Ever since high school, I have loved snowboarding. While, in the winter months, many people enjoy snuggling into a warm home with a cup of coffee and a book or TV show (to this I am certainly not opposed), I hunger to be out on a steep and snowy downhill adventure. If I am inside, I love to watch Lucas Catania travel around and rip some awesome lines out West and Nikolai Schirmer hurl down the steeps of Norway.
I have enjoyed snowboarding for different reasons: the obvious thrill and excitement of shredding the slope; the quiet peacefulness of the snowy landscape—when I am able to travel; the ability to experience the mountains up close and personal (I’ve been blessed to ride Mt. Snow, Steamboat, and Telluride so far); and the contemplative nature of the lift ride and/or the conversation enjoyed there with a friend or a stranger.
Snowboarding has also helped to teach me lessons of life and faith. God can certainly use anything to help build us up and form us into the people he has created us to be. Notably, I have learned about arrogance, apathy, and virtue.
This season, after almost having a bad fall due to an icy patch and some awkward footing on a toe-side turn, I had the intuition to slow down my speed. When I did, I felt a bit safer and more in control. Even though it is thrilling to go fast, I realized that in slowing down slightly, especially considering the conditions, I could actually enjoy riding more as the fear of a bad fall wasn’t so great.
The words that the Lord spoke to me that day were: “You don’t have to go full throttle to fully enjoy.” Admittedly, with a decent amount of developed skill, some days, I can push my speed faster than, say, would be prudent, considering the day’s conditions. My local Ohio slopes tend to ski more like a slippery concrete nightmare than the soft, pillowy wonderland of the West. In other words, arrogance, after all, wasn’t that thrilling and in fact carried with it great danger.
Satan often wants to tempt us with “more.” That was the first temptation; thinking that what the Father provided wasn’t enough. Today, the culture has ingrained into us—especially the young—the mentality that “bigger, better, faster, stronger” will satisfy. What are the things (food, drink, sex, entertainment, loaded schedules of activity) for which we are tempted to believe that going “full throttle” will somehow get us more?
This year, God also provided opportunities for me to contemplate life and faith on the slopes as, after many years of snowboarding, I decided to learn how to ski. Having a good level of comfort with the mechanics of snowboarding, I was excited to take on the slopes in a new way. My skiing priest friends were also excited that I was “moving up” in the world of snow sports and, in their opinion, ridding myself of the Neanderthaloid snowboard.
As a self-taught snowboarder, I quickly acquired the basics of skiing. However, in promptly moving up to the intermediate and more advanced terrain at Boston Mills, my local resort, I realized some necessities: first, the need to keep my torso pointed down the hill (a posture foreign to snowboarders); and second, and more significantly, the need to embrace the hill and make turns that are quick, powerful, and precise.
Being a new skier on a steeper slope, these aspects of the sport needed to be practiced immediately and intentionally to ensure my safety. Otherwise, I could end up on my heels on the skis and, without deep and powdery snow, I could quickly lose control on a slippery slope and risk a fall or greater injury. Suffice it to say it was dangerous for me to become half-hearted or apathetic to the mechanics and the terrain at hand.
To make a connection to the life of faith, in the Lenten season, the Church invites us to look at three simple but foundational elements of the spiritual life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These practices challenge the Christian in putting God and others first, while turning away from the ego’s many interests and demands. While the skis under a skier’s feet are like a grace-filled relationship with God (without which nothing would be possible), the intentionally executed mechanics is the life of virtue, prayer, and self-denial that bring out the skier’s potential.
Regardless of how well intended a Christian is in living the spiritual journey, if these mechanics of a life of faith are not engaged intentionally, both externally and internally, the danger exists of sliding and falling into a spiritual apathy or sloth. The book of Revelation speaks of God’s disdain for those whose works are lukewarm—who are neither hot or cold—in relation to the Gospel (Rev. 3:15-16). God in fact spits them out of his mouth.
Indeed, the greatest spiritual danger is if we don’t embrace and commit to living well the gift of faith that we have been given in this life, we run the risk of losing it in the next. While the Christian life is certainly not lived simply to avoid hell, this real and possible spiritual reality must be considered.
St. John Paul II was famously known for being an avid skier. When he was bishop and cardinal of Krakow, he famously said, “It is unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly.” After receiving this ski season’s lessons, John Paul’s entertaining comment now makes more sense to me. Being himself a Christian disciple and a clergyman, let alone a high-ranking one, he would especially be a man called to virtue and holiness—rejecting both arrogance and apathy and striving for the virtue of a good spiritual form.
Considering these lessons from the slopes, holiness and heaven do not happen accidentally. For me, the ski slopes have helped me to see the virtues necessary for a good ski day: prudence, intention, and consistency. These virtues ultimately help to avoid the dangers of arrogance and apathy. The slopes have also taught me too about how to live my faith well—prudently, intentionally, and consistently—as I continue the pursuit, with God’s grace, of eternal life with him in heaven.