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Faith & Values

The big winners in the recent government shutdown were the national parks. Nothing captured the imagination and the poignant reality of the nation’s loss and the people’s pride so much as the closure of Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and for us in the Northwest, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier. Equal pride was shared for the Statute of Liberty, Lincoln Memorial and other national monuments under the National Park Service.

The people rallied round their parks. Some awkward incidents happened. When three carloads of international students pulled up at Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park to take a photo, each driver was ticketed $125.

The shutdown also resulted in a ludicrous event when Sarah Palin and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had rallied for the government shutdown in the first place, showed up at the World War II Memorial to protest the barring of veterans from this sacred shrine.

In fact, an underlying theme for U.S. citizens was that these parks — all 58 of them — were indeed sacred places. It was not always so. Early conservationists had to struggle to establish some of the parks. The prophet poet of the parks John Muir felt driven by a divine summons, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

He captured the glorious raiment of Yosemite Park, but his poetic descriptions and the profound inner peace that he attributed to these engagements with nature could apply to anyone of the national parks.

He would write:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”

Soon it caught on. Today, the parks are woven into the very fiber of our national identity.

Last May, inspired by Ken Burns’ classic PBS series on the national parks, I took a vacation to Utah and Northern Arizona to visit three parks. Bryce Canyon has to be one of the strangest sets of geological carvings in North America.

Thousands of delicately carved spires rise in brilliant reddish color from the Bryce canyon amphitheaters. Millions of years of wind, water and geologic mayhem have shaped and etched the pinkish cliffs. Hoodoos (odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion) create an atmosphere of mystery and pondering. How could it have happened?

Two days later, I passed through a long tunnel carved out in the 1930s to provide access to spectacular Zion National Park. The early Mormons who settled here in the mid-19th century declared in biblical terms that they had arrived at the “new Zion.”

They named three majestic peaks after the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On the floor of the canyons gazing up at the lofty heights, I felt I was in the world’s greatest cathedral. One could not help but burst into praise of God.

And finally, I stood on the north rim of the Grand Canyon where I read a sign that it took the Grand Canyon River only 5 million years to carve the incredibly deep canyon out of the high plateau, where deposits of limestone and sandstone had been laid down over millions of years in an inland ocean that came and went hundreds of times. It’s the “only 5 million years” that still resonates in my soul.

I could fantasize about what might happen if all members of the U.S. Congress miraculously spent a week camping out together in one of the national parks. What harmony, goodwill and tranquillity might transpire!

But sheer beauty doesn’t call for me to make some moral point or sermonize about the need for peace and comity. Beauty is its own gift. But it does beckon us to gratitude and thanksgiving. Praise God!

The Rev. Patrick J. Howell SJ, pastoral theologian at Seattle University, is on sabbatical at America magazine, a national Jesuit publication headquartered in New York City, as an interim associate editor until December. Readers may send feedback to