As I stepped off a tiny airplane onto a wet tarmac in my childhood hometown, the sweet aroma of post-rain mountain air stopped me in my tracks. Each clean breath seemed to clear from my head the smog and drought and allergies of the city where I currently live. My eyes scanned the big Montana sky painted across the hilly horizon and I was a child again, drawn to run hidden trails and skip rocks across rivers. The piercing silence of my sacred childhood places invited me home, to recall something about myself. Then I felt a tug on either side of my shirt: “Daddy, will you help us off the plane?”
My few stolen minutes of airplane reading that day, besides children’s books to my two restless kids, were devoted to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ much anticipated and eye-opening encyclical on the environment. Of the many passages which caught my attention, one essential passage spoke to this return trip I am enjoying to the place where my friendship with God was nurtured in nature:
The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.
One of my “particular places” is a small log cabin in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. As a child, I watched my dad and uncles build it by hand in the shadow of pine trees minutes from the Continental Divide. Sitting on that cabin porch this week during sunset, noticing the beautiful Indian Paintbrush flowers and white tail deer, I revisited memories of childhood exploration, contemplation, and discovery. Indeed I recovered something of my true self. Meanwhile, my son roamed our land digging for rocks that would become gifts, and sticks that would become archery bows. My daughter hopped between boulders and hid within a young aspen grove, her fantasy world expanding with each step. We were all feeling “a caress of God,” but in very different ways.
Of course part of being a “just parent” is teaching my children about the ecological crisis and ways we are called by our faith, as articulated so well by Pope Francis, to respond. When we go to Glacier Park next week, I will explain to my children what a glacier is, and why, in one of the most visually shocking examples of global warming, those ancient glaciers are disappearing. But in the meantime, if I want my children to respect and protect creation, first they deserve to have encounters with it that provoke wonder and awe, freedom and delight. Such “caresses” nurture connection to the earth, and to each other. And while sharing my sacred placed, I need to trust that their landscapes, both interior and exterior, are different from mine. Their lives have more highways and screens, but no less meaning or magic. And whether through city parks or mountain peaks, sand or snow, God’s boundless affection speaks to them in myriad ways. Our sense of self is tied into a sense of place.
- What are your particular places in the natural world where you recover your true self?
- How do you invite your children into encounter with God’s creation?
- If you have read Laudato Si’, which passage(s) spoke to you? (If you have not read it, what are you waiting for?)
- What new places have you explored this summer? (If you haven’t been out in nature yet this summer, what are you waiting for?)
A native of Montana, Michael Downs now lives in the Bay Area where he serves as Religious Studies Department Chair and Assistant Cross Country Coach at Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school. An alumnus of the University of Notre Dame (B.A. ’00, M.Ed. ’02) and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (M.A. ’07), Michael served as a classroom teacher in Texas, campus minister in Europe, volunteer in India, and outdoor educator in the Northwest before settling in California.