Saturday, March 3, 2018

Winter Religion

On January 26 1978 a winter storm blew across much of the Midwest, the likes of which we have not seen before or since.  This storm may have been just the beginning of the extreme events of modern climate change but we didn’t know it then and just thought it was a another freak event.  It received little public media fanfare[1] since it was, after all, the Midwest.[2]  When it hit Boston the storm was prosaically branded as ‘Larry’, the ‘super storm of the century’.  That was like naming your favorite dog Steve.

The storm dropped 40 inches over a wide swath and shut down the region for several days.  From my cozy-cloistered dorm room at Notre Dame I watched it build by the weekend and close down the campus where 90% of the students could usually walk to school.  The normally bucolic, crisscross, quad pathways had disappeared under the drifting snows and, in places, became tunnels.  

I went out to find my 1964 VW Bug inexorably buried in the student parking lot.  Two weeks before I had driven 16 hours from New York, in another blizzard with my friend Fly[3], wrapped in our sleeping bags and too cold to drink the beers we had packed.   Students helped dig each other’s cars out, even though we had nowhere to go, and then we dug out some houses and apartments for people who were unwilling or unable to brave the storm.  We saw a cop, oddly ride by on a fury horse between the snowbanks.

Although CBS-TV and the Maryland basketball team had made it to campus for the weekend game, no one from town could make it to the arena and CBS was afraid it would look tame or lame on TV.  So they opened the doors and let all the students into the game for free.  We piled on coats and hats and boots and headed for the game and our free front row seats.  I don’t remember how the game went but we had fun.  It looked good on TV and in the end I think the weather won.

When the beer ran out and the excitement of school closure passed, we were left sequestered in our dorms unwilling to do homework on a snow-day but too bored to play another game of whiffle ball in the hall.  I had come west to school from the east coast to experience the real western winter so I put on my Christmas stocking hat, cotton waffle long-johns and hippy-engineer chuck-a boots as well as my New England monogrammed ski sweater and finally the heavy sheepskin coat, purchased lovingly by my mom excessively and exclusive for these occasions.  I headed out the door, into the jaws of the storm. 

It was below zero and the wind-chill-factor was kicking in but the quiet campus had become a new place for me to explore, like the north pole was to Cook and Peary.  I discovered some friends jumping off a geodesic domed, recreation center into huge snowbanks.  When I foolishly tried it, I found the snow too soft and not deep enough as I augured into the ground and heard my back or my neck crack painfully. ‘That’s not good’ I thought and I can still feel that jump today when the winter weather is changing.

I tired of this activity quickly and despite my sore back, I made my way alone to the edge of campus where it gave way to the woods and wilderness of northern Indiana.  Following game trails or faded footsteps, I slogged my way into a forest I had never even noticed, much less explored.  It was thrilling and exhausting, pushing thru waist deep snow and I reveled in the mass quantities of white that smoothed out the deciduous topography and all of the under-bush.  The tops of little Christmas trees stuck out of the snow like suspended conifer cones and the contrast of white on white was both confounding and comforting in its smoothness and purity. I imagined I was Father Sorin traipsing thru the 1842 wilderness to found the University in a little cabin besides twin lakes, or even Abe Lincoln braving the Spencer County Indiana winters in the 1820’s.  The extremity of Midwest winters became clear to me for the first time as something to love and fear but not to trifle with.

I persevered for a long time eventually wrapping around the large lakes towards the Golden Dome and the Cathedral steeple, so I wouldn’t get too lost or exhausted.  Still In the forest primeval but making my way towards civilization I happened upon an incongruous copper green construction sticking out of the snow.  ‘What a strange place for a statute,’ I thought.  When I swam my around in the deep snow to the front of the edifice I realized it was a life size crucifixion scene with half buried statutes of Mary and Mary Magdalen, crying in the snow and despondently looking up at the Christ.  I was shaken, to say the least, and although I was not a great Catholic or deeply religious man, I was moved.  ‘If this doesn’t give you religion, nothing will’, I thought. 

I sat in the snow and the storm for a long time contemplating what it was like to be crucified or watch a crucifixion of a loved one and what this meant to me and my religion.  I didn’t crucify Jesus and he didn’t die for my sins but the tragedy of this God-man dying for what he loved and believed in, was overpowering.  The meaning of ideas like ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ came to me in the snow that day as the intensity of the storm faded from my consciousness and the beauty of the scene overwhelmed me.  In the eye of the storm, I thought of the meaning of the Natural Law and the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that this country was founded on as we optimistically carved it out of the new North American wilderness.  God, Country, Notre Dame had a whole new meaning to me that day.

 I sat there for a long time and although I was cold, my back began to feel better and I promised myself, and the statutes, to try to be a better person and a more spiritual man.  I eventually walked away from that place truly moved by the power of nature, Natural Law and the influence of religion.  The combination of these ideas would formulate my spiritual outlook for the rest of my life.  God is love but nature is god and these inextricable ideas can not be denied or separated.  I became a nature worshiper that day and a winter lover in that woods when I realized the power, patience and persistence of Mother Nature and a loving God the father.

I have returned to that place many times since and find that its power has not diminished with time and familiarity or with the spring flowers, summer grasses and autumn leaves.  I’ve taken friends and family there and they have been noticeably moved and affected.  It was only six weeks after I found those statutes in that storm that I headed out west to where the real winds blow and the snows routinely stack up deep enough to bury a car or a man, on a horse.  It was there that I found my religion and love of nature, wilderness and God’s creations.  I think back on that statute and that storm as a progression or an inflection point in my life, to my true calling and my place in this natural world.  Amen.

[1] There was no social media back then, let alone personal computers or cell phones.
[2] Before Prairie Home Companion made it cool to be in the Midwest, for a while.
[3] John Irish.