our common wealth."
Maybe I should consult Ken Burns. He
definitely qualifies as a first-class creation
For another perspective on turning
vacations into religious experiences,
see Dan Andriacco's article "Roamin'
Catholic: The Spirituality of Travel"
(June 2002) .