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Connecting With Creation at Yellowstone
By Gloria Hutchinson
Our country's national parks are indeed "pretty good news," as filmmaker Ken Burns calls them. They can also be ideal spots for encountering God.

Q U I C K S C A N

From Awe to Zeal
Old Faithful and God's Other Gifts
Magnificent Animals Glorify God
Connecting With Everything
Spirit-filled Journeys

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/ Linda Mirro

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?" I inquired.

"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, Montana.

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, "Ahhhhh!"

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."

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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 complete attention.

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 and comprehension.

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 1:24-25).

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 Rohr.

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 embrace all."

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 lover.

For another perspective on turning vacations into religious experiences, see Dan Andriacco's article "Roamin' Catholic: The Spirituality of Travel" (June 2002) .

 

Gloria Hutchinson, a former journalist, teacher and parish D.R.E., calls herself “a writer with one foot in retirement.” For St. Anthony Messenger Press, she has written Six Ways to Pray From Six Great Saints and edited the A Retreat With... series.


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