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A River Runs Through Him

Catherine Sparks
"When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come." – Leonardo da Vinci
Few question the significance of water in the history of our planet; fewer still question life’s dependence on it. An essential agent of geologic change, water has both the power to deposit and erode, to build and remove, and in doing so, has shaped entire landscapes. Valleys, canyons, caves, and cliffs are a few of Earth’s more extraordinary features that were carved over millennia by the often-unassuming movement of water. It is with this perspective that Mr. Nathan Sparks attributes much of the shaping of his intellect, heart, and spirit to that soft yet powerful substance: water.
A practiced fly fisherman, Mr. Sparks has spent much of his life on the banks of a river. Whether it be the rivers of his childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Gallatin River of Bozeman at his coming of age, or more recently, the Snake River here in Jackson Hole, each has labored on his personhood in its own way; ultimately sculpting and sustaining a curiosity which led Mr. Sparks to explore and inhabit a life in academia, ministry, and the great outdoors.
To list the scholastic accomplishments of Mr. Sparks is to recognize his unique spiritual journey. Both are intimately entwined perhaps due to their shared origin. Using the rhythm of his heartbeat to conduct the cadence of his cast, Mr. Sparks assumed a contemplative disposition that reached beyond the rivers in which he fished. It so happened that fishing became a means for Mr. Sparks to explore how his heart and mind could discover God and the spiritual realms of His beauty. These riverside meditations led Mr. Sparks to join the seminary where he would study philosophy.
Mr. Sparks received his first degree in philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, an experience which whetted his intellectual appetite. His desire to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake was nurtured at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he lived for four years. It was there that he obtained his second degree, a master’s in theology. Now fluent in Italian, Mr. Sparks returned to the United States where he worked at a parish and then joined the Jesuits. He went on to continue his studies at Columbia University in New York City, achieving a master’s in ancient Greek and Latin. Here, Mr. Sparks notes a curious parallel between himself and the subject of his thesis, Plato. Just as he acknowledges the pliability of his character and the ways in which it had been shaped by his experiences on the water, Plato saw the soul as a wax to be molded by truth and wisdom.
After a decade of service that included a formative stint as a New Testament, Greek, and Latin teacher at Boston College High School, Mr. Sparks discerned a new vocation in his life, outside ministry. He credits a 30-day silent retreat for the freedom to uncover God’s will for his life. After meditating on the scriptures for five hours each day, he emerged from the month of silence spiritually transformed. “In the freedom of contemplation, Jesus revealed to me a truer identity, inspired by God’s mercy and compassion, around which to form my life,” Mr. Sparks remembers. The wonder of this experience increased his wonder at creation, and it is that admiration he hopes to impart on his students here at JHCA.
The tension between his love of academics, namely Philosophy, Latin, and Greek, and his love of nature moved Mr. Sparks to embark on many solo trips in the wilderness. As much as the water taught him to chase down his curiosities in the pages of books, it also guided him to follow the queries of his heart and mind on foot: from stream to stream; from one sanctuary of contemplation and communion to another. His outdoor experience is vast, covering winter ascents of Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington in the White Mountains, summiting the great stratovolcano, Mt. Adams, and plumbing the depths of Canyonlands National Park, to name a few. It was the providential confluence of academics and wilderness that led Mr. Sparks to JHCA and make his home in the shadow of the Grand Tetons.
Mr. Sparks lives with his Swiss-Canadian wife, Catherine, and their rescue dog, Scribble. To this day, and in the quiet of the evening, you can often find Mr. Sparks by the river, asking a question of creation with each cast, and hoping, with a little patience, that he will be answered when the line is reeled back in.
Fun Facts
  • In addition to fishing, Mr. Sparks enjoys oil painting, woodcarving, reading, and amateur mountaineering.
  • Mr. Sparks loves Russian literature with his favorite book being a tie between “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment.”
  • Mr. Sparks has had many international adventures, including serving in a Good Friday Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Basilica, pulling two (prayerful) all-nighters at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Holy Land, getting caught in a blizzard while backpacking across Switzerland, walking the Camino de Santiago, and leading a mission trip to Taiwan.
  • Mr. Sparks works in seven languages: English, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin, Ancient Greek, and a little French.

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