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'Finding the silence of God' on the ski slopes

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It’s about 10 minutes from the base of Bryce Mountain to its summit.

On the chair lift, skiers are accompanied by only the gentle whirr of the cables overhead and the buffeting wind.

There, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Father Michael Isenberg says he can hear God best.

“We’re meant to find God in solitude and quiet,” Father Isenberg said. “Many times God speaks in silence, and finding that silence allows him to really enter into our life, allows us to let him enter in.”

Father Isenberg, diocesan director of vocations, enjoys going skiing with other local priests on their days off.

Often he travels to ski areas in Pennsylvania or surrounding areas, but on a recent February day he and Father Thomas Cavanaugh, parochial vicar of St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg, visited Bryce Resort in Basye in the westernmost reaches of the diocese.

Finding God on the slopes

 

Around sunrise, Bryce Mountain is silent, save for the birds singing in the trees.

A squirrel skitters over the white snow to find a new tree to climb. The rising sun casts a pinkish hue over the mountains in the distance and starts melting a solid layer of ice atop the snow.

Fathers Isenberg and Cavanaugh pull up in a red Ford pickup, still dressed in their priestly clerics, and start to survey the slopes.

The mountain is theirs, long before the skiers and snowboarders start to arrive.

“Coming out here, you can take a moment to stop — you see the beautiful mountains and you’re kind of able to soak it in,” Father Isenberg says. “There’s something beautiful about taking in all of God’s creation, and skiing is a sport that allows you to take it all in.”

Soon, the two priests don their ski gear — jackets, pants, boots, helmets — but it’s warm enough this day to leave the jackets slightly unzipped. With their Roman collars, there is no mistaking that these two skiers are priests.

Father Cavanaugh says he’s been asked about being a priest on the slopes before.

“They ask me, ‘Priests are allowed to ski?’ Yeah, we’re allowed to do all kinds of stuff when we can escape from the monastery,” he says with a laugh. 

About an hour into the day, the sky turns dark as a storm system moves over the mountains to the west.

As a steady rain falls on the mountain, Father Isenberg says he is able to ponder God’s creation.

“As I was going up the lift, I was able to see the mountains and the surrounding country out here and was just kind of marveling at the beauty of it covered in snow … and really in all of that, finding the silence of God,” he says. “You can’t find that in the city. It doesn’t exist.”

From then on, the day has a rhythm: Ride up the mountain, ski down the mountain, repeat. Every run helps the skier improve. In many ways, that’s similar to the spiritual life, Father Isenberg says.

“We repeat ourselves in the spiritual life in many ways, in the sense that we go deeper and deeper into Our Lord and his life,” he says. “Skiing is just another way of going deeper into an activity.”

There is a bit of a learning curve to skiing; no one starts out on the advanced, black-diamond runs.

Father Cavanaugh admits that he’s not as much of a ski aficionado as Father Isenberg. It’s easy to get nervous on the slopes, especially on more advanced runs.

“Let the skis do their job,” Father Isenberg once told him. “I trusted him and said OK,” Father Cavanaugh says, explaining how as he was screaming speeding down the slopes, he “probably looked like a crazy man.”

“Then I realized I was fine, and it kind of was a lesson for me in prayer. That we can trust that, if we talk to God, if we turn to God in prayer, if we surrender to him and entrust our hearts to him, he’s going to do all the work. Jesus does all the work; we just cooperate with his grace.”

By midday, it has warmed to the mid-50s and the ice melted.

The priests pack up their ski gear and walk over to Our Lady of the Shenandoah Mission, situated directly adjacent to the mountain. There they celebrate their daily Mass.

A couple hours later, they leave the mountain and start making plans for their next trip to ski country.

A skiing saint

Many priests find spiritual rejuvenation in skiing. St. John Paul the Great, while he was bishop and cardinal of Krakow, Poland, was well known for  skiing at a Polish resort.

Shortly after becoming pope in 1978, he reportedly said, “I will ski again when they let me.”

According to Angelus News, about a year before his death, Pope John Paul II said mountains are an “oasis of quiet” and that “only in silence can a person hear the voice of God in the intimacy of their conscience. It’s what truly sets us free.”

Among young Catholics today, there’s an image of a skier from nearly a century ago that is particularly well known. It shows a young Italian man on the summit of a mountain, smoking a pipe and leaning up against his climbing gear. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati — who lived by the phrase he’s best known for, “Verso l’alto,” “To the heights” —was an avid mountaineer who loved the outdoors. According to Frassati USA, that means, “Always seeking what enhances, that which carries us beyond ourselves, toward the best we can be as people, toward the best of ourselves. It is to strive toward perfection of life; in other words, toward sainthood.”

At Father Cavanaugh’s parish, St. John the Apostle, there is a group called Frassati Young Adults that sponsors hiking trips for young parishioners. There’s a similar group named after Frassati at St. Michael Church in Annandale.

“(Frassati) saw this connection between physical activity and relationship with God,” Father Cavanaugh said. 

If nothing else, skiing in the mountains is a needed escape from the hectic Northern Virginia area at least for a bit, said Father Isenberg.

“We go through life so fast,” he said. “It’s great coming out skiing and getting away from the city, all the traffic lights, all the business. As you get closer and closer there’s less cars, less traffic, and suddenly you get here and it’s peaceful.

“It really is a spiritual experience of God’s creation.”

Riedl can be reached at matthew.riedl@arlingtondiocese.org or on Twitter @RiedlMatt.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021