I tracked a mountain lion over the Christmas holiday.
We were spending the week between Christmas and New Years with my parents where I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. For two days during our stay, we even rented a vacation home in the state park where I spent my childhood.
We spent one afternoon hiking up a hillside to a meadow, which is a hidden favorite spot for our family. In fact, it is the place where I proposed to Stacey.
Many tracks crossed the snow-covered meadow—lots of deer and some coyote. The mountain lion population has grown much since I left the Hills, so I guessed that some of the tracks were from cougars, though it was hard to tell because none of the tracks were very clear in the dry, powdery snow.
When we came over one rise, I noticed groupings of four footprints separated by about eight feet. Coyotes don’t run that way, I knew—instantly I could imagine a mountain lion bounding and leaping across the terrain after prey.
It made us all stop in wonder and a little bit of terrified awe. We watchfully made our way down the hillside back home.
There were other moments of wonder during our time. We went on several short hikes in the cold and snow, just to get the kids outside. Once or twice on a walk, I would call for everyone to halt for a “silence stop.” We’d all stand still and nearly hold our breath just to notice the stillness. No traffic noise, no hum from city life, no barking dogs—just the silence of the forest. The only noises we heard were the knocking of a woodpecker on a tree and the quiet movement of winter air through pine.
We did a fair bit of sledding and ice-skating as well. One sledding hill emptied onto a frozen pond, which allowed us to do both at the same time. We had a campfire burning there and as we played one evening, we stopped to listen. We heard owls calling to each other, and we joined the conversation with our own hoots.
These kinds of experiences were not rare in my childhood—growing up in a state park offered me moments of wonder almost every day. They gave me the tangible feeling that I was a very small part of a very big world, and, at the same time, that I was privileged to be able to stand in it and marvel. It gave me a spirituality that was immersed in wonder and awe.
I don’t think I ever planned out the paradigms and priorities I would employ as a parent, but, in a hidden way, this spirituality of wonder is what I now realize I always wanted for my children. I wanted to give them this same sense of self and of the world that is grounded in an awareness of the silent and abiding presence of God in the natural world.
Our vocational paths have placed our family in an urban setting, not in a state park, so my kids will not grow up in the kind of setting I spent my childhood in. That is a fact that will not change now that we are settled here in Indiana. We do all we can to expose them to the natural world—we try to spend as much family time as we can hiking or outdoors—but they will not be immersed in it as I was.
It occurred to me during our drive home that I’ll have to find ways to make sure that our kids grow up with a spirituality of wonder that does not depend upon living in a state park. If I want our family to have a spirituality of wonder, I need to find ways for us to experience moments of depth and mystery where we live.
This is a challenge, to be sure, but not impossible. Our faith is full of mystery that we experience in both liturgy and service and silence. There is something of wonder that can be found in play, such as a joyful family dance party in the living room. Even going for an evening walk in the summer and glimpsing life through other people’s living room windows can call us outside of ourselves and put us in touch with the deeper currents of life.
Our children may not have the same access to natural beauty as I did in my youth, but it won’t be foreign to them. And I’ll be trying to make sure that we become a wonder-full family in other ways by seizing opportunities to help us step outside of ourselves and more deeply into the mystery of God.