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I couldn’t sleep on the last night of our August stay at the KOA campground outside Glacier National Park where our family was celebrating a reunion. It had been a dizzying week. Following the advice of friends, we had driven from Kansas up through Wyoming to Montana and stayed in campgrounds at the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks.
So I went on a 4 a.m. walk and thought about what God did on my summer vacation.
First, I saw God’s love in the natural world.
The vacation came after I recorded the episode of my Extraordinary Story podcast focusing on Jesus’ words about the lilies of the field, which one author calls “a walk through the Garden of Eden by the side of the beautiful Creator, a healing stroll intended to open our eyes and cure the restlessness in our heart by the contemplation of the natural world around us.”
That day, I saw what he meant on Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, with sheer cliffs towering over us on one side and falling into an abyss on the other. Mists moved in slow motion past evergreens and white water cascaded down jagged cliffs. A phrase kept occurring to me, so I said it out loud in the van: “God made all of this with us in mind.”
That is undeniably true.
God gave human beings the unique capacity to appreciate beauty — and then he made the earth breathtakingly beautiful because he loves us. Or better, since he is outside of time, what we witness at each moment is his original creative act, overwhelming us and everyone in history with the truth of his beauty and goodness.
Second, I saw God’s love in my family.
Actually, God doesn’t just bless us with his creative act — he invites us into it. Along with the beauty of nature in the Garden of Eden, God gifted his people with spousal love that was meant to “be fruitful and multiply.”
For me, that meant that as I walked through the campground at night, I was walking past sleeping sons, daughters, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws.
At that day’s family reunion dinner, I had seen relatives in Harley-Davidson shirts chatting with Montessori school administrators, linemen chatting with corporate executives, and teens enthusiastically playing “lava monster” at the playground with tiny nephews and nieces.
Family fades into the background for much of the year, but at holidays you see just how powerful it is.
Third: I saw how fragile it all is.
It must be admitted that while I was witnessing the majesty of mountain beauty, I was seeing it through the dirty windows of a van that was strewn with fruit-snack wrappers, water bottles, napkins, and the contents of spilled diaper bags. The woods were strewn with a less concentrated collection of the same kinds of things — including at least one snack wrapper that blew out my door and into the air, faster than I could run.
And, apart from my one comment about God, our family conversation was mostly made up of loud complaints about stinky feet, angry assessments of the selfishness of others, and arguments about what someone said and how they said it.
As much as our trip evoked the Garden of Eden, it also made it very clear that the Garden of Eden is gone, traded away for sin.
Fourth: I saw the sky.
As far north as we were, the sun in August stays up until very late. On my 4 a.m. walk, I realized this was the first time I had been out in total darkness, and I looked up and saw the vast sky full of stars.
Aristotle looked up at these stars and decided he wanted to live his life in harmony with the logos, the order of the universe, the logic at the heart of things. But he wanted to do that through self-improvement, not self-gift.
St. John looked up at this sky and wrote “the Word was made flesh” — the Logos became man. After we destroyed the Garden he gave us, Jesus made a way back for us by pouring himself out on the cross and in the sacraments. Now, by joining our self-gift to his, we can rise from our sins and unite ourselves with the Love that is at the root of everything.
Dante looked at the same stars at the end of his long journey and said: “Here my exalted vision lost its power and my desire was drawn forward by the Love that moves the stars.”
Sin wins its petty victories, but the God of love is far greater, and he is fighting alongside us for beauty, truth, and goodness every step of the way. That’s what God did on my summer vacation.