Nature’s Way and Nature’s Grace
Having just spent several days in Yellowstone National Park, my wife and I are now heading south. We’ve come through (or past, really) the Grand Tetons and our next major stop will be Rocky Mountain National Park and its surrounding area. After a few days there, we’ll be heading further south and east, into the searing heat of Dallas, Texas to visit my oldest son, his wife and their year-old boy—the one I mentioned last Summer, who is named after me.
Today is officially the beginning of a week’s vacation which is not a working vacation, unless a crisis develops. I do expect to keep up with customer service problems, to continue to monitor the ongoing efforts of our hosting company to strengthen and generally improve CatholicCulture.org’s operating environment, to manage advertising changes, and to send out abbreviated Insights messages. So what do I cut when “really” on vacation? The fun stuff: writing.
Just now, though, we’re heading south as I said, Barbara is driving, and I’m in the back of the van doing what I won’t be able to do much of this week. Weaving through the Wyoming mountains south of Jackson, there is no internet connection at the moment. But I can write now and post later. So it is time for a spiritual reflection on Yellowstone.
Death Stalks the Park
Yellowstone National Park is, first and foremost, a dangerous place. Nearly unique for its thermal activity which produces not only the famous geysers but bubbling cauldrons of every possible description, the ground of Yellowstone is perilous in many places, often a deceptive crust which one can break through into boiling waters. Out of a suitably macabre interest, I purchased a copy of Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey. The first chapter covers death by falling overboard, so to speak, into these geo-thermal freaks, which are all essentially very hot springs—hotter under pressure, sometimes, than the local boiling point of 198 degrees Faherenheit.
The fact that Yellowstone sits upon a great caldera of volcanic activity has led some to predict that an eventual massive eruption will take out half the United States. (But don’t worry, the Beltway is safe!) Others, however, argue that there will never be an eruption: the substrata is so fragmented and the constantly changing leak-points for built-up pressure so numerous, that Yellowstone is like a boiling cauldron with an all-but open top.
Vast stretches of the Park are also (relatively) stable rivers, mountains and valleys, teeming with wildlife, including bears that maul and bison that gore unwary, over-confident or just plain dumb tourists. Then there are poisonous gases from some of the steam vents, poisonous plants, falling from the tops of waterfalls, and drownings in Yellowstone Lake, which is so deep and cold that hypothermia strikes in mere minutes. Falling trees, falling rocks, cave-ins, lightning strikes, and forest fires complete the litany of natural threats, not to mention freezing if you visit in Winter. And of course we humans bring our own dangers with us, including road accidents, suicide, and even murder in the Park.
If we look at Yellowstone realistically, it remains a wonderland—almost a fairyland—filled with delights provided by a loving Father. But it also teaches us once again the horrific consequences of the Fall. Pure nature is perhaps nowhere so broken and somehow out of sync as here. The prudent traveler treats this land with extreme caution. Even in the midst of the most striking enjoyments, the Park is a gigantic memento mori, a reminder of our own fragile mortality.
Natural and Spiritual Heights
But getting outside in beautiful surroundings, slowing down the pace of life, even stretching under-used senses and seldom-used muscles all have their rewards, especially if we reflect on them. It is good to focus on our own struggle with nature, and even better to draw from it a highly personal yet still very relevant spiritual lesson. Let me give just one example drawn from my own experiences this week.
My wife and I both love the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a breathtaking gorge cut by the Yellowstone River, which flows north out of Yellowstone Lake, plunges over two significant waterfalls into the chasm it has dug out over the millennia, and winds its way between walls of rock turned multi-color by the thermal activity which emits steam along with minerals to glaze the sheer sides with their own distinctive hues. We’re not spring chickens any longer, so we don’t do a lot of really strenuous hikes. Wanting to see more of the canyon, however, we selected a two-and-a-half mile trail classed as “moderate” which wound along the south rim to a spot called Point Sublime.
Did I mention that we no longer have the strength and stamina for the eight-mile high altitude mountain hikes we used to do in our twenties? We found the “downs” of the trail fairly easy, though there is a greater danger of slipping going downhill, and it is possible to slip right over a sheer drop of nearly a thousand feet. But the “ups” were strenuous, even though we’d had a few days to acclimate to the higher altitude. We did observe a unique form of wildlife, several twenty-something males literally scampering up the trail, but we don’t like to mention them.
Anyway, at one point, we both noticed that the whole process was getting easier. Our muscles were getting used to working a certain way again. In my prosaically pagan manner, I mentioned that this reminded me of swimming, something I always found hard and awkward at the beginning of each new Summer season, but which became remarkably easier with each passing length of the pool as my muscles adapted—much easier long before new strength and stamina were developed. Yes, definitely, I announced: This reminds me of swimming.
Barbara, who is a God-send in every way, was reminded of something different, something higher. “It reminds me of the spiritual life,” she said. And she was absolutely right. The spiritual life, the life of prayer and practicing the presence of God, the life of grace and consequent virtue, seems very arduous at first, but how quickly it becomes easier! Initial efforts and hard-won habits give way to an almost effortless rhythmic flow. One reaches the occasional hard patch, of course—where we slip and fall or where we feel stuck on a never-ending level just before some strenuous uphill climb. But in general what begins as something seemingly foreign, awkward and difficult turns into something familiar, comfortable and even spontaneous.
The Christian imagination can take almost anything and apply it to our life in Christ. But the Christian imagination has special opportunities when we are able to step outside our normal routines. Like nature itself, this too is a gift. This too is a grace.
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