In Praise of Ice and Snow

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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O the snow, the beautiful snow,

Filling the sky and the earth below!

Over the house-tops, over the street,

Over the heads of the people you meet.

(John Whitaker Watson)

The words of the 19th century American poet are hard to swallow at the moment. As I write this it’s cold – really cold. The temperature’s in the teens, the winds are howling, the snow, “the beautiful snow” is falling, the driveway is icy – and I have to take the dog out for a walk. But, my goal here is not to complain, but to say something nice about the winter weather and to inspire that appreciation in you. After all, it’s a reality of living in New England. And the Scripture says, “Frost and chill, bless the Lord. Ice and snow, bless the Lord” (Dn 3: 69-70), so it must have some redeeming quality.

I know some folks who really like winter. They enjoy being outdoors and claim that the frigid conditions are refreshing, making them feel vibrant and alive. And even indoors, the snowbirds ask, what’s better than lounging in front of the fireplace, sipping hot chocolate or wine, listening to romantic music, and snuggling on the couch with someone you love? I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

There are plenty of people who really like winter sports too – skiing, snowboarding, ice-skating and sledding. Go figure.

Many of our priests, including some of our veterans, enjoy skiing, and travel to the slopes whenever they can. There must have been a time in the history of the Diocese when they were encouraged to take-up the sport, perhaps by a Bishop who didn’t like them very much.

My experience with winter sports is rather limited but interesting.

I was a seminarian in Rome when, at Christmas break of 1969 I and a few of my buddies decided to head to the Alps for our vacation. We traveled by train to the picturesque Swiss village of Engleberg, a favorite spot for American seminarians living in Europe in those days. The tiny Alpine town, snuggled in the mountains, was as scenic as you could ever imagine. Picture the village covered with snow, parents with cute-as-a-button children returning to their hotels and inns after their daily activities, streets lined with quaint little shops, stores and galleries, and inviting restaurants with candles in the frosted windows, the patrons inside enjoying gluhwein, local beer and cheese fondue. Now that’s gemutlichkeit.

The day of our arrival, one of my classmates said, “Hey, we’re in the Alps – why don’t we take ski lessons?” “Okay,” I said, throwing caution to the wind. So the next morning we bundled-up, trudged through town and met others at the foot of the hill where our instructor gave us preliminary lessons on “snow-plowing” (is that what it’s called?) before we headed for the t-bar ski lift and the beginner’s slopes.

Didn’t last long. Being pulled up the hill I fell from the lift, tore my jacket and knocked the very unhappy patron behind me from his perch. His German epithet needed no translation.

Undaunted, and our ski lessons abandoned, my fearless friend said, “Okay, let’s try sled riding.” “That I can do,” I figured. Heck I had been riding sleds since I was a kid in Pittsburgh.

However, my friend didn’t know – or didn’t tell me – that the “sled riding” track in Engleberg was actually a full-fledged luge run – you know, that Olympic sport in which foolish people travel feet-first, a hundred miles an hour, down, around and through icy hills, curves and shoots?

Well, I did it, but what should have been a two minute exercise in speed and control became one of the most horrifying half hours of my life, somewhat akin to a “Hardball” interview with Chris Matthews.

I kept rolling off the luge trying to slow it down, then standing haplessly in the path of other lugers coming behind me traveling at break-neck speeds, threatening to chop off my feet at the ankles if I didn’t jump out of their way.

By the time I exited the shoot at the bottom of the hill – backwards by the way – the lights of Engleberg were already twinkling, the approaching dusk masking the sheer terror of my adventure. We fairly ran back to the restaurant for more gluhwein.

The next day my friend and I surrendered to the inevitable and found a sport we could enjoy, all the while observing it from a safe distance: curling – aka, shuffleboard on ice. You scoff. But hey, it’s an Olympic sport too!

I really don’t like winter sports very much and worry about people who do.

But I digress. I started out to discover and write about the joys of winter. So I don’t want you to even think about the collateral seasonal damage – the high heating bills, the spread of the flu, the empty churches on Sunday mornings, the cancelled flights at the airport, the dangerous road conditions, the filthy, salt-covered cars, postponed social events, and the frequent school delays and closings. Really, what would you rather deal with – “Operation Snowball” or those dreadful “Ozone Action Alert” days in the middle of August?

Yeah, me too.

I give up trying to be nice to winter. I’m going to Florida. No threat of ski lessons there. But wait – maybe I’ll try para-sailing.

For information on ‘Effective Faith: Faith that Makes a Difference’ the new book published by Bishop Tobin, please click here.