Vail Daily column: Stand still on sacred ground |

Vail Daily column: Stand still on sacred ground

Jack Van Ens

During the Great Depression, the government-sponsored Civilian Conservation Corp preserved lands sacred in the U.S. They ventured into trackless wilderness and carved out footpaths, built roads and made previously inaccessible national parks user-friendly to vacationers.

The federal government trained thousands of unemployed citizens as soldiers who battled against turning natural wonders into graffiti-littered dumps. Previously, the U.S. Army had scouted uncharted wilderness. Soldiers scarred nature. They carved their initials on trees and chiseled them on boulders.

“I never marked a tree in my whole life,” confessed CCC worker Quince Avery who helped preserve Zion National Park in Utah. “I never put my name on anything because I also adhere to the old saying, ‘Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always found on public places.’”

Conservationist President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted public policy to preserve and maintain a precious national park as “a holistic place of beauty.”

A month ago, I traveled with middle school students to such a holy place, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here names carved on memorials are a badge of heroic honor. Instead of defacing these hallowed grounds, inscriptions help visitors remember those in military service. At Arlington National Cemetery, our country remembers fallen soldiers, honoring their names on white marble stones.

Our educational group walked on paths alongside gravestones hedged by manicured lawns. No teen sprinted ahead or goofed off. We silently traveled. Stillness signifies that a person walks on holy turf.

Part of the honor guard, four students presented a floral wreath at the Tomb of Unknowns, flanked by soldiers who guarded this hallowed sight. Then we gathered on sacred ground at the Tombs’ marble amphitheater. There I reflected on the meaning of posted signs: “Keep silent. These are hallowed grounds.”

“Holy” is a worn-out word that attracts slight recognition or use in our shrill society. Sparse traces of its use pop up in our conversation. Still, Jews join with Christians in reverently treating Scripture as their “Holy Bible.” Because Jesus’ listeners treasured what’s “holy,” he taught them to pray in the Sermon on the Mount, “Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9). The Hebraic root for “hallowed” and “sacred” is “holy,” a word that defies easy translation.

What’s “holy” is more clearly felt than explained. When throats thicken, hearts beat faster, eyes moisten, fingertips tingle and voices deep within sing with awe, we are standing on holy ground.

Manhattan usually is a very noisy place where visitors wouldn’t expect to encounter what’s holy. Cabbies hit blaring car horns. Street vendors bark wares. New York is alive with sounds, music, lights and a rich diversity of languages spoken on busy streets. The city prides itself on rarely slowing down, being still or going to sleep.

After 9/11, however, Manhattan became, like Arlington National Cemetery, a holy place. I visited Ground Zero three weeks after the attack. Every Fifth Avenue business replaced posh wares advertised in store windows with Old Glory. New Yorkers united in patriotic unity for our threatened nation.

With measured breaths and reverent civility couched in silence, crowds walked to ruins of the collapsed Twin Towers. They replaced noisy business dealings with silent respect. Visitors saluted first responders who sacrificed their lives to rescue victims trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers.

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s amphitheater, I reminded students what’s holy arises from more than deep sorrow and inevitable shock. When awe and reverence tug at our hearts, what’s holy hugs us.

These students learned that constantly checking cell phone messages impedes making contact with what’s holy. Listening to music piped into earpieces also erects barriers. Bombarded by edgy, sensationalistic 24-hour news interferes with receiving what’s holy. Holiness thrives on stillness. We must work at creating silence.

On Memorial Day, citizens silently stand to remember those in the military who sacrificed their lives to preserve our nation’s freedom.

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my World War II veteran dad took me to downtown City Park for Memorial Day observances. Then this holy time was called Decoration Day, when we visited graves and spruced them up with red, white and blue decorations.

On May 30, 1868, the Civil War General and Republican Congressman James Garfield, later an assassinated president, addressed thousands at Arlington National Cemetery.

Garfield, an ordained Christian minister, recognized he stood on holy ground. “If silence is golden,” he said, “it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem of music of which can never be sung.”

Gathered in the amphitheater by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, students, parents and staff joined me in sensing that Garfield’s sentiments consecrated holy ground.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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